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Bard of the barn

As Hollywood readies a new 'Charlotte's Web,' it's a good time to recall the book's creator, E.B. White

"I do hope, though, that you are not planning to turn 'Charlotte's Web' into a moral tale. It is not that at all. It is, I think, an appreciative story, and there is quite a difference. It celebrates life, the seasons, the goodness of the barn, the beauty of the world, the glory of everything. But it is essentially amoral because animals are amoral, and I respect them, and I think this respect is implicit in the tale."

Thus wrote E.B. White in 1971 to the proposed director of an animated version of his beloved children's book. Those sentiments now serve as a hope and a warning to the makers of the live-action remake opening in theaters this Friday.

The new "Charlotte's Web," digitally tweaked so the animals appear to talk, sports a Hollywood pedigree weighty enough to stun an agent. Our reigning child star, Dakota Fanning, plays Fern, the Maine farm girl who rescues a runt pig named Wilbur from her father's ax . The voice of Charlotte A. Cavatica, the spider whose word-filled web brings glory to the humble Wilbur, is provided by Julia Roberts.

Oprah Winfrey and Cedric the Entertainer are geese. John Cleese is a sheep. Robert Redford is a horse. Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire are cows. And Brooklyn's own Steve Buscemi gives voice to Templeton the cynical rat. (Child actor Dominic Scott Kay plays Wilbur.)

The combined marquee value will help fill theaters, which is fine. Anyone who holds "Charlotte's Web" close to their childhood heart, though, knows the book has one voice, and it belongs to Elwyn Brooks White. Tart, compassionate, funny, wise, White's cadences and thoughts -- the quiet clarity with which he saw the world -- are the only context that matters to this story.

E.B. White's stock has fallen since his death in 1985, even though his best book, the collection of essays titled "One Man's Meat," has remained in print for 64 years. ("The Elements of Style," updated from William Strunk's original, is also still around and an indispensable tool for any budding writer.) Hardly anyone reads White anymore, except for the three books he wrote for children: 1945's "Stuart Little," "Charlotte's Web" (1952), and "The Trumpet of the Swan" (1970). More kids may know "Stuart Little" through the recent movie series than from the grave, clever prose of the book.

This is a sin, really, because White remains deliciously readable for grown-ups, with a style as clean as country linen. He wrote about the differing sensibilities of Manhattan and Maine in a way that grants wilderness and urbanity to both, and his weathered common sense is a lifeline in troubled times. White cut to the essence of things; he makes one a better reader and a better writer, or at least want to make the attempt.

What the casual observer may not realize was that White was a critical architect of the New Yorker voice that survives in that magazine and elsewhere to this day. Hired in 1927 by founding editor Harold Ross, White contributed to the New Yorker for six decades. He wrote essays and countless unsigned "Notes and Comments" opinion pieces; with James Thurber, he was the moving force behind the Talk of the Town section. (The two collaborated on a 1929 parody of then-trendy sex manuals; called "Is Sex Necessary?" it's also still in print and a deadpan hoot.)

White wrote of countless subjects in a myriad of styles; even his light verse sidesteps doggerel thanks to its sting. His poem "Boston Is Like No Other Place in the World Only More So" is to be eternally cherished. It begins:

"When I am out of funds and sorts/And life is full of snarls,

I quit New York and travel east/to Boston on the Charles.

A few pages later, it concludes:

"After a week of Boston/I rise and take the train,

And I am always very glad/to see New York again. . .

Where no one ever marries right/and girls go off their trolley

And young men go to N.Y.U./To Fordham, and to Poly.

Where hackmen have peculiar names/and relatives afar,

And one can watch the Chrysler spire/bisect the morning star."

In the 1930s, White not only had little interest in writing children's books, he professed to look on the field with alarm. His wife, the New Yorker editor Katherine Angell White, oversaw annual round ups of kiddie literature for the magazine, which meant the White apartment was periodically swamped with books about pandas and pirates. "I have naturally come to know something about children's books from living so close to them and gazing hatefully at their jackets," White wrote in one of the Harper's essays collected in "One Man's Meat."

In fact, he had already started, in fits and starts, on "Stuart Little." "My fears about writing for children are great -- one can so easily slip into a cheap sort of whimsy or cuteness," he wrote in a 1939 letter to the New York Public Library's Anne Carroll Moore. This was the year White relocated his family from Manhattan to North Brooklin, Maine, where he became something more than a gentleman farmer while continuing to write. It was in the barn of North Brooklin that "Charlotte's Web" was born.

He worked out the book's concerns and tone in his grown-up essays first. The 1947 piece "Death of a Pig" has the watchful, unmelodramatic sense of natural tragedy that provides "Charlotte" with its bass countermelody. "When we slid the body into the grave, we both were shaken to the core," White writes. "The loss we felt was not the loss of ham but the loss of pig. He had evidently become precious to me, not that he represented a distant nourishment in a hungry time, but that he had suffered in a suffering world."

Templeton the Rat was also puttering around in the author's head early on. "I have heard it said that rats collect trinkets," he wrote in a 1938 essay, "that if you expose a rat's nest, you may find bright bits of glass and other small desirable objects. A child's mind is such a repository -- full of gems of questionable merit, paste and real, held in storage. What shining jewels shall we contribute this morning, sir, to this amazing collection?"

By 1952, White saw his tale of the barn published, thin in overt moral lessons but rich with a dry, poetic fancy. To really hear the playful sadness of "Charlotte's Web" -- its sense that friendship is precious because death is always near -- you should probably get hold of the audiotape version, recorded in 1970 by White himself and readily available. It's unfussy and thus perfect.

Hanna-Barbera's animated musical version of "Charlotte" finally reached movie theaters in 1973. Millions of people have fond memories of it; White was not one of them. "The movie of 'Charlotte's Web' is about what I expected it to be," he wrote to a friend philosophically. "The story is interrupted every few minutes so that somebody can sing a jolly song. I don't care much for jolly songs. The Blue Hill Fair, which I tried to report faithfully in the book, has become a Disney World, with 76 trombones. But that's what you get for getting embroiled in Hollywood."

With more than 45 million copies of the book having been sold, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood embroiled "Charlotte's Web" again. The production company for the new film is Walden Media, the family-oriented outfit that has done reasonably well by previous kids' books "Holes," "Because of Winn-Dixie," and "The Chronicles of Narnia." There's a flatulence joke in the trailer -- a cow lets one rip on Templeton -- but White was, after all, on record as saying a film based on the book "should be a paean to life . . . an acceptance of dung."

"['Charlotte's Web'] is a study of miracles," he wrote to that movie director back in 1971, "tinged with the faint but pervasive odor of the barn. It will stand or fall on the barn." And so it will.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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