Many Roald Dahl stories have been adapted into films, some more than once, but Esio Trot hasn’t before. It isn’t one of his most well known. Being a massive Roald Dahl fanboy growing up, I have read it, and I was surprised at the length of this film adaptation. 90 minutes! The book is very short. Given that they’re making a feature length screen adaptation of a very short book, I knew that they’d have to make some changes, but the basic premise is the same in both.
It features a retired old man named Mr. Hoppy, who lives in a block of flats and is very lonely. He has fallen in love with the woman in the flat below, Mrs. Silver. They talk very often, but Mr. Hoppy is too shy to let her know he is in love with her, or even to invite her up to his flat for a cup of tea. Mrs. Silver has a pet tortoise named Alfie, and she loves him but wishes he could grow faster. Mr. Hoppy comes up with an idea. He gives Mrs. Silver a poem called ‘Esio Trot’ to read to Alfie. It’s written backwards (“esio trot” being “tortoise” backwards), and he tells her it will encourage Alfie to grow. Then he goes and buys hundreds of tortoises himself, and swaps Alfie with a tortoise slightly bigger. He continues swapping tortoises with slightly bigger ones, making it look like Alfie is growing, as when things grow gradually people don’t notice it until the difference becomes obvious. The plot of book and the film differ slightly towards the end, but they reach more or less the same conclusion.
This film version was broadcast on BBC One on New Year’s Day, with the script written by Richard Curtis and Paul Mayhew-Archer, directed by Dearbhla Walsh and starring Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Hoppy and Judi Dench as Mrs. Silver. Having a very light plot and a lot of time allowed them to develop the two principal characters. More is made of the emotional gravity of their situations. Mr. Hoppy’s loneliness is emphasised with shots of him sitting alone in his empty flat, while the fact Mrs. Silver is a widow is shown via her looking at a photograph album with Alfie and telling him about her late husband, and it’s clear she misses him. In both cases it is done very subtly, but it gets the message across.
The film also fleshes out their personalities by adding some interests not mentioned in the book. Mr. Hoppy’s other great love in life apart from Mrs. Silver is his garden on his balcony, which is in the book, but in the film he also enjoys fishing. This led to one of my favourite running gags in the film. He has a box of money he is saving up which is labelled “Canadian fishing trip”. He has to keep using money from there for various reasons, so the label changes as the funds are depleted. It goes from “Canadian fishing trip”, to “Scottish fishing trip” to “New fishing rod” to finally “Some bait”. Mr. Hoppy is also a big fan of jazz music, especially Louis Armstrong, and a few songs by him are used on the film’s soundtrack. Mr. Hoppy is also shown bonding more with the tortoises he has in his flat, naming them.
Mrs. Silver is a bit more eccentric than the book version, she likes putting her Christmas tree up in August and wearing bunny ears on the first day of Spring. She’s also active in her local community, doing things like charity dance marathons.
There are minor alterations to their careers. In the book, Mr. Hoppy is a retired mechanic, while in this film it is implied he worked in aviation (either that, or it’s another interest of his, as he has a lot of aeroplane themed stuff in his flat). Mrs. Silver here is a retired midwife, while in the book she worked in a corner shop. These aren’t really significant changes, but I found it quite interesting.
The main change in terms of plot is towards the end. In both versions “Alfie” becomes so big that he can no longer fit through the door of a little wooden house Mrs. Silver keeps him in. In the book, Mr. Hoppy gives Mrs. Silver another poem to shrink “Alfie” back down to bigger than he started out but small enough to fit through the door, and he swaps the tortoises accordingly. This doesn’t happen here. Perhaps they thought this was a bit of a stretch as far as suspension of disbelief goes.
Then there’s the ending, in the book Mr. Hoppy’s plan succeeds, he proposes, with Mrs. Silver telling him “I thought you’d never get round to asking me!” and they get married. In this film, after Mr. Hoppy proposes, before Mrs. Silver can answer, his plan is discovered, and Mrs. Silver is upset, feeling that he has made a fool of her. Mr. Hoppy decides to leave, but Mrs. Silver comes to see him and tells him while she did find it hurtful, she considers that he did it as a way to try and make her happy, and then tells him that she has had feelings for him for some time. She had been dropping hints throughout the film, and here she reveals that apart from when they first met, she planned every time she and Mr. Hoppy “accidentally” ran into each other in the lift. They then get married, and keep Alfie as their pet.
