Literature / Charlotte's Web

Charlotte's Web is a classic children's novel written by E. B. White (known for such other children's works as Stuart Little and The Trumpet of the Swan, as well as his adult writings in The New Yorker) and illustrated by Garth Williams.

The work is focused on a young pig named Wilbur, who, being the runt of the litter, is about to be slaughtered by John Arable. However, his owner's daughter, Fern, manages to save him and she raises him to be a strong, healthy pig. However, this means that he is sent down to a different farm, where he is being grown to be slaughtered for food. Determined to help, his spider friend Charlotte launches a campaign to save him. Reading the words brought to her on scraps from the rat Templeton, she begins weaving a series of words and phrases into her web, including "Radiant," "Terrific" and "Some Pig." Word spreads of these miraculous messages, but will it be enough to save Wilbur?

The novel, first published in 1952, has gained widespread acclaim and fame. It earned a Newbery Honor award, the Laura Ingall Wilders Medal (in conjunction with Stuart Little) and has sold more than 45 million copies.

The story was first adapted as an animated film in 1973. It was released by by Hanna-Barbera and Sagittarius Productions and featured a screenplay by Earl Hamner, Jr. (The Waltons) and music by The Sherman Brothers (The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins). The film was reasonably well-reviewed by critics (74% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), though endured some complaints regarding the quality of the animation and the music. Notably, E.B. White himself was disappointed by the film. This did not stop it from becoming a popular success, enjoying strong popularity on VHS and television.

There was a stage adaptation (personally approved by E. B. White) written in 1983, which was later rewritten into a musical in 1989.

A follow-up to the cartoon, Charlotte's Web 2: Wilbur's Great Adventure, was released in 2003, Direct-to-Video, to celebrate the 30th anniversary.

In 2006, a live-action adaptation was released. This one was Certified Fresh by Rotten Tomatoes, thanks in part to remaining largely faithful to the source material and also, in part, due to a moving score by Danny Elfman. A video game based on this film was released for computer, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS and was reasonably well-reviewed.

Not to be confused with Babe, which also features a pig in a prominent role and many of the same themes, but has no spider character.

Some tropes seen in either the books or the films include:

