Norton Juster, and the 50th Anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth

Artie Q. PebbletonAnimation, Books You Ought To Read, Fiction, Movies

I’ve always loved The Phantom Tollbooth.  It’s been a part of my life ever since I was a little boy.  I probably read it for the first time when I was ten or eleven years old – about the age of the protagonist, Milo.  When I was a camp counselor, I read it aloud at night to my campers, and the next summer, some of them told me that before I had read the book to them, they hadn’t been readers, hadn’t been interested in books, and now they were insatiable.  My copy of The Phantom Tollbooth is dog-eared, split-backed, and water-stained (probably I read it in the bathtub), with annotations on how to perform each character, which is the way a book wants to look if it’s well-loved.

The 50th anniversary of Tollbooth’s publication has brought about a string of retrospectives and interviews with Juster, who spent most of his career not as a writer, but as an architect and professor at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.  I loved Adam Gopnik’s retrospective and interview with Juster and his illustrator, Jules Feiffer, in The New Yorker, which can be found here, and I really enjoyed Juster’s AV Club interview, where he discusses the perils of adaptation:

  Les Goldman and Chuck Jones were treating it [the book] like the Holy Grail and wouldn’t change anything. When you transform a book into a film, there have to be changes. You can’t stick with dialogue the way it is written in the book. You have to really adapt it for the big screen. He was too respectful.”

I’ve seen the MGM Phantom Tollbooth film, and while it’s certainly a glorious example of Chuck Jones’ late-career animation, and while it features some of my very favorite voice actors (June Foray, Mel Blanc, Hans Conried, and Daws Butler),  I don’t really like the script, and the songs, such as they are, aren’t great.

However, an earlier Chuck Jones piece based around a Juster story was 1965’s The Dot and the Line, which won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film that year.   And that’s something I can get behind, because I love this cartoon more than anything.

Happy 50th Anniversary, Mr. Juster!  May your book continue to inspire a love for reading in kids all over the world for years to come!

And now, some magnificent concept art for The Phantom Tollbooth, by Lizzie Nichols, whose blog can be found here!


Yours in learning,

– Artie