8.09.2013

Cinematic Saturdays: Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

If you’re on the lookout for a children’s novel that will launch you head first into an existential crisis, look no further than Natalie Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting. It’s short, lovely, and is perhaps what first made you realize you’re going to die someday.





Title: Tuck Everlasting
Author:  Natalie Babbitt
Publisher: Farrar Straus Giroux
Publication Date: 1985
Pages: 144
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy

Rating: 

Summary (from Goodreads): 
Doomed to - or blessed with - eternal life after drinking from a magic spring, the Tuck family wanders about trying to live as inconspicuously and comfortably as they can. When ten-year-old Winnie Foster stumbles on their secret, the Tucks take her home and explain why living forever at one age is less a blessing that it might seem. Complications arise when Winnie is followed by a stranger who wants to market the spring water for a fortune.



Warning! This may contain, well, a lot of spoilers.


Tuck Everlasting follows privileged child protagonist Winifred (Winnie) Foster as she finds the courage to question the meaning of life.


After spending ten years confined to her parents’ property in itchy, expensive dresses and being forcibly transformed into a “lady of society,” she flees to the woods for an afternoon. Of course, she’s unaccustomed to such untamed places and soon becomes lost, making what was first intended to be an hour-long excursion into an indefinite, potentially life-threatening venture. Exhausted and nearly dead from dehydration, she comes upon a family – mother, father, two sons, and a horse – drinking from a small spring at the roots of a massive oak tree. Desperate for water, she ignores the potential danger of approaching a small hoard of strangers in the forest, and asks for a drink. At this the family kind of flips out, and insists she comes home with them. Because that’s not freaky or anything.


Being ten, and exceptionally sheltered for a person of any age, Winnie is ill-equipped to prevent, or appropriately respond to, her own kidnapping, and goes somewhat willingly with the strange family (the Tucks). They take her back to a secluded cabin deep in the woods where she’s held for an unestablished number of days.


In this time, after she’s gotten over the whole begging to go home thing, she develops a pretty wicked case of Stockholm syndrome and begins to appreciate the slow, almost meditative lifestyle the Tucks have adopted. They seem to have a patience the rest of the world has forgotten about. However, they also do a lot of whispering and sidelong glancing, which seems to indicate the presence of a fairly gnarly secret.


Desperate to discover what this might be, Winnie befriends Jesse, the youngest Tuck son at fifteen years old, who eventually informs her of their accidental immortality. He tells her that many years ago, when passing through the woods on their way “out west,” his family came upon the spring Winnie had found them at. They all (apart from their cat) had a drink and moved on, thinking nothing of it. In the following year, they all had brushes with death they shouldn’t realistically have recovered from, but walked away from unscathed. They found this odd, but it wasn’t until their cat (who hadn’t drunk from the spring) died of old age that they suspected the spring was magical and had granted them eternal life. Decades passed, and when none of them had aged, they were hunted for witchcraft. This sent them fleeing back east, eventually settling deep in the same forest as the spring that had taken their mortality.


Jesse then, lonely from spending nearly one hundred years with no one but his immediate family, and desperate for some modicum of “normalcy,” gives Winnie a tiny bottle filled with spring water, which he begs her to drink when she’s fifteen so she can spend forever with him.


In the movie this has a completely different context/tone that almost makes the audience wish she would. Of course she’s also older in the movie. In the book this is legitimately sad and little troubling. Jesse, who’s technically over 100 years old, is profoundly stunted emotionally/socially because of his solitude, and is so eager for love and alternative human interaction that he begs a ten-year-old to spend eternity with him. This is the first time in the story when immortality is really presented as a negative. Jesse maintains a kind of childlike optimism, but is completely separated from reality.


Once the rest of the family knows that their secret is out, the father, Angus, has a chat with Winnie suggesting that existing is not the same as living, and that there is no life without death. He emphasizes the importance of death and then returns her to her family, saying that they needed to move on for a while or risk being discovered (now that a blabby ten-year-old knew their secret). Before they leave, Jesse once again asks Winnie to drink from the bottle he gave her, and he would come back for her one day.


Now, because she’s ten, and thereby a bit emotional, irrational, and, let’s face it, incapable of making a decision regarding her own mortality, she empties the bottle onto a frog at the side of the road who was nearly hit by a horse-drawn cart, so that he can live forever, not having to worry about becoming road kill.


