Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” and its cinematic adaptation “Child’s Play” are similar in their usage of Man Vs. Man and Man Vs. Nature conflicts to develop the four major characters and the themes that love is a power struggle, people use religion to make up for their own inadequacies, and religious rites and ornamentation lend legitimacy to prayer.
In both versions of the story, the settings of the manor and tool shed are the strongholds of Mrs. De Ropp and Conradin, respectively, in their Man Vs. Man conflict. The plots are also similar: the toothache, removal of the Houdan hen, and prayers to Sredni are part of the rising action; Mrs. De Ropp’s fateful visit to the tool shed is the clima; the servants’ search for the mistress is the falling action, and Conradin’s “slow enjoyment of eating” forbidden food is the resolution. In both tales, Mrs. De Ropp experiences glorious victory in her Man Vs. Nature conflict with the hen and mortifying defeat in her Man Vs. Nature conflict with Sredni.
In each story, Conradin is the protagonist, a weak but imaginative youth diagnosed to “not live another five years” and whose religious fervor degenerates into ferocity with his war prayer:
Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.
Mrs. De Ropp is the antagonist, an overbearing cousin who symbolizes “those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real.” Sredni Vashtar is a ferocious polecat-ferret which Conradin purchases from the butcher’s son and which personifies physical power and violent aggression. The hen is an innocent bystander who becomes a pawn in the battle between Conradin and Mrs. De Ropp. His disappearance from the tool shed is the catalyst for Conradin’s hatred of Mrs. De Ropp evolving into homicidal feelings; every night after, he prays at the altar to his beast, “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.”
Because the primary conflict of both stories in a Man Vs. Man struggle between family members, each presents the theme that love is a power struggle. Both include Conradin’s worship of and fanaticism for Sredni Vashtar in the rising action and climax of his conflict with Mrs. De Ropp and thus present the themes that people use religion to make up for their own inadequacies and religious rites to give their prayers legitimacy.
“Child’s Play” is different from its source material, “Sredni Vashtar”, because it intensifies the Man Vs. Man conflict between Conradin and Mrs. De Ropp and the Man Vs. Nature conflict between Mrs. De Ropp and the hen and uses different scenes to develop Conradin’s Man Vs. Self conflict with his loneliness to strengthen the characterizations of Conradin, Mrs. De Ropp, and the hen and to sharpen the theme that love is a power struggle.
The movie adds many intriguing details to the Man Vs. Man conflict between Conradin and Mrs. De Ropp. The woman uses ostensibly insignificant domestic activities like tickling, asking for kisses, mocking Conradin’s bare body, and pulling him back from the windowsill to assert her control over him. She also tells the boy the story of his parents’ death and particularly of her hatred for his mother in order to crush his self-esteem, and she even implies that she played a role in their deaths.
Conradin plays a much more sanguine role in the climax; his spirit and Sredni’s seem to combine as they tear Mrs. De Ropp apart, hence the dramatically ironic title “Child’s Play”. Mrs. De Ropp’s Man Vs. Nature conflict with the hen is also more vicious; Conradin gives it a name, “Cackler”, to increase the viewer’s emotional attachment to the beast, and his guardian truly tastes victory when she slaughters Cackler and serves him for dinner.
The movie uses different scenes to portray Conradin’s Man Vs. Self conflict with his fears and alienation. Whereas the story notes that Conradin has “peopled [the tool shed] with a legion of familiar phantoms, evoked partly from fragments of history and partly from his own brain” and “without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago,” the movie includes scenes of Conradin releasing butterflies so he can feel the power of mercy and flexing in front of a mirror to feel proud of his body. The increased intensity of the Man Vs. Man and Man Vs. Nature conflicts make both Conradin and Mrs. De Ropp more malicious characters and Cackler more sympathetic. “Child’s Play” has more passion and backstory than the original and thus makes a stronger presentation of the theme that love is a power struggle.