Blogger Elisabeth Gattullo Marrocolla

Book to Film: Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”

When I was young I loved a tiny family who lived in the walls of someone’s house – The Littles. I read every Little book my local library had, and I thought they were the bees knees. In fact, I would have gone through life blissfully unaware of The Borrowers existence were it not for the watchful eye of my babysitter Kirstin, a gateway to many great books (among other delights, she gave me Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for Christmas).

Kristin loved The Borrowers when she was my age and thought I should give them a try. I soon grew to love Arrietty, Pod, and Homily Clock as much if not more than the Little family. I devoured their adventures Afield, Afloat, and Aloft. I wanted to live underneath the floorboards of a kitchen and be so small a cube of sugar could sweeten my tea for a year. I wanted to ride down a river in a teapot.

Imagine my delight these many years later when I learned that Studio Ghibli, the award winning animation studio behind Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle were adapting The Borrower‘s for the screen!

Now called The Secret World of Arrietty, the movie was released in Japan in 2010 and here in the US just last month. I’ve seen the original Japanese with subtitles and the English dub, and I’m happy to report that Disney has done the same excellent work on the dubbing as they have on previous US releases of Ghibli films. There’s not a “comical” sync issue in sight.

Sho/Shawn meets Arrietty. Photo courtesy of

The mostly faithful adaptation follows the plot of the first book (originally published in 1955), although it does update the setting to modern-day Japan. Most of the changes to the plot were insubstantial. One change I really enjoyed was the difference in the character of the boy who discovers the Clock family. Called Shawn in the US version and Sho in the Japanese, he bears little resemblance to The Boy of Norton’s books. This is because he is not a spoiled brat. In the book, a sullen, angry boy is sent home from India to Great Britain due to an illness, and he is resentful and angry, berating Arrietty to the point of tears at one early meeting. Upon rereading the book after seeing the movie, I found The Boy almost intolerable, especially when compared to his gentle screen counterparts. Shawn/Sho seem truly interested in Arrietty and the world she inhabits, rather than cruel and bored. Additionally, the film version of The Boy is not filled with bitterness about his illness. In my opinion this is a vast improvement in character.

As always with Studio Ghibli, the animation in this movie is superb. When Arrietty basks in the sunlight coming in her drain window, you truly feel her joy at its warmth. When she runs through the flowers, you want to join her in celebrating nature. The vocal work is also excellent, especially Amy Poehler as the worried Homily. The entire movie is a delight, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Amusingly, Fox News personality Lou Dobbs warned parents to keep their children away from The Secret World of Arrietty due to its “liberal” message of sharing resources and being kind.



  1. Kathleen Fogarty

    I just read the first two books in the series, and was totally surprised, delighted and inspired. The movie came and went from my region ( Tidewater area, Virginia) and I hope to borrow the movie when our library acquires it. The simplicity of the story and the message of using what you have, as Arriety and her family do when they first live under the floorboards, is a wise teaching in a day when many people throw objects and clothing away when the newer, shinier ones appear in the marketplace. Thank you, Elizabeth for this wonderful review. Fine things often come in small packages, and great wisdom can be contained in literature from another generation!

  2. Suzanne Neumann

    Readers of all ages who like graphic novels may enjoy “The Secret World of Arrietty” by Hayao Miyazaki. There are two volumes in the series, and they are extremely popular at the public library where I work.

  3. Lena

    Ghibli studio and Miyazaki’s work are one of my biggest inspirations ever. After watching this film here in the UK last year, I got the book surprised to find out that it’s in fact such an old classic. I’m waiting for the right mood to sit down and read it. Will be fun to compare with the film. Thank you for the review. Will be reading you!

  4. Francisco Faustino

    I disagree to a certain extent about the “… film version of The Boy is not filled with bitterness about his illness.”, because he has some bitterness in him! When Sho (Shawn) meets Arriety outside with the cat for the first time, and sees her, he is mean, telling her that she and her race are condemned to extintion, are already a handfull of them and she will be the last of is kind ending up all alone. She cries.
    In that situation is the only one that we see he is bitter with is illness and probably depressed cause he believes he will die in the operation.
    By the end of the movie, he reveals that Arriety gave her strength and will to live… he will not go to the operating table to die! 🙂

    I did not read the book, and I do not find hard to believe that in it he is really annoying and spoiled (it is normal in children books); yes, that in this movie he certainly is not! But that he holds bitter and hopelessness feelings, he does… but understandable ones.

  5. Pingback: Busy Day Film Festival | ALSC Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *