Among anime fans, it’s not uncommon to see discussions arise regarding the correlation between the quality of an anime series and how accurate the adaptation is to its source materials.  Fans want to see their favourite stories and characters portrayed with respect to their roots, and many believe that more accurate adaptations are the best, and only, way of presenting these works. I would argue that there is value in looser adaptations, as they either have the potential to showcase new sides to already-existing tales, or display previously unseen facets of a creator’s work.  The 1990 anime adaptation of Tove Jansson’s Moomin franchise is one such example of this, as the series was able to present the many dimensions of what Jansson had achieved with her characters.

A self-portrait of Tove Jansson, surrounded by several of her Moomin characters. Moomintroll, the franchise’s main character, is sitting on her lap holding a flower

The Moomins is a multimedia franchise based on characters and settings created by Finnish illustrator and writer Tove Jansson (1914 – 2001).  Jansson introduced these characters in 1945, with The Moomins and the Great Flood, and continued to use them in children’s novels, picture books, comic strips, original music, and illustrations until her death.  The central characters, the titular Moomins, are white trolls, who vaguely resemble hippopotamuses, of Jansson’s own creation.  These trolls are part of a family, which is composed of:

  • Moomintroll, a young troll boy who is the main protagonist of most of the stories
  • Moominmamma, Moomintroll’s mother, and
  • Moomintroll’s father Moominpappa.

They reside in the fictional Moominvalley, an idyllic place full of hills and forests, next to the sea and surrounded by the Lonely Mountains.  Alongside the Moomins, the valley is inhabited by a variety of eccentric non-human characters, such as the freedom-loving vagabond Snufkin, the abrasive yet well-meaning Little My, and the resourceful and wise Too-Ticky to name a few.

Many of these characters are close friends to the Moomins, and some have even been adopted into their extended family.  Together, they would often go on adventures throughout Moominvalley, and commonly came across strange and wonderful people and places. For example, they discover an observatory on top of the Lonely Mountains, or a magical top hat that can change one thing into something entirely different.

An illustration, titled "March for Peace", that Tove Jasson drew circa 1981 for UNICEF.  It features several of her Moomin characters walking in the snow, holding up signs reading "Peace" in five different languages

While the Moomins stories always follow this basic formula, Jansson’s approach to her characters was different from the average creator.  Many writers and artists tend to focus on maintaining continuity with their characters, regardless of medium.  In contrast, Jansson used different media forms to experiment with her characters and settings, both in terms of their personalities and appearances.  While the basic structure of the characters may remain the same, there are enough significant differences introduced between each medium that each feels distinct.

Possibly the clearest examples of this can be seen within Moomintroll and his friends.  The novels present these characters as children, and their adventures commonly take place in settings where most young children would like to explore. They embark as a group to locales like the woods or by the ocean.  Meanwhile, the comic strip versions of Moomintroll and his friends are portrayed as young adults, who are not only old enough to drink, but commonly find themselves searching for adventures the way young adults do.  This involves trying to prove themselves to their community through talent shows, sports, appealing to socialites, and the occasional career.

Storylines were also subjected to this flexibility, as Jansson had a habit of retelling scenarios she had already written for the Moomins characters, and re-presenting them in new ways that would change the overall tone of the story.  For example, Jansson had penned and drawn two different stories that centered around the Moomin family going to live at a lighthouse.  The first version of this was presented in the comic strip as a plot arc called Moomin and the Sea, published in 1957. The second version was the novel Moominpappa at Sea, which was published in 1965.  The two arcs showcase Jansson’s capabilities as a storyteller, as she proved that she was capable of changing the entire atmosphere and tone of her work, even while the same characters were residing in the exact same location.

Moomin and the Sea begins with Moominpappa, who’s reading about a vacancy at a lighthouse in the newspaper. He decides that it would be best to live in the lighthouse, so he can get inspiration for his next novel.  Once the Moomin family reaches the island, a comedy of errors begins, as is the case of most Moomin comic strips. Namely, the Moomins have no idea about how to properly run a lighthouse.  Instead, they decide to treat the island as a second home, with Moominmamma painting on the walls and creating a garden, to make their new dwellings comfortable.  Meanwhile, Snorkmaiden encounters a ghost, who is only capable of scaring Moomintroll. One thing leads to another, and she agrees to help the spectre improve his skills. The story ends with the Moomins getting kicked out of the lighthouse, an ending that is a common sight within the Moomins comics. A lighthouse inspector discovers that the family did everything wrong, forcing them to set sail back to their home in Moominvalley. The Moomins, meanwhile, are perfectly happy with this and are ready to put this little excursion behind them altogether.

An illustration by Tove Jansson from the novel Moominpappa at Sea (1965).  Moominpappa (left) and Moomintroll (right) are on a boat in the middle of a storm.  Moominpappa is trying to bring fishing nets onto the ship, while Moomintroll is rowing.  It is raining and the waves appear very strong

In contrast to the comedic tone of the comic strip, Moominpappa at Sea sets the Moomins in the middle of a sombre family drama. In it, the family moves to the lighthouse in order to appease Moominpappa’s midlife crisis. The troll feels that taking the task on will prove he is responsible for his family’s safety and happiness.  Once they arrive at the lighthouse the family soon realizes that the structure had been abandoned by the original keeper. The lighthouse keeper suddenly and mysteriously neglected his post, leaving the lighthouse unlit for quite a long time. The Moomins’ only neighbour at this desolate location is a mysterious fisherman, who is extremely evasive whenever the family asks him about the previous resident.

