In the Event of a “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” Re-Boot: A Plea

Okay, it sounds like the same old thing everyone says: “But the book is better than the movie!” My feelings about Secret of NIMH are very mixed ones. I know there is a large number of Secret fans, and I’m not here to criticize the Bluth endeavour or try to challenge anyone’s fandoms. However, I will say that it is almost impossible to really think of the text and the movie as the same thing. Yes, there are similar names (except not, in terms of the Frisby-Brisby change), such as Nicodemus, Jeremy, Justin, and Jenner. Yes, Mrs. Frisby is trying to save her imperiled child. Yes, there are references to the ethics of animal testing involved. Beyond that, however, comparing the two is the epitome of the phrase “comparing apples and oranges.” Maybe I’m a little biased because I spent six years and three research trips researching Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien’s real name) and his books. Maybe.


I guess you could call this my personal plea to MGM Studios, who, according to news from 2015, bought the rights to the film, to go back to the (book) basics and take advantage of the talent and passion Mr. Robert C. O’Brien (Robert Conly) poured into his novel.

The most powerful difference between the two is the insertion of magic into the mix. Nicodemus, in Secret of NIMH, is a wise, old, wizard type who helps Mrs. Brisby via a magic amulet. In the book, Nicodemus appears no differently than the other biologically “boosted” rats who shared his travails at NIMH and who is a leader sort of by default, by merit of his decision making and experience. He doesn’t help Mrs. Frisby via magic, but the application of technology and his words of wisdom. Nicodemus is a lean rat who has seen a lot of struggle during the years between NIMH and the Fitzgibbon farm – losing his sight in one eye (which sports a patch) and almost all of his sight in the other.

The second significant differences is the degree the issue of animal testing is presented and the extremes to which the scientists are “judged.” I personally believe this is the most unfortunate difference as the movie can more easily be dismissed as hyperbole by those who have an interest in preventing discussion of the ethics of animal testing. Secret is called my many a source of nightmares in general, with its ominous eyes and frightening animation, but it also heads deep into the “mad scientist” territory which skews the reality and causes O’Brien’s more tempered approach to be utterly forgotten in the fray. While the book itself has cited by some scientists as anti-science (which is patently false), the movie just invites easy dismissal. Which isn’t to say that I disapprove of the portrayal of the suffering that occurs during animal testing, however, I am upset by the lack of respect then heaped on O’Brien’s works.

Still from “Secret of NIMH”
Image is not my own. May be subject to copyright.

In the book, this is not how the cages are described. The cages in the books are wire cages and are not described as terribly uncomfortable – the primary problem is lack of space. That may be the primary similarity.

I would have to say the next “damaging” difference to O’Brien’s work is the portrayal of Jenner as a power-hungry schemer and murderer. Nicodemus does NOT die in the book, at all, and his conflict with his long-time friend Jenner is over the decision that Nicodemus and the majority of the rats make to abandon a great deal (not all, mind you, and this is significant as it shows O’Brien is not a luddite) of their technology and move the colony from the Fitzgibbon farm to Thorn Valley – a place where they believe they can escape the possibility of discovery and sustain themselves in an agricultural setting. Nicodemus feels this is necessary to solve the “malaise” that has overcome the rat civilization and will keep them from being simply a sort of “flea” on human civilization.* Jenner and his group simply choose to leave to see their own fate. This too, is unfortunate, as O’Brien’s purpose was to give children stories in which everything is not “black and white.” He said so himself. In his Newbery-Acceptance speech O’Brien stated that it is through good books that “a child’s mind also has the opportunity to learn that “it is not easy to separate good from bad,” and “that not all doors are simply open or shut.”

Scholars have also made similar comments about these aspects of the book and/or the profound differences between the book and movie – with the word “ambiguity” being a central concept. Scholar Paula T. Connolly noted the book for Conly’s “gradations of moral understanding and culpability” while dealing with “such problematic issues such as the roles of science and technology, identity, idealism, family life, forms of community and means of survival.” Paula R. Connolly supported this view when she said that “[d]espite O’Brien’s obvious criticisms of the overambitious goals of science and the dangers of experimentation, he is careful not to provide facile characterizations of scientists.” It is his subtlety, which, in fact, makes the message more effective: Alethea K. Helbig describes Dr. Schultz as having a “cold, dispassionate manner [which] increases the horror of what may happen.” Indeed, the book addresses more of the “Frankenstein” effect that Nicodemus and the rats go through – it’s not just the testing that occurs, but the fact that the rats must come to terms that they no longer belong in their own world and that they find themselves alone as an entirely new species.

The movie also does not address one of the major issues addressed in the book. In Mrs. Frisby, Nicodemus speaks at great length about the problems of technological materialism in society – cleverly playing “The Rat Race” idea against human behavior and showing the vicious cycle that occurs when one is “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s such a powerful lesson which invokes the thoughts of De Tocqueville and Huxley and other thinkers who wondered what would happen when materialism and technology became central to human existence, and when it eliminated human labor completely – or simply made life, in Huxley’s words, “too easy.”

Those are the major things about the book/movie translation that trouble me. Too often, when I talk to people about my research, they say how much they love the movie, but, when I ask them if they’ve read the book, they usually say no or tell me that they did, but they don’t remember it. Now, many would say that one should be grateful because the movie probably made more people aware of the book than would have been aware had Bluth’s groundbreaking film not been made. Again, I don’t really hate the movie, but it’s just so terribly different that I find myself hoping that if anyone DOES decide to give Robert C. O’Brien’s masterpiece another go, that they will give young minds more credit and portray the deeper issues of the book and let them come to their own conclusions. The truth is, Bluth’s Nicodemus isn’t anywhere near as awesome as O’Brien’s – and I’ll stand by that. Don’t @ me.

Oh, and Mr. Ages is waaaay cooler and not so grumpy in the book.

These are the sources I refer to directly in this post, however, all of my references can be found in my thesis:

Connolly, Paula T. “Frisby-Turned-Brisby: The Resolution of Ambiguity in The Secret of NIMH.” In The Antic Art. Fort Atkinson, WI: Highsmith Press, 1993.

Helbig, Alethea K. “Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH: Through the Eyes of Small Animals.” Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature, Volume One, 1985, 204–12.

“Robert C. O’Brien.” In Authors & Artists for Young Adults. Gale, 2006.

Of course, there’s even MORE good stuff in my Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH thesis chapter, but I suppose I’m biased for saying so.

*Those who have read the Dr. Dolittle books may be reminded of The Volcano Rat, here. O’Brien drew on myriad inspirations for his books, but can never be accused of outright plagiarism. As a newsman and enlightened citizen (for the lack of a better term), one of his strengths was to take in a huge number of inspirations and weave them into his own morality plays.

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