Three Rules for Turning Kids’ Books into Movies

Since I’m a sucker for anything in 3D, this weekend I ducked into an afternoon showing of Monsters vs. Aliens. Before the movie, I was met with a couple trailers for films adapted from books I’ve loved since childhood: Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. Take a look:

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Nothing is more worrisome to me than the prospect of one of my favorite childhood memories being chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine. I look at these two trailers, and it’s clear to me that there’s definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about these adaptations. For me, based only on the trailers, Where the Wild Things Are looks like it’s really going to nail it, and poor Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs looks like frozen leftovers.

Of course, it wasn’t really a fair comparison to begin with. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs looks like it was made for the common denominator of most children, while Where the Wild Things Are looks like it was made for me (Spike Jonze direction, Arcade Fire soundtrack). In fact, before I even went out to Monsters vs. Aliens, my Twitter lit up with people my age insisting that I watch the Wild Things trailer online.

Still, noting the differences between these two movies illustrates three rules I think studios should follow when taking things from the page to the big screen.

1) Cast actors because of their voices, not because of their names. Luckily, both these movies seem to follow this one. Wild Things has actors that are recognizable but not overly so: Catherine Keener, Forest Whitaker, James Gandolfini, and Paul Dano. Cloudy goes with some gifted comedians: Anna Faris, Andy Samberg, Bill Hader, and Tracy Morgan. Neither falls into the Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas trap of casting Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones just because they’re Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones. (And did anyone see/like/remember Sinbad? No? Exactly.) On the flip side, Pixar is the master of excellent voice casting. No one will see a movie because Craig T. Nelson is on the marquee, but he made a fantastic Mr. Incredible.

2) Stay true to the spirit of the original work, even if you need to change the details. A 25-page book will not make a 90-minute movie, so some things have to be shifted around. Here’s where I think Cloudy is going to fail the most. In the book, food raining from the sky is an unexplained phenomenon. It just happens. Shoehorning in a justification for it—especially in the form of such a stock character (an idealistic dreamer)—completely takes the magic out of it. (The illustrations in the book are also more interesting and have more personality than the bubbly people in the movie.) Wild Things, on the other hand, feels exotic, strange, and ferocious; even if I don’t remember any Wild Thing crying in the book like one does in the trailer, it still seems like a more faithful adaptation. Outside of these two movies, I’d say the Harry Potter films are another good example of what to do and what not to do. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone squeezes in all of the details from the first book and, in my opinion, feels sluggish and tedious. The third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, dispenses with a lot of the plot from the books but does a better job of creating the frightening, overwhelming, serious feeling of going up against pure evil. In my mind, that’s the much better film.

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3) The best children’s properties are scary. This has been true for centuries. Fairy tales—think the original Grimms’—are scary. Roald Dahl was scary. Harry Potter is scary. More recently, Coraline was scary—and it was pretty amazing. I’m not saying that all children’s comedies are bad, but you can’t really be afraid to challenge children. Coddling them is just too boring. Now, to me, those Wild Things are terrifying. I can’t wait to get my ticket.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs opens September 18.
Where the Wild Things Are
opens October 16.
Find more great reads that’ll certainly be adapted into movies at the local library.

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