I remember when Shrek first came out way back in 2001. I saw it in the theatre and I loved it. I mean, everyone did. It was funny, it had great music (although a little too much Smash Mouth, if you ask me), and Eddie Murphy as Donkey was perfection. The whole world of animation was opening up, mostly thanks to Pixar. But unlike all the Pixar movies that I continue to rewatch all the time, I haven’t seen Shrek since it first came out. So when I decided to write this post, I was genuinely excited to watch it again.
Unfortunately, Shrek didn’t really hold up for me. Donkey was still funny, but a lot of the other jokes fell flat. There were a bunch of montages that I found boring, and it wasn’t nearly as heartwarming as I remember, even though I admit that I felt happier after watching it. My Shrek rewatch reminded me that I’ve always been curious to read the book that it’s based on, which many people don’t even know exists. I only discovered the book Shrek! when I took a course on writing for children and my teacher got us all to read some stories by William Steig. I remember the entire class was shocked to discover that he was the man behind Shrek.
Other than the fact that the lead character of Steig’s book is a green ogre, there is very little else about the movie that resembles the original story. But I mean that in the best way possible. If you haven’t read Shrek!, you really should. William Steig’s illustrations are incredible. He started working as a cartoonist for the New Yorker in 1930, and in his time there (over six decades!) he did 1,600 drawings and 117 covers. He only started writing children’s books at the age of 60. Before Shrek! came out in 1990, he’d written Roland the Minstrel Pig (1968), the Caldecott Award-winning Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (1969), Dominic (1972), Abel’s Island (1976), The Amazing Bone (1976), and, my personal favourite, the Newbery Award-winning Doctor De Soto (1982).
The book Shrek! starts off with everyone’s favourite ogre being kicked out of the house by his parents. He encounters a witch who tells him his fortune: “A donkey takes you to a knight—him you conquer in a fight. Then you wed a princess who is even uglier than you.” He does, in fact, meet the donkey that brings him to the castle, and when Shrek gets inside, he ends up in the Hall of Mirrors. At first, he’s appalled at the “hideous creatures” starring back at him. But when he realizes those creatures are him, he’s happy. Shrek is full of self-confidence, a trait I was happy they kept for the film. Once he makes it to the princess (“the most stunningly ugly princess on the surface of the planet”), they recite some poetry to each other (conveniently, “scary” rhymes with “marry”), then they get married. The end. “Like fire and smoke, these two belonged together.”
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the story is way more elaborate. It involves fairytale characters being rounded up and exiled by Lord Farquaad, who is all set to marry Princess Fiona. She is locked away in a castle, and through a series of somewhat-hilarious misunderstandings, Shrek and Donkey set off to rescue her. There’s a lovesick dragon, a Gingerbread Man, a curse. And in the end, true love wins, and everyone sings.
Steig’s Shrek! tells a much simpler story. Kind of perfect, in a way. I really love Jack Zipe’s interpretation: “This mock fairy tale plays with all the conventions of the traditional folk and fairy tale to provoke readers to consider the relative nature of evil and beauty. Instead of a handsome prince or a gifted third son, there is an outsider from the swamps, ugly and stinking, who wins a repulsive princess by overcoming fear of himself.”
According to this article, DreamWorks paid Steig $500,000 for the rights to Shrek!, which was less than he expected. He was in his 90s when the film came out, and he died just a couple years later, in 2003. At least he got to see the massive success that Shrek became. The movie made a crazy amount of money and won the first ever Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Steig didn’t live to see Shrek 2, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever After, Shrek the Halls, Scared Shrekless, and the Shrek spin-off, Puss in Boots. He didn’t see Shrek get his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And he missed out on the video game, the musical, and the comic book adaptation. William Steig was an interesting man (if you don’t believe me, read his obituary) and a great talent. I wish I could ask him his thoughts on the longevity of his loveable green ogre.