If you want to know how Emma Thompson came about writing her new series of authorized Peter Rabbit sequels, based on the Beatrix Potter series, well, it’s simple: The rabbit asked her to do it. “Do you know: I got a little box, and inside it there was a letter … from Peter Rabbit!” she said, emphatically. The two-time Oscar winner, clad in a billowy white dress printed with black leaves, was standing in front of an audience of squirming children and their rapt parents in the kids section of Barnes & Noble Tribeca, about to read from her latest book, The Spectacular Tale of Peter Rabbit. “And do you know what he sent? I have to show you this … ”
She reached behind the podium and pulled out a tiny, rabbit-size blue felt jacket. “His jacket! He sent me a letter saying, would I write him another story? And I couldn’t resist, even though I felt a bit rude, as it’s Beatrix Potter who wrote the real one and she’s so brilliant, but I couldn’t resist, so I jolly well did it. And I’m going to read it to you.”
In person, Thompson is every bit as zany and whimsical as some of her larger-than-life onscreen characters, from Nanny McPhee to Harry Potter’s Sybil Trelawney, might imply. It seems fitting that she played P.L. Travers (in last year’s Saving Mr. Banks), because she has a certain Mary Poppins–esque way about her, as if you wouldn’t be surprised to see her pull an umbrella out of a carpet-bag. During the reading, she whips out all manner of sound effects and kooky accents, from a child’s wail to a Northern twang, and pauses for frequent asides: On how carnival games are rigged (“I left that out, one doesn’t engender cynicism too young”) and vocabulary lessons (“feckless, by the way, means … actually I’m not sure what it means, but it’s a good word”), plus frequent digressions to explain English terminology like fun-fair and toffee apple.”We need to translate this! I’ve suddenly realized nobody’s going to understand what these things are!” she said in mock panic, eliciting appreciative laughs from the parent fans in the audience.
“I don’t write for children,” said Thompson when Vulture spoke with her at the bookstore before the reading, squatting on miniature wooden chairs in a corner of the kids’ section. “I just write for myself, really, I suppose, to make sure that I’m pleased by it. Perhaps you’re writing for the child inside you, or whatever it is. It’s a curious thing, because it’s got to be something that you can relate to. It’s not like I’m writing something for these other people that are different than me. So yes, the language is perhaps crafted in a slightly different way and you’re not including themes that will be too disturbing … although you can also not afford to shy away from the darkness, and Beatrix Potter never did. Children know perfectly well that life’s very difficult, sometimes.”
Thompson came about her love of children, and her love of children’s books, honestly: Her father was the writer and narrator for the popular British children’s TV show The Magic Roundabout, and she grew up with the sense that children were fundamentally no different than adults — which might be why some of Thompson’s most iconic roles, at least in recent years, have been in films for young people. “I heard [my father] talk to children in the same way as he would talk to some of his adult friends,” she explained. Like many English children, Thompson grew up reading Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows, but was captivated particularly by the intricate woodland world of Beatrix Potter. “I daresay it’s what captivated everybody: It’s that combination of the language and the art,” she said of Potter’s work. “I mean, this woman was a genius and would of course, had she been allowed, been a scientist,” she said. “I think there’s a great deal in those stories that we’re not aware of, particularly because it’s buried, but it’s like Einstein writing a children’s book. You just go, I wonder what that would be like. It’s layered and profound. And it’s sort of informed by a very fine brain.”
Nowadays, Thompson’s reading level has gone up a few grades — rattling off the books on her nightstand right now, they include Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March, Andrew Marr’s Head of State, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, and something by Spike Milligan as a palate cleanser. (“Sometimes I go to bed early at eight o’clock so I can get two hours reading before I put the light out, and if I do two hours reading I’ll often do one hour on one book and one hour on the other one,” she says.) She also recently completed her first original screenplay for Victorian biographical drama Effie Gray starring Dakota Fanning, which comes out in November (she won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for 1995’s Sense and Sensibility). But there’s something about the world of children’s stories that captivates Thompson in a special way. “It’s very different,” she explains. “This book is like writing poetry, really, you know you’ve got so few words, it’s not that many words, so they’ve really got to mean something and they’ve got to carry some weight. You’ve got to take a long time crafting it. I mean, it’s the same with a screenplay, but that takes years, whereas the Peter Rabbit books I’ve written over three consecutive summers. I write them in the summertime, outside in Scotland, longhand. On tiny littles bits of paper,” she says. “It is kind of romantic.”
Indeed, even the circumstances of her writing have a sort of magical, storybook quality to them. It turns out she wasn’t kidding about her first correspondence from the publisher being a letter “from” Peter Rabbit (along with a half-eaten radish leaf, no less). “I was so charmed,” she gushed. “I wrote back to him, so all my correspondence about the books has always been between me and Peter, never me and anyone from the publishers,” she smiled magnanimously. “I would never have done it if they hadn’t done it in that way.”