Bonnie and Clyde … and The Cat in the Hat?

It’s funny what can happen to your mind when you’re bored.  Recently, I saw a play at a local children’s theater and I had every reason to believe the play would be great.  It’s a good theater—one of the most critically acclaimed children’s theaters in the United States—and they were doing an adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat.  And yet … I don’t know if it was an artistic choice or a requirement of the Theodore Geisel estate, but the production limited itself exclusively to the words of the original book—for a play that ran over an hour.

If you read The Cat in the Hat very slowly and linger over the pictures, you’re still likely to finish in less than ten minutes.  So, as you might expect, this play production attempted to compensate with long scenes of silent choreography.  The troupe gave it their all—it was very imaginative and impressive—but after a while it started to feel too much like a Samuel Beckett play, and my mind began to wander.

Suddenly, I wasn’t just watching a play, I was also seeing a movie in my head.  On stage, Sally and her brother were looking out a window and wishing they had something to do, but in my mind I was seeing Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie Parker looking out her window and wishing she had a way out of her humdrum life as a Texas waitress.  The mental cross-cutting between play and movie continued.  While on stage a man dressed as a cat was bouncing on a ball while holding a rake, I kept seeing an image of Warren Beatty wearing a fedora while holding a Tommy gun.

And that’s when it hit me—Bonnie and Clyde is essentially a reworking of The Cat in the Hat.

Now before you make that face, let’s think about it for a minute.  While it’s beloved today, The Cat in the Hat was a fairly revolutionary book in its day.  The year was 1957.  Elvis Presley was starring in Jailhouse Rock, Jack Kerouac was promoting On the Road, and President Eisenhower was deploying the army to integrate Little Rock Central High.  Yet, despite such sweeping social changes, schools were still trying to teach kids how to read with the likes of Dick and Jane. That’s when Theodore Geisel dropped his tale of a chaos-bringing bipedal cat with a taste for colorful headgear.  For the world of early readers, The Cat in the Hat was a game changer.

Ten years later, as the war in Vietnam continued to escalate and the Beatles were releasing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Arthur Penn took a story about a couple of Depression-era gangsters and transformed it into one of the most revolutionary films in movie history—arguably the beginning of modern American film.

Originally, Bonnie and Clyde was conceived as a fresh spin on the French New Wave, kind of an American version of Breathless or Jules and Jim.  The final production may have wound up a bit more conventional, but it still tapped into that same existentialist, freewheeling spirit—especially in the beginning.  Anyone who has seen it remembers the opening scene with Faye Dunaway’s Bonnie standing alone, naked, in her bedroom.  She’s restless, bored, and imprisoned in a meaningless life.  So when she looks out her bedroom window and sees Clyde, she sees him as a possible means of escape.

In fact, the opening scenes focus almost entirely on her need to escape such stifling boredom.  She’s attracted to Clyde, initially, because he seems different—maybe even a little dangerous.  He doesn’t look or dress like anyone else, and he’s been to prison—for armed robbery.  So when he spontaneously decides to rob a store to impress Bonnie and then cavalierly steals a car, Bonnie hops aboard, whimsically committing herself to a life of crime.  Later, their crimes would take on a greater social dimension, but these early scenes are all driven by flirtation and existential angst.

A similarly overwhelming sense of boredom permeates the opening lines of The Cat in the Hat:  “So all we could do was to / Sit!  Sit!  Sit!  Sit! / And we did not like it / Not one little bit.”  The source of the narrator and Sally’s confinement—bad weather—is more temporary than Bonnie’s, but the result is the same.  The brother and sister find themselves chained to the house, prisoners serving a life sentence of domestic conventionality.

When the nattily dressed Cat unexpectedly steps through the front door, he brings with him the same sense of exotic danger as Clyde.  The Cat intuitively knows that he’s pushing the kids out of their comfort zone because he goes out of his way to insure them that if they play his games their “mother will not mind.”

