Snoopy sells a lot of pencil boxes not to mention greeting cards, novelty coffee mugs, and low-risk insurance policies. Long before Bart Simpson got co-opted by the desk calendar brigade, Charles Schulz’s cartoon beagle was the smiley-faced icon that shouldered a billion-dollar merchandising industry. The twinkle-toed dog’s commercial ubiquity helped cement Peanuts’ reputation as a sweet picaresque through a safe, almost unbearably retro vision of childhood, suburban America style.
Which may explain why, at the very beginning of Dog Sees God, his “unauthorized parody” of Schulz’s beloved comic strip, playwright Bert V. Royal feels the need to give Snoopy a body-wracking case of rabies that, in turn, causes him to eat Woodstock. With this bloody, Greekly tragic opening narrated by Snoopy’s owner, Charlie Brown, in a letter to his Godot-like penpal Royal announces his intent to clear away some of the pieties that have become encrusted on the Peanuts franchise.
Killing off Snoopy is only the first step in Royal’s makeover campaign. In his play currently a hot ticket Off-Broadway, in a production directed by Trip Cullman and starring several of the lesser lights of the teen celebrity firmament the Peanuts kids are 10 years older, and navigating the hormonal minefields of high school (a theme echoed by the burnt-out, vaguely post-apocalyptic set, which mainly consists of a broken brick wall and a lonely tire swing).
And what a difference those 10 years have made: the characters that populate Dog Sees God bear little resemblance to the original gang. Sally (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants’ America Ferrera) has grown up into a Goth girl of the Emily-the-Strange variety while Pigpen (Lost‘s lost hottie Ian Somerhalder), denuded of his dirt-cloud, has become a raunchy, foulmouthed alpha male with in my favorite of the play’s many sight gags an ever-present bottle of Purell hand sanitizing lotion slung on his hip.
It goes on: Lucy (Eliza Dushku), decidedly less of a fussbudget than in her former incarnation, has been locked away for demonstrable pyromania; Marcie and Peppermint Patty have shed their butch origins to blossom (or maybe devolve) into a pair of boozy mean girls. Only the preternaturally serene Linus manages to retain shadings of his original character though his Zen-like attitude is mostly maintained, one presumes, through liberal applications of the “kind bud” he keeps tucked away in his dreadlocks.
But the character that seems most changed is our main one. By putting the good dog to sleep, Royal shifts our focus back to Charlie Brown, the intermittently miserable Everyman who anchored Schulz’s decades-spanning series. Here partially to distinguish Royal’s character from Schulz’s, and partially to avoid legal conflicts with the cartoonist’s estate Charlie Brown has become “C.B.”, a popular (excuse me?) jock (are you serious?) with something of a deft touch with the ladies (what the fuck?)
And it’s here that Dog Sees God makes a symptomatic wrong turn. As a one-note parody of Peanuts, the play works remarkably well. It’s certainly funnier than anything I’ve seen on Saturday Night Live in a long time (and yes, I’m counting the Narnia rap: let it die already). But as an adaptation of Peanuts, Royal’s play ultimately misses the mark.
Adaptations are tricky, because their aesthetic burdens are two-fold: not only must they be coherent, independent works with their own innate truth and integrity, but they must also engage fruitfully with their source material. Whatever the tenor of the latter work’s relationship to its parent be it hostile or reverential an adaptation must always be partially judged on the quality of its reading. In Royal’s world, Charlie Brown has become C.B., the anti-Charlie Brown, and the only acknowledgement we get of this conversion is a tersely-worded formula from Sally (who seems to have absorbed her older brother’s cast-off sullenness): “So he couldn’t kick a football when we were kids! Big deal! He can now . . . Everybody loves him.” It’s a half-hearted feint of an explanation, and characteristic of the play’s shallow, tenuous relationship to Schulz’s strip. Whatever can’t be turned into a joke is jettisoned.
This wouldn’t be a problem if Dog Sees God were content to stay in the realm of the easy laugh. But it clearly, desperately wants to be so much more. After a series of very funny scenes, Dog Sees God abruptly veers into some dark, morbid territory. Piano-playing Schroeder has grown up into the gangly, abrasively awkward Beethoven, who suffered an unspeakable trauma in the post-Peanuts years and now must suffer the slings and arrows of Matt (a.k.a. Pigpen) and C.B., who tease him mercilessly and violently for being, in that hellish high school parlance, “a fucking faggot.” Then one day, distraught by the death of his faithful beagle, C.B. happens upon Beethoven practicing in the music room and, after a soulful heart-to-heart and the establishment of a détente, he lunges for Beethoven and kisses him passionately.
