Sunday, August 05, 2007

Moving Picture Books

A co-worker came and told me yesterday - quite excitedly - that they are making movies of Where the Wild Things Are, Horton Hears a Who, The Tale of Despereaux, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. (There were a couple others, but I'd either already heard about them - Spiderwick, The Dark is Rising - or I can't remember them at the moment.)

I don't think she got the reaction she expected.

Now, unlike some librarians and teachers I know, I'm really happy that Hollywood has decided to start making kids books into movies. When they are well done (and despite The Dark is Rising's likely suckitude, most of them have been very well done lately) I think they expose kids to good stories they may not have heard otherwise and it gets them interested in reading books they not have read otherwise. If they are done well, they leave the kids wanting more and are true enough to the spirit of the books that kids aren't annoyed by the books when they get a hold of them or, more rarely, are different enough from the books that each ends up complimenting the other.

The problem is, most of the good adaptations have been done on kid's novels. There is one decent adaptation of a kid's picture book, and that was Zathura, and Zathura, being about an adventure that we are given minimal details about, is uniquely adaptable. (And I suspect that, after the success of Jumanji the book and the awfulness of Jumanji the movie, it was deliberately written to be adaptable.)

So, I was skeptical when I heard the news. It's really hard to take a 32 page book with only several hundred words and adapt it well and come out with a commercially viable movie. How good these movies are will depend a lot on who is doing them and how willing they are to break the mold.

Unfortunately, most of what I want to know is not available. How long is the story? Are they intended to be kid's movies, or family movies? Did the filmmakers consider the developmental age of their target audience? Does the movie have not just the same story and characters, but the same pacing and the same age appropriate metaphor and symbolism?

Because , you see, the problem is that most people have no idea how to make movies for little kids. Hollywood can make Disney style movies that are for families really well. They've got that down pat. But they generally don't have any idea how to make a movie that is meant for kids. They don't seem to understand what it is about these books that is so appealing to young children, so the movie adaptations tend to only be superficially the same as the books. Despite appealing to all ages, Where the Wild Things Are and Horton Hears a Who are very much books for little kids, and I worry that they plan to make family movies out of them.

What's the difference between a kid's movie and a family movie, you ask? The same difference there is between a picture book and a good read aloud novel like Charlotte's Web.

First of all, they are shorter and the basic plot is simpler. Because kids are so entranced by TV/movies, the issue of length isn't one of boredom, it's about how much kids are able to understand the first time around. In order to be understandable by preschoolers, as Where the Wild Things Are is, the basic plot needs to be digestible in one sitting. The meaning of the story and nuances of the plot come with repetition, but if the story is most appropriate for their age/development, their answer to "what happened?" will usually cover the most fundamental plot points. Most kids will answer something about Max going to live with the Wild Things, spending time with the Wild Things, or leaving home and coming back. But if you ask a preschooler who just saw Cinderella for the first time what happened in it, they aren't as likely to give you the basic plot. They are more likely to say something about the mice than they are about the stepsisters. It's much harder for them to make sense of something that long and complicated on first viewing.

This isn't to say that kids shouldn't be exposed to longer stories. They most definitely should. However, they need to practice not only following complicated plots, but also understanding what stories mean. Especially in elementary school, the novels that teachers analyze with kids tend to be just a bit shorter and a bit easier to read than what the average student is capable of finishing. (Which confuses parents - who will sometimes be all "but my kid read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in class in fifth grade - it's fifth grade level reading!." Um, NO. It's third/fourth grade level.) This is because it's much harder to read for meaning when you are spending so much time working on the mechanics of reading. The same is true with movies. If preschoolers are spending a lot of time trying to follow what is happening, they aren't spending as much time absorbing the emotions and meaning involved.

Focus and repetition are also important for the same reasons. The side plots with the Cinderella's mice confuse preschoolers, but the various activities that Max engages in do not, in part because Max activities are repetitious, but the side plots in Cinderella are not. Max's activities with the Wild Things are not only all of the same variety (until he says "Stop!"), they also mimic the one side plot in the story - Max interactions with his mother. The former helps kids group them into a single plot point and the latter helps them not get caught up in trying to keep track of irrelevant information. It also makes it easier for them to recognize the metaphor in the story, because it's a pretty damn obvious one.

Last of all is pacing. The repetition in Where the Wild Things are - not just repetition in the text, but between text and the illustrations - makes for really slow pacing, despite the energetic action involved. Kids are given time to let each phrase or sentence sink in before moving onto the next. Part of why a lot of TV fascinates children is because it does the exact opposite. Frequent cuts, fast pacing, lots of stuff going on. They find it interesting largely because it's a challenge to to catch everything, and there is no failure because you are always going to catch something. Kids live for challenges, especially ones that have a high success rate and therefore don't often get frustrating. However, these aren't the shows that kids love. There is a reason why one of the most beloved children's shows, Mister Roger's Neighborhood, is painstakingly calm. If you watch the shows that are popular among preschoolers, you'll notice that a lot of them move much more slowly than shows that are popular among older kids.

There's a lot of good television for children that follow these basic rules, (plus a lot of other stuff): Charlie and Lola, Blue's Clues, and Mister Rogers, just to name a few. But there aren't as many good movies for kids, especially outside of direct to video. Most of the movies that do follow these rules tend to not fit the mold of what makes a successful commercial movie. Such as The Heffalump Movie, which manages to have more going on than the toddlers it appeals to can understand on first viewing, and yet not so much that toddlers walk away not understanding the basic plot: two animals/kids meeting and becoming friends. My niece may have become obsessed with both Cinderella and Lumpy upon watching their movies, but it was the basic plot of Lumpy's story that she was able to understand and therefore chose to constantly re-enact. I really hope that the movie version of Where the Wild Things Are will be the kind of movie that kids want to re-enact rather than just wanting stuff with Max on it.


This is what I've found so far: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is so far back in the pre-pre-pre production stage that we've got squat. It's also the one that I'm worried about the least, because I think it's the easiest of the three to adapt.

Where the Wild Things Are is being done by Spike Jonze. There is one picture available on the web, and I must admit, I saw it and went oooohhhh. Max in his Max suit looks freakin' adorable and you look at (what you can see of) the Wild Things and you think "I can see someone looking at those and coming up with Sendak's illustrations." Which is the right way to go, rather than trying to bring something that looks like Sendak's Wild Things to life. Unfortunately, they've also introduced a character named Alexander to the movie. Which I can only hope is the same idea as the astronaut in Zathura and works better than I fear it will.

Horton Hears a Who is being done by the "creators of Ice Age via Fox. They are far enough along that they have a trailer up. (The IMDB link will take you to it.) The character design looks very well done. The backgrounds....ok. (There is a reason why Seuss' backgrounds are often so minimal, and I'm not sure this movie translates that well.) The personalities are engaging but a bit off. The jokes for adults: "Boooo!!!"

PS - If Spike Jonze does pull Where the Wild Things Off and doesn't get at least nominated for best adapted screenplay, I'm going to be almost as pissed as I will be if he ruins it.

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