I am pleased with the change. Even as a kid, the way Mr. Hoppy tricks Mrs. Silver and gives her beloved pet away to a pet shop (along with the other tortoises) without her knowing never quite sat right with me. Don’t get me wrong, in the book you still root for Mr. Hoppy, and you’re prepared to go with it because the story is so light, and the tone is more humourous and fairytale-ish (the book even says that Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver “lived happily ever after”). But with this adaptation considering they went to such an effort to make Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver more 3-Dimensional I think it would probably not have been well received.
In the book there are no other significant characters apart from Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver. There are some pet shop owners mentioned, and there is a coda of what happened to Alfie. He is bought in a pet shop by a little girl named Roberta, who grows up and has two children of her own, and Alfie becomes their family pet, with it being noted that he did eventually manage to grow to twice the size he was when Mrs. Silver had him, even though it took him decades. As Alfie is kept by Mrs. Silver in this version, this doesn’t happen, but there are similar characters in the film.
There is a family with a father, a mother and two children who are residents of the block of flats. The father is played by James Corden and is the narrator of the story (as Mr. Hoppy told it to him once). This part of the film wasn’t very popular to a lot of viewers. I don’t hate James Corden the way a lot of people seem to, but I wasn’t keen on his part of the film either. His narration is a bit jarring, slightly smug, and annoying. It unfortunately comes off as getting in the way of the main story, which is the last thing a narration should do. The mother doesn’t really appear much, but the two kids come off a bit as precocious brats, particularly the daughter, who is named Roberta. She isn’t very likeable as she spends a lot of time making bitchy observations to her dad about how stupid Mrs. Silver must be to fall for it all, and that Mr. Hoppy will be dead soon because he is OLD. “I give him a year, tops”.
The other character added is a next door neighbour Mr. Pringle. He is also unlikeable, but it is intentional. He’s a contrast to Mr. Hoppy, being everything he isn’t. Mr. Hoppy is short, thin, shy, unassuming and kind-hearted, whereas Mr. Pringle is tall, fat, arrogant, overbearing and self-centred. He has dinner with Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver a few times, and spends each time dominating the conversation talking about himself. He has a habit of eating other people’s food off their plate (or when Mr. Hoppy offers him a crisp, Mr. Pringle takes the whole crisp packet!). He at one time eats some tortoise droppings, believing them to be nibbles. His other function is to be a rival for Mrs. Silver’s affections, though she never shows much interest. He isn’t actually that mean-spirited a character really, he’s more comically unpleasant. I don’t mind his addition, but I’m not sure he was necessary.
Though I am pleased with a lot of the changes made in this adaptation, I think it would have been better to keep to mostly Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver. I’m not saying there should have been no other characters at all, but they were by far the best part of this film. It’s probably difficult for actors to try and portray introverted characters, as by nature introverts aren’t expressive, but as a line in this film says, “Often it’s the quiet, unassuming ones who turn out to be the most interesting”, and Dustin Hoffman manages to convey a lot of personality in Mr. Hoppy. Mrs. Silver’s character is in contrast very lively and effervescent, which Judi Dench does well, but I think she manages to make the character down-to-earth too. Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench were both brilliant, and had a good chemistry together.
As a side note, this film reminded me of the very dark, satirical 2000s cartoon series Monkey Dust, not so much in tone, but with the fact both have characters called Mr. Hoppy (in Monkey Dust Mr. Hoppy is the orange spacehopper ridden by Ivan Dobsky the Meat-Safe Murderer, only he never done it) and Mr. Pringle (in Monkey Dust he’s Clive Pringle The Liar who was always home late because he had been doing something depraved, and gave his wife an excuse based on the plot of a film, which she always saw through).
A random line from the book which I wished they’d used is when Mrs. Silver is talking about Alfie being too small. “I’ve seen pictures of giant tortoises that are so huge people can ride on their backs! If Alfie were to see one of those he’d turn green with envy!”.
The film looks very good visually, with a lot of scenes of a gorgeous dark blue night sky and Mr. Hoppy’s beautiful garden with colourful flowers and tomato plants, and an avocado plant he grew from the pips.
In its own right, this film was refreshing in some ways, having a warmth and just being a nice, simple love story. But it perhaps could have done to have been shorter, as the very light plot meant the film was very slow and padded out, and the narration should probably have just been a voice-over, if included at all. But the central focus of it, the relationship between Mr. Hoppy and Mrs. Silver and the way the characters were realised was very good.