When the classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011, laudatory articles were written about it, parents named their children Milo in record numbers, and seriously devoted fans tattooed the iconic Tock the watchdog on their bodies. But lost amidst most of the celebration was the unlikely story of the book’s creation. Lucky for us, Greenpoint-based documentary filmmaker Hannah Jayanti decided to dig a little deeper, spending two years interviewing author Norton Juster, illustrator Jules Feiffer and their multi-generational legion of fans.
The result, The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations, premiered at the New Yorker Film Festival earlier this month. Tickets to the premier sold out in less than 10 minutes, but Bedford + Bowery is pleased to announce a special screening of the film on October 24 at 7 p.m. It will be followed by a Q&A with the director. (The event is free, just let us know you’re coming.)
Anna Merlan of the Village Voice might have put it best: “You’ve either never read the Phantom Tollbooth, or it’s your favorite book.” In case you haven’t heard of it: it’s the tale of a young boy, Milo, who can hardly find the motivation to lift his eyes from the sidewalk and experience the world around him until he discovers a magical tollbooth and drives his toy car through it into The Land Beyond. When the book was first published in 1961, it became a surprise hit thanks not only to the breadth of its imagination and ingenious wordplay–but because it was originally intended to be an educational book about cities. Its untraditional structure and complex allegory make it an unlikely choice for young readers, but there is playfulness to Milo’s quixotic adventure that seems to resonate with children and a profundity that sticks with them well into adulthood.
In Jayanti’s film, the octogenarian author and illustrator impishly banter over details of their living situation in a shared building in Brooklyn Heights during the height of the Cold War panic and McCarthyism. They had both recently returned from stints in the armed forces (Norton in the Navy, Feiffer in the Army) and were swept up in the politically radical nature of their neighborhood. Feiffer expressed his disappointment with the government through satiric cartoons while Juster accepted a $5,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, putting his architectural background to use writing a book imploring children to reimagine the spaces they live in.
While Feiffer enjoyed some success as a cartoonist, Juster was burdened by the facts necessary to complete his book and likened the project to a grade-school assignment. Like most restless students, rather than complete the assignment he was supposed to do, Juster spent his time imagining a magical world where you best not trust everything you’re told. When he showed Feiffer early samples of his writing, his downstairs neighbor expressed interest in illustrating it and a partnership was born.
Juster has admitted that there is much of himself in the character of Milo, something readily apparent in the book’s plot. Potentially read as an allegory of the young Juster’s life, Milo wanders the Kingdom of Wisdom, a world divided between the logic of the Mathemagician of Digitopolis and the clever wordplay of King Azaz of Dictionopolis, searching for the princesses of Rhyme and Reason who can reunite the kingdom. Feiffer adds his perspective as a satirist, drawing the authoritarian characters with the menacing expressions of untrustworthy politicians. The book’s staying power, however, comes not from revelations of the personal struggles of its creators, but from its central message that learning is not a process of acquiring facts from experts, rather the ability to maintain your childlike nature to explore and challenge the world around you — a point beautifully emphasized in the film when the 82-year-old Juster strolls lackadaisically through the park with his wife before preceding to blow a wet raspberry into the camera.
While fans of the book will find plenty new information to puzzle over, the most fascinating points of Jayanti’s film relate to the universal struggles of the creative mind. Juster breaks down the writing process into three stages: 1) the anticipation of your abstract ideas being realized and awarded, 2) the agony of the work, and 3) being finished. Feiffer, for his part, weighs in on failure, explaining that it “is a process…you have to fail over and over and over again to get any that’s worthwhile, and to try everything.” It’s the sincerity with which Juster and Feiffer reflect on their work that elevates Jaynati’s film beyond the realm of fan tribute, providing a fun but serious look at what takes to get the ideas out of your head and felt by others.
If you’re feeling like Milo, “who didn’t know what to do with himself — not sometimes, but always,” join us this Thursday for a night even Milo would agree is worth seeing.