Is hell satisfied?

In keeping with their authors' dark histories, "The Iron Giant" and other children's tales by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath tell ominous fables about ambition, despair and people's disregard for nature and one another.

Published August 25, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It's a dark night in cartoonland, and a monster has just bitten the antenna off Hogarth's roof. Armed only with a BB gun and a flashlight, the young hero sneaks out to find it. The forest is still, with the deceptive calm of suspense thriller moments before an attack. "I hate this part," wails the kid in the front row. Clearly, he's seen this movie before.

Parents eager to keep the family entertainment bills under control (those $9 tickets really add up) will be tempted to substitute the print version of "The Iron Giant" for the movie of the same name. So will those who hope to guide their children's enthusiasm into literary channels. After all, a mere $16 buys the 30th anniversary edition of the classic chapter book by the late poet laureate of England, its jacket spangled with gushing blurbs from juvenile lit greats, such as Madeline L'Engle and the author of "The Phantom Tollbooth."

Parents who push the book, however, should expect protests. Only a copyright lawyer or a folklorist would recognize Ted Hughes' "The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights" in the Warner Bros. version. The scriptwriters transposed the action from a vaguely British '60s landscape to the coast of Maine a decade earlier; they invented four of the movie's six main characters, brought in the army, replaced an extraterrestrial villain with general human stupidity and added a dollop of humor to the rather grim original. The giant himself, a cuddly clunker with a conscience in the cartoon, began life in Hughes' book as an impersonal, inexorable force with mysterious origins. Unlike the cartoon character, Hughes' giant is no Tin Woodman. In both stories he splashes down from outer space and runs around eating tractors and train tracks until clever Hogarth leads him to a junkyard, where the giant can gorge on metal until he gets his fill. But when the movie monster saves humanity from self-destruction, it's his love for Hogarth that drives him. In the book, the giant rescues the planet from a very different threat, with a very different motivation: self-interest. Without people to produce scrap metal, he'll have nothing to eat.

The book's most powerful image, which the animated version preserves, is the giant's instinct for self-preservation. Shattered by a fall, he reassembles himself, hunting out his scattered pieces and fitting them back together. In the movie it's a redemptive image, promising him rebirth after self-sacrifice. In the book, though, its overtones are more ambiguous. Readers may find themselves not completely comfortable with a ravenous, indestructible monster whose goodwill, even towards the hand that feeds him, seems tentative.

"The Iron Giant," the only one of Hughes' half-dozen or so kids' books currently in print, is dedicated to his children. They were 6 and 8 at the time he wrote it, five years after the famous suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath. In keeping with this dark history, Hughes' books for kids tend to tell ominous, sometimes preachy fables about ambition, despair and people's disregard for nature and one another.

The title selection in "The Tiger's Bones and Other Plays for Children," for example, ends when its antihero, the Master, entranced with his own power, brings to life a dead tiger -- which promptly eats him. Earlier in the play, he discovers a race of innocent savages, cuts down their native forest and sets them to work in car factories. And earlier yet, he discovers a meteor on a collision course with Earth (apocalypses of extraterrestrial origin seem to be a favorite Hughes theme), which eventually turns out to be a spot of fungus on his telescope lens. Similarly, the last play in the book is a bitter story about the Nativity from the point of view of the innkeeper and his wife who, to their endless shame, sent the holy family to sleep in the cow shed. (Hughes' trademark threatening celestial object makes an appearance, in the form of the Christmas star.)

Another play, a version of the Orpheus myth, begs to be read in light of the poet's personal history. It contains this suggestive speech, from Pluto to Orpheus:

Nothing is free. Everything has to be paid for. For every profit in one thing, payment in some other thing. For every life, a death. Even your music, of which we have heard so much, that had to be paid for. Your wife was the payment for your music. Hell is now satisfied.

"The Iron Giant" and "The Tiger's Bones," for all their complex and gloomy messages, were clearly meant for kids. Not so Hughes' collections of children's poetry. "What Is the Truth?" -- which consists of 126 pages of animal poems strung together with a frail excuse for a narrative (God and his son come down to Earth, round up a bunch of people and make them describe animals) -- is full of lines like this:

There's nothing verminous, or pestilential, about swallows.
Swallows are the aristocrats,
The thoroughbreds of summer.
Still, there is something sinister about them.
I think it's their futuristic design.
And their bills seem tiny, almost retrousse cute
In fact the whole face opens
Like a jet engine.

Although adults may enjoy the poems' dark vision and their sensually vivid descriptions, kids will need a dictionary and tons of practice reading poetry to make head or tail of them. At 47 pages, though, Hughes' "Moon-Bells and Other Poems" has the advantage of being shorter. I liked a few of its poems, including "Amulet": "Inside the wolf's fang, the mountain of heather./ Inside the mountain of heather, the wolf's fur./ Inside the wolf's fur, the ragged forest," and so on. "Ted Hughes rightly makes no concessions to his young audience," boasts the jacket; perhaps that's why the book hasn't made it back into print.

Like her widower, Plath also tried her hand at children's books, but hers are far cozier. Several of my friends recommend "The Bed Book," an illustrated poem, but it's out of print, and I couldn't get my hands on it. So is "The It-Doesn't-Matter Suit," which can, however, be had on audiotape. Plummy-voiced British actors read about little Max Nix, the youngest of the seven Nix brothers in Alpine Winkelburg, who longs more than anything for a suit. One day a "woolly, whiskery, brand-new, mustard-yellow suit" arrives in the post, with a smudged address. Whose is it? One by one, the Nix men try it on, and Mama Nix alters it to fit them. One by one, they reject it as too new, too bright, too yellow, until at last Max gets his chance. Readers familiar with Plath's scorching, elliptical poetry will be surprised by this gentle, hopeful tale, full of folksy repetitions. Like "The Iron Giant," it deserves to reassemble itself in book form, hunting out its illustrations and pasting them back on.

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------