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Should children’s classics be made into films?

October 11, 2009

It seems as if Hollywood is running out of original source material and, in a desperate effort to regenerate interest in non-Pixer blockbuster films, is turning to the one genre that people of all ages could enjoy: the children’s classics.

Perennial favorites such as Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Where the Wild Things Are, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox have either all been made into or are in the process of being made into feature films, and this may indicate a disturbing future for these stories.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is the first one of the three to have come out and, considering that it was not only my favorite as a child but that it’s a claymation film, I am not interested in seeing it. I recall Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs as an unintentionally dark tale of greed and unintended consequences, but the film has turned it into a fun romp featuring actors like Mr. T and Anna Faris. Furthermore, the film suffers from not being live action. Much of the draw of making the classic children’s book into a movie would be showing the massive pancakes slowly floating over the town like suffering zeppelins or showing boulder-sized meatballs forcing families inside by landing violently in front yards.

Maybe this would make the story a bit too dark, but it would certainly make the world hunger subplot more prescient than the silly and outdated claymation style does.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox will also suffer from this, but hopefully the Wes Anderson-written script will protect the aesthetic of the Roald Dahl novel without sacrificing any of the book’s relatability. One thing that I am worried about, particularly with this film, is Hollywood’s effect on the film. Dahl, who also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and its much darker sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, didn’t write time-wasting dialogue into his novels. Instead, he wrote frank and clear conversation that advanced the plot. Having playful, wasteful conversation would completely ruin the story, and Anderson must be aware of that.

Ironically, at least for me, Where the Wild Things Are could be the most successful and accurate of the movies, actually adding to the value of its source material as opposed to detracting from it. As a child, I never enjoyed Maurice Sendak’s novel. Something about the large, furry creatures just seemed odd to me, maybe because I was freaked out by them or maybe because I didn’t quite understand just why they were there. Unlike the other two films, though, Where the Wild Things Are is live-action, giving it the benefit of added believability (and, therefore, added meaning) when compared to its two brethren.

I’m not sure that the Spike Jonze adaptation will be the gift to film that some seem to think it will be, but out of these three films it certainly seems like it will be the most entertaining and potentially important. The goal of any adaptation should be not only to do justice to the original story, but also to give it additional meaning and to open the story to new audiences. Unfortunately, only one of these films seems guaranteed to succeed on that goal.

Originally posted at On Popular Culture

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