Artbeat

7th January 2000 at 00:00
The beginning is nightmarish. The poor little creature trying to take control is dwarfed by an unpredictable and overwhelming force. Eyes roll. Palms sweat. No, not the first time a new teacher encounters Year 8, but the opening scenes of The Iron Giant, the animated film based on Ted Hughes's much-loved fable, The Iron Man.

Well, if you are to enjoy the film, forget the book. The giant is impressive and looks much like the character in Andrew Davidson's drawings for Hughes's story, but almost everything else, except for the bravery and generosity of young Hogarth, is different.

With the action transported to Maine in 1957, this has become a straightforward all-American tale of good versus evil, complete with comically aggressive army personnel and an untrustworthy government agent. The threat of atomic disaster hangs over the story, and the giant eventually sacrifices himself to save the community of the small town of Rockwell by flying into the path of a guided missile.

Hogarth has become the child of a single mother (voiced by Jennifer Aniston) toiling to make ends meet. An entirely new character, Dean McCoppen (spoken by cool musician Harry Connick Jr), a beatnik who owns a scrapyard, befriends Hogarth and the giant. These are not unattractive characters, they are just not in the book, which makes giving Hogarth the surname Hughes irritating.

Hughes wrote The Iron Man to "empower" his children following the death of their mother, Sylvia Plath, in 1963. He is said to have applauded the film script. He would certainly have approved of the characterisation of Hogarth (spoken by Eli Marienthal) - he is as courageous, independent, resourceful and kind as his prototype. What Hughes surely could not have forgiven is the introduction of sentimentality, which was alien to his clear, robust vision of people and the environment.

The essence of The Iron Giant is a familiar children's book theme - the iron giant learns that he can choose whether or not to be violent. He is a "gun with a soul", say the filmmakers. Actually, he is very like the must-have toys of a decade ago, the Transformers. The possible resurection at the end, where the pieces start to link together, is in keeping with the original, but really it is better to see this as a well-made, dramatic, animated film in its own right - as such it is more than satisfactory. Then give the kids a copy of The Iron Man to enliven their new millennial reading.

Animated drawings of children are one thing, but how do you play them on stage? Kathryn Hunter has embraced a particularly difficult challenge in Spoonface Steinberg. At 42, she is acting the heroine of Lee Hall's radio monologue originally spoken by 10-year-old Becky Simpson, who played the autistic opera-loving cancer patient on Radio 4.

In rehearsal, Hunter blows away any misgivings. Dressed in woolly hat and pyjamas, she inhabits a world that is not quite naturalistic. Even her bedroom is seen from Spoonface's perspective. Hunter does not caricature - she is immensely respectful of children in general and this one in particular. She seems to become the little girl while you watch, like a shape-shifter. But it would be a shame if audiences went along merely to observe a tour de force - the play is immensely moving and a million miles from tweeness. New Ambassador's Theatre: 0171 836 6111 Millennial celebrations may continue, but the tensions leading up to that last day are over. The National Portrait Gallery's Faces of the Century exhibition is not over though, and the accompanying teacher's resource pack and website will continue to be useful. Noel Coward, the Gorbals, Crick and Watson, the arrival of the "Empire Windrush" bringing workers from the Caribbean - all are included in the pack, together with a timeline of events from the 20th century.

The website's timeline can be used to explore photographs of episodes and key figures in each decade, providing an insight into picture research and the chance to study photographs usually not on display. Some teenagers have taken "period" pictures in workshops, and examples are also included on the website, www.npg. org.ukeducation facepack.htm. NPG Education: 0171 306 0055. The main exhibition will visit Hull, Bath and Stirling.

Heather Neill


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