The film adaptation of The Lorax came to theaters March 2, 2012, on what would have been the 108th birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. The film’s release date seems fitting, a tribute to his memory because The Lorax is one of Suess’ most inspirational and important stories.
Directed by Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda, the film stays true—for the most part—to the essence of Dr. Seuss’ cautionary tale. The film adaptation uses nearly the entire book as its foundation and builds off of it in order to make the story long enough for a feature film.
In the book, the story begins with a boy going to “The Street of the Lifted Lorax,” which runs through an eerie, deserted town. He pays some ambiguous, hermit-like creature called the Once-ler “fifteen cents and a nail and the shell of a great-great-great-grandfather snail” to hear about the Lorax. The boy isn’t so much a character as a medium through which readers can transport themselves into the world of the book. The movie diverges from this point by turning the boy into a main character. The boy is Ted (voiced by Zac Efron), and the major components of his life—his family, his love interest, and his town—allow the writers to transform the story into a feature-length film and, unfortunately, to “Hollywoodize” a very un-Hollywood story.
To the film’s credit, the expansion of the story allowed the directors and screenwriters to expound Suess’s themes. For example, the book indicates the uselessness inherent in many commodities. The “Thneed”—an ambiguous invention that resembles a pair of “onesie” pajamas—represents both the useless, arbitrary nature of many consumer products, as well as the point that many of us still feel we need these arbitrary products.
A “good” businessman, the Once-ler markets his invention: “This thing is a Thneed. A Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need! It’s a shirt. It’s a sock. It’s a glove. It’s a hat. But it has other uses. Yes, far beyond that. You can use it for carpets. For pillows! For sheets! Or curtains! Or covers for bicycle seats!”
It’s clear that the Once-ler’s depiction of the Thneed as being limitlessly useful is a gimmick. In the book, we infer that people buy into the idea that “a Thneed’s a Fine-Something-That-All-People-Need” because the Once-ler’s business booms, but Seuss doesn’t specifically highlight the consumer frenzy that has to go hand-in-hand with this flourishing business. The film, on the other hand, does. Initially, nobody possesses the slightest interest in the Thneed. A discouraged Once-ler (voiced by Ed Helms) tosses the Thneed aside, and it accidentally lands on top of a woman’s head. Thinking it looks particularly fashionable on the woman, people suddenly take notice of the product. A mob of consumers subsequently seek out the Once-ler, singing and dancing about their newfound “need” for Thneeds.
This frenzied consumerism and the Once-ler’s unhindered business and his greed lead to complete forest devastation and the subsequent development of Ted’s hometown, Thneedville. Thneedville is a veiled dystopia, in which nothing is real. There are no living beings aside from humans, the grass and trees are fake, and the absence of trees has made oxygen a commodity that the citizens of Thneedville have to purchase in bottles. Through this depiction, the film elaborates on the dire consequences that Seuss delineates in his story.
The film also does an excellent job of underscoring the book’s primary message: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The Once-ler hands Ted the last Truffula Tree seed and tells him to plant it in the center of town. He tells Ted, “It may seem small, but it’s not about what it is, it’s about what it can become.” The film teaches kids that even though each of them is just one small person, they are a part of the world and that their actions, no matter how small, impact the world. Change and improvement don’t happen all at once, but we have to do our part, and hopefully, our part can have a domino effect. We have to do our best to be catalysts for change.
While the film adaptation highlights the book’s important themes and may inspire viewers, especially kids, it also falls back on trite Hollywood conventions. For example, it sets up something of a love story between Ted and a high school girl named Audrey (voiced by Taylor Swift).
Ted seeks out the Once-ler because he wants to find out how to obtain a real tree—not because he genuinely wants one and cares about trees, but because the object of his affection wants nothing more, and she told Ted that she would marry the man who found her one. But why does Audrey need someone else to actualize her desires? Why couldn’t she have ventured to discover what happened to real trees? Why couldn’t we cut Ted out, insert Audrey in his place, and have a young, passionate, and driven girl seek to change the world? Or, why couldn’t we cut out Audrey and have Ted feel that same zeal for trees? Why does he have to do it for her, and why does she need to have him do it for her?
I just wonder why we must continuously add romantic subplots to stories in which they have no real relevance or significance. Why we can’t, for two seconds (or the two hours an average film lasts), not talk about romantic love at all and focus solely on something bigger than ourselves (i.e. environmentalism). Just for two hours.
The real problem with this propensity to drape every story with a romantic subplot is that it can subtly send the message that we need romantic love when we don’t, and feeling the NEED for this kind of love can be dangerous—just like feeling the need for a Thneed or anything else not vital to our well-being. Romantic love becomes a frantically sought after commodity. Undoubtedly, love is great, but romantic love isn’t always necessary, and sometimes we seek it out because we think we need it, that we can’t live happily without it, and end up in relationships we shouldn’t be in that aren’t healthy because we fear that if we let them go, we may never find romantic love again.
The film also unfortunately incorporates a flat villainous character with no redeeming qualities. We often have these types of completely rotten villains, particularly in children’s movies, but it seems problematic because it can perpetuate hate and hinder the understanding of other people. The Lorax portrays its villain, Mr. O’Hare (voiced by Rob Riggle), as purely evil. His agenda is to monopolize the fresh air market. If trees, which give off oxygen for free, exist, then he can’t sell his bottled oxygen and his business will be ruined. So he is determined at all costs to prevent real trees from existing in Thneedville. Enclosed by metal walls, Thneedville resembles a fortress, and Mr. O’Hare has surveillance cameras focused on the entire town in the fashion of Big Brother. O’Hare is hell-bent on preventing Ted from learning about trees and even attempts to imprison him within the town’s metal walls.
Even at the end of the movie, when everybody else realizes trees’ positive potential, O’Hare remains obstinate. As the citizens of Thneedville sing, “Let it grow”—referring to the Truffula Tree seed the Once-ler gave to Ted—O’Hare sings, “Let it die!” There is absolutely no redemption for O’Hare.
These types of villains send the wrong message to kids—and adults, for that matter. They say that there are actual “bad guys” out there that embody pure evil, against whom you have to fight and whom you can blame for the world’s problems. Rather than creating a scapegoat—like Mr. O’Hare or any other movie villain—let’s work together to fix the current problem. It doesn’t matter where fault lies, really. The damage is done. Let’s forgive each other, repair the damage, and move on. That’s what Seuss’ story suggests. The Once-ler, as the one who destroyed the forest, regrets his mistakes and encourages the boy, i.e. the reader, to make the world a better place. This is positive. We have no one to hate at the end of Suess’ original story.
The irrelevant love story and flat scapegoat villain are issues that plague many movies and by no means render The Lorax an atrocious adaptation. While it’s unfortunate that these had to appear in one of the master-of wordplay-and-life-lessons’ best stories, The Lorax remains a good, entertaining, motivational film. Ultimately, the important thing is that it still emphasizes the story’s most important message: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”