Books: The Best 'Shrek!' Isn't a Movie

If we’re generous, we must allow for multiple Shreks. In order of popularity, there is the Shrek of the movies (“Shrek the Third” opens Friday). Then there is the original “Shrek!” the children’s book with story and pictures by William Steig. Now there is an audiobook, “The One and Only Shrek,” with the title story and five other Steig tales narrated by actors Stanley Tucci and Meryl Streep. The Steig book, which first appeared in 1990, is still the main event (hey, if there were no Steig story, there would be no Shrek movies), but by now millions more people know only the cuddly movie version.

But why be generous? The movie versions of this story, whatever their considerable charms, fall far short of the book. As drawn by Steig, Shrek is one ugly ogre. That’s the point of the book, or at least the heart of its charm: you’re beguiled by a hideous, warty, lice-infested, fire-belching ogre. Dreamworks walked up to this idea … and blinked, so all the characters in the movies look sort of like the characters in the book, but not really. The movie Shrek isn’t ugly, he’s just goofy looking, because Hollywood can never bring itself to do ugly all the way (OK, the Elephant man was ugly, and Charles Laughton was one ugly Hunchback of Notre Dame, and … see, it’s a short list).

Steig’s Shrek is ugly even in a recording. Listening to Tucci read the story, I thought at first I was going to miss the pictures. OK, I did miss the pictures. Whenever I look at one of Steig’s books, I think of Chuck Jones’s line describing what it was he did as a cartoonist: “taking a line for a walk.” Steig walked the line better than anybody in children’s literature until his death in 2003.

It wasn’t long, though, before I was happy just listening to the words. Steig wrote as well as he drew. I read these books to my children, and we never tired of them. That’s only true of books with good words. Steig could make you laugh just by the way he arranged the words in a sentence. Shrek embarks on his quest for his princess, and soon “he came upon a peasant singing and scything.” “Singing and scything”—it only cracks you up when you say it out loud, but if you’re sitting there with a kid in your lap, not really expecting a laugh, it’ll get you every time.

The next line always finished me off: “’You there, varlet,’ said Shrek, ‘why so blithe?’”

I meant to merely sample the audiobook, dipping in here and there, and I wound up listening to the whole thing. I had fond memories of the stories on this CD—including “Brave Irene,” “Doctor DeSoto,” “The Amazing Bone,” Spinky Sulks” and “Caleb and Kate”—but it’s been more than 10 years since I read them every night, and I had forgotten just how good they are. How good is good? Let me put it this way: when the lines and the language of a book become part of a family’s catch phrases, that’s a good book.

“’Yummy,’ he mumbled,” from “Doctor DeSoto,” is still heard in our house on occasion. “Doctor DeSoto,” the story of a mouse dentist who heals a fox with a rotten bicuspid, is an even better story than “Shrek!” How a story can be both droll and suspenseful at once is hard to figure, but here’s the proof, perfectly captured in the moment in which the ailing fox wonders “if it would be shabby of him to eat the DeSoto’s when the job was done?”

After a bit, I wasn’t even pretending to listen critically. I was completely caught up in the narratives. I did, I admit, compare my narrative abilities to those of Tucci and Streep. How often am I going to get that chance again? And yes, they were better. What did you expect? But what great material they had to work with. If you only know Shrek through the movies, you need to check out the Steig version. As I said, there’s nothing especially wrong with the movies, it’s just that they’re not as good as the book. That said, I won’t belabor the point. I don’t want this to get ugly.