Idol Chatter

I not only grew up reading E. B. White’s classic “Charlotte’s Web” together with my mother, but each year my family gathered to watch the animated movie version of this story about rescue, friendship, and the circle of life (and death) whenever it aired. Like many other children of my generation, I loved Charlotte and Wilbur. For at least a while after each exposure, I also refused to eat anything pork related (who could even think of eating Wilbur?), and rather than squash the occasional spider that hung from the ceiling in my room, I thought of Charlotte and let it live.

So, like many devotees of this beloved children’s story, I was rather upset to learn that a new movie was being made. Now that I am older, films of favorite books tend to make me wince with dismay. (“Tuck Everlasting” the movie definitely didn’t get it right compared to Natalie Babbitt’s novel, and I shudder in fear about what they will do with Katherine Patterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia,” for which I saw the trailer before “Charlotte’s Web” began.)

But fans of Fern, Charlotte, and Wilbur, that terrific, radiant, humble pig: Fear not. This version of Charlotte’s Web keeps it simple, allowing its timeless themes to shine through–that life is for everyone, even the small (or of course, you could interpret this as “salvation” for everyone); that friends are loyal until the very end; and most importantly, that miracles not only still happen, but they come about in some of the unlikeliest of places and on behalf of the last creature you would imagine (i.e., a pig).

It’s Julia Roberts’s Charlotte who steals the show. Granted, child-actress prodigy Dakota Fanning plays Fern, but Fern’s character–aside from her initial determination to save the runt piglet of the litter–takes a back seat to what happens at night between Charlotte, Wilbur, Templeton (the ultimately lovable rat), and their fellow animals. That voice! Roberts has the perfect maternal, loving, patient tone required of this gracious, intellectual, determined spider. Her Charlotte makes this film celebratory when she spins her first “miracle” to save Wilbur at Zuckerman’s farm and people from miles around come to see her web, and she gives the story a beautiful complexity as she tells Wilbur of her “magnum opus” that will ultimately bring her through the full circle of life.

Christian feminist theology has long privileged the woman’s voice, especially the written word, as precious and sacred–all the more so because of the many centuries of men who failed to listen, preserve, or even care to allow women something to say. Charlotte is not only a woman with a strong voice, but she is a writer who, through her words, saves a life and sacrifices her own. She speaks and speaks and speaks, until she is heard and Wilbur sees his first winter. I’d say she is quite the model feminist.

Feminism aside, bring a large box of tissues to the film because you will need it. Julia Roberts’s Charlotte will surely have you sobbing, as will the animals’ care of her “magnum opus” once she is gone.

(And before you go, click here to explore Beliefnet’s full line-up of Charlotte’s Web features, including a quiz that’ll tell you which character you’re most like, and a slide-show of other inspirational animals.)

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