Film, Feast, and Fiction: The Phantom Tollbooth

PhantomTollbooth2Juster, Norton. The Phantom Tollbooth. Illustrator: Jules Feiffer. New York: Scholastic, 1961.

Does anyone remember the show that aired on Friday evenings on TBS called, “Dinner and a Movie”? My family loved it.  We would come home from work and school, eat our own dinner, and sit down to watch whatever movie they were showing, and drool over the delicious dinner that was being prepared. Those recipes always violated my weeknight cooking rules (no more than 2 pans dirty and less than 40 minutes to make), still it was fun to watch them prepare something sumptuous.

In the spirit of that show, I am inaugurating my own series: Film, Feast, and Fiction.  I think it is fun to compare books and the movies made from them.  They rarely match up completely, but it is enjoyable to debate the differences with other book and movie lovers.  What goes well with a lively discussion like this?  Food, of course! I hope you enjoy the book, film, and food parings.  I hope to keep the recipes easy enough that you might consider using them for you own food, book, and movie pairing.

The fiction and film

The Phantom Tollbooth is a book about a boy, Milo by name, who is bored, bored, bored.  He has nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to think.  He is weary from the boredom of being bored.  As he walks home from school, he doesn’t notice the lovely, sunny day or the birds singing.  At home in his apartment, he looks at his books, puzzles, and toys and sighs.  Nothing, nothing is worth the effort.  He walks into his room to flop on the bed and notices something new. It is a large package. His feeling of ennui almost over powers him, but a miniscule spark of curiosity prompts him to walk over to the package to take a look. It is a tollbooth, just the right size to fit his small electronic car.  “Curiouser and curiouser” as Alice said.  Why is it here?  Who sent it?  What do you do with it?  Affixed to the tollbooth are a map to the Lands Beyond, a token for the tollbooth, instructions to have his destination in mind when entering, and this note: “To Milo who has plenty of time.”

Without much thought, Milo shrugs, hops into his car and proceeds through the tollbooth portal to the lands beyond.  He picks a destination at random, Expectations.  Here he meets the “Whether Man”, who is no help in finding the correct direction.  He drives on and begins to daydream.  As his mind wanders, his car slows and he finds himself in the “Doldrums.” It is a dreary and gray land, which matches his mood.  Surrounded by little people he finds himself getting more and more lethargic.  He’s nearly asleep, when he is startled awake by a dog’s vigorous, loud, angry barking.  Milo is confronted by Tock the Watchdog, who will become his traveling companion.  Tock is a large dog, with a clock as a part of his body.  His arrival shakes Milo up.  Tock make Milo aware of the perils of “wasting time.”  They hop into Milo’s little car and for the first time, in a very long time, Milo is forced to use his brain and “think”.  This is a vital step in escaping the Doldrums, which is a much more dangerous place than you might believe.

In his travels, Milo goes to many strange places: Dictionopolis, Digitopolis, Conclusions (which he jumps to and has to think hard to return), the Valley of Sound, and the Mountains of Ignorance to name a few. What he discovers on his travels in the Lands Beyond, is that all is not well in the Kingdom of Wisdom.  The Princess of Rhyme and Reason have been banished to the Castle in the Air by their brothers, the kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis.  With the absence of Rhyme and Reason, the kingdom is beset with the strivings of King Azaz and the Mathemagician.  Words or Numbers, which is better?  With his companions, Tock, the wise and practical watchdog, and the very silly Humbug, Milo sets out to rescue the princesses.

I think this is Norton Juster’s unveiled attempt to show the value of education and the delight you can have in the world around you. Kevin Smokler in his book, Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, selected this book as one of his 50 classics.  Here’s what he had to say about this book: “The Phantom Tollbooth remains, over fifty years after its publication, an argument for brains over brawn, for Seas of Knowledge engulfing the Mountains of Ignorance. (p. 184)¹”  I agree.  Milo had to apply his learning and education to solve the problems in this book.

I discovered this wonderful book at the same time as my daughters.  We loved Milo’s funny, farfetched, and sometimes terrifying, adventures.  We loved this book full of puns and silly word play.  We chuckled all the way through the book.

