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Oscar-Winner Emma Thompson Revives 'Peter Rabbit'


The year 2012 brought the return of a much-loved literary character, Peter Rabbit. The writer Beatrix Potter first brought the mischievous bunny to life in 1902, and this year actress Emma Thompson wrote a new tale of Peter Rabbit. He's so timeless, we thought we'd offer an encore of our interview with Emma Thompson. She spoke with our colleague Renee Montagne.


Thompson's new version takes Peter Rabbit to the Scottish countryside. Not surprisingly, it opens with our furry little hero contemplating an adventure in which he's sure to break a lot of rules.

EMMA THOMPSON: I have not seen many rabbits moping, but when they do, their ears droop. Peter Rabbit was in low spirits. It had been a rainy summer. His blue coat had been torn by briars and his shoes were hurting. What I need, he said, is a change of scene. Benjamin Bunny advised against it. Too many carts on the road, he said. Too many owls and too many foxes.

MONTAGNE: Regardless of the warnings from his timid cousin, Peter Rabbit soon finds himself bouncing around in a cart, heading out on yet another misadventure. "The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit" is the bunny's first foray into the publishing world in a century. It's also the first authorized Peter Rabbit story to be written by someone other than Beatrix Potter. And the publishers took a novel approach when approaching Emma Thompson with a proposal to bring back the bunny.

THOMPSON: It wasn't a formal letter as such. It wasn't a Dear Ms. Thompson, would you consider blah from the publishers. It was a little box with two half-eaten radishes in it and a letter from Peter Rabbit. And the child part of me, I think, actually believed it had come from Peter Rabbit himself. And that got past my defenses and my fear for long enough for me to say, OK, well, I'll have a go.

MONTAGNE: Now, when you were a child, your father narrated a children's show called "The Magic Roundabout." And for people who might not know this, you come from an acting family, both your mother and father. And of course he would read you Peter Rabbit books when you were a child, right?

THOMPSON: Yes, yes, he would. I mean, the Potter oeuvre consists of lots of different kinds of books. Some are very much for the younger child because they've only got about two or three words on each page. And then there are the much longer, sort of novel versions. So Dad, of course, being essentially - well, essentially wanting to get back to the football or a beer, would try to read just the very short ones. And we would beg for him to read, "The Tale of Mr. Tod," you know, which in bedtime story terms is only a little bit shorter than "The Satanic Verses." You know, it's a lot to read at night. And I know that now because I read them to my own daughter and started to bowdlerize and cut like crazy, until suddenly she stopped me.

A little tiny voice said: You left out the part about the bones. And I had. I had been cutting shamelessly because I wanted to get downstairs to my glass of chardonnay. I admit it, I freely admit it. And from then on I had to read the whole thing.

MONTAGNE: So why don't you read us another passage from your book, because I want to talk to you about the language of the book, and this illustrates it a little. It's where Peter finds a very, very large radish.

THOMPSON: Yes. It must have measured three rabbits round. It also smelled delicious and Peter was very hungry. He thought no one would notice if he took a little nibble off the end. Accordingly, he scratched his way under the willow fence and took a bite. And then another and another. By the time Peter had stopped eating, he was inside the radish. Feeling cozy, he fell asleep.

When he woke up, the radish was joggling. Not again, thought Peter.

MONTAGNE: Joggling. Now, there are other words - bog cotton, skepes-wool(ph).


MONTAGNE: The words seem made up. I mean, they're quite magical sounding. They sound like they're from another magical world.

THOMPSON: And it's sort of also the combination of words, isn't it? Like: inside wrapped in brown paper were some excellent sandwiches of cheese and pickle. It's not the kind of construction that you get anymore. Now we say cheese and pickle sandwiches. But there's something about excellent sandwiches of cheese and pickle that's very Potter-esque. It's Victorian, you know (unintelligible) it's an old form, and I find it draws me into the books still and so I wanted to hold on to that.

MONTAGNE: I'm sorry to hit you with this, but could you please turn to page 31. I just love this little page because it has different voices.

THOMPSON: Very good. So Peter's arrived in Scotland, and having had a good night's sleep - this is just preamble - he wakes up, so...When he woke, Mrs. McBurney had made potato scones for his breakfast. Hurry now, Dearie, she said. Today's the big day. Fenley's defending his title. Oh, good, said Peter, not wishing to appear ignorant, even though he had no idea what defending his title meant.

MONTAGNE: Now, I would want to hear that page at least 20 times before I fell asleep. Do you, by chance, have any tips for parents, you know, aiming to make the most of reading "The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit"?

THOMPSON: Yes. Take it slow, much slower than you think. Give them plenty of time to look at the pictures and sort of extrapolate from the pictures. And with this book, you can do things like, there's a page where he comes up on a sign which reads, Keep Out, and I've written: I imagine it will not surprise you to hear that Peter did not keep out. He - and then you can pause and most children say: Went in.

They just do, because I've tried it. I've tested it out on groups of children. He didn't keep out. What did he do? He went in, because it's the opposite of keep out, which is lovely for kids, so they can guess what he did.

MONTAGNE: Also the picture. He has - you see his little rabbit tail, and of course he's scrambling underneath the sign.

THOMPSON: Underneath the sign, which says Keep Out. It's his disrespect for authority, you see. Peter's sort of anarchistic, which I love.

MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson, it's been a pleasure.

THOMPSON: Yes, thank you so much. How lovely to talk to you.

MONTAGNE: Emma Thompson, actress and now author of "The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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