The Borrowers is a story that has been better served than most when it comes to big and small screen adaptations. Mary Norton’s classic tale of the endangered little people that live behind our walls is suffused with a sweet melancholy and sense of wonder in tiny everyday miracles. Hollywood has largely had the sense to hang onto that, and the 1992 BBC version took time to explore the nuances. The 1997 film version upped the slapstick and adventure quotient, but was still able to fit in quiet moments and a sense of warm sadness, of time passing and a culture slipping away un-noticed.
2011 sees two new adaptations of the story. The BBC are shooting a version to be screened on Christmas Day, featuring Stephen Fry and Christopher Eccleston. Before that, we get the Studio Ghibli take, named after the central character, the young Borrower girl Arrietty.
Ghibli and Norton are a perfect fit. Miyazaki’s work has always explored the subtle magic in the world around us, using the animators craft to highlight how the little things can also be sources of wonder. Ghibli are also masters at revealing fantasy worlds that exist in parallel to ours, an eyeblink or a wrong turn away.
Set in the same Japanese suburb that houses Studio Ghibli itself, the story unfolds around a rambling old house. It could be any old English country pile, and Miyazaki and his director Hiromasa Yonebiyashi are careful not to lock the visuals into a specific place. Similarly, the characters have the typical Ghibli round-eyed look, with Arrietty in particular bearing a striking resemblance to her English voice actress, the excellent Saoirse Ronan. The voice work in general is lovely, expressive without overcoming the animation. The casting has been artfully done, and it’s great to see an English-specific cast of talented character actors like Mark Strong, Geraldine McEwan and Olivia Coleman do such good work. I’m not normally a fan of dubbed anime, but here it’s perfect.
There are some lovely, thoughtful touches to bring us into the world of the Borrowers. The set design is, of course, stunning. Pod’s inventiveness at adapting human detritus into tools and furniture comes across beautifully. The sound design too brings this across, as the tiniest of sounds are amplified to centre stage. Even the physics of this small world have been considered. Water oozes out of teapots in great drops, and when Arrietty is caught in a rainstorm she is beaded with dew rather than soaked.
This attention and care is shot through the whole film, and makes Arrietty a genuine pleasure. The cinema full of children with which I shared an afternoon screening were silent throughout, caught up as I was in the spell that Studio Ghibli had woven. It’s slow-paced, certainly. If you’re waiting for the moment when Arrietty uses her pin-sword to battle a blowfly, you’ll be waiting for a while. But these are minor quibbles, and more than likely deliberate choices on the creative team’s part. Ghibli has always smartly confounded expectations. This is not loud, brash Hollywood cartooning. It’s altogether a more subtle and seductive proposition. I can recommend this one, Readership. It’ll get you looking at the world in a whole new way.