As happens, the book and movie don’t line up exactly.  Nevertheless, it is a fun movie. It begins with a live action portion, with Butch Patrick, who played Eddie in the old sitcom The Munsters, as Milo.  Once Milo, drives through the tollbooth, the movie changes to animation, which was done under the direction of Chuck Jones.  You might remember him from the Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoons and one of my other favorite animations, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

If you are nerdy, like we are, you could download a graphic organizer to compare the book with the movie.  Here is a link to one on the site Teachers Pay Teachers: https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/FREE-The-Book-vs-The-Movie-Graphic-Organizers-797677.  If you search the web, you can find plenty of them to use.

MyWordsDinnerThe feast

This is the portion of the blog that had me stumped for the longest time.  What did Milo eat while he was in the Lands Beyond?  He went to a dinner in Digitopolis with the Mathemagician and had several helpings of Subtraction Stew.  Unfortunately, he was hungrier when the feast ended than when it began.  I wouldn’t want to do that to you on a Friday night or any other one.

In Digitopolis, he went to a banquet given by King Azaz.  He tried ordering a light meal and a square meal, both not tasty as one was made of light and one was made of squares.  When asked to give a speech, he was interrupted by the King. A dinner of “Your majesty, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to say that in all…” is not a tasty dinner.  Milo was quite surprised that he would have to eat his words!

For this feast, I give you my words: “roasted green beans, garlic mashed potatoes, mini meatloaves, ice tea, and Sweep the Leg Peanut Butter Stout”.   If this meal doesn’t please you, you can eat your own words!

Mini Meat Loaves

Mini meat loaves are fun and they are terrific for portion control.  Cooking them in cupcake tins makes them cook quickly so dinner can be on the table before it gets too late! I like the recipe that appears on page 91 in Bobby Deen’s Everyday Eats. I like it, because it is easy to make and only takes about 35 minutes from beginning to end. I couldn’t reproduce it here for you, but I did find another similar recipe online “Deen Bros’ Speedy Mini Meat Loaves”: http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Recipes/recipe?id=8516509.

Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Sorry to disappoint you, but I only make garlic mashed potatoes from scratch on major holidays.  For weeknights, I go with semi-homemade and purchase “Simply Potatoes Garlic Mashed Potatoes” from the refrigerated section of my local HEB.  I put these in a small casserole pan and they cook right along with the meat loaves.

Roasted Green Beans

I do make this one.  It is simple and very easy.  I cook them at 400° F for about 15 minutes, until they are slightly caramelized.  I slide the in the oven about 10 minutes after I put the meat loaves in the oven.  My recipe for Bobby Deen’s meatloaves call for them to be cooked at the same temperature (400° F) as the green beans. If you are using another recipe that cooks the meatloaves at a lower temperature, you may have to adjust the cooking time.

1 lb. French green beans
Lemon pepper to taste
Olive oil or Lemon olive oil

Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil.  Either spray the foil with olive oil cooking spray or lightly grease the pan with olive oil.  Arrange the green beans in a single layer on the tray.  Sprinkle the green beans with the lemon pepper and then drizzle them with either plain olive oil or lemon olive oil.  Slide these into the oven and roast as described above.

Norton Juster

This blog is already long, but I couldn’t leave you without a providing a little information on this author.  Here are a few basic things you might want to know.

  1. He was influenced by his father, who loved puns and word play².
  2. He was primarily an architect².
  3. Jules Feiffer became his illustrator by chance. Juster paced while he worked.  Feiffer lived below him, heard the pacing, and came upstairs to see what was going on².
  4. Norton wrote this book, when he was supposed to be writing a children’s book on cities².
  5. At the time it was published, people thought that it was not a children’s book as the vocabulary is too difficult. Here is a passage from an interview he did with NPR in October of 2011³.

The prevailing wisdom of the time held that learning should be more accessible and less discouraging. The aim was that no child would ever have to confront anything that he or she didn’t already know.

But my feeling is that there is no such thing as a difficult word. There are only words you don’t know yet — the kind of liberating words that Milo encounters on his adventure.

Here are some websites where you can read more about this author.

¹Smokler, Kevin. Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. New York: Prometheus Books, 2013.

²http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/the-curious-world-of-norton-juster-7768624.html

³http://www.npr.org/2011/11/10/141240217/my-accidental-masterpiece-the-phantom-tollbooth

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