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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

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Awesome Children’s Picture Books turned into Movies

Many young adult and children’s chapter books have been adapted into movies over the decades, but I always find myself especially excited when a trailer comes out for a picture book adaption. Not only are these the books that originally inspired our imaginations at a very young age, but they also tend to become something much larger and deeper on the big screen.

From Roald Dahl to Dr. Seuss to Maurice Sendak, today’s blog post explores the awesomeness of children’s literature and how these seemingly simplistic books often hint at much deeper themes.

Roald Dahl seems to be the forerunner of inspiring children’s movie adaptations, with classics such as Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and James and the Giant Peach. As many of you might remember from childhood, well-known filmmakers have spun their own take on these classics with magical breakfast montages, singing morals, and stop-motion animation. All of these movies involve children, much wiser than the adults surrounding them, who succeed despite the limitations of their circumstances--Charlie’s family is poor, Matilda’s family is awful, and James’ is an orphan with a cloud rhino on the loose.

More recently, Wes Anderson turned a fox with a knack for adventure and a flare for the fantastic into a character with an existential need to prove himself. If you’re familiar with Wes Anderson, this shouldn’t surprise you. At any rate, the filmmaker isn't exactly known for children's films. Among many common themes seen throughout his work, Fantastic Mr. Fox explores the complexities of the father/son dynamic—the son wants to simply meet expectations of his father while the father wants to exceed expectations of living a trite and steady lifestyle. By changing the number of children from four to one, the film is able to focus on this relationship. Also, Mrs. Fox gets a little more depth in film. Instead of constantly praising her husband for being "fantastic" and falling too weak to help dig in the book, she puts Mr. Fox in check and makes him question his priorities. Though I'm not sure how much is learned from her speech, Mr. Fox is certainly happier with himself by the end. 

But what impresses me is that this is film is unusually sophisticated for a children's movie and probably better suited for adults. Taking such simple characters and giving them human motivations seems so easily done. Even the rat is given a shot at redemption. And in an amazing feat of stop-motion animation, this movie proves that the simplest of plots can be magically expanded with the small addition of interesting characters. 

Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are has lived on bookshelves since 1963, until someone thought to make it a feature-length movie in 2009. Not unlike its book counterpart, Wild Things isn’t a typically happy movie. The main character, Max, encounters many feelings on his journey into his imagination. Re-reading the book, I realize how filmmaker Spike Jones was able to conceptualize the various personalities of the monsters. The illustrations of the nameless characters portray such expressive faces that aren’t easily placed. During the wild rumpus, I can’t tell if they’re angry, mischievous, or happy, which clearly inspired Jones to create characters with more complex emotions. To me, each wild thing personifies an emotion that a child might feel, but maybe isn’t able to identify, such as insecurity, anxiety, fear, jealousy, and loneliness. In less than 200 words, Sendak addresses anger through the imagination of a little boy and reminds us of the comfort of coming home. And though rated PG, I believe the film appeals more to adults who grew up with the book, finally surfacing the much deeper themes the book always hinted at.

For those who haven’t read the book in a while, here’s an impersonation of Christopher Walken reading it. You’re welcome.

But perhaps not all children’s books work in movie form.

Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, actually wrote The Cat in the Hat in 1957 in response to a Life magazine article about the country’s national student reading problem. Apparently the squeaky clean, rosy-cheeked characters of the Dick and Jane books (and other primers taught in schools from the 1930s through the 1950s) were actually boring as hell.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Seuss’s rhymes didn’t translate well into a live-action movie in 2003. Or maybe it was just the fact that Mike Meyers too closely resembled the Kool-aid guy with his constant “Oh yeahs.” I know Seuss’s world is supposed to be generally “out-there,” but the creepy CGI fish and Alec Baldwin unwrapping his beer belly were a little too much for me.

Although, another of Seuss’s books did generally well as a film adaptation: Ron Howard’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas. But among many failed jokes and questionable acting choices, I think the difference between the two films' success lies in the development of the main character. In The Cat in the Hat, the biggest character arc seems to be that of the mother, who is barely in the film. So I guess the Cat is just supposed to be this all-knowing being who wreaks havoc on random families to show them the importance of having each other? That character seems a little flat to me, while the Grinch is given a empathetic back story, interacts in real relationships, and has a believable character arc. Other than that, The Grinch once again proves how much we, as a society, love Jim Carey. And Christmas. 

It amazes me how timeless certain picture books can be. Walking into a book store and seeing The Giving Tree, Rainbow Fish, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar on display so many years after they were a huge part of my life both surprises and doesn't surprise me. We don't even realize that the themes in many of these children’s books, though often on the surface, can actually be quite profound. Each filmmaker was able to take his individual interpretation of a simple tale and give more meaning and substance to an already esteemed work of literature, allowing adults to once again enjoy their childhood in a different way. 

Reading at a young age is so very important, and re-reading these classics as an adult, I am reminded of what’s at the heart of many of these memorable children’s books. It's what filmmakers had to have in order to brave the threat of reader expectation. It's at the beginning of every story and the very reason young children allow themselves to get swept away by a book for the very first time. Imagination. 

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