February 10, 2006
Comedy, Kids/Family, Animation
(the voices of) Will Ferrell, Drew Barrymore, David Cross, Eugene Levy, Dick Van Dyke
Universal Pictures Distribution
Curious About George?
By Belinda Elliott
CBN.com Daily Life Producer
For those who remember reading the Curious George books as a child, the news that George is coming to the big screen this week is very exciting. The loveable monkey (actually a chimpanzee because he doesn’t have a tail) has entertained both children and adults for 65 years, and his most loyal fans know his mischievous adventures by heart.
What people may not know is how George came to be the children’s literary icon that he is today. The story behind the Curious George books is as interesting as George’s many adventures. The original series of books was published by Hans and Margaret Rey, who have quite an incredible story of adventure themselves, including a daring bicycle escape from Nazi soldiers.
Hans Augusto Reyersbach was born in Germany in 1898. He grew up near the Hagenbeck Zoo and developed a love for both art and animals. Margarete Waldstein, who would later become Hans’ wife, was born in Germany in 1906. She was also interested in art and later studied at the famous Bauhaus Institute. The two first met when Hans visited her father’s home and saw the young girl sliding down a banister. They would later reunite in Brazil, where they had both moved to escape the Nazis.
While in Brazil, Hans traveled the Amazon River sketching the local wildlife, including a lively group of monkeys that had captured his attention. He connected with Margarete and the two opened an advertising agency together. Their friendship soon turned to romance and they were married in 1935. The couple shared their happy home with two pet marmoset monkeys that were known for causing mischief, something that would be an inspiration to them later. They shortened their names to H.A. and Margret Rey to make it easier for their Brazilian friends to pronounce.
When the couple honeymooned in Paris they liked it so much they decided to stay there indefinitely, living in a hotel in Montmartre. Hans worked as a newspaper cartoonist, and his work was soon noticed by a publisher who asked him to expand upon his cartoons resulting in the Reys’ first book, Cecily G. and 9 Monkeys. Hans did the illustrations for the book, while Margret developed the plot and did the writing.
The central character in their first book was a monkey named Fifi who always found himself in trouble. The authors fell in love with the character and decided their next book would focus on him. However, their work was interrupted in 1940 as the Nazis advanced toward Paris and the authors, both Jews, decided to flee to America.
H.A. and Margret fled the city on two bicycles that Hans had built. They left behind most of their possessions, but carried with them five manuscripts that included their latest book, The Adventures of Fifi. After bicycling for four days and sleeping in stables along the way, the Reys sold their bikes for train fare and eventually reached New York City.
There, publishing giant Houghton Mifflin offered the Reys a contract for four illustrated children’s books, Fifi’s name was changed, and the authors introduced the world to the loveable Curious George. They went on to write seven books in the series, many of which feature George taking adventures that mimicked the authors’ own lives.
Historian Louise Borden, who has studied the Reys’ lives extensively, said the illustrations in the Curious George books are where one should look to discover these similarities. For instance, she said, the books feature ocean liners, European cityscapes, and a red chair that she said resembles chairs found in Paris’ Terrass Hotel. The man in the yellow hat also smokes a pipe just as Hans did.
And just as Curious George does in the books, Borden said Hans and Margret “seemed to embrace change and adventure.”
It was their daring bicycle adventure that first attracted Borden to learn more about the Reys. After spending several years researching their lives, Borden found Hans’ personal diaries in which he recorded the places they went during their bicycle escape from Paris. Last year, she published their adventures in a children’s book, The Journey that Saved Curious George.
Although the authors are no longer living – Hans died in 1977 and Margret in 1996 – the literary legacy that they left has been enjoyed by generations of children around the world. The Curious George books have sold 27 million copies and been translated into 14 languages.
His stories have endured, Borden said, because George is so loveable that children easily connect with him. “There is a sweetness about the illustrations and the gestures,” she said.
Would the Reys approve the new film about their beloved George? Borden said she thinks they probably would. Although filmmakers create a new adventure for George, they have tried to stay true to the fun, colorful illustrations and gentle nature of the original books.
“They (Hans and Margret) were pretty avant-garde for their time,” Borden said. “I think they would understand that the creators were trying to take parts of their books and create one story to put on the big screen.”
Whether his antics are observed in books or on film, George seems to be one curious little monkey that continues to win the hearts of both children and adults in a big way.
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