“The Boy and his Tiger” was a Bill Watterson biopic screenplay by writer Dan Dollar that made the 2013 Black List (a ‘best unproduced screenplays’ listing) amid widespread acclaim. As a big fan of Watterson’s “Calvin and Hobbes” comic strip, this script had a particular appeal to me. While I found myself quickly reading through material, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the work as much as Black List voters. Sprinkled throughout the story were some insights into Watterson’s life, but much of it felt like blatant invention.
One aside before digging deeper into the story: There’s very little chance that this script will ever get made as-is due to its reliance on short animated sequences involving Calvin and Hobbes. Unfortunately, those sequences are central to the story since they tend to mark major revelatory moments for Watterson. If those interactions between Watterson and his characters were removed, their absence would strip out one of the main reasons that kept the script afloat.
The general plot to the script involved Bill Watterson’s creation of “Calvin and Hobbes” and the strip’s rise in popularity over the decade that followed. The main theme involved Watterson’s discomfort with fame and his peers. The relationship between Watterson and his wife was also at the core of the story.
I’ll say up front that my biggest issue with the script was the lack of likable characters through much of the material. For example, “Garfield” creator Jim Davis was portrayed as the story’s big villain. Everyone who served in any capacity as Watterson’s boss was depicted as simply trying to exploit him. Such characterizations might have been valid in some ways, but led to an overly simplistic view of Watterson’s situation.
Least likeable of all was Watterson himself. He came off as an unbearable jerk with limited social skills who treated his supportive wife like garbage. In fact, the only person who came off as sympathetic was Watterson’s wife, whose sanity one had to question at times for staying with Watterson. If Watterson weren’t already upset over the very idea of this kind of project, the particulars of his portrayal would surely infuriate him. I’m guessing that his wife wouldn’t have been impressed either.
Much was made throughout the story of the conflict between Watterson and the potential product licensing of his characters. His continued conflict with product makers (and his strip syndicate) between 1986 and 1991 formed the main dilemma in the story, with Watterson digging in his heels despite threats to his work.
In the final few pages, Watterson underwent a magical ‘transformation.’ The catalyst for this change appeared to be his blunt venting about ‘selling out’ in a speech that was delivered to many of the prominent members of the comic strip community circa 1991. Even stranger, during that speech Watterson nearly got into a fist fight with Jim Davis! That speech – and situation – seemed to have been constructed from an actual 1989 speech by Watterson, although the real speech was much more articulate. The direct confrontation with Davis appeared to have been fabricated.
After the speech, a long-running threat by Watterson’s boss to remove him from the “Calvin and Hobbes” strip was suddenly taken off of the table and revealed to be a total bluff (?!). Watterson also inexplicably admitted to his wife that he had been behaving like a child (i.e. Calvin) his entire life and he suddenly became a loving husband (?!). Why those resolutions were so quickly jammed in at the end of what was a relatively short 100 or so page script was baffling. The idea of a character transformation wasn’t a bad one, but it was handled too quickly in spite of having room to spare.
Most bizarre of all at the end was a small moment in which it was revealed that Watterson apparently did keep a few Hobbes toy samples and he gave one out as a gift. In the film’s epilogue it was mentioned that Watterson agreed to four licensed items, including two calendars but the timing of those items’ release wasn’t made clear.
While those items were small exceptions to Watterson’s general stance, unnecessarily mentioning them muddled the entire ‘no compromise’ fight that was the script’s central theme. Was the point that Watterson somehow ‘grew’ to be less inflexible on this issue? The answer wasn’t clear, as that thematic point wasn’t firmly resolved.
Later research showed that Watterson was apparently open to limited character licensing early in the strip’s run, but grew inflexible as his syndicate became more insistent on it. The calendars, in particular, came out prior to the story’s main time period. Simply sticking with factual history in the script might have been clearer regarding Watterson’s real-life disillusionment with licensing.
Another aside, this time on the licensing topic: While I’ve understood Watterson’s reluctance to license his characters, it always seemed a bit odd that he was so black and white on the issue. As much as Watterson (the character) made valid points about bed sheets and ties cheapening the characters, that argument overlooked scenarios such as the now-classic “Peanuts” holiday specials that Charles Schulz had a hand in making. One could argue that modern children were much more likely to see those alternate media works than the original comic strips. In that regard, was longevity in a different medium where the creator was given influence really a bad thing?
Perhaps the biggest challenge in presenting a story about Watterson’s life was that, from an outside perspective, his story hasn’t been dynamic enough to support a feature film. If one were to look at Watterson’s general history, he largely avoided conflict and kept to himself. As a result, it was hard to know what was factual about how Watterson was portrayed in the script and what was dramatic license.
Given how prickly and private Watterson has been throughout his working life, fictionalizing his back story in making a commercial film would seem to be the same sort of exploitation that he stood against during his working career. Since the story needed conflict to be entertaining, the script was left with what felt liked tensions invented to serve Dollar’s interests in writing a saleable product. Maybe if Watterson were to write his own biography, we’d get more insights into his thinking at various times in his life. How adaptable that inner monologue might be to film would be debatable. Such an effort could simply lead to a different writer inventing the same sorts of dramatic exaggerations that appeared to creep into this script