Peter Rabbit’s raid on Mr. McGregor’s garden yielded a lot of lettuce for Beatrix Potter and her publishers, who have sold more than 150 million copies of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Emma Thompson’s share was a half-eaten radish leaf, apparently sent by Peter himself.
Thompson, the British actress and some-time screenwriter, received the vegetable tidbit in the mail, along with a note from the now-elderly rabbit (who first appeared in print in 1901), asking her to write a sequel. The package came through the offices of Potter publisher Frederick Warne (now owned by Penguin Group), whose clever pitch prompted the first addition to its Potter series in 82 years.
Thompson’s The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit lobs the radish right back at Warne, in a Scottish adventure that sees Potter’s bunny heaving a giant raphanus sativus during the rabbit equivalent of Highland games. The book has been called – ludicrously – a covert attack on Scottish independence, which Thompson publicly opposes.
Potter wrote 23 tales for Warne’s Little Books series – so called because of their postcard size – and was quick to see the profit in licensing the manufacture of Peter Rabbit dolls, china sets, board games and so on. But nobody at Warne thought to expand the list of Potter books after their author died in 1943, in spite of a lucrative example across the ocean.
L. Frank Baum’s widow and the writer’s publisher Reilly & Lee commissioned 26 posthumous additions to Baum’s Oz series that began in 1900 with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and ran through 13 sequels. (I may be the only person alive who has read all 14 Baum originals aloud, to my Oz-mad children). The Famous Forty, as Oz fans call those Reilly & Lee titles, were followed by dozens of Oz-related books and films by other people and publishers.
Thompson has written no children’s books, but her screenplay adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility won an Oscar in 1996, and a film adaptation of a children’s book by Christianna Brand did good business in 2005 under the title Nanny McPhee. That gentle Victorian-era fantasy, and Thompson’s generally wholesome celebrity, probably did a lot to put that radish leaf in her mail.
Like most sequels, Thompson’s Potter book cribs from its parent. Peter again squeezes under Mr. McGregor’s gate, raids a picnic basket, gets trapped inside (a plot motif borrowed from The Tale of Benjamin Bunny), runs off when the farmer’s wife lifts the lid, and again loses his shoes. By that time, the McGregors’ wagon has journeyed into a part of Scotland where rabbits wear kilts and – no longer vegetarians – eat haggis.
At that point, Potter’s world veers over into a bunny’s-eye-view of the Scotland of Sir Walter Scott. “Ye’ll be Peter Rabbit,” says a gigantic black rabbit named Finlay McBurney, who can toss caber-weight veggies farther than most at the clan’s Highland games.
“Quite soon, Peter thought it very boring,” Thompson writes of those heave-hos. Quite soon, a few British critics saw Thompson’s portrayal of English bunnies and hares of Midlothian getting along as a knock on Scottish nationalism – as opposed to, say, a representation of rabbits biting each other over long-held regional grievances.
Thompson’s prose is looser than Potter’s famously economical style (no surprise there), and lacks her constant awareness that things can quickly go very wrong for a bunny in the real world. The central pages of The Tale of Peter Rabbit are all about his terror as Mr. McGregor chases him through the garden, nearly crushing him with a hob-nailed boot. “Peter gave himself up for lost,” Potter writes at one point, “and shed big tears; but his sobs were overheard by some friendly sparrows, who flew to him in great excitement, and implored him to exert himself.” There’s no matching that for drama, pathos and gentle humour.
Potter’s animals may cry, but they never assume human expressions. The laughing smile on Finlay’s face at a key moment in Thompson’s sequel is the major clunker in Eleanor Taylor’s otherwise careful, if timid, imitation of Potter’s clean-edged graphic style. Warne also missed a chance to make the new volume uniform with the old ones, blowing it up instead to something like four times the size.
Whatever trouble it cost Thompson to step into Potter’s shoes, she at least didn’t have to shop her efforts around. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was initially refused by all six publishers Potter approached, including Warne, who took it up in 1902 only after seeing her self-published version.
Why stop at Peter Rabbit? There are plenty of other classic kids’ books waiting for sequels by people other than the original authors. A short fanciful list of the possibilities:
The Paper Bag Princess Wears Prada: Weary of supermarket chic, tired of being dumped by style-conscious boys, Princess Elizabeth takes a journey into eccentric couture that only other girls can enjoy.
Where the Wild Things Were: Max again travels over the sea, only to find that the wild things are in danger of losing their habitat due to global warming. Max confronts the melting polar ice caps and says, “Now stop!”
Green Eggs and Spam: Sam I Am stumbles onto the trail of malicious computer hackers, and overcomes them with endless iterations of “Do you like them with a mouse?”
The Taking Tree: A black walnut tree in the boy’s backyard thrives by secreting toxins into the soil that poison and stunt surrounding plants. An Ayn Rand, I Can Build It Myself book.
Goodnight Keith Moon: This parody book actually exists; it was published last year. Opening lines: “In the great green room / there was a telephone / and a dead Keith Moon …”