You Can't Have Livin' Without Dyin'
Natalie Babbitt’s 1975 children’s novel Tuck Everlasting is wonderful. Jay Russell’s movie Tuck Everlasting, a loose adaptation, is mediocre. While the book is laced with a youthful sense of wonder concerning life and death, the film is a troubled teenage love story.
Set in 1913, the film begins as Winifred Foster (Alexis Bledel) stands clutching the iron bars of the fence surrounding her parents’ (Amy Irving and Victor Garber) vast property, staring out into the distance as if she’s in jail. She longs for freedom, but when she acts on her “unbridled nature”—by slipping out of her mother’s car to play ball on the dirty town streets—the Fosters decide to send her to Miss Hall’s Academy in Pittsville, where she will become “well-versed in etiquette and manners.”
Predictably upset by the news, Winnie runs off into the adjacent woods where she encounters the young and beautiful Jesse Tuck (Jonathon Jackson), drinking from a small spring. When she declares her own thirst and attempts to drink from the spring, he becomes instantly and strangely agitated. His brother Miles (Scott Bairstow) arrives on the scene, and the two kidnap the startled Winnie.
The reason for the boys’ upset is the spring, she soon learns. It’s a fountain of eternal life, as the unsuspecting Tucks discovered roughly 87 years ago, freezing you at your current age and rendering you immortal, impervious to injury and even wounds. The Tucks—that is, the brothers and their parents, Mae (Sissy Spacek) and Angus (William Hurt)—are determined to keep its power a secret from the world. Not quite knowing what to do with their unexpected guest, the Tucks keep her for a few days, hoping to convince her that keeping the secret is a good idea.
But someone else already knows of the spring, at least in theory. Enter the unsavory villain known only as the Man in the Yellow Suit (Ben Kingsley). He has been following the Tucks for years, trying to find the exact location of their spring so that he may sell the water to deserving (wealthy) individuals. The book focuses on the Tucks’ efforts to protect the spring from the Man in the Yellow Suit, and the modern, commercial corruption he represents.
The film, however, shifts thematic focus to young loves. While her mother waits at home, the clock ticking in the background to underline the passing of time as she worries, Winnie falls for her captor, who appears to embody the independence she so desires. He’s cute, charming, slightly melancholy, and very attentive—it appears that in living forever, he doesn’t spend much time with people near his own age. They spend the day running through sunlit fields, climbing on rocks, and swimming in crystal waters. That evening, Jesse treats Winnie to a rousing drum solo in the woods, inspiring her to dance herself into a sensuous fever. Swept up by the moment, it being so “natural” and all, they kiss. Overcome by his new affection, as well as a sudden optimism, Jesse suggests that she drink from the spring so that they may live together forever, literally.
This budding romance becomes the vehicle for the film’s reframing of the novel’s crucial question: what are the emotional and social costs of immortality? The boys’ parents, Mae (Sissy Spacek) and Angus (William Hurt) provide hints of this darker undercurrent: Mae wistfully admires her fancy white dress and combs her hair out, admitting that she doesn’t have much contact with other women.
And Angus takes Winnie out in a rowboat to put a damper on her romantic excitement. For the Tucks, everlasting, time perpetually passes by, leaving them out of the flow of social activity. While he admits he was, like everyone else, once afraid to die, now that he’s not afraid, he feels rather left out. “It’s part of the wheel,” he says, “You can’t have livin’ without dyin’.” Suddenly, living forever doesn’t look so wonderful, as Winnie realizes she actually misses her cranky parents.
In the novel, Winnie, though quite young enough to miss her parents, isn’t quite old enough to have a visible romance with 17-year-old Jesse. The movie’s emphasis on their relationship changes the narrative rhythm, and likely, audience. Rated PG, Disney’s Tuck Everlasting, adapted by Jeffrey Lieber and James V. Hart, ostensibly pitches slightly older than Babbitt’s, though, given current consumption patterns, it’s likely the film will appeal to a range of young viewers, despite and because of its grappling with death and, to a limited extent, sexual desire. But in making this appeal, it resorts to some unimaginative “teen movie” conventions, from the dazzlingly boyish love object to the frolicking-in-the-woods montages.