Why is The Highway Rat BBC animation different from the book?

Julia Donaldson says the BBC Christmas special starring David Tennant has a more “moral” ending than her book

Programme Name: The Highway Rat - TX: n/a - Episode: The Highway Rat (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Rat with Gruffalo biscuits  - (C) Orange Eyes Ltd  - Photographer: Magic Light Pictures

The Highway Rat, the BBC’s animation about a greedy young rodent voiced by David Tennant, is an exquisite adaptation of the much-loved picture book by writer Julian Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler.

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In both the book and the TV version the lead character is a greedy rat with a hunger for sweets and cakes who terrorises his fellow animals into handing everything they have over to him – before, eventually, getting his comeuppance.

But at the end of the TV special, eagle-eyed fans of the book may have noticed an important difference in the story.

In both versions, The Highway Rat is left alone working in a cake shop sweeping the floor after he is tricked by the animals.

But in the book he is seen greedily gobbling the crumbs from the cake shop floor, having shown no sign of mending his gluttonous ways.

But in the BBC1 telling, an additional sequence is included in which the Rat throws down his hat and cape – presumably vowing never to turn to highway robbery again.

Donaldson tells Radiomes.com that she is delighted with the TV version, but has noticed the differences which make the animated version a slightly more “moral” story.

“There is some character development,” she said. “They have made it a bit more of a moral tale and they have him semi-repenting. At the end of the story, in my mind anyway, he has been humiliated but he is still managing to at least get some cakes which he didn’t get before. In the book he’s having to do this job – but at least he’s finding cake crumbs.

“In the film he throws his highway outfit into the pool in a cave and he does want to mend his ways.”

Both Donaldson and illustrator Scheffler say they understand the changes, however.

“The film is 25 minutes and the book takes eight minutes to read,” explained Scheffler: “It looks very different to my drawings, but you have to take that step if you’re moving from a picture book to a different medium. And I think they are close enough to the original.”

Donaldson describes the rat as one of her “worst baddies’ but says that she still has a soft spot for him – perhaps explaining why she lets him have his final few cake crumbs in the book.

“The Highway Rat is such a baddie, but he’s sort of quite endearing because he loves sweets and biscuits. In a way [my book] is a bit of an amoral story. “

But why was former Doctor Who star David Tennant  chosen to deliver the rat’s voice in his natural Scottish accent?

The reason, it turns out, is that the character is always performed with that accent by Donaldson and her husband Malcolm Donaldson when they act it out in live performances which they give around the world.

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“Because we lived in Glasgow for 25 years, when my husband Malcolm and I act The Highway Rat, Malcolm always does a very Glaswegian Rat,” says Donaldson. “Maybe that’s why they cast David Tennant!”