What follows is a fast and furious jumble of poor dramaturgical choices (and a plot spoiler): C.B. decides to take the relationship public in a rather spectacular fashion, thereby infuriating Matt, who becomes convinced that Beethoven has brainwashed his best friend. Sickened (or, as one character reads it, sublimating his own homoerotic desire for C.B.), Matt visits some truly gut-wrenching violence on Beethoven, who responds by stuffing himself full of Oxycontin. Then, in a glittery dream sequence emceed by that Id queen, Lucy, Beethoven rises up to that big toy piano in the sky. In the end, everyone learns an important lesson about tolerance, and the play feels like a second-rate episode of Strangers With Candy Amy Sedaris’s cult comedy that brilliantly skewered after-school specials albeit played straight (pardon the pun).
I don’t mean to belittle the very real problem of homophobia in our schools or in the world at large. But in this darker plotline, Dog Sees God fails the first and most basic aesthetic test of any adaptation: it demonstrates no internal integrity or logic. The development is so sketchy and rushed that the gay story becomes nothing more than a deus ex machina: a shoehorned attempt to add grit and cred to an otherwise thin, poorly constructed narrative. Such an obvious attempt to “play the gay card” only ends up diminishing the issue.
In 2004, Dog Sees God‘s original Off-Off-Broadway debut was awarded a Media Image award from GLAAD, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Of all the play’s head-scratching inscrutabilities, this distinction had me the most perplexed. Did the good people at GLAAD really think the gratuitous shuckterism in Dog Sees God embodied “fair, accurate, and inclusive representation” of LGBT characters?
Dog Sees God‘s self-satisfied bad boy pose is tired, and in the end that may be its greatest sin. In its antagonism toward the perceived anodyne innocence of the Peanuts strip in its Holden Caulfield-like eagerness to drag those little kids into the glaring light of the real, adult world Dog Sees God misses a crucial point: Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang were never really kids. In a world conspicuously lacking in grown-ups (grown-ups, that is, who were more than the abstracted wah wah wah heard in the televised cartoons), the children in Schulz’s strip exhibited all the restless, inchoate anxieties of those absent adults, and much of the strip’s humor came out of its from-the-mouths-of-babes conceit.
For example, one of my favorite Peanuts strips shows Sally jumping rope. As Schulz draws it, Sally, her jump rope captured in mid-motion, is the sprightly blond nucleus at the center of a springy atomic molecule; she’s the very scientific image of a happy child. Then suddenly she stops, leans her head back like Mother Courage, and starts to wail. A concerned Linus runs up and asks her what happened. “I don’t know,” Sally whimpers. “Suddenly, it all just seemed so… futile!” Schulz’s characters were not quite children, and yet not quite adults; in their simple, cartoonish outlines they managed to be both and neither.
All this isn’t to say that there’s no legitimate way to do a darker, more explicitly adult version of Peanuts, or that any adaptation of a beloved children’s work should follow the model of Avenue Q, a Broadway hit often compared to Dog Sees God, in which a similarly wink-wink parody of Sesame Street ends up reinforcing that show’s central messages: be kind; be forthright; be good to yourself; be good to other people. Even at its most melancholic, Peanuts is infused with whimsy, hope, and optimism. In Schulz’s world, the grief is, indeed, good. That’s the saving grace of the tiny canvas: in its four neat panels, or its five Sunday strips, the sadness ekes out in drips and drabs that never overwhelm.
Chris Ware understood that, and in the title character of his obsessively meticulous, formalist masterpiece Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth the graphic novel that broke ranks to earn comic books a new legitimacy among the literati Ware offers us a vision of a Charlie Brown all grown up. Masochistically granted 380 pages of sober, concentrated attention, the intricacies and epic dimensions of Jimmy’s life chronicle only serve to burden the poor guy with the crushing weight of his own mediocrity. Jimmy Corrigan ends up being a satisfying adaptation because it grows out of an astute observation of the source material: namely, that it’s only the “smallness” of the Peanuts comics that keeps them from killing us.
The artistic landscape is currently littered with writers (usually male) who use the totems of childhood to shed light on their artistic psyches. From Michael Chabon’s fascination with superhero comics and “thrilling tales” to Jonathan Franzen’s psychological interest in the repercussions of childhood experiences and up to and including the sweet natured, faux-naif stance embodied by Dave Eggers and the rest of the McSweeney’s gang there are plenty of boys out there who are talking about their toys, and there is certainly room for an honest, queer voice at that party. Royal’s deft comic hand makes me hope that he’ll take another running start at the football sometime soon.