Goodnight Mister Tom – revisiting a childhood favourite

Posted: July 1, 2013 in Film, Literature

I haven’t read much fiction since leaving school. I’ll be the first to admit that literature has never been my thing, mainly because I have certain images of it in my head – romance, fantasy, crime or inaccurate historical fiction. The last book I read was Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows about two and a half years ago. Football, music and history generally take precedence.

However, I still remember the books I read at school fondly, particularly Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I think we read it as a class when I was in Year 8 – my English teacher had never taught it in school before, and may not have since, so it was nice to be part of something special. But it’s a special book – a captivating story with impressively deep characters that doesn’t rely on some of the other devices children’s books rely on.

There’s no battle between good and evil here. There’s not even that much of a central driving plot, which I think separates it from most other books in the genre. Instead, it is effectively written episodically – you can clearly divide the book up into segments. There’s no big finale either – it all finishes rather low key.

To give you the jist of it, the book runs from September 1939 to September 1940 (hint: there will be spoilers from here on). Tom Oakley, a cantankerous old widower living in a rural village, is given a young evacuee from London called William Beech. Unlike many members of the “wild bunch” that had travelled from the city as a result of Operation Pied Piper, Willie is painfully shy, scared of his own shadow and illiterate, as a result of abuse at the hands of his fanatically-religious mother.

So the book is about the development of their relationship, as Tom mellows and Willie grows more confident living in the village. But aside from that, there are other elements to it. The main focus of the second “episode” is the development of Willie’s relationship with his new friends in the village, in particular Zach Wrench, another evacuee who is living with family friends. Zach’s parents are actors and thus he serves as a hilariously over-the-top, more intelligent foil to Willie.

The third part sees Willie called home by his mother, before Tom has to go to Deptford and rescue him (a use of the classic fish-out-of-water trope). He eventually finds him locked in a cupboard, holding his deceased baby sister. He is taken to hospital before Tom snatches him from there and returns to the village. The fourth part focuses on his recovery at home, and an acceptance that he is a changed person, symbolised by a change of reference from Willie (what his mother called him) to Will (what Zach called him). This includes Tom taking Will and Zach to the seaside village of Salmouth for a brief holiday. This section ends abruptly in September 1940 when Zach is called home to be with his father, who has been injured in an air raid – he is killed in a further raid shortly after. The final part focuses on how Will deals with the grief of the loss of his best friend, finishing with an acknowledgement that he has grown up.

Revisiting it about a decade after first reading it, the book isn’t fantastically-written, but then it is for children. But at the same time, for a children’s book it is quite dark, dealing with quite mature themes like death, religion, the war and parenthood – one of the main things that you get from this is that blood is definitely not thicker than water, and home is indeed where the heart is.

Also I love the whole structure of it. I like the fact that Magorian has written a great children’s book without a driving plot. In the 30 years since, we’ve had the likes of Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games and the like which are all based around that, so children’s books remain quite plot-driven. But it’s not realistic – our lives have no overarching plot; they are more like a series of episodes. The story of GMT is quite realistic – it’s about overcoming one hurdle after another and becoming a stronger person as a result of them, which goes for Tom and Will. I suppose a slight weakness (if you want to call it that) is that the other characters around them don’t develop much – there is the sub-plot of Mrs Hartridge, Will’s teacher, losing her pilot ace husband, only to find out later that he is being kept as a prisoner of war instead. There’s also Geoffrey Sanderton, a former soldier horribly injured in the war who lives in a remote cottage out in the woods and now devotes his time to art, including helping nurture Will’s talents. But nobody changes other than Tom and Will.

But the only thing that bugged me about the book at the time, and still bugs me now, is Zach’s death. If it was American, we’d be calling this one a Death by Newbury Medal, and it’s certainly a bridge-dropping – it happens away from the action and it’s not explained explicity, as Will faints before he is told.

