Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Children's Book-to-Screen Primer

By Erin Korth, BMFI Intern

There is something both heart-racing and heart-wrenching in seeing a beloved book adapted for the silver screen. On one hand, how wonderful it is to experience the physical manifestations of the characters that only existed as wisps of imagination; on the other, how terrifying is the prospect that not even the most beautifully adapted film could do those long-cherished literary heroes justice.

According to PBS Masterpiece Theatre, nearly one third of all films ever produced are based off of a novel. Some stories have had extraordinary adaptations, while others have not been so lucky. In a salute to BMFI’s December Kids Matinees theme, Good Book/Great Movie, which celebrates movie adaptations of beloved children's stories, check out these five films that made excellent page-to-screen transitions.

The Phantom Tollbooth
Written by Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth tells the story of a bored young boy named Milo, who arrives home from school one day to find a mysterious tollbooth in his bedroom. A peek through the magical portal finds him in the Kingdom of Wisdom, where he and his companion Tock, the “watchdog”, must journey through the whimsical land to rescue the princesses Rhyme and Reason, and restore harmony to the kingdom. Along the way they “eat their words” at a banquet in the city of Dictionopolis, defeat the Senses Taker in the Mountains of Ignorance, and venture into the number mines to haggle with the Mathemagician.

Directed by Chuck Jones, the master animator behind Looney Tunes and How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, the film is a visual delight, and stays true enough to the original story that fans of the book will quickly find themselves as immersed in Milo’s on-screen adventures as they were in his in-print exploits. 
Milo and Tock on the Road to Expectations in The Phantom Tollbooth
Good book, great movie? Decide for yourself at BMFI’s showing of The PhantomTollbooth, Saturday, December 1 at 11:00 am.
Mary Poppins
The iconic Disney classic is an adaptation of a book series by P. L. Travers. Jane and Michael Banks, along with their baby siblings John and Barbara, spend eight books gallivanting off on spectacular adventures with the fantastic, though intimidating, Mary Poppins. The 1964 film Mary Poppins condenses the escapades of the Banks children, told over several books in the series, into one story, and Julie Andrews’s character is a much kinder and lovelier version of the British nanny, whose literary counterpart--though likewise magical and mischievous--can be a hard-nosed, vain, and irritable woman. The Disney film is just as much fun as the book series, and will not instill in children a fear of sour British nannies.
Burt and Mary have a jolly holiday in Disney's Mary Poppins
A Little Princess (1995)
A Little Princess was written by Frances Hodgson Burnett in 1905, and adapted for film several times in the succeeding century. When her father invests in an Indian diamond mine, wealthy young Sara Crewe is enrolled in Miss Minchin’s boarding school for girls. Her belief that “every girl is a princess” is put to the test when the news arrives that Sara’s father has died of jungle fever. Penniless, she is forced to live in squalor and work as a servant, but her misery is abated by the arrival of a mysterious Indian gentleman to the house next door.

Most recently, director Alfonso CuarĂ³n tackled the classic tale in his 1995 film adaptation, A Little Princess. His adaptation makes several major changes, moving the story from London to New York, sending Sara’s father off to World War I, and tweaking the ending. It is, however, as equally enchanting and immersing as the book, and received wide critical acclaim and two Academy Award nominations.
Sara tells stories to keep her spirits high in A Little Princess
Decide which film version of the heartwarming story is your favorite. BMFI is screening the 1939 adaptation of A Little Princess, starring Shirley Temple, on Saturday, February 23 at 11:00 am as part of a month-long tribute to the pint-sized superstar.

Alice in Wonderland
Like many Disney adaptations, the Alice in Wonderland cherry-picked the best bits from its literary source and transformed them into mind-boggling animation. Based almost entirely on Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Disney does borrow sequences from Carroll's sequel Through the Looking Glass. Nearly all of Alice’s on-screen adventures are faithful adaptations of the book, including her tea party with the Mad Hatter, and head-spinning haggling with the Cheshire Cat. Lewis’s book, a famous example of the literary nonsense genre, translates spectacularly to the zany animation talents of 1950s Disney.
Alice crosses paths with the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland
One Hundred and One Dalmatians
The 1961 Disney film One Hundred and One Dalmatians is based on a story by Dodie Smith, published five years before the movie’s release. In Smith’s novel, Pongo and Missis enlist the help of animals across England to hunt down Cruella de Vil and rescue their kidnapped puppies. True to happy-ending form, Pongo's friend, a dog named Perdita, reunites with her long lost love, Prince, who becomes the family’s 101st Dalmatian. Fans of the book will note changes made in the name of story simplification, such as combining Perdita and Missis into a single canine hero. Many characters skip from book to screen intact, however, including Colonel, the Old English Sheepdog, and Cruella de Vil in all of her prancing, smoking, cartoon glory.
Pongo and Roger are unimpressed with Cruella de Vil
in One Hundred and One Dalmatians
Was your favorite book ever made into a movie? How do you think it turned out?

Experience wonderful children's stories on the big screen throughout December with BMFI's Kids Matinees: Good Book/Great Movie, including The Phantom Tollbooth, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Where the Wild Things Are, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the 2011 version of Winnie the Pooh.   

Erin Korth is a senior at Bryn Mawr College currently interning at BMFI. With a few exceptions, she is horribly possessive of her favorite childhood books, and won't go near their film adaptations with a ten-foot pole.

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