  • Adapted Out: The book has a scene where Nancy Arable (Fern's mom) visits psychiatrist Dr. Dorian, having been concerned about her daughter frequently visiting Homer's barn (and her seemingly telling how animals can think/talk in some way). The scene with Dr. Dorian is nowhere to be found in the animated film, but he does appear in the Live Action version, having been adapted back in.
  • Animated Musical: The Hanna-Barbera adaptation and the 2003 sequel are one. (Though there are only four songs sung in the 2003 sequel.)
  • Annoying Younger Sibling: Avery, Fern's rather obnoxious but still good-hearted brother, He tries to catch Charlotte for his collection only to be stopped by the rotten egg breaking. In the book and the 1973 film Avery is actually older than Fern, though in the 2006 film he's younger.
  • Artistic License – Animal Care: Overlaps with Values Dissonance. In both the 1973 version and the book, Wilbur's refusal to eat earns him a spoonful of sulfur and molasses shoved down his throat. An old mountain cure, this "spring tonic" was believed to wake up the blood after the long winter while also serving as a laxative. Needless to say, sulfur isn't something humans or animals should really be ingesting.
  • Author Avatar: The two dimwitted crows in the live action version who serve as the obstacle for Templeton getting the words for the web are named after the original author's initials: Elwyn Brooks White.
  • Bait-and-Switch: The 2006 live action version has one for those not familiar with the story. After Fern says she absolutely will not let her dad kill the small piglet, the movie immediately cuts to bacon being fried; and then after that it cuts to Fern holding the small piglet and bottle-feeding it, so as to make clear that the bacon is from some other pig.
  • Babies Ever After: Although Charlotte dies and most of her offspring leave the farm, three of her daughters remain. And (in the 2000s film) found a whole dynasty of barn spiders. Also, the ending of the 1973 film brings a host of new babies to the farm animals — even Templeton.
  • Balloon Belly: Templeton, seen in both the original novel's Garth Williams illustrations, and (to even greater excess) in both the animated and live action versions.
  • Big Eater: Templeton, again! Man, oh, man! Especially since a fair is a veritable smorgasbord-orgasbord-orgasbord.
  • Bittersweet Ending: While Wilbur lives, Charlotte dies soon after the fair. Also Fern doesn't visit Wilbur as often as she used to as she grows up and starts dating Henry Fussy. Yet Charlotte's children live on, and Wilbur is happy to while away the years in the barn with generations of Charlotte's descendants.
  • Bribed With Food: Usually the only way to get Templeton to agree to anything.
  • Brutal Honesty: A major theme of both the book and its adaptations, with Charlotte, who says she sees no point in withholding unpleasant information from a friend, representing an especially noble variety of it, and Templeton, who is rather overt about his selfish motives for what he does, representing a rather less-than-noble variety. In the book and animated adaptation, the sheep represents a sort of middle ground, telling Wilbur about what farms do to pigs, while the live action version gives that role to Templeton, bringing his brutal honesty even further.
    Templeton: What? You're going to lie to the future football here? Okay, but it's a sad statement when I'm the most honest guy in the place.
  • Butt-Monkey: Lurvy, the Zuckermans' farm assistant is very clumsy.
  • Carnivore Confusion: Played with. Charlotte catches and eats insects as humanely as possible, and will defend her need to do this — not just on a personal level, but an ecological one. However, at the end of her life, she delivers the following quote:
    Charlotte: A spider's life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.
  • Catch-Phrase: In the live action film Templeton has one
    Templeton: The Rat RULES!
  • Chickification: Fern comes down with a very abrupt case of this in the novel. She's a nature lover who likes to sit for hours on end, quietly watching and listening to the animals in the barn cellar, and remains so right up until Wilbur's moment of triumph at the fair. At that very instant, she loses interest in the proceedings, begins begging her mother for money so that she can go on a second Ferris wheel ride with Henry Fussy, finally gets it, darts off, and doesn't visit Wilbur as often as she used to.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The rotten egg which Templeton has been hoarding saves Charlotte's life when Avery accidentally breaks it while trying to catch her.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Mr. Zuckerman describes how a message praising his pig has mysteriously appeared in the middle of a spider web, and concludes that they have "no ordinary pig." His wife disagrees:
    "Well," said Mrs. Zuckerman, "it seems to me you're a little off. It seems to me we have no ordinary spider."
    "Oh, no," said Zuckerman. "It's the pig that's unusual. It says so, right there in the middle of the web."
  • Crows And Ravens: In the live action film, two dumb crows, Elwyn and Brooks serve as the main obstacle for Templeton getting the words—twice.
    • While Templeton is visiting the junkyard to look for a word for Wilbur, Brooks and Elwyn swoop down to attack him. Luckily, Templeton lures the two crows into a trap, causing them to crash into some sand and pink paint, and they vow revenge.
