What was the Lorax?
And why was it there?
-- Dr. Seuss
March 2 would have been the 108th birthday of beloved author Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel. This year, a celebration of a different kind is taking place, with the release of the computer-animated, 3-D movie of “The Lorax,” opening in theaters nationwide. Featuring the voices of Zac Efron, Taylor Swift, and Danny DeVito as the title character, the new adaptation comes from the director of “Despicable Me” and the screenwriters behind 2008’s “Horton Hears a Who!,” the most recent Seuss production.
Published in 1971, The Lorax is the story of the Once-ler, a green-armed industrialist who begins manufacturing “Thneeds,” an ambiguous “Fine-Something-That-All-People Need” knitted out of the silky, colorful foliage of local Truffala Trees. As the Once-ler begins chopping down trees for his use and growing his factory, the Lorax protests, repeatedly pointing out the impact increased production has on the land: limited food sources, poor air quality, polluted water, local wildlife — the Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee-Swans, and Humming-Fish — flee its natural habitat. Once the abundant land is left desolate, the Lorax himself departs, leaving behind the word “UNLESS” as a caution to future generations. His eyes opened (literally — he only has eyes in his present-day form), the Once-ler, who narrates, makes the implication of this single word the memorable cornerstone of his tale:
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
He gives his listener, a curious young boy, the last remaining Truffula seed, charging him with the task of growing it and restoring the land in hopes that “the Lorax/and all of his friends/may come back.”
Despite some controversy (particularly among members of the logging industry), the book’s pro-conservation message has become increasingly relevant over the years. A 1972 animated musical version, narrated by Eddie Albert, helped broadcast its themes to a wider audience. On April 22, 2008 — Earth Day — Conservation International, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and Random House launched the Lorax Project, a mission intended to not only protect forests and endangered species, but also to teach children about environmental issues. (An earth-friendly hardcover edition of The Lorax, printed on recycled paper, was published in conjunction with the project.)
Of course, The Lorax is not just an ecological fable; it’s also a thoroughly enjoyable children’s book, full of Dr. Seuss’s signature whimsy and eye-catching art. Geisel was committed to producing imaginatively rich, enjoyable literature for children that would allow them to develop basic language skills as well as a love of reading. For this reason, the National Education Association chose his birthday — March 2 — to celebrate Read Across America Day, an annual effort to bring the excitement of reading to children and teenagers across the United States. This year, the NEA has partnered with “The Lorax” movie to help promote its mission of reading. And while it may seem slightly ironic that a movie adaptation is being used to encourage reading, it puts into practice the hope and the potential of the Once-ler’s message.