Classics : Mrs Frisby and The Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien ( 1971)

Can genetically modified animals ever rejoin the natural world?

by Gordon Campbell

For many people, Robert C. O’Brien’s book of Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH will now be totally entangled with the film based upon it, which was called The Secret of NIMH. That’s a real shame, since the differences are quite substantial. More than anything, the changes illustrate just how Hollywood hedges its bets when it is making a multi-million dollar movie, as opposed to when someone is writing a book that will ring true for children.

What O’Brien did so skillfully in the book was to weave together two entirely different types of stories. The ‘external’ story is about the dilemma that faces the field-mouse Mrs Frisby when her son Timothy comes down with pneumonia and needs to rest at home – just when Farmer Fitzgibbon decides to plough the paddock where they live, an activity that will destroy her home and kill her child. The way that Mrs Frisby copes with this crisis brings her into the orbit of an entirely different ‘internal’ story, a science fiction allegory in which a group of highly evolved experimental rats try to escape from a laboratory – the ominously titled National Institute of Mental Health(NIMH) – and set up their own rural commune far away in the countryside. (This book came out in 1971, remember.) Eventually, Mrs Frisby discovers what her connection to the rats really is, and thanks to their mutual dependence she also manages – spoiler alert! – to save her child.

Not only is the story totally gripping, but the writing is of such consistently high quality that O’Brien thoroughly deserved the Newbery Medal awarded to Mrs Frisby in 1972. For the film-makers though, the double plot proved far too difficult to handle. Thus, the film not only focuses almost exclusively on Mrs Frisby’s storyline, but adds a fantasy element involving a magic amulet that is entirely lacking from the book.

In passing, the film-makers deserve some sympathy. At the last minute, the main character had to be re-named – because the Wham-O company that makes Frisbees refused to give the producers a waiver to use the name. Mrs Frisby suddenly had to become Mrs Brisby, well after most of the voice tracks had been recorded. This entailed taking the “B’ sound off words spoken by the actor John Carradine, and imposing them in the mix onto the “F” sounds that had already been recorded. To cap things off, the film then had the misfortune to be released at almost exactly the same time as ET, The Extra Terrestial.

Robert C. O’Brien was the pseudonym of Robert Leslie Conly, who was born in 1918 in New York City. O’Brien showed early talent as a pianist and studied at the Julliard School of Music before starting work as a journalist – initially at newspapers, and then at Newsweek. Eventually, he landed a job as a writer/editor at National Geographic magazine, where he worked from 1951 until his death.

O’Brien began writing fiction only during the last ten years of his life. In the early 1960s, he contracted the eye disease glaucoma, and subsequently worked at home on the farm he’d bought for his family in 1953. He wrote only three books for children : a fantasy novel called The Silver Crown, Mrs Frisby, and finally, Z for Zachariah. This last book was in the form of a diary written by a 16 year old girl who survives a nuclear war, only to be confronted by the only other survivor – who wants her to become the new Eve, but who is a perfect specimen of the mindset that caused the disaster in the first place. O’Brien died while the crucial last chapter was still being written, and Z for Zachariah was finished by his family and published in 1975, two years after his death.

Mrs Frisby though, is the book for which he will be remembered. It is hard to discuss it without spoilers, so I’ll stick to a couple of examples of the writing. The band of rats who escape from NIMH contain an interesting array of personalities, including the natural leader Nicodemus, the erratic rebel Jenner and the noble and heroic figure of Justin. (Politically speaking, they are a bit like the rodent equivalents of Stalin, Trotsky and Lenin.) Yet as always, the most vividly depicted character is the out and out villain – namely, Dragon, the murderous cat that lives with Farmer Fitzgibbon and who poses a chronic threat to all small things. Here is Dragon, in repose:

He was enormous,with a huge broad head and a large mouth full of curving fangs, needle sharp. He has seven claws on each foot and a thick furry tail, which lashed angrily from side to side. In colour he was orange and white, with glaring yellow eyes;and when he leaped to kill he gave a high, strangled scream that froze his victims where they stood.

Unobtrusively, O’Brien deals with the moral issues that are inevitable in any story about animals subjected to genetic testing. In this case, the mutations eventually provide the tools of escape. It is not hard to side with the rats. Take, for example, the way that Nicodemus describes to Mrs Frisby his early memories of the NIMH experiments – when he first realizes that he isn’t actually escaping, but is running a maze while being carefully scrutinized by his captors:

The third time I was still faster;and after each trial George (or sometimes Julie, sometimes Dr Schulz) would write down how long it took. You might ask: Why would I bother to run through it at all, if I knew it was only a trick? The answer is I couldn’t help it. When you’ve lived in a cage, you can’t bear not to run, even if what you’re running towards is an illusion.

At a crucial point in their escape plan, the rats realize that they have the latitude to take some risks. The scientists have turned them into something too valuable to harm, for now at least. Balanced against this is the scientists’ need to ensure they do not escape – and once the rats have escaped, the scientists then have a pressing need to kill them, before the public gets wind of the dangerous experiments being carried out at NIMH.

O’Brien’s book was written well before genetic modification became a major political issue. In his book, the moral questions about GM are dealt with implicitly, without preaching. There is nothing remotely like the moralizing that occurs say, in Watership Down, where Richard Adams lets us know just how annoyed he is that society has forgotten the sacrifices made by those who went off to war to fight the Black Rabbit. In Mrs Frisby, the modified rats are quite tragic figures. They do find a few allies in the Frisby family, an old white mouse called Mr Ages, and a young crow that Mrs Frisby rescues from entanglement (see picture) just in time to escape the jaws of Dragon – this trio of outsiders are a compassionate part of the natural order from which the rats are now excluded.

The story ends, as it began, with Mrs Frisby and her children at home. As he was to show later in Z for Zachariah as well, O’Brien was exceptionally good at describing the natural world – all those years at National Geographic were evidently well spent. Note the attention to detail in this unexceptional passage, which comes close to the end of the story:

So on a day in May as warm as summer, early in the morning, Mrs Frisby and her children laid a patchwork of sticks, grass and leaves over the top of the entrance to their cement block house, and then carefully scraped earth over it so that it would not show. With luck, they would not have to dig a new one in the autumn.

They walked to their summer house, taking half a day to do it, strolling slowly and enjoying the fine weather, stopping on the way to eat some spring leaves of fieldcress, some young greens and a crisp, spicy mushroom that had sprouted by the edge of the woods. For their main course a little farther on, there was a whole field of winter wheat, its kernels newly ripe and soft… As they approached the brook, towards the big tree in the hollow of whose roots they would make their summer home, the children ran ahead, shouting and laughing…Within a few minutes of arrival, her four had gone with a group of the others down to the water, to see the tadpoles swim.

Mrs Frisby set about the job of tidying up the house, which had acquired a carpet of dead leaves during the winter, and then bringing in a pile of soft green moss to serve as bedding for them all. The house was a roomy chamber with a pleasant, earthy smell. Its floor was hard-packed earth, and its wooden roof was an arched intertwining of roots, above which rose the tree itself, an oak.

Once safely settled into the summer house, Mrs Frisby decides that this is as good a time and place as any to set her children down and tell them the saga of the rats, and the role that their parents played within it. The conclusion of the book manages to pull off yet another tricky balancing act:it provides an ending that is decisive enough to be satisfying, yet open-ended enough to encourage young readers to wonder just what the eventual fate of the rats might have been. In Hollywood, they would call this a set-up for a sequel – but unfortunately, it was one that O’Brien never lived long enough to consider writing.