    • Later on, while Templeton was having a good time at the county fair, Brooks and Elwyn go for revenge on the rat. Templeton jumps into a corn-like game machine and tricks the crows by getting trapped by a net.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Templeton. It helps that he's voiced by Paul Lynde in the 1973 film and by Steve Buscemi in the 2006 live action film.
  • Death by Newbery Medal: Or Newbery Honor, anyway. Charlotte dies at the fair after making her egg sac and saving Wilbur.
  • Death Song: The second version of "Mother Earth and Father Time", from the 1973 animated film.
  • Demoted to Extra: Henry Fussy, Fern's boyfriend, a supporting character in the book and the 1973 film, only gets a couple of cameos in the 2006 film. He is an avid photographer who mostly takes pictures of Fern with Wilbur. Later at the fair, he rides the Ferris Wheel with Fern. Some deleted scenes for the live action DVD actually expanded Henry's role a bit more.
  • Disappeared Dad: Charlotte has 514 children and their father is neither mentioned nor seen. Given the courtship habits of Araneus cavaticus, this is probably for the best.
  • Disney Acid Sequence: The scene where Templeton sneaks around the fairgrounds at night in the '73 film. This isn't actually too far off the mark from what actually happens.
  • Disneyfication: This is what the original author felt the 1973 movie had subjected his story to.
  • Down on the Farm
  • Dying Alone: Charlotte in the original novel, left behind at the fair as she is too weak even to climb down to Wilbur's crate. Averted in the animated version, where Wilbur is with her as she dies just before the humans take him home.
  • Food Porn: Double Subverted with the discarded food from the county fair. Not appetizing at first glance but it is if you're a rat. Templeton takes full advantage of it.
    • In the book, the lavish descriptions of Wilbur's slop meals. Never has a mixture of milk, table leftovers, and old garbage sounded so appealing.
  • Freudian Slip: Fern accidentally says "Wilbur" when the teacher asks her what the capital of Pennsylvania state is.
  • A Friend in Need: Charlotte's only real motivation for helping Wilbur: he's her friend and he's in danger, so she'll do everything she can to save him.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Fern, at least until she starts to "grow up" and care more about Henry Fussy than animals. Charlotte is also an example... except to the insects she eats.
  • Gass Hole: In the live action film, one of the cows has a problem with flatulence.
    • Special mention is when she farts on Templeton.
      Betsy: Did you get him?
      Bitsy: Yep! Bullseye!
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar:
    • Children learn in the book that people will believe anything they see in print. A subtle satirical Author Tract from Charlotte.
    • In the animated film, the "I got lucky" facial expression Templeton has on his face when he and his mate and his offspring walk by. The satisfied chuckle he gives just screams, "Behold, the evidence of my conquest!"
    • In the book, when Charlotte talks about her ancestors, she always talks about females and never about males. Well, this is likely because spider females of many species tend to eat the male right after mating. Now try rereading the ending with this in your head.
    • In the live action film there's this moment where Charlotte is trying to get Ike the horse involved in a meeting involving Wilbur. Ike tells Charlotte that he has difficulty looking at her straight in the eyes. Charlotte retorts "For the record, my view of you isn't exactly a treat either."
  • Ink-Suit Actor: Charlotte's facial features seem to vaguely resemble those of Debbie Reynolds, who provided her voice. The same can be said for Templeton and his voice actor Paul Lynde.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Buried quite deeply in Templeton's gluttonous body.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: At one point, Charlotte sings Wilbur a lullaby about "the dung and the dark." It's appropriately sweet, soothing, and just happens to incorporate the fact that Wilbur sleeps in literal cow manure.
  • Magnum Opus: Charlotte describes her egg sac as her magnum opus, the finest thing she has ever made. Or, as it turns out, will ever make, as she dies, as spiders do, shortly after producing it.
  • Mayfly–December Friendship: Wilbur ends up experiencing this with Charlotte, as she ends up passing away just as he's become a full-grown pig.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Fern's surname is Arable, and she lives on a farm. The land on a farm (especially that used in growing crops) is called arable land.
    • Charlotte's full name is Charlotte A. Cavatica. She is also a barn spider, and the scientific name for a barn spider is Araneus cavaticus. When her daughter learns that mother's middle initial was "A", she decides to name herself Aranea.
  • Messy Pig: Type 2—Sanitary Swine. Or as sanitary as he can be, considering he sleeps on an enormous pile of manure. Played with when Wilbur has to go to the fair. The sheep advises Wilbur to struggle with being put in a crate. Wilbur's objection that it'll make him messy (after he'd just had a buttermilk bath by Edith Zuckerman) is overruled by the sheep warning him if he doesn't struggle, they'll assume something is wrong with him and leave him behind.
  • N-Word Privileges: At least in the 2006 film, only Templeton can call himself "the rat".
