The other day I found myself presiding over a conversation/explanation for my three year-old that (as soon as I heard myself hold forth on the matter) left me with possibly more doubts and skepticism than I had before I opened my mouth. The summary version goes something like this: my son let me know that he wanted to see a movie version of one of his beloved story books (a book that, to my knowledge, hasn’t yet been committed to film). I told him that we might be able to see it in the future, but assured him that in virtually every case; the book is always better than the movie. My wife concurred. Without missing a beat, he asked us why books are better than movies, and honestly, I was a bit dumbfounded.
The obvious answer is that the written word is evermore nimble, nuanced, and dynamic than just about anything committed to film. It depicts the inner-world of both the writer as well as the characters that populate the tome. It is the graceful collision of text, image, and form that create the singular book experience that is both personal and unparalleled. This vitality is something that is more often than not lost in screen adaptations, as it is trampled underfoot by needless rewrites, runtime limitations, unfortunate omissions, and the general poverty of low expectations that make up most mainstream children’s films.
But really, how would you prove this point to a child who (as most children are) is drawn to the bombast and spectacle of children’s cinema?
Thankfully there are a few exceptions to the good book/bad movie rule. These films either faithfully interpret the beauty and artistry of the book for the screen, or (in some cases) they nearly exceed the two-dimensional limitations of the original.
The following is an imperfect and incomplete list of some of the standout film adaptations of children’s books (and this list is likely to change in the near future with much anticipated adaptations of Where the Wild Things Are and The Fantastic Mr. Fox set for release this fall and Dr. Seuss The Lorax going into production shortly):
The Prince and the Pauper (1937)
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
The Secret Garden (1993)
The Princess Bride
The Iron Giant
Howl’s Moving Castle
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
101 Dalmatians (1961)
The Harry Potter Series (while not all of these films are exemplary, the series seems to not only do justice to the books, but often expands upon moods, themes and ideas in the text)
The Wizard of Oz
Feel free to suggest additions, omissions, or simply comment on the current state of children’s films and their attempt at adapting literature.