Many years later, Mr. and Mrs. Tuck revisit the town and find Winnie’s grave at the cemetery, to which Mrs. Tuck exclaims “good girl,” and the book ends.


I can’t speak as to why Natalie Babbit wanted to familiarize children with their eventual demises, but I’m sure she had good intentions. And I really do love this story.


As a child, when I first read this book, I didn’t fully understand or appreciate the amount of thought and control that went into the narrative. Reading as an adult, I picked up on a lot of layers and discovered this story is intended to be dissected over several reads during several, different phases of life. For example, when reading as a child, one relates to Winnie’s naïve inner monologue, and is still kind of in the dark as to the full meaning of the book at the end. As an adult one’s more attuned to the subtle ways in which the Tucks are impaired by their immortality, and begins to feel sorry for them. Not to mention uncomfortable. They’re all a bit childlike themselves in a way because they’re profoundly, irreversibly stunted. Stagnant. And as the book points out, there is no life without change. It’s a surprisingly bittersweet read as an adult.

Okay, yuk it up, movie fans, I’m sayin’ it again; I enjoy this movie more than the book. Now, don’t misunderstand me, that’s not to say it’s better, it’s just more entertaining.



One big difference in the movie (though there are many) is that both Winnie and Jesse are “seventeen,” which makes their potential love dynamic infinitely less creepy. This does detract from the original message, and completely strips Jesse of his awkwardness/desperation, but it also makes his character much more likable, and the story more suspenseful.


Here’s some more.


In the film, Winnie finds Jesse at the spring alone, and is kidnapped by his brother when he discovers them there together. After being taken back to their cabin, it takes only one night to relax Winnie enough to spend whole days with Jesse frolicking through fields of daisies, climbing small mountains, and swimming under waterfalls. They fall head-over-heels in love and share a sweet first kiss before he informs her that they’ll never die. It’s then Jesse’s brother Miles (again, the killjoy), who discovers them all cozy by a bonfire and lays down all the negatives of eternal life, among them his own personal experience losing his wife and two children.

Hey, I just met you, and this is crazy, but there's this spring...


Another big difference from book to film is the emphasis on a smaller character, “The Man in the Yellow Suit,” the grandson of a woman who lived in an insane asylum with Miles Tuck’s former wife. This is how he came to hear of the family who was, allegedly, immortal. Why he trusted the ramblings of a woman in an 1800’s insane asylum, I’m not sure, but it inspired him to track them down so he could learn their secret and also live forever.


Total Creeper

Being fairly certain that he’s discovered the forest where the Tucks are hiding out, he offers Winnie’s parents to search the woods for them. When he discovers Winnie is with the Tucks, and conveniently overhears the story of the spring’s magical properties, he offers to bring her to her parents in exchange for the woods, which Winnie’s moneybags father also owns. They agree and he rushes off to fetch her.


Here he holds Winnie at gunpoint, demanding the Tucks take him to the spring lest she be blown to kingdom come. At this, May Tuck (the mother), in a supremely badass move, bludgeons the dude on the back of the head with the butt of a rife and kills him.


This is when Winnie’s father shows up with the police and hunting dogs and so forth, and May Tuck is arrested for murder. Never mind that Winnie was being held at gunpoint. Guess they missed that part.


In the movie, this is the reason why the Tucks flee. May is scheduled to be hanged, but obviously won’t die, so this will expose their secret. After Winnie freaking breaks May out of jail, the Tucks run away. At night. In the middle of a thunderstorm. Tearfully leaving Winnie behind. Just before they’re to be chased, Jesse begs Winnie (for the first time) to go back to the spring and drink from it, vowing he’ll come back for her when it’s safe. He then rides off in the dark, reaching back to her and screaming “Winnie Foster, I will love you until the day I die!” …Which is never! ::Bawls::

See for yourself! (Clip below).





I cry my eyes out every time.


Fast forward to modern times. Jesse shows up all James Dean on a motorcycle, and discovers Winnie’s grave at the foot of the oak tree.


It is so sad.


It is so good.

Rating: 






I’ve never been able to decide if this movie is a guilty pleasure or not.


As always, thanks for tuning in, and see you next Saturday!


Note! I just discovered this was first adapted to film in 1981. I had no idea! Perhaps I’ll watch it and post a part two to this review.