Adapting the work of any well-known and much-loved comic strip artist, especially one as iconically revered as Charles M. Schulz who, over almost 50 wonderful years, gave Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Linus and more, must be a daunting undertaking.
Especially when you’re seeking to adapt one of the strip’s endlessly watched animation specials which have found an enduring place in the zeitgeist, not simply they represent a cosy, funny, safe familiarity but because they are beautifully produced, capturing the whimsically sweet and hilariously wacky feel of Peanuts to a tee.
But if they were overwhelmed at the prospect of bringing 1977’s Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown to a 2D page which is after all the comic strip’s natural home, or at least the one in which it started, neither writerJason Cooper, illustrator Robert Pope or colourist Katherine “Kat” Elford none of them publicly admitted to the fact.
Rather amusingly what did faze Cooper, or which presented a challenge anyway was getting a particular piece of music associated with the special out of his head.
“Everyone in the office can attest that one of my big challenges was getting the movie’s theme song out of my head! It still creeps there sometimes (curse you, Ed Bogas and Larry Finlayson!)” *
* Legendary composer Vince Guaraldi, who composed for A Boy Named Charlie Brown and A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was supposed to score Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown too but died suddenly of a massive heart attack on 6 February, 1976)
The challenge of course was taking a special which relied less on dialogue than music and sound effects, and Snoopy’s wordlessness – Cooper regarded giving Charlie Brown’s idiosyncratically independent dog as “the most exciting thing” – and adding to the story while not taking away from everything people love about a story which see Charlie Brown and the gang, and Snoopy and Woodstock too, on a motorbike, no less, head off to summer camp.
It’s a American staple of the warmer months, which has no real corollary in the Australian context where day activities are more the norm, and it’s a given a brilliant outing in a story which sees Charlie Brown determined to prove he can be a leader (something that Peppermint Patty and Snoopy just assuming they naturally, and rather amusingly, have a gift for).
It’s not as bucolic a world as you might imagine.
As Sally and Pigpen, Charlie Brown and Lucy and Linus and a host of others including Marcie discover, kids can be mean, tents not all that comfortable and that fun character-building raft race down an OH&S-deficit heavy river not as much fun as you might think.
Things aren’t helped of course by the presence of some redneck, single-toothed bullies, and in Snoopy’s case a rather nasty cat called Brutus, but the end theme of Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown is that Snoopy makes for a brilliant rescuer, Charlie Brown may always be wishy washy (but that’s OK since a cute girl named Peggy Jean seems to really like him; though even that doesn’t work out as planned) and that maybe, just maybe, he might actually inspire someone.
Much like The Muppets who deftly combine the silly and serious, Peanuts beautifully brings together the over-the-top – watching Woodstock and his friends construct a motorbike from nothing so Snoopy can get to camp is loopy joy of the highest order – and the affecting as Charlie Brown goes deep, hoping that this time, this one special time, he can be the superlative young boy he always dreams of being.
It doesn’t work out as envisaged, but then neither is it a disaster either with Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown embodying one of the central ideas of the comic strip which is that while events may not always go your way – in Charlie Brown’s case, almost never – that doesn’t mean life is awful.
In fact, for all the mishaps of bullies deflating rafts and cheating at team-building games, and starting a food fight at the welcome party, everyone emerges from the mayhem of camp relatively intact.
Even Charlie Brown comes out looking a little less blockhead-y than usual, and while even that potentially romantic ending doesn’t quite play out as expected, it still happened, Charlie Brown still has a romantic admirer and friends who’ll stick by him (though Lucy remains as gleefully insulting as always and Sally, once again, threatens to take her brother’s room).
As adaptations go, Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown considerably adds rather than subtracts from the original TV special, offering up expanded dialogue, some fun Easter eggs and a generally fun and breezy, and often quite funny evocation of the Peanuts gang who, after all, are just kids after all, and who, though they rarely get everything right, have plenty of time to improve on that later.
For now though, with stellar writing, pitch-perfect art and deliciously alive colouring, Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown gives the gang a chance to band together, show each other what friendship is made of, maybe reform a bully or two and give Snoopy a chance to be a great explorer and Charlie Brown to fall in love, take a stab at leadership and still make it home by some hilariously unorothodox means.