Yesterday we brought you a number of animations showcasing Shel Silverstein’s sillier side in his playful, sing-song poems. Today we revisit the 1973 animated film version of his 1964 book The Giving Tree, narrated by Silverstein himself, who also played the harmonica soundtrack. Like that creepy author’s photo on the back of the book, Silverstein’s narration is just a little bit sinister, hinting at the story’s darker elements.
There may be no more popular children’s book in the past fifty years than The Giving Tree. There may also be no more a controversial work for kids, interpreted variously as a pious religious parable about the unconditional love of God, an environmental fable for how to (or how not to) treat the natural world, and a metaphor for an idealized parent-child relationship.
Critics of the book have also seen it as “a primer of narcissism,” a sadomasochistic story, or a piece of Swiftian satire. (Silverstein himself once drew an adult “Giving Tree” comic for Playboy in which a woman lops off a man’s limbs and sits on his trunk.) In a re-evaluation of the book’s parent-child dynamics, Ellen Handler Spitz brushes aside the warm fuzzies and excoriates the book’s depiction of “giving”:
Totally self-effacing, the ‘mother’ treats her ‘son’ as if he were a perpetual infant, while he behaves toward her as if he were frozen in time as an importunate baby. […] It perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother who exists only to be used and the image of a male child who can offer no reciprocity, express no gratitude, feel no empathy — an insatiable creature who encounters no limits for his demands.
This seems a harsh, if compelling, appraisal, but I don’t think the story endorses the selfishness and greed it depicts. The book seems much more ambivalent, satirical and sly in its intentions, evading any one straightforward reading. Perhaps, as some readers have suggested, it’s not really a children’s book at all.
But what Silverstein intended is probably irrelevant; we must judge the work on its own merits. And most readers of the book agree: it’s a wonderfully morally complex tale, whatever one makes of it in the end. Its elliptical narration and simple illustrations evoke a tangle of emotional associations that pull us one way and another: we identify with the human, but feel for the tree; we hunger for the security the apple tree provides, but we lament what it costs both tree and man.
The book, now a full fifty years old, has inspired other films, including Todd Field’s silent short The Tree (1993) and Spike Jonze’s I’m Here (2010). And in the age of Youtube, it has prompted its share of animated retellings and NSFW parodies, as well as an affecting live-action treatment. But no adaptation of the story can do what the original Silverstein does with such judicious economy. Hear another reading of the story above, with animated video of the book’s illustrations.
You can find The Giving Tree in the Animation section of our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.
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