December 19, 2019

Runaway (National Film Board of Canada Collection)

Story and characters by Cordell Barker
Adapted by Sarah Howden
Firefly Books
978-0-2281-0079-9
pp.
Ages 8-12
October 2019

Cordell Barker's short NFB film Runaway was released in 2009 but its black humour and commentary on greed and self-importance will now reach a new audience of young readers with this adaptation to print medium. Though the 9-minute film has very little discernible dialogue, Sarah Howden's adaptation fills in the narrative about a cow walking on railway tracks when a train is left without its conductor.
From Runaway by Cordell Barker, adapted by Sarah Howden
Sarah Howden's narrative begins with a commentary about how uncomplicated cows are compared to humans who are "always up to something." (pg. 9) There are the wine-drinking, cigar-smoking and billiards-playing top-hatted rich men, and one lady with her black dog, in the first car behind the engine. In the next car with their livestock are the pointy-hatted folk who are crowded to the rafters and who pass the time with music and beer. In the caboose, three train crewmen sleep. As "They were all going about their business, no questions asked" (pg. 14), the little dog escapes into the locomotive. The Captain, not missing an opportunity to ingratiate himself with a rich patron, shoves back the fireman and is promptly bitten by the urchin-like canine. While the rich woman takes the Captain back into her chamber to tend to his wound, the train is left without a man at the helm. The train is now a runaway and all the more after the Fireman falls onto the levers when the cow is hit. (It's okay. The cow survives.)

As the Fireman searches for the Captain, the oblivious patrons continue with their preferred activities. The train loses its caboose on a wild ride down a mountain and destroys a bridge after passing over it but the worst is when there is insufficient fuel to get the train up the slope on the other side of the bridge. Will the passengers work together to find a solution?
From Runaway by Cordell Barker, adapted by Sarah Howden
How the story in the print edition of Runaway ends is up for interpretation though the cow does live to see a glorious sunset. The rich people do take advantage of the common people, promising them money for their clothes to be used for fuel, and then unhitch their car and take back the money. The Captain and lady and her dog eventually reappear and get caught up in the efforts to save the train. But how much can they do when a train is hurtling up and over hills out of control?

Cordell Barker's story takes the reader on an alarming ride of both a train without a conductor and a culture without goodwill. A little benevolence and the tale of this train and its occupants could have had a far different ending. But, with greed and self-importance overriding all common sense, this train is doomed. Regrettably, Runaway is a stark metaphor for our narcissistic world, even more so than in 2009, by reflecting a society that emphasizes taking care of the self before all else. Only the Fireman can see the need to put self aside but even he cannot prevent the disaster when all work against the whole and think only of the self.
From Runaway by Cordell Barker, adapted by Sarah Howden
As in any graphic novel, the art helps tell the story. The art in Runaway is strong in its depiction of the different classes of people, with the rich in their train car decorated in rose with food artwork and the commoners in their earthy-coloured attire living with their food animals. Even the conductor, expecting to be called Captain, aspires to more in his highly-decorated bicorn hat and jacket festooned with golden epaulets. But the art also tells us what the Fireman is thinking, how the cow conducts herself as she needs, and that the rich on the train take glee in taking advantage of the poor and even delight in their demise.

Because Cordell Barker uses dialogue sparingly in the short film, Sarah Howden needed to "fill-in-the-blanks" for young readers for whom the complexity of the circumstances might not be evident. They will understand the story, just as they might understand a fairy tale, but to give them insight into the greater picture of Runaway, Sarah Howden highlights the humans' actions from a distant perspective, trying to understand what they do and why, all which will help explain the outcome of the story. Her words give landscape to the story without explaining everything, allowing young readers to apply their own visual literacy skills and interpretation to the allegory of what can go wrong when self and greed override all.

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The original short film is available on the NFB's YouTube channel at https://youtu.be/qUGHv2VAESE and is an accomplishment of movement, tension and social statement. Just be prepared: it's only a happy ending for the cow in this version.

Uploaded by NFB to YouTube on May 26, 2017.

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