‘The Lorax’ and the virtues of simplicity

Feb. 23, 2018, 3:56 a.m.

When it comes to storytelling, I often find myself an advocate for simplicity… and yes, that doesn’t sound too exciting.

I admit, simplicity is not glamorous, especially nowadays. In a world full of cinematic universes and intricate, clockwork RPGs, complexity has never before looked so appealing and I feel simplistic storytelling has been undeservedly left in the dust. There is value to simplicity though, and complexity does not always equal depth. “The Lorax” is a prominent example of this, especially when one compares the original book to its animated film counterpart. Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” is an environmental fable revolving around two characters: The Once-ler, a faceless entrepreneur who chops down Truffula trees for his product, and the Lorax, a fuzzy orange creature who tries to stop him. The movie has all that too; the movie also has Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, musical numbers, villainous corporations, hip grannies, chase-scenes, intricate worlds, one-liners and a pretty boy Once-ler equipped with a cool guitar and his fair share of stolen hearts. The movie has more characters, more plot-points… to be blunt, the movie has more.

Yet besides the occasional meme or dedicated Tumblr post, the movie has not left a huge impact on the world — I’m sure even the most die-hard Once-ler fan would admit that.

The original book, on the other hand, has lasted for decades, and will likely last for many more. This tale has won awards, acclaim, quite a few adaptations (the Illuminations film included) and has spawned numerous images that have remained in the common consciousness. Most, I’m sure, will recall the Lorax being lifted into the sky, the stone monument, the final Truffula seed, and of course the immortal words: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Throughout my life I have not met too many people; it’s hard to be social beyond the comfort of your bed after all. Yet I can say that most of those I have gotten to know remember Seuss’ book. Some have laughed, some have cried, and some have even said that it prompted a change in the way they treat the environment around them. But, much less goes on in this book when compared to the movie. Why has it left such a huge impact?

The book is simple, but its legacy was not founded in spite of its simplicity. I dare argue, in fact, that its legacy was founded in part because of its simplicity. Seuss uses simplicity as a tool to accentuate what matters in the story, centering the narrative around a debate and exploring both sides to great detail. There aren’t any musical numbers or action scenes to worry about, the only things this tale needs are two opposing, interesting ideologies.

This push-and-pull is what allows Seuss’ book to shine so brightly compared to its movie as an environmental message. Beyond the Once-ler the movie adds another antagonist; Aloysius O’Hare, a filthy rich and powerful businessman who runs Thneedville, dedicated to making sure that the Truffula trees never return. Can’t you hear the ominous thunder clapping in the distance? On top of simply being a rehash of other environmental villains, O’Hare fails as an antagonist because he isn’t a human. Or at least, he doesn’t feel like one. Any other reader would see O’Hare as the business man, the scary politician, the bad guy. And the movie succeeds in getting the audience to rally against the bad guy; it fails in getting the audience to learn from the person. Seuss’ Once-ler, on the other hand, fills one role and fills that role to great effect – the Once-ler is a warning.

The Once-ler is not a bad person per se, or at the very least it’s hard to call him a villain. Seuss stresses the humanity in the Once-ler’s character, the faceless businessman bringing up arguments that, though eventually lead to disaster, do come from a rational place. There’s not a maniacal laugh or a malicious power act to be seen — simply a person, not too far from you or I, who has made some awful decisions that has impacted the environment in a huge way, and now lives a life of regret. The reader is forced to relate at least a little bit to the Once-ler, after all any face can fit onto his; this makes the image more vivid of what the reader could become.

The average audience member will not easily see themselves as O’Hare… if they did, I would be quite concerned. O’Hare acts as a straw-man that the audience can boo and jeer at, rest assured that they are not the bad guy as they leave their candy wrappers in the parking lot and hop into their Lorax-approved SUVs.

The movie makes it easy for the audience; the book is simpler, but Seuss does not make it easy for the reader. By making the reader imagine himself creating such a bleak world, the book creates urgency. It is a call for action.

The movie might add more, but the book lingers with the audience — it raises a question that is not quite so easy to answer. We see what can happen, then we are asked, “What are you going to do?”.


Contact Mark York at markdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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