Shel Silverstein Narrates an Animated Version of The Giving Tree (1973)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Six Ani­ma­tions of Sto­ries and Poems by Shel Sil­ver­stein

Studs Terkel Inter­views Bob Dylan, Shel Sil­ver­stein, Maya Angelou & More in New Audio Trove

18 Ani­ma­tions of Clas­sic Lit­er­ary Works: From Pla­to and Shake­speare, to Kaf­ka, Hem­ing­way and Gaiman

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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