Certainly, both Clyde and the Cat serve as chaos bringers to the otherwise dull universes of both Bonnie and the two kids.  Clyde is able to sum up Bonnie’s entire life in just a few sentences, but when she agrees to go with him, everything changes.  He treats her as an equal partner, challenging traditional gender roles as she learns to shoot and rob banks.  She even snatches Clyde’s cigar to pose for a picture, although she dislikes the taste.  Going with Clyde turns her world upside down.

In much the same way, the Cat tears down all sense of propriety in the kids’ house.  He makes messes without cleaning them up, and he refuses to respect the strict boundaries between kids’ property and adults’ by playing with “mother’s new gown” and by bumping the headboard of her bed.  There are strict barriers between “parents’ stuff” and “kids’ stuff” that every kid would’ve known in 1957 suburbia, and those are the barriers that the family’s cranky pet fish insists on maintaining.

That same conflict between adults and kids actually anticipates the generation gap that fuels much of Bonnie and Clyde.  Besides the stars, almost every other character in the film is “old.”  Some, such as Bonnie’s mother and the farmers who lost their home, are played by amateurs rather than professional actors in order to emphasize the difference in vitality between the old establishment and the youthful, fun-loving gang.  But even the other featured actors, such as Dub Taylor, who plays the father of gang member, C.W. Moss, and Denver Pyle, the ruthless Texas Ranger, are clearly both older and more corrupt.  Taylor, who dismisses Bonnie and Clyde as “a couple of kids,” slaps his son for having gotten a tattoo and encourages him to betray his friends.  And Pyle behaves unscrupulously during the final act of the movie, particularly after conspiring with Taylor on how to betray Bonnie and Clyde.  Clearly the “adults” in the movie are neither to be admired nor trusted.

This theme traces back to the central dynamic in The Cat in the Hat, where Geisel makes it clear that it is the absence of the mother that is making everything possible, and it’s her imminent return—seen as a high-heeled shoe walking on a sidewalk and entering the front door—that instills fear.

The similarities go on and on.  Structurally, both stories rely on adding new characters to increase the chaos.  In Bonnie and Clyde, that involves the addition of C.W. and Clyde’s brother and his wife.  Only after their arrival do we see the gang smoothly and efficiently complete a bank robbery.  In The Cat in the Hat, it’s the arrival of Thing 1 and Thing 2 that ultimately turns the entire house into chaos.

Likewise, in Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s sister-in-law, Blanche, takes on the nagging role of the scold—the same role occupied by the fish in the Seuss story—and in both works the protagonists ultimately come to regret their choices.  Bonnie fantasizes about how she and Clyde might do things if they could start over again, “clean,” and the Cat in the Hat narrator finally concludes after having watched Thing 1 and Thing 2’s shenanigans that he does “NOT like the way that they play!”

Ultimately, things return to normal in The Cat in the Hat, but the final lines, asking if the audience would tell their mothers, force readers to decide how they feel about having participated vicariously in all of the Cat’s “fun.”  Bonnie and Clyde ends more tragically, with the adult figures “punishing” the kids, but Penn ends the film by positioning the viewers on the inside of the bullet-riddled car widow—essentially Bonnie’s point of view—while keeping the Texas Ranger on the outside of the glass, distant as the unseen “mother” in The Cat in the Hat.

Anyway, that’s the kind of stuff I like to think about when I get bored and can’t fall asleep.

But it does offer a reminder about how tricky it can be to discuss cultural influence.  While influence is sometimes obvious, often it’s much more intangible. Obviously, no one involved in Bonnie and Clyde said, “Hey, let’s do a version of that Dr. Seuss book—with guns!”  But if anyone involved with the film ever asked if the audience would be ready for the kind of film they were making, they need only have taken a second look at The Cat in the Hat.  The audience had been given ten years to prepare.

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Greg Carpenter is a writer, teacher, and recovering coffee addict. He is the author of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer. In addition to producing a weekly column for Sequart for almost two years, he has also written for and PopMatters. He has published essays on a variety of writers and artists including Moore, Gaiman, Morrison, Jerry Robinson, August Wilson, and Tennessee Williams, and he has taught a wide variety of classes, including Comics, Shakespeare, Modern American Literature, and Screenwriting/Playwriting. He currently teaches at a university in Nashville.

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Also by Greg Carpenter:

The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer


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