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Film Review: 'Becoming Astrid'


She had red, braided pigtails, freckles, mismatched stockings. For the 1940s at least, Pippi Longstocking embodied fearlessness and adventure. Pippi was the children's book character created by author Astrid Lindgren, known for stories that imagined worlds where kids were independent and unafraid. Lindgren became one of Sweden's most famous authors, and her books have been translated into more than 100 languages.

Lindgren died in 2002, but now a new movie called "Becoming Astrid" tells the surprising story of her life before Pippi Longstocking became an iconic character. The film's director, Pernille Fischer Christensen, joins us from Copenhagen. Welcome to the program.


PFEIFFER: Pernille, in the movie, when we first meet Astrid as a teenager, she seems like Pippi Longstocking. She's mischievous and rambunctious, and she's nonconformist, and she even has hair in pigtails.


PFEIFFER: As far as you know, did Lindgren model Pippi after herself?

CHRISTENSEN: When we did the research on the movie, we looked at a lot of photographies (ph) of her as a child. And in them, you can just see this sparkling fantasy - you know, the eyes coming out of her face. So I think there was a lot, a lot, a lot of Pippi Longstocking in Astrid Lindgren. She had the fantasy, and she had the ability to think out of the box, also, as a child and as a young girl.

PFEIFFER: When Lindgren got older, she looked back and described her childhood as idyllic. Tell us how she grew up.

CHRISTENSEN: Astrid Lindgren grew up in the countryside in Sweden, very much like we know the characters from her books growing up. But she came from a very religious family. The parents lived from earth that was owned by the church, and it was a very small society she grew up in.

She had a deep love for her father, whom she always described as a very warm person. And she had some - a little bit more problems with her mother, who was maybe even more religious than the father. And what you also see in the movie - this is one - some of the fights we have tried to depict. But I think, in many ways, Astrid Lindgren had a childhood that was very much full of love.

PFEIFFER: The movie goes into the part of Astrid's adolescence that seems not to have been very well-known, and that's that she had an affair with a married newspaper editor where she was working. She got pregnant. And to avoid scandal in that era, she left her baby with a foster mother. Now, that was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. I want to avoid spoilers...


PFEIFFER: ...As much as possible. How would you describe how it affected her?

CHRISTENSEN: I think it affected her in many ways. She had said about this period herself that she might not have been an author if this had not happened, but - she might not have been as great an author. So I think a lot of her empathy for children, a lot of will for children, a lot of her fight for children comes out of not being able to do exactly that herself, being a child herself when she became a mother.

And also, if you look closely and you read her books, you see a lot of kids that are alone. There's a lot of boys who have no parents. Pippi has no mother. She has a father, but he's out on the ocean. So I think there's a lot of stories where she tries to imagine, in a way, what her son went through not growing up with her.

PFEIFFER: Do you get the sense that either she or the people who've profiled her in the past tried to conceal this part of her history - her teenage pregnancy?

CHRISTENSEN: You know what? Not really. I think Astrid Lindgren, she was 40 when she had her breakthrough - 38, 40 - with Pippi Longstocking. And, you know, if somebody had asked me, the age of 40, whom I went to bed with or whom and why I fell in love with somebody when I was 16, I would have an explanation problem.

And I think it's not only Astrid Lindgren who had to give away a child and give birth to a child in Denmark and leave the child. A lot of Swedish women came. So for me, it's a women's history story. And I guess a lot of these stories have not been told also because of shame.

PFEIFFER: The movie begins and ends with Astrid in her 90s reading mailbags of letters from the kids telling her how much they love her stories. And they're really lovely. There's one that says she likes to play even though she's old.

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah (laughter).

PFEIFFER: Another says I can tell you like us. You understand us. You're on the children's side.


PFEIFFER: Pernille, assuming that you were able to read some of those letters, is there one you remember the most or liked the most?

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, the one - that was it - with being on the children's side and children feeling that she saw them, that she gave a present to them. The author that I'm writing with - the scriptwriter - he's also my husband. And we have experienced exactly the same. You know, there goes a deep, deep gratitude from children towards the first artists that they meet. Us, who read her books as a child, she stays in us, and we feel a gratitude towards that.

PFEIFFER: That was Pernille Fischer Christensen. She's director of the new film "Becoming Astrid." Pernille, thank you very much for coming on the program.

CHRISTENSEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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