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Meet the man turning Winnie-the-Pooh into a slasher nightmare

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 16/11/2022 Jake Kerridge
Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey sees Pooh Bear and Piglet turn feral - Jagged Edge Productions / Album © Jagged Edge Productions / Album Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey sees Pooh Bear and Piglet turn feral - Jagged Edge Productions / Album

Gone are the innocent days when there was nothing more dangerous in the Hundred Acre Wood than the odd Heffalump or Woozle. The forthcoming slasher horror movie Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey sees Pooh Bear and Piglet turn feral, subjecting a group of nubile women holidaying in a cabin in the forest to torture and slaughter.

For A A Milne (1882-1956), the creator of the hitherto cuddly bear, turning in his grave will hardly meet the case: you imagine his ghost vowing to haunt his descendants until they put a stop to it. But there isn’t a lot they can do.

Made by the British production company Jagged Edge, Blood and Honey has been licensed under US law, which decrees that a book’s copyright expires after 95 years: so, in America, the characters in Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), the first of his two Pooh books, have been in the public domain since the start of this year (in UK law copyright expires 70 years after the author’s death). Before that, the rights had been controlled since 1961 by the Walt Disney Company.

The first half of the 20th century was a golden age of children’s literature, but with every year that passes, more copyrights come to an end and we may see more and more beloved fictional characters put to uses that their creators could only have conceived in their worst nightmares. For instance, Bambi, created by Felix Salten in the 1920s, also entered the public domain this year: perhaps we can look forward to a remake of Death Wish in which the grown-up deer tracks down the hunter who killed his mum and gores him to death.

In Blood and Honey, Pooh and his friends turn savage after being abandoned in the woods and left to fend for themselves when Christopher Robin decides to move on with his life and go to college. Still, who on earth would turn Pooh Bear into a cross between Norman Bates and John “Jigsaw” Kramer? The answer is genial young British filmmaker Rhys Frake-Waterfield, who had the idea for the film in March this year after reading that Pooh had entered the public domain.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey stars Craig David Dowsett as Pooh - Jagged Edge Productions / Album © Provided by The Telegraph Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey stars Craig David Dowsett as Pooh - Jagged Edge Productions / Album

“When you don’t have a massive budget it’s important to have a strong hook, so having Winnie-the-Pooh seemed perfect,” he says. “It’s because of the contrast that people are excited: there are lots of famous characters you could make a horror film about and people wouldn’t be that interested – with Pooh, you’ve got this lovable little friendly bear and I’ve twisted him into the exact opposite.”

In its own bizarre way the film is a commentary on the strong bond in Milne’s books between Pooh and his owner, Christopher Robin – like Toy Story, it asks what happens to the toys when children grow up. Although it’s a gorefest, Frake-Waterfield describes it as “quite deep at points”.

“[Pooh and his friends] don’t have enough food and that’s ultimately why Pooh has to eat Eeyore, it was the only way he could survive, and of course having to eat his friend completely warps him mentally, and now he just hates all humans. It’s not the typical horror film where you just have got a monster in the woods killing everyone with no reason behind what they’re doing.”

Oh God, poor Eeyore! Does he feel any contrition?

“I get Instagram messages from people saying, ‘You’re ruining our childhood’, and there have been petitions to stop the film. But other versions aren’t being trampled on, they still exist. And it’s not going to ruin any kids’ childhoods, because they definitely shouldn’t be watching it.”

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Of course, annexing an already popular character in this way is a surefire means of ensuring your project goes viral, and the level of attention this movie has received since it was first announced has secured Frake-Waterfield a level of investment he’s never enjoyed before, as well as a theatrical release.

So the rewards can be great if you co-opt another author’s already popular characters in your work, which is why so many artists often can’t wait for the copyright to expire. David Bowie fought a long and fruitless battle to convince George Orwell’s widow to permit him to make a musical version of Nineteen Eighty-Four – sadly he didn’t live to see Orwell’s copyright expire at the end of 2020.

It is possible to get round copyright by cunning: Alan Moore got away with using another beloved children’s character, Billy Bunter, in his League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, by referring to him as simply William and never mentioning his surname.

Copyright can be a slippery business. Winnie-the-Pooh, as created by Milne and drawn by E H Shepard back in 1926, may be in the public domain, but Disney’s interpretation of the character, dating from 1966, is not. Has Frake-Waterfield received any warnings from Disney?

“No, and I hope that’s a sign that what we’ve done is in keeping with the 1926 version and not theirs. Certain things, like his red shirt and his little phrases like ‘Oh bother’, were added by Disney, that’s their IP [intellectual property].

Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield (centre) spotted an opportunity with Pooh © Provided by The Telegraph Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield (centre) spotted an opportunity with Pooh

“When I was researching the character I refused to watch any form of Disney’s version, in case there was a slight chance a phrase might stick in my mind and I might subconsciously use it. And that’s also why Tigger’s not in the film.” Tigger debuted in Milne’s 1928 sequel The House at Pooh Corner, to which Disney hold the copyright for another two years.

It is difficult to know whether to be pleased or trepidatious when copyright on a much-loved character expires. On the other hand, if Beatrix Potter’s copyrights hadn’t expired, perhaps her estate would have vetoed the recent dreadful Peter Rabbit films, in which the beloved bunny suffers the indignity of being voiced by James Corden.

But then again, would Milne really have approved of the treacly Disney versions of Winnie-the-Pooh, bereft of his wry wit? Copyright law can only do so much to protect your favourite book from the numerous filmmakers itching to travesty it.

Frake-Waterfield’s thoughts, meanwhile, have turned to his next project: a horror version of Peter Pan. “What’s been getting most attention is what I’m planning with Tinkerbell. The current vision of her is to be incredibly obese and recovering from drugs.” And are there any characters he regrets are not out of copyright? “I’d love to make a film with the Teletubbies. I do want to get in contact with [the copyright holder] and see if I can get licensed to do it. But I have a feeling they might say no.”

'Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey' will be released in 2023

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