Wednesday, October 14, 2009

TOP 10: Children's Book Adaptations

Spike Jonze's hotly anticipated Where the Wild Things Are is out this Friday. To celebrate the amazing feat of adapting a ten-sentence book into an inspired feature length film, I've decided to look at the best films adapted from children's books.
10. Coraline

One of the most impressive animated films of the decade is Coraline, Henry Selick's delightful stop-motion feature based on the creepy bestseller by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman wrote the book, about a girl who finds an unsettling world in her family's new house, for his young daughter, who liked to have scary stories read aloud to her. After searching for books that fit the bill in libraries and bookstores, Gaiman decided there weren't many scary books that were appropriate for kids. So he came up with Coraline, and read her chapters as he wrote them. Henry Selick's splendidly eerie version captures the tone of the book and adds visual wonder to a solid story. Coraline, the first animated movie to be originally filmed in 3D, is a frightening fairy tale guaranteed to become a classic.
9. Bambi

There are plenty of films in the Disney cannon to choose from for a post like this. Most of them are based on classic stories and fairy tales, but Bambi stands out, I think, as one of the studio's most emotionally effective works. Bambi was based on a 1923 Austrian novel by Felix Salten entitled Bambi, A Life In the Woods. The book was considered one of the first environmental novels published, and was banned in Nazi Germany in 1936 when officials declared it a "political allegory on the treatment of Jews in Europe". The film version created some of the most memorable cartoon critters ever, and the shooting of Bambi's mother is one of the saddest moments in film history. Walt Disney was brave to stay true to the source and make Man the bad guy. It's a beautiful, heartfelt, and courageous adaptation that still inspires laughter and tears all over the world.
8. A Little Princess

A Little Princess is a beautiful film from Alfonso Cuaron, based on the book of the same name by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Published in 1904, A Little Princess follows young Sara Crewe, a kind and intelligent girl who is sent to live in a boarding school when her doting father goes off to war. After news comes of his death, Sara is forced by the school's headmistress to become a servant, and escapes into her imagination when her trials seem unbearable. In the movie, Sara is played with a calm wonder by Liesel Andrews, who gives a wonderfully solemn performance. The film is a magical experience about the uncertain place of a child in the mysterious and often frightening world of adults.
7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Roald Dahl's classic children's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory inspired a 2005 adaptation from Tim Burton, but the 1971 original, retitled Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, is the more popular version. The novel, published in 1964, introduced us to the endearingly eccentric candymaker Willy Wonka, who invites the finders of five golden tickets hidden in his chocolate bars on a tour of his factory. Wonka is played in the film by the always amazingly funny Gene Wilder, and the children - apart from poor but kind Charlie Buckett - are hysterical brats. It's a sweet and funny journey that lives in your heart as long as an Everlasting Gobstopper stays in your mouth (forever).
6. Little Women

Little Women is a classic novel for people of all ages, but Louisa May Alcott intended it for the young women of her time. The March sisters - Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy - grapple with heartache and disillusionment on the way to finding love and happiness during the Civil War. Alcott largely based her novel on her own life, and in it she explored the overcoming of one's character flaws. The sisters deal with vanity, a hot temper, shyness and selfishness, respectively. Several film adaptations have been made, most recently in 1994, but George Cukor's 1933 release starring Katharine Hepburn is an elegant masterpiece. Little Women is a simple but moving story about the struggles and adventures of a family and the people they love.
5. Babe

Babe is a brilliant marvel of a movie based on The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith. Babe is a clever little pig who is miraculously saved from the slaughterhouse by a farmer who takes a liking to him. Raised by a caring border collie as one of her own, Babe becomes a valued member of the farm's family when he proves adept at herding Farmer Hoggett's sheep. Babe is a surprisingly endearing film with an inventive premise, clever writing, and top-notch performances (especially James Cromwell's Oscar-nominated turn as Farmer Hoggett). It's a wonderfully entertaining lesson about accepting even the porkiest of outsiders. That'll do, pig.
4. The Iron Giant

Easily one of the greatest animated films in history, The Iron Giant is based on the 1968 novel The Iron Man by Ted Hughes. Brad Bird's tragically underseen film debut is a stunning example of how great hand-drawn animation can be. At the height of America's space paranoia, young Hogarth Hughes makes an enormous discovery in the form of a friendly robot from outer space who just happens to be the ultimate weapon. It's a story of impossible friendship and teaches a very valuable lesson: You are who you choose to be.
3. Mary Poppins

This 1964 musical was based on a series of books by P.L. Travers about a magical English nanny, Mary Poppins, who arrives at Number Seventeen Cherry Lane to look after the Banks children, Jane and Michael. Their father, George Banks, is a workaholic, but soon the prim, proper, and practically perfect Mary Poppins teaches him to spend more time with the children who desperately need him. Julie Andrews plays the singing, self-admiring nanny with her trademark poise, and the original songs are fun and recognizable. The movie that put "supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" in every man's vocabulary is a whimsical musical adventure for kids of all ages.
2. The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden, another brilliant children's story from Frances Hodgson Burnett, was my favorite book growing up. It's the story of an orphan girl, Mary Lennox, who goes to live at the home of a reclusive uncle in England. Misselthwaite Manor, the uncle's estate, is a gloomy and forboding home in which there is little for Mary to do but explore. She makes a few new friends, and in her touring of the house she comes across a key to an overgrown garden on the grounds, and discovers that this garden is in turn the key to happiness for several others. The Secret Garden was assuredly directed by Anieszka Holland in 1993, and it's an entrancing, lovely piece of filmmaking. Roger Deakins' hypnotically beautiful photography matches the intelligent story in each individual moment. The result is a family feature so pristine and alluring that you'll wish it never had to end.
1. The Wizard of Oz

There's something to be said for a movie made over 70 years ago that's still a hit with each new generation. Dorothy Gale's trip over the rainbow isn't the only story. L. Frank Baum created an entire series of books exploring his wonderful world of Oz, but The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is the most famous and beloved of them all, and the 1939 film introduced the world to Judy Garland and remains one of the most quotable movies ever made. The Wizard of Oz is a great American fairy tale with universal appeal and influence, and it warmly invites new audiences to follow Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road year after year.
There you have it. Are you planning to see Where the Wild Things Are this weekend? What were your favorite children's books growing up, and how do you fell about their film versions, if they have them?


Tom said...

Yes! I want to see Where the Wild Things Are! I read this as a child and it was one of my favorite books. From the looks of the trailers I don't think I'll be disappointed. Also loved Curious George and all the Dr. Seuss books, but pretty much passed over the move remakes of those, they looked pretty uneventful, and aimed at really small children. "Wild Things" seems as if it has the adult audience member in consideration, which I appreciate more as an adult.

Rae Kasey said...

The first trailer for Where the Wild Things Are is one of the best I've seen all year. So far the reception is worrying me, though...

Some of my favorites were the books by Beverly Cleary. Ramona Quimby Age 8, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, etc. I heard somewhere they're working on Beezus and Ramona, but I haven't heard who's involved yet.

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