The 95-year copyright on AA Milne’s honey-loving, money-spinning bear Winnie-the-Pooh expired at the start of 2022, which means that anyone is welcome to do what they will with the characters from the original 1926 book without fear of legal action. Welcome to the public domain, without which we might never have had such oddities as O (a high-school Othello), The Nightcomers (a prequel to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw starring Marlon Brando and – no, really – Thora Hird), Twist (Dickens goes parkour, with Rita Ora as the Artful Dodger) or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (no explanation necessary).
It’s always wise to check the small print. Sherlock Holmes is fully out of copyright but the 2020 Netflix spin-off Enola Holmes, which gives the sleuth a younger sister, nearly fell foul of the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle by incorporating a softer version of the detective allegedly drawn from later stories that were at that time still covered by copyright law. (Both parties settled before the case reached the courts.)
Milne enthusiasts may find their spin-offs similarly pooh-poohed if they aren’t careful. Tigger didn’t come bouncing on to the scene until 1928 in The House at Pooh Corner, so he won’t be following his playmates into the public domain until next year. And the new-found freedom to transplant Milne’s characters into any scenario applies only to the versions illustrated by EH Shepard. The designs originated by Disney, which have earned that company more than $80bn since it produced Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree in 1966, are off limits. Reimagine the characters as savage, rampaging maniacs by all means – as the new low-budget British horror film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey has done – but keep your paws off Pooh’s trademark tomato-red T-shirt and naked lower half.
Milne and his bear have already inspired their share of offshoots, including Alexander Lenard’s Latin translation, Winnie Ille Pu, which became a New York Times bestseller in the early 1960s. The closest antecedent to Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey must be the sketch from Joseph Morpurgo’s 2015 show Soothing Sounds for Baby, nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award, which featured the author as a creepy bedtime storyteller: “AA Milne – name of a battery, mind of a killer!”
Audiences lured by the iconoclastic title of this new live-action movie will be disappointed. A scratchily animated prologue (“Deep in the Hundred Acre Wood…”) sets the scene promisingly, with young Christopher Robin befriending Pooh, Piglet, Kanga, Owl and Eeyore before abandoning them after he grows up and leaves home. The creatures turn feral in his absence. Assorted visitors to the woods – first the adult Christopher, followed by a group of vacationing female friends – are then menaced and murdered in grisly ways by Pooh and Piglet, who have somehow learned to drive, wield mallets and operate farmyard machinery.
All this is used merely to disguise a retrograde, misogynistic slasher movie. The writer-director-editor Rhys Frake-Waterfield has made the sort of film in which it isn’t enough that the killer smashes a woman’s face to a pulp then feeds her body into a wood chipper – he must first rip her blouse open to expose her breasts. The only difference is that the attacker is wearing a Pooh mask.
Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey represents the disingenuous flipside of fan fiction. Rather than being informed by a passion for the original characters, or the desire to tap into their unexplored subtext, it coasts opportunistically on the novelty value of placing them in a gruesome context. What a blast the film could have been if it had engaged with the Milne history. Bullied at school because of the stories, Christopher Milne later said his father had “got to where he was by climbing upon my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son”. The bear itself was modelled on one in the Shepard household that went by the name of Growler – how’s that for potential horror film material? But if Frake-Waterfield knows any of this, he hasn’t let his scholarship contaminate the film.
There is a precedent for the idea of beloved characters returning to plague a human playmate. That scenario formed part of Dreamchild (1985), written by Dennis Potter and starring Coral Browne as the elderly Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. As she reflects on her relationship with Lewis Carroll (Ian Holm), she is visited again by his creations, now looking flea-bitten, mouldy and monstrous. The director, Gavin Millar, commissioned Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to design the puppets, insisting that they should be “as fierce as… an old lady’s nightmares would have made them”.
Dreamchild uses the tangled, problematic history of Carroll and Alice in Wonderland as a launch-pad for its own vision, whereas a common mistake in adopting an instantly recognisable property for new or irreverent ends is the assumption that the name alone will be enough. The flaws in that approach were disproved long ago by tiresome softcore spoofs such as Flesh Gordon (1974) and Shame of the Jungle, a 1975 animated Tarzan take-off released in the UK as Jungle Burger, or by Mel Brooks’s lacklustre parodies Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995).
With more books and characters coming out of copyright on 1 January each year, we could be in for a rich and varied period of reinvention and adaptation – as suggested by the myriad responses to The Great Gatsby entering the public domain in 2021. Self-published works range from The Great Gatsby Undead to The Gay Gatsby. The original Mickey Mouse concept is up for grabs next year. Less happily, Frake-Waterfield has promised to give the Blood and Honey treatment to other characters emerging from copyright, such as Bambi and Peter Pan. He’d better be quick. Once word gets around that his film is just a catchy title, audiences won’t pay out twice for the same knock-off merchandise.
“Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey” is in cinemas from 10 March.