  • Only Sane Man: In the animated version, Edith Zuckerman is the only human to point out that a spiderweb with "SOME PIG" woven into it is more indicative that the spider is special, not the pig. Her husband immediately dismisses the idea. The live action movie uses a much more logical, realistic answer for this.
    Interviewer: Where's the spider who did all this?
    Homer: Well...we looked everywhere, but we couldn't find one.
    (cue to Wilbur and Charlotte giggling to each other)
  • The Power of Friendship: Charlotte works hard to save Wilbur's life.
  • The Runt at the End: Wilbur. This is why Fern takes a shine to him.
  • Say My Name: In the 1973 film version, after Charlotte passes away:
    Wilbur: Charlotte? Charlotte?? CHARLOTTE!!!
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Charlotte (at least from Wilbur's perspective). Likely as not, her vocabulary introduced a lot of young readers to words like "languishing", "radiant", "versatile", and "salutations."
  • Speaks Fluent Animal: Fern is able to understand what the animals are saying when they talk to each other, although she is not shown speaking to them.
  • Speech Impediment: The g-g-goose has a rather pronounced stutter-utter-utter.
  • Spiders Are Scary: Averted. Charlotte is the nicest spider ever. As far as Ike the horse in the 2006 film is concerned though, it's played straight, but Played for Laughs...he mostly grows out of it at the end when Charlotte's babies hatch.
    • When Ike sees Charlotte for the first time he starts shrieking ''SPIDER! GET IT AWAY FROM ME GET IT AWAY!"
    • Then when Charlotte reveals to Wilbur that she drinks flies blood, Ike faints to the ground with a loud THUD. Then as Charlotte climbs down next to the fallen horse:
      Ike: Please don't hurt me.
      Charlotte: Well, since you said "please." (chuckles)
    • Also this dialogue when Charlotte is trying to get him involved to a meeting involving Wilbur:
      Charlotte: Ike, this involves every one of us.
      Ike: I just have...trouble looking at you. That's all.
      Charlotte: Well, this isn't about me, this is about Wilbur. And for the record, my view of you isn't exactly a treat, either.
  • Stealth Insult: In the live action version; Templeton gives a sly one to the cows Betsy and Bitsy. It's half-subverted in that one of the cows laughs in response while the other sees straight through the insult.
    Betsy: Don't you break that egg, rat!
    Bitsy: A broken rotten egg would make this barn stink to high heaven!
    Templeton: That'd be a change.
    Bitsy: [laughs]
    Betsy: Why you laughin', Bits? He just said we stink!
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Templeton, for most of the story is just an antisocial loner, who really doesn't want to be involved in Charlotte's plan to save Wilbur, unless there's something in it for him. However, he delivers an out-of-nowhere Kick the Dog moment towards the end when Wilbur explains to him that Charlotte is dying and asks him to carry her egg sac into the crate. Templeton's response?
    • It's less out-of-nowhere in the book, where the omniscient narrator tells us early on that "the rat had no morals, no decency, no milk of rodent kindness, no compunctions, no higher feeling, no friendliness, no anything." But in the adaptations, without that passage, it's slightly jarring.
  • Tough Love: In the book, Charlotte is much stricter on Wilbur than either of the movies, and isn't above snapping at him or scolding him—or anyone else in the barnyard, for that matter. Even in the animated movie, she tricks Templeton into going near a cat simply because he did not feel like attending a meeting about Wilbur.
    Templeton: That wasn't nice, Charlotte!
    Charlotte: Perhaps the next time I call a meeting, Templeton, you'll see fit to attend!
  • Useless Protagonist: Wilbur, who pretty much does nothing the whole book. It could be argued he's more of a Decoy Protagonist (along with Fern), if you prefer to think of Charlotte as the actual main character. Or that the point of his character arc is his maturing from a passive piglet who needs to be rescued to a proactive, mature pig who ensures the safety of Charlotte's egg sac and watches over her children after her death. As far as the adaptations go, Wilbur proves to be much more useful even way before he takes Charlotte's egg sack home with him - for example, in the animated version, he saves Charlotte from Avery by tripping the latter and making him fall and break the smelly rotten egg, whereas in the book Avery just happens to fall by accident.
  • Verbal Tic: The geese tend to repeat their own words as they talk.
    Gander: It's my idio-idio-idiosyncracy.
  • We Are as Mayflies: The unspoken reason Charlotte helps Wilbur. She lives only a year, and values the friendship for what little life she will enjoy.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Regarding the 1973 version: What happened to the gosling that wanted to be a pig?
  • What's in It for Me?: It's a continued theme that Templeton repeatedly asks this question, and is repeatedly answered with very strong incentives. One has to wonder why Templeton hasn't learned to expect it. Only twice is Templeton not threatened - and those are the two final times, first with promises of miles of food at the fair, and last of all when Wilber promises to let him eat first from his trough for the rest of his life in return for bringing him Charlotte's egg sack.
  • Writers Suck: Averted. The last lines of the book and adaptations are, "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
  • You Dirty Rat!: Templeton is a dirty, gluttonous, selfish Jerkass. However, he's a good guy, way deep down.