When something bad happens in life, is it truly all for the best?
When the French writer Voltaire lived, there was a philosophical frame of mind based on the philosophy of Gottfried Willhelm Liebniz. He proclaimed that whatever happened in life was all for the best, and that this world we lived in was the best of all possible worlds because God was good.
Events such as wars and earthquakes devastated the landscape and the people. Voltaire grew angry when people responded to such tragedies through an optimistic “all for the best” viewpoint. He went on to write the short novel “Candide” as a response to Liebnizian optimism. “Candide” is widely studied today as one of the world’s best examples of French literature, but was controversial for its time for its biting satire and its mocking of the religious and political systems of the day.
Today we have another story very similar to “Candide”, and also short. The short film “Harvie Krumpet“, which won the Academy Award in 2004 for Best Animated Short Film, follows the life of Harvie Krumpet. He, like Candide, was a simple character faced with sudden and tragic circumstances completely out of his control, but tries his best to live his life regardless of its turnarounds. His simplicity of mind exposes the many “fakts” that he learns about modern society, and forces us to re-think our own perspectives on life.
Both the life of Candide and the life of Harvie Krumpet take many unexpected twists and turns. Neither story is terribly optimistic, when you consider the tragedies that continue to befall them over and over again. Candide is an illegitimate son of a German baron who is ejected from his father’s home for kissing the girl he loves. Candide is beaten many times, witnesses an earthquake and a devastating fire, watches and hears of loved ones dying as well as hearing the horrific tales of others. Finally, Candide gathers a small “family” around him, and they determine to find joy in their garden and in keeping too busy to think too deeply about things.
Harvie Krumpet is born to a simple Polish man and a madwoman. He is too strange to integrate at school, because he has Tourette’s Syndrome, and feels compelled to touch people’s noses when he meets them. His mad mother teaches him all the “fakts” she knows, until their house burns down and his mother and father freeze to death in the snow. He immigrates to Australia, where he has brain surgery, is struck by lightning, loses a testicle and gains a wife. His life goes through ups and downs to its quiet and simple end as well.
Both the novel “Candide” and the film “Harvie Krumpet” are highly satirical of religion and society in general. Harvie Krumpet comments on how those who do not fit in mainstream society are marginalized, and on the subculture that exists there. There is very little good to say about the world in this film, or about those who want to be optimistic about the world, like the novel of “Candide”.
This is certainly understandable in our day; we have our share of wars and destruction as Voltaire experienced, and that was what led him to write “Candide”. It may be what drove Adam Elliot to create the short film of “Harvie Krumpet”. However, there is another kind of irony that occurs with cynicism and despair, mostly the irony of saying that the world should be something different than it is.
In the end of “Candide” and the film “Harvie Krumpet”, the characters are all unavoidably defined by the specific events of their lives, but also by how they choose to process and interpret those events for themselves. Only in that small space does anyone have a choice to be happy with what happens to them; where tragedy can dig a little space for happiness.
By the end of both the novel and the film, Candide and Harvie Krumpet find their small happiness and ultimate redemption in the end, tender and quiet, but transformative nonetheless.
“Harvie Krumpet” is available on Netflix online and at the YouTube Screening Room. Though it is a cartoon, it contains full frontal nudity and adult themes, so be advised of this before viewing this film with children.