Children’s Books or Movies? Why Not Both?


Adapting a kid’s book into a movie can’t be that difficult. From The Wizard of Oz to the Harry Potter series, there are a ton of movies based on popular children’s books. Plus, you have a built-in audience! But it’s one thing to adapt Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (309 pages) into a two-hour movie. It’s quite another to adapt something like Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which is intended for younger audiences, and is substantially shorter with a much simpler plot.

Yes, adapting a kid’s book into a 90-minute film poses a unique set of challenges. The screenwriter has to flesh out the story while staying true to the original spirit of the book. This can result in some really great movies… or not. In time for this Friday’s release of Mr. Popper’s Penguins, MovieMaker has compiled a list of a few of the best kid’s book movie adaptations.

Horton Hears a Who! (1970)
directed by Chuck Jones and Ben Washam
So this isn’t a feature—it’s 26 minutes long and made for television—but it has to be included, if just to contrast it with the feature-length 2008 version of Horton (see below). In Horton Hears a Who, based on the book by Dr. Seuss, Horton the elephant finds a speck of dust that is home to an entire city full of people—but no one else believes him, and they threaten to lock him up and boil the speck in beezlenut oil. Horton can be appreciated on different levels: The story is full of vintage Seuss-ian whimsy, but Horton also imparts a message about how even the tiniest of people deserve respect. Horton also teaches kids to believe in themselves and stand up for their beliefs, even if other people think they’re crazy.

Jumanji (1995)
directed by Joe Johnston
History has not been kind to Jumanji. Starring Robin Williams, it is based on Chris Van Allsburg’s book about a board game that comes to life. At the time it was criticized for being too reliant on special effects; in his review of the film Rogert Ebert cites its “grotesque images” and notes that it is much too frightening for young audiences. I always liked Jumanji—it was exciting, not terrifying, and as a child I had no concept of there being such a thing as too many special effects. But then again, I also liked (and still like) that other 1990s Robin William kid’s movie, Steven Spielberg’s critical flop Hook. It has Dustin Hoffman in a pirate’s wig. Don’t judge me.
?
Shrek (2001)
directed by Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson
Shrek is a movie that both children and adults can enjoy. However, certain jokes are dated even now, like the use of “Macarena” near the end of the film (the fact that kids growing up now probably don’t know what the Macarena is makes me feel really old), but that’s a risk you take when you’ve filled your film with pop culture references. Other jokes, like Shrek and Donkey’s conversation on whether ogres are more like onions or parfaits, will probably stand the test of time a bit better. It seems like Shrek has spawned endless sequels and spinoffs just in the few years since it’s been out, and with a fourth movie on the horizon, fans of the lovable ogre should have nothing to worry about anytime soon.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)
directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller
Cloudy manages to be cute without being cloying, and it imparts a message without bludgeoning its audience over the head with it, as some other kids movies are compelled to do (see: 2008’s Horton Hears a Who!). Cloudy never makes the mistake of talking down to kids, of assuming they must have everything spelled out for them. So, yeah, the movie features a bunch of hilarious moments centered around food weather and the social ineptitude of its main character, Flint Lockwood, but at the same time it imparts messages about believing in yourself and not letting the naysayers distract you from achieving your potential.

But sometimes picture book movies don’t work out very well. The 1970 version of Horton Hears a Who! is among the best picture book adaptations; the 2008 version didn’t fare so well.

Horton Hears a Who! (2008)
directed by Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino
Part of what made the 1970 version of Horton Hears a Who! charming was its small scope: It is short, its animation style is simple and there are three people doing all the voices. The exact opposite is true of the 2008 version. Computer animation abounds, it’s slick and shiny and there are big name actors doing the voice-over work (Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Carol Burnett). The music is stirring and epic. Only one problem: This is Horton Hears a Who!, not Ben Hur! It’s not supposed to be epic! The motto of the story is, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” The same could be said of movies, and Hayward and Martino bungled Horton by treating it like just another big-budget kid’s movie.

MirrorMask (2005)
directed by Dave McKean
Let’s switch this up a little bit. It’s not often you see a movie that’s later adapted into a kid’s book, but MirrorMask is just that. It’s a visually inventive film with some wonderful imagery, but there’s simply too much of it, and not enough substance to make the film worth watching a second time. The story is simplistic—and hey, I have no problem with that per se, but with all of the computer graphics and fancy costumes and cats with wings and flying books and… you get the point. The balance of the movie is thrown out of whack, and it feels more like you’re watching an experiment in visual effects than a full-fledged film.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.