OK, it does make sense in terms of the overall story, unlike some other child deaths (*cough* Pay It Forward *cough*) – Will’s grieving process is explained quite well, it’s shown as character development, and perhaps allows the book to draw to some kind of conclusion. But was it ultimately necessary? It always felt quite harsh to me – Zach was one of the strongest characters in the book, and it does really leave a void at the end, which itself is pretty flat.

At the time I first read it, I often wondered what form a sequel would take. There was certainly scope for more character development – Will would essentially be growing up as the war continued, being only 14 when it finished. But without Zach, what happens? One of my ideas was that he wasn’t really dead – that there had been some kind of mix-up in the aftermath of the air raid, he had actually avoided it and gone missing (either via amnesia or just unable to communicate with others in the pre-internet/telephone world), and turned up in the village a year or so later, thus exploiting the lack of an explanation of his death in the book. That way, you could develop his character further – how would he cope with losing his family, for instance, or, how has he changed in his year “missing”? In the book he is hardly ever shown in a position of weakness (the only time being just as he leaves) so showing him in that position, with Will now in a position responsibility, would be quite an interesting change of emphasis, in a Toy Story 2 kind of way. Couple that with an ageing Tom and Sammy the dog and you’ve certainly got the elements of an interesting book.

It’s a shame Magorian will almost certainly never write a sequel, because I think it would lend itself to one quite well. But I suppose killing off Zach and Will’s recovery from that does end a cycle, as the book was about the relationship between Tom and Will and by the end of the book their development has essentially “finished”, so you could suggest that that story is “finished” and a sequel would need a total shift of emphasis. But the point is more that there may have been other ways of ending the book – I still don’t think it was necessary to kill off one of the main characters just for the sake of showing another to be grieving. I’d be interested to know if Magorian intended that ending all along, and if she had any ideas in mind for what would happen in the years after 1940.

—————

In 1998, the inevitable film adaptation was made, starring John Thaw as Tom, and young actors Nick Robinson and Thomas Orange as William and Zach respectively. It has generally been well-received, in particular Thaw’s portrayal of Tom, which was one of the last major roles of his career before his premature death two years later. I certainly enjoyed it at the time, although these days I find it quite difficult to watch. Until now, I’ve not been able to put my finger on it, but I think I’ve worked out why…

The film is a vastly-reduced version of the book. Some elements are condensed, while others are totally cut out. In particular, the village of Little Weirwold is far more condensed – Tom is shown as living in the centre of the village, with all the houses around his, whereas in the book it’s quite dispersed like a hamlet. The villagers themselves are also shoved into the background – many of the sections showing William interacting with Zach and his other friends, particularly sisters Ginnie and Carrie Fletcher, are cut, and there’s no room for Geoffrey Sanderton. Essentially this is a four-character film (Will, Tom, Zach and Mrs Beech), rather than the expansive village world that Magorian created – the birthday scene, as depicted below, is an exception, but as a result of all the cuts, the viewer is left oblivious as to who the other kids there are actually are.

Alongside this, the plot changes in various ways. The evacuees are shown to arrive on the day the war started, instead of two days before, which is when Operation Pied Piper actually began (as the book correctly depicts). The holiday to Salmouth is cut completely, and the last section is also considerably shortened, cutting Will’s performance in a play as Captain Hook which in the book was quite pivotal to getting over the grief of Zach’s death – instead, this is tied up by Tom talking about the loss of his wife and son (who is shown to have been much older than in the book, and called John instead of William). The film ends with Will learning to ride Zach’s bike and calling Tom ‘Dad’ for the first time – a much more emotional high than the low-key ending of the epilogue of the book.

In short, it all feels a bit rushed – and that has an impact on the tone of the film. The book might be quite dark for a children’s book, but there are plenty of light-hearted episodes. Instead, the film is one crushing setback after another – all the positive elements have been cut out, leaving only the dark parts. It’s as if the producers thought that it was all just excess and didn’t need to be kept, when actually it’s quite important in establishing the tone and not making it too depressing – it’s lucky the ending is a particular emotional high as opposed to the low-key ending of the book, else it would have been even worse.

