Total Recall: Children's Book Adaptations

As Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs rolls into cinemas -- with Where the Wild Things Are soon to follow -- we look back at 10 of our favourites

by | November 24, 2009 | Comments

As anyone who bore witness to The Cat in the Hat can testify, children’s book adaptations can be, putting it mildly, quite hit or miss. But sometimes, with the right mix of talent, visual effects and strong storytelling, a great film is born of a beloved story. This week’s animated adaptation of Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs has surprised critics to do just that, turning a kids’ favourite into a smart, energetic confection that bursts off the screen. And with Spike Jonze’s much-awaited adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are beginning its rumpus in cinemas next week, we decided to revisit 10 of our favourite children’s book adaptations.

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Alice in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written in 1865 by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. This Disney adaptation was loosely based on that book, and on elements from the writer’s 1871 sequel Through the Looking Glass. Despite the story’s nonsensical nature, Alice‘s rich fantasy elements and memorably absurd characters have seen it made into scores of film and television adaptations, including silent films, a Sesame Street special, and Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer’s dark, brilliantly surreal stop-motion version. Disney’s animation managed an adventure packed with weird visuals and eccentric characters, with the kind of trippy sequences you wouldn’t imagine the Mouse House endorsing today. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp will bring their distinctive vision to Carroll’s world with a 3-D Alice, due in March next year.

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The Neverending Story

German writer Michale Ende’s 1979 novel Die unendliche Geschichte (The Neverending Story) was adapted into a feature by director Wolfgang Peterson in 1984. The film follows Bastian, a young, modern day kid who escapes his troubles when he discovers an ancient book that transports him to the land of Fantasia — and, later, on the ride of his life aboard the giant luck dragon, Falcor — where his imagination must save a land ravaged by a terrible darkness. The filmmakers chose to ignore elements of the book’s plot and characters, prompting Ende to request that they stop production or change the name of the film completely. When they did neither, he sued, only to lose and end up simply being able to remove his name from the opening credits of the film.

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Drawn from fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s awarded 2002 novel, Coraline is like a new age version of Alice in Wonderland: incorporating horror, humour and fantasy, Henry Selick’s film is blend of frights and visual thrills that impressed adults and children alike with its detailed stop-motion technique — perfectly pitched in the world of three-dimensions. Coraline’s journey through a secret door and into the amazing-but-treacherous universe of her “other” family is a stark lesson in dispelling the idea that the grass is always greener. Look out for great cameos from the likes of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders as busty, retired actresses.

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With its overload of cute pop culture references, talking animals and adult themes, it’s easy to think that Shrek was an idea conjured in the offices of DreamWorks executives. Not so — in actual fact, the movie was adapted from a picture book, written by William Steig in 1990. Shrek was such a success that it encouraged a revival in the use of fairytales for film, and a seemingly endless string of animations based in pop culture parody. Not since The Princess Bride had audiences seen so much winking adult humour in children’s films — Farquaad’s name, for one, is surely not intended for playground use.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Prisoner of Azkaban stands as the most critically acclaimed adaptation of J.K. Rowling’s entire series of books thus far. It was the first film to hint at a possible darker side to Harry as he misuses magic and hints towards the possibility of murder — shocking! The Dementors are also quite frightening, possibly due to the visual styling of director Alfonso Cuarón, who went on to make the dystopian science fiction film, Children of Men. Fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro was also asked to direct this gloomier (and much more adult) Harry Potter instalment, but surprisingly turned it down because he found it to be too bright and happy.

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Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Roald Dahl adapted his own novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into the screenplay for this, retitled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to promote the “Wonka Bar” and to avoid associations with the Vietnam War. This first adaptation of Charlie’s trip to the factory after winning a Golden Ticket still resonates across generations, thanks to Gene Wilder’s charming, offbeat performance, the memorably haunting songs delivered by the Oompa Loompas, and some marvellous, psychedelic sequences that border on scary. It’s a world filled with wallpaper that is lickable and tastes like Snozberries, fizzy drink that lifts you up off the ground, and a geese that lay golden eggs — not to forget Wonka’s biggest secret of all, everlasting gobstoppers.

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The Iron Giant

This atomic-era tale of friendship between a small boy and a giant robot was based on the 1968 story “Iron Man” by British poet laureate — and husband of Sylvia Plath — Ted Hughes. Adapted for the screen by animator and former Simpsons writer Brad Bird, making his feature debut, the movie tells a complex and morally curious story that both enthrals kids and satisfies the intellectual appetites of adults. Despite its pedigree and all-round excellence, however, the film was a flop at the box-office. No matter, as it’s since become a cult favourite, and paved the way for Bird’s next feature, Pixar’s fantastic The Incredibles.

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Dick King-Smith’s book, The Sheep Pig, imagines a world not unlike that of Charlotte’s Web, in which the hero Babe can speak to the other animals and uses this ability to marshal the farmer’s flock. The story gently introduces children to the politics and harsh realities of farming and country life — a valuable lesson, especially for city kids who wouldn’t otherwise know where their Saturday morning bacon and eggs originally came from. Produced by George Miller and filmed in the luscious landscape of the small Australian town of Robertson, Babe was a massive box-office and critical success, earning seven Oscar nominations — including Best Picture.

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The Witches

Some remarkable films have been made from Roald Dahl’s work — including Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach and Wes Anderson’s upcoming Fantastic Mr. Fox — but this certainly remains one of the best. Angelica Houston is in her element as the aloof, child-hating Grand High Witch who is on the war path to wipe out every child in England by turning them into mice. There’s no reason given for her irrational hate for children, apart from the fact that to witches, children smell of dogs droppings. Directed by British maverick Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell To Earth), this was the last film made under the supervision of the late puppet master Jim Henson, and also the last of Dahl’s book’s to be adapted before his death. Rumour has it that Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón are in the early stages of developing a stop-motion animation adaptation that promises to stay more loyal to the book — Dahl hated the happy ending and actually protested outside cinemas for people not to watch it.

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The Wizard of Oz

The Wizard of Oz was based on a children’s pictorial novel written by L. Frank Baum, about Dorothy’s adventures through the Land of Oz. With the help of incredibly beautiful illustrations by W.W. Denslow, we are taken on a voyage to Dorothy’s self discovery and the friends that she meets along the way. There is a depressed Tim Man who needs a heart, a Cowardly Lion who needs courage, and a Scarecrow who needs a brain. Together they journey along the yellow brick road to find the wonderful Wizard of Oz, who will give them all that they desire. Dorothy, much like Alice and Coraline, feels bored and alienated with her reality until she experiences a terrifying and challenging other realm which teaches her that “there is no place like home”. The 1939 film adaptation was shot distinctively in three-strip Technicolor technology. There are a few notable differences between the book and the film. Firstly, in the book Oz is a real tangible place; however, in the film it is a dream land. Dorothy’s famous slippers were made ruby red to take advantage of the new vibrant Technicolor process; in the original novel, they were silver. And the Dorothy of the film is a passive damsel in distress who requires others help to get out of trouble, while the Dorothy of the book was a feminist who was actually the one to rescue everybody else! Regardless, the film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz retains its status of one of the most treasured family films of all time.

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