The Lorax and Dystopian Texts

Disclaimer: I have never read Dr. Seuss’s book, The Lorax. I have seen the 1972 TV special, which I have been told is an almost word for word adaptation. Any comparisons I make are relative to the TV special, not the book.

Being as fabulously behind the times as I am, I only got around to watching The Lorax a week ago. Before I get into the meat of my post, I have a couple criticism to air: First, the movie suffered from too many quick transitions and a general unwillingness to let itself linger. In particular, I experienced a bit of mood whiplash in the scene where the Once-ler arrives in the Truffula forest, as the scene goes from idyllic landscape and friendly creatures, to snarling dangerous creatures, to trippy junk food binge-ing, to solemn mourning for the fallen tree, all in the span of a couple of minutes. Also, there’s a moment at the climax of the movie where a chase scene is briefly interrupted by the heroes skidding into an elevator full of people and having to sit in the midst of them. That scene would have been so much more humorous and effective if the elevator discomfort had been allowed to extend for a few more seconds.

My second general criticism is with the portrayal of Audrey. She is purely a passive love interest, serving no purpose in the narrative except to spur Ted to go see the Once-ler and ask about trees. I might have let this pass without comment except for two factors: One, great emphasis is placed on the importance of Ted caring enough about trees to get everyone else caring about them too, while completely ignoring that it was Audrey caring about trees which got Ted involved in the first place. She doesn’t even get credit for the one purpose she serves in the narrative. Also, the fact that Audrey’s peaceful mural painting is largely ineffective while Ted’s destruction and vandalizing of public property is what accomplishes change has unfortunate implications. As I remarked to the people watching the movie with me: “Clearly, eco-terrorism is the only answer.” The other thing that made Audrey’s status as a passive character rankle is its context in light of the chase scene. Ted’s grandma, established as a Cool Old Lady, performs several tricks and useful actions during the course of the chase; Ted’s mom, who for most of the movie is given the standard Uncool Parent treatment, creates a diversion with some aggressive driving that gives Ted a head start. Audrey, on the other hand, and despite being present for the entire chase, never does a damn thing. The implication is that it’s okay for Ted’s mom and grandma to be active characters because they are unattached (Ted’s father and grandfather are never even alluded to), whereas because Audrey is the love interest, she has to be completely passive in order to avoid overshadowing Ted in any way.

All that aside, the main thing that prompted me to blog on The Lorax is the way it handles its origins as a dystopian text. The Lorax is all about an idyllic natural paradise being destroyed by corporate greed and reduced to a blighted wasteland. Like all dystopian texts, it centers around some trend or ideology that the author considers Wrong and its implications if it is allowed to carry on as it is or gain momentum (As The Lorax says, “A tree falls the way it leans”). The inevitable problem an author faces when writing a dystopian text, however, is how to end it. Ending it at the nadir of society, with all hope extinguished and the dystopia still in full effect, theoretically drives home the importance of preventing it, but risks leaving the reader with a paralyzing sense of inevitability. Not to mention that it is highly depressing for the reader to be left with nothing but “a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” On the other hand, ending the text with the dystopia overthrown and a new, more benevolent society in place, while implying the possibility of counter the negative trends the author is concerned with, risks de-fanging their depictions of the depths that society can sink to. The danger in that case is that the reader’s potential for activism will be replaced with the apathetic notion that someone (else) will come along to fix things. This is why so many dystopian texts end up with vague or ambiguous non-endings. The author, caught between the two equally problematic alternatives, neglects to give the text any closure at all, which might preserve the sense that Things Need To Change or might leave the reader deeply unsatisfied.

The Lorax (2012) moves past the point at which the previous TV special ended to show Ted shaking up the stagnant society of Thneedville and setting it on a new, more environmentally responsible, path. The TV special simply ended with the (unnamed) youngster being given the seed and asked to plant it, leaving it uncertain as to whether change would be achieved. This original ending was considered very gloomy for a children’s book. We are often hesitant to expose children to the kind of darkness that dystopias require, as we as a society still cling to Victorian ideas of childhood innocence and the necessity of sheltering children from anything that might disrupt that innocence. Young Adult fiction, on the other hand, is rife with dystopian narratives (see The Hunger Games, The Giver, Uglies, etc.) because they make such an apt metaphor for adolescence itself, what with the lack of control over their own lives and bodies adolescents have (or feel they have).

It is likely that The Lorax was given its sunnier ending because of its projected audience, and perhaps ending with the image of a boy with a single seed in a dead wasteland is too gloomy for little kids. But I can’t help but feel as though they went too far; the quick about-face of Thneedville and rebuilding of the ecosystem, the reconciliation of the Once-ler and the Lorax, and the sunny ending credits, all make this seem like a problem easily solved, and it’s not as though things were even all that bad in Thneedville before. At least WALL·E paid lip service to the amount of effort it would take to undo that kind of ecological devastation.

0 comments on “The Lorax and Dystopian Texts

  1. I remember reading The Lorax when I was quite young, and it had a profound impact on me. Perhaps we as a society should expose our children to these issues earlier, so they learn to take them seriously from a young age.

    1. At the very least, I think children are more resilient than we give them credit for being. If you don’t mind me asking (and if you can even remember), what do you think led The Lorax to have such an impact on you?

  2. I read the Lorax and owned the original animated movie when I was little (I was a Dr. Seuss groupie). I watched the Lorax a lot when I was little and it had a pretty big impact on me as well. I think I enjoyed the movie so much because it was well paced for a child with plenty of songs/chase scenes/and fun bright colors to keep the pace moving, but the ending was sobering. However, as a child I had the naivete to believe that I could be that child, I could plant that tree, and I could make it better. Most children are taught that they can do anything they set their minds to, and the original ending of the Lorax taught me to set my mind towards saving the environment. This message was reinforced by movies like Fern Gully (not quite as effective as the Lorax I would argue). Of course, I was a weird kid, so I’m not sure how applicable it could be to other children.

    1. Yeah, once nice thing about The Lorax was that it was less prone to preaching directly at the audience instead of delivering its points through the plot. Fern Gully, not so much.

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