T.S. Eliot Told You So

Alexandra Bowman

I enjoyed the Cats movie. I am wildly aware that an admission like that could get me banned from polite society. 

So I’ll add a “but.” 

I enjoyed the Cats movie, but my soul retains enough humanity and light to admit that it was not a good movie. For a year now, I have been attempting to pin down, in a literary and cinematic sense, exactly why this film so affrighted the world.

Last year, I wrote an article for The Georgetown Independent about why Cats failed as a film. In sum, its creators criminally misidentified what audiences enjoyed about the wildly successful musical Cats. The original musical relies on the suspension of disbelief. Audiences are supposed to forget that those are humans beneath the cat costumes. Conversely, the medium of film–especially in this era of CGI–offers near-unlimited potential for what can be depicted on screen. The choice to depict photographically realistic, anatomically accurate singing cats without human appendages was absolutely an option at some point during the pitch meetings. But the creators didn’t go for that. Instead, they thrust ninety minutes of gyrating, buck-naked (sans the fur) humans with tails onto screens worldwide. 

A year after writing that article, I had the opportunity to read T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” In this essay, Eliot asserts what makes ‘good’ art, describes what the duty of ‘the artist’ is in creating new work, and declares the vital importance of respecting ‘tradition.’ This essay made me realize that Cats the movie failed because it broke its co-creator’s own rules.

Perhaps I need to connect the dots for the uninitiated: T.S. Eliot’s poetry provided the lyrics for all but one song in Cats the musical. 

According to Eliot, good artwork puts forth “impressions and experiences [that] combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.” The artwork is impersonal, created by an artist who is “conscious” of their past and their present as an artist. They create work in which the “most individual parts” are those “in which the dead poets, [the poet’s] ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” The artist, in other words, cannot completely go off on their own, creating work without order. To create a productive, quality piece of art, the artist must respect timeless traditions.  

After seeing his portrayal in Cats (2019), Bustopher Jones sued for defamation.
Illustration rights © Alexandra Bowman

Cats the musical was based on a book of children’s poems by Eliot called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Each poem, with the exception of a few worldbuilding entries, is about an individual cat, and is told how a child–or even other cats–might view it. For example, the poem “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat” describes a cat who oversees a train, making sure it runs on time and that its passengers’ needs are met. The joke, of course, is that this is a stray cat who loiters around the train station. But the cat thinks it runs the train, and so might little children who are entertained by animals and like to conjure up stories about them. 

Practical Cats is full of these poems about cats who are confident in their individualism. Some cats are more anthropomorphized and integrated into the human world than others, but the reader assumes that Eliot is merely channeling the way a child–or again, other cats–might fantasize about the personality and secret life of certain special cats, but not the entire species. 

Andrew Lloyd Webber found this book of poems amusing, and in 1977, decided to base a musical on it. All but three of its musical numbers are pulled directly from Practical Cats (one of them is a poem Webber and his creative partners wrote, one is another published poem by Eliot, and two are unpublished poems by Eliot. One of these last two is “Memory”).

The musical itself does not stray too far from the tone and creative goals of Practical Cats. The musical embraces a diegetic view of feline characters–meaning that Eliot’s childlike view of the cats and their abilities reigns supreme within the narrative. Mr. Mistoffelees quite literally has magic powers, shooting lightning bolts and summoning other cats from thin air, all while doing 24 consecutive fouettés en tournant. 

Practical Cats and the poems therein are formal and witty, written with a stereotypically British stiff upper lip. The cats themselves are proud, formal, and individualistic, but have a sense of humor about them. They know what they want out of life, they have their traditions, but are open to new ideas in all their innocent, assured optimism. The reader wants to respect these furry little creatures, who are so charmingly sure of themselves. Fans of cats (the animals) will understand this.

The poems in Practical Cats are perfectly charming, and some (me) might say genius. Webber understood Eliot’s genius and let it drive the artistic emotion of the play. Cats the musical not only preserved Eliot’s vision; it analyzed, intensified, and developed it through the medium of theater.  

And that returns us to Cats the movie. Cats was not a good movie. The CGI was almost universally considered horrifying. The screenwriters inserted distracting slapstick humor between–and sometimes in the middle of–beloved songs. Cats the movie has, in Eliot’s words, “no structural emotion.” The “whole effect” of the film as a work of art, in Eliot’s terminology, is artistic bewilderment.

As Eliot writes in Tradition and the Individual Talent, good art comes from a well-crafted mixture of ideas, where “special, or very varied feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.” The poet’s mind, he writes, is “a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” In other words, the artist’s job is to pick up on lots of ideas in their day-to-day and bring them together to create vibes, and create art that expresses those vibes in unique and interesting ways. 

Cats the movie undoubtedly possesses this mixture of “particles.” Director Tom Hooper’s combination of ideas, however, does not make sense. Hooper fits Eliot’s definition of a “bad poet:” one who is “usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious, and conscious where he ought to be unconscious.” The movie failed to produce the optimal “chemical compound” of ideas that Eliot describes, nor was it aesthetically, creatively, or cinematically pleasing. 

Cats the musical is the fourth-longest-running Broadway show of all-time. It is accepted by musical historians as the work that initiated the megamusical phenomenon, and a piece that reshaped the technology, aesthetic, and marketing of musical theater. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a beloved collection of poems that children have enjoyed for 81 years. But Cats the movie did not understand the quality of tradition before it, and it took misjudged creative liberties. These liberties not only included the creation of human-cat hybrids, but also the decision to lift a work of art that was just fine where it was out of its home–rather, its two homes, the stage and the written word.

That doesn’t mean you need to burn yourself at the stake if you go watch the Cats movie after reading this essay and realize you enjoyed it. It just means that for a piece of art to be successfully adapted into another medium–and if you want to preserve its novel beauty in the process–you’d best follow T.S. Eliot’s time-tested guidance. Cats the movie, in the most ironic fashion, did not.

Image: Hardcover edition of ‘Old Possum’ with illustrations by Edward Gorey. Source: Flickr.

Alexandra Bowman (COL ’22) is double majoring in English and Art in the College, and will be graduating early with a master’s degree in English in May 2023. She is a satirist, writer, political cartoonist, and illustrator from Washington, serving as the Political Cartoonist for The Lincoln Project and the environmental news platform Our Daily Planet. Alex is also the creator of “The Hilltop Show,” Georgetown University’s political comedy show, which seeks to inform a wide audience about current events through entertainment and encourage civility in discourse.

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