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Books to Watch: Children’s Film Adaptations That are Not Terrible

Books to Watch: Children’s Film Adaptations That are Not Terrible

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.

Read more: Children, Family, Parenting at the Crossroads, , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.


+ add your own
9:45AM PDT on Jul 14, 2012


10:01PM PDT on Jul 10, 2012

Howl’s Moving Castle is too anime for me.

12:59PM PST on Dec 10, 2011

Tell the kid that the "movie" in his head as he READS is likely to be BETTER than what Hollywood can turn out. (Case in point: upcoming adaptation of Burroughs' Princess of Mars.
Look who they've cast as "the most beautiful woman of two worlds.")

7:27PM PST on Dec 9, 2011

often think books are better because my images and ideas of the events, characters, etc can be "perfect" in my mind.....

1:44AM PST on Feb 5, 2011

Thanks for the info.

7:44PM PST on Jan 2, 2010

because reading is done by me, not something I am subjected to;j Can you tell I don't go to movie. Frankly, I left it up to my daughter to discover film as a teenager and for a while in college she was a devoted movie goer, but now for both of us, the best films of the year are at the Banff Mountain Films festival (documentaries).

8:10AM PST on Jan 2, 2010


12:04PM PDT on Aug 17, 2009

Have to add Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Avonlea (I think that title has since been changed to Anne of Green Gables: The Sequal), based on the Anne books by Lucy Maud Montgomery. While not a literal, verbatim translation of the books (but what movie is? That would be impossible), it's very true to the characters and tone of the stories. The Disney TV show Road to Avonlea in the 90's was sort of a spin off of these movies.

It was the movies, actually, that inspired me to read the books....and as an adult I re-read the books and re-watch the movies often, as they're amongst my favorites. A true childhood classic - books and movies - that shouldn't be overlooked.

9:20PM PDT on Aug 13, 2009

Great article, but I have to disagree with the Harry Potter movies. True, they add some interesting bits here and there, but the acting is terrible and it feels like someone attaked the books with a bunch of scissors and left out the best parts!

8:40AM PDT on Aug 13, 2009

If you read my post I'm just explaining some of the reasons books & movies differ, I also strongly DON'T defend poor executions of it. I only state that they're two different things, and sometimes it's poor adaptation, while other times it's a bias towards what was found necessary to change--or some combo of that. I'm not saying it was necessary, but it's a tricky thing to do. I'm only saying they're two different mediums. And I want to mention too that some things just shouldn't be made into a movie. And I state why movies continue to be made the way they do: They make money. We're the only ones who can control that.
Also, I hope you'll be more careful what you say, as I've yet to read the book you told the ending of, but wanted to.
Cheers, though, and I mean that earnestly.

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