In 1961, a young boy named Milo passed through a tollbooth, met a watchdog named Tock, and opened up a world of clever wordplay and endless imagination to generations of young readers. Hailed as an American version of Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom Tollbooth has sold nearly 4 million copies to date and has been translated into 20 languages.
The documentary The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations playfully explores the world of this children’s adventure novel through interviews, animation and archival materials. Mercyhurst University will present a screening of the film, an offering of the On Screen/In Person Series sponsored by the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, on Sunday, Nov. 9, at 2 p.m. in the Taylor Little Theatre.
Director Hannah Jayanti will be present for a discussion following the screening. The Brooklyn-based filmmaker has worked on documentaries for the BBC and VIXPIX Films; The Phantom Tollbooth: Beyond Expectations is her directorial debut.
Narrated by David Hyde Pierce, the film traces the longtime friendship between author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer. Now both in their 80s, they began work on The Phantom Tollbooth while sharing a brownstone in Brooklyn during the Cold War.
“When (Juster) started writing it, he was never very good at keeping things to himself, so he’d have to read me the last four lines he wrote,” Feiffer says in the film. “Somewhere along that line, I started sketching, and I would design characters and play around with them.”
Extensive interviews with Juster and Feiffer reveal their sharp wit and warm sense of humor, while also discussing the lasting impact and enduring relevance of The Phantom Tollbooth. Children’s author and illustrator Eric Carle, known for such books as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, also reflects on the creative process in the film.
Early reviews criticized The Phantom Tollbooth for its tongue-in-cheek punning and lofty vocabulary, which they called too difficult for children. But the book has remained popular with both children and adults. In a land where people jump to the Island of Conclusions, get drowsy in the Doldrums and attend banquets where people literally eat their words, it’s the deeper themes of the book that seem to resonate with people. It is about much more than a bored boy who travels through a tollbooth, and this documentary illuminates these deeper themes: the value of learning, the state of children’s literature, the creative journey and the importance of the written word.
For more information on The Phantom Tollbooth and the film, visit phantomtollboothdoc.vhx.tv. Tickets for the screening are $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, and $1 for Mercyhurst students with ID. Tickets can be purchased by calling 814-824-3000 or by visiting miac.mercyhurst.edu.