June 13, 2011
Lost in translation: Children's books not always successful as movies
Children's books have long been fodder for Hollywood, with "Mr. Popper's Penguins" the latest kids' story getting a silver-screen version.
But do movies based on kids' books live up to the print versions?
Not always, according to two Kansas State University children's literature experts who say key details are often changed in hopes of turning a page-turner into a blockbuster.
"My biggest concern when a children's book is made into a movie is that the essence of what made the book a success will be lost in translation," said Anne Phillips, an associate professor of English at K-State who teaches courses in children's literature.
"Generally, the studios want a well known actor to play one of the roles so that they can obtain funding for the project. An example is when Dame Maggie Smith was cast as the housekeeper in 'The Secret Garden.' The script was then adapted to give her more to do. All of a sudden the project changed because of adult casting," Phillips said.
Naomi Wood, an associate professor of English who also teaches several children's literature courses, said how the plot is treated is key.
"It's not unusual for distinctive aspects of the text to be erased in favor of a generic approach to plot, characterization, etc.," Wood said. "For example, the protagonist of 'Holes' -- written by Louis Sachar -- was overweight, but movies often replace such characters with conventionally attractive child actors."
A slim Shia LaBeouf in the case of the movie version of "Holes."
But Phillips said sometimes the movie version of children's book can introduce new elements or characters that enhance the story.
"I taught the graduate seminar Film Adaptations of Children's Classics a few years ago and one of my favorite teaching experiences was 'Babe: The Sheep Pig' by Dick King-Smith. It's a good book, but it's a wonderful film," Phillips said. "The filmmakers created an additional character and enhanced the character arcs and plot; additionally, they took such care with the tone and details. It's a spot-on adaptation -- one my students very much admired.
"My students also felt, as a whole, that Walter Farley's 'The Black Stallion' was an OK book, but the film based on it is spectacular. They especially appreciated the director's willingness to respect the silences of the text, especially in the sequences where Alec and The Black have been shipwrecked on the island at the beginning of the film," Phillips said.
Both Phillips and Wood say it's personal preference on whether a child should see the movie first or read the book first.
"I suspect that a number of young readers have become more interested in books such as Rick Riordan's 'The Lightning Thief' and its sequels because they have seen the film," she said. "On the other hand, it can be more of a successful experience to read the book before seeing the film. My son enjoyed 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' and 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz' in book form before seeing the films. In the latter case, he wasn't afraid of anything in the film because he had already experienced the book version -- which is less frightening, particularly in its characterization of the monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West."
Reading the book first also can help young audiences more easily deal with the different interpretations of the story found in multiple film or stage versions, such as the different film versions of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Phillips said.
Wood prefers reading the book before seeing the movie. She also calls the first "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" movie superior to the book.
One book in Phillips view that hasn't fared well on the silver screen is Dodie Smith's "The One Hundred and One Dalmatians."
"The animated Disney feature is cute but it eviscerates the plot," she said. "The live action 'Dalmatian' films are pretty dreadful and they have no real interest in the plot."
But Phillips calls the book detailed, complex and surprising. "In the movies I miss the complicated gender issues of the text and the excitement of identifying the 101st Dalmatian, which occurs in the last chapter of the novel. None of the films bother with these details," she said.
Comparing books and their film versions is useful in the classroom, whether working with graduate students or preschoolers, Phillips said. It also can be fun for parents and children.
"Students can see similarities and differences, and they develop more specific opinions about both versions," she said. "It's also great fun to experience the text -- whether book or film -- as a class or as a family. The studios know that books with a history of being beloved or notable are films that adults will want to introduce to their children."