Moominpappa decides to take on the role as the new lighthouse keeper, in hopes of further showcasing his capabilities as the family patriarch.  As they spend more time on the island, the Moomin family drifts apart from each other. Little by little, they find themselves too wrapped up in their own whims to spend time together, such as Moominmamma’s habit of painting the walls as a means of escaping from their current living situation. The story ends with a subversion of the Moomin novels, as the Moomins opt to stay at the lighthouse instead of moving back to their home in Moominvalley.

With such major differences between the novels and comics, it becomes difficult to determine what exactly an “accurate” adaptation of the Moomins would be. Both versions of these characters are not only beloved by fans, they also feature heavily in the franchise’s marketing.  Some may argue that the novels would be the “appropriate” choice for adaptation, as they were Tove Jansson’s first medium for the Moomins. But only including the novels would be negligent to the fans who enjoy the Moomins as they appeared in the comic books.

An image from the first opening of Tanoshii Moomin Ikka (1990-91), showing the series’ main characters

Telescreen’s Tanoshii Moomin Ikka (Delightful Moomin Family) anime series, which aired from 1990 to 1991, addresses this problem by combining elements of the novels and the comic strip. The result is an entirely new, but still accurate, version of the Moomins.

Within the television series, the Moomins still have a habit of adopting various characters into their extended family. Specifically, Moomintroll’s friends Sniff, Little My, and Snorkmaiden can be found lodging at Moominhouse on various different occasions.   While these characters are clearly children who require some adult supervision, they are still old enough to live alone. They’re also capable of helping with food-prep, architectural construction, and gardening.

While Moomintroll and his friends are resourceful in the original novels, they are still far too young to accomplish the types of community-based projects the anime series has them accomplish.  In contrast, their young adult selves in the comics are more than capable of aiding the adults in the community with a variety of tasks.  The anime series addresses the problem of Moomintroll’s friends being too young to participate in community efforts by placing them at an age between their novel and comic strip incarnations.

A screenshot from Tanoshii Moomin Ikka.  Moominpappa enters the lighthouse.  Every surface and piece of furniture is covered in cobwebs, and many of the items are in a state of great disrepair

The lighthouse story arc is perhaps the best example of how the anime series combines the novels and comic to make something entirely unique, and yet at the same time authentically Moomins.  The plot centers on the Moomin family, accompanied by Snufkin, Snorkmaiden, and Little My, who sail to a lighthouse in hopes that it will give Moominpappa the inspiration to write a novel.  After it gets especially foggy one evening, the Moomins decide to stop their ship for the night. The next morning, they discover that the lighthouse they had been searching for the night before was only a short paddle away. Upon investigating the island further, it is clear that the lighthouse keeper has disappeared.

As they search the island, the Moomins meet a gloomy fisherman and his charge Toft, who both reside there.  Upon asking them about the fate of the previous lighthouse keeper, the fisherman shuts down the conversation and continues to evade the topic whenever it is subsequently brought up.  Meanwhile, strange phenomenons keep occuring in the lighthouse each night, which makes it difficult for Moomintroll to get a good night’s sleep. And so, Moomintroll and his friends decide to solve the island’s various mysteries.

At first glance, the Moomins anime appears to take most of its inspiration from the version of the lighthouse tale that appeared in the comics, known as Moomin and the Sea.  Moominpappa’s desire to write a novel, the various lighthearted personal projects the family does to make the island homey, and the subplot about ghosts, all come from the comic strip.  At the same time, though, the core narrative of the former lighthouse keeper’s mysterious disappearance, comes from the novel Moominpappa at Sea. The tone is also rather melancholic at times, given emphasis by the occasional grey fog, the depressing messages left behind by the previous lighthouse keeper, and the gloomy demeanor of the fisherman.  These all reinforce the somber and unsettling tone the novel had created and maintained.

A screenshot from Tanoshii Moomin Ikka.  The fisherman gazes at the lighthouse in the distance.  The yellow and black colours used give off a strong sense of foreboding

The anime’s writing team could have easily just adapted the comic strip version of the lighthouse story and presented it as a straightforward comedy.  Instead, they chose to combine both versions to create a narrative that is at once unique and authentic to both of its source materials.  The anime’s plot is one that centers on the importance of helping others when they are unable to help themselves, working together as a family, and learning to forgive oneself.  The transitions from comedic to sombre are not jarring, with the humour allowing the story to stray into utter melancholy at points, and the dramatic elements ensuring the plot does not become a farce.  In essence, it combines the two stories into something completely new, yet entirely within Tove Jansson’s own narrative models.

Tanoshii Moomin Ikka demonstrates that it is possible to develop an anime series that involves creating an entirely new continuity while still respecting its roots.  The series’ ability to combine elements of Tove Jansson’s original novels and comics created a new perspective, and appreciation, for the stories and characters the author had created.  While it is still satisfying to see accurate depictions appear on screen, it is also enjoyable to be surprised by how the narrative can shift and change to construct a new story.  The anime’s unique version of the lighthouse arc would not exist, if the writers did not take a chance with the source materials.  Perhaps this series can set an example to fans and writers alike that re-telling beloved stories does not mean we cannot be creative in how we re-create them.

A screenshot from Tanoshii Moomin Ikka.  Moominmamma paints an apple tree on the lighthouse’s interior wall.  She is standing on a chair, holding a paint-bucket with red paint in her left paw and a paintbrush with red paint in her right paw