There are inevitable pit-falls with turning a book into a film, especially when it’s quite a long novel, and the selection process is tricky. From reading critical and audience opinion, you would think they got it right. But I’m not sure – I’m guessing most of those viewers won’t have necessarily read the book, for one. As someone who knows the book very well, I find the film quite unsettling, and I think it’s because so much has been cut, leaving just a shell of various bleak elements that were once part of quite a fun book.

It helps that the characters are done well. As well as Thaw as Tom, Nick Robinson as William is exceptional, and Thomas Orange’s performance as Zach has helped define the character in my mind, although it is perhaps slightly pared down compared to the Zach of the book as a result of the condensing. That way it still works on an emotional level – I also like the fact that it does this without the addition of background music. But scratch beneath the surface and some elements of the plot don’t make an awful lot of sense without the further explanation found within the book – Zach’s death, for one, is even more of a bridge-dropping.

I know it has been done on stage since, but I think the best format for the book would be a television series. It almost feels like it has been written with TV in mind. The episodic nature of the book would make it particularly easy to fit television episodes around, and would allow a much more complete translation of the novel onto the screen, without missing out those additional parts. That would allow a much more gradual development of the two main characters, and soften the blow of the tragedies of the second half of the novel. Some additional scenes could also be added to further clarify things.

—————

I still love the book, and like the film, but it’s fair to say neither are perfect, though I don’t think that’s a major problem – there’s no such thing as a perfect book, and it’s worth bearing in mind that this was not meant to be a complex book as it’s for children, although I’m certain that adults would enjoy reading it. But I have regrets about the book – for me, some of the characters aren’t developed over the course of the year, it goes too far to be “grown up” with Zach’s death, and the ending’s not totally satisfactory. I like things being complete and I think there are some loose ends left over which haven’t been tied up, hence why I’d love to read a sequel.

But my main regret is not exactly to do with the book itself – it’s about every other book out there. Why are there not more books, and in particular children’s books, that take this format? Why does everything have to be plot-driven? I read some older books at school which adopted a vaguely similar structure, like Theodore Taylor’s The Cay and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet, but indeed both were still had an aim – survival in a remote location. There’s no aim in Goodnight Mister Tom – it’s just about life and living. The central theme is the development of a relationship, which is something that just “happens” subconsciously.

Of course I could have just missed some other children’s books (or books for adults) which have similar formats – after all, I’m not a child, so I don’t read new children’s books. But I’ve always got the impression that children’s books, particularly today, are seen to have to have plot devices or MacGuffins to make them interesting, be it some kind of quest, a baddie to defeat, or romance. Some critics may suggest that they are necessary to keep children interested, but Goodnight Mister Tom proves that good story-telling, strong characters and emotion, even when in a more subtle or abstract form, can still create a great novel which kids will enjoy reading.

All images used in the spirit of fair use

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Comments
  1. s.r.j says:

    does mrs hartridge find her husband?

  2. Mary Hawkins says:

    I enjoyed reading your review and agree with much of what you said, particularly about how it would suit a TV series (in the spirit of ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’ and ‘Box of Delights’). However, I do have to disagree with you over Zach’s death, which I believe to be utterly in keeping with the harsh realities faced by many families at the time. For Mrs. H’s husband to be found alive, there had to be another who died, or else the plotline would become too unbelievable.

    I can recommend that you read, if you haven’t already, ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne, as an example of how children can be trusted to handle deep, dark themes which definitely don’t have a happy ending. Interestingly, it is set at the same time, but from the ‘other side of the fence’. The book, and the ensuing film, have understandably become popular with adults as well as children.

    I rarely watch a film if I have already read the book, and vice versa. I think, from reading your review, you can well understand why!

    • I think I agree now (2 and a half years later), although I still believe Zach’s death could have been written more effectively than just having him killed away from the action

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