Best Children’s Book to Film Adaptations
As any children’s librarian will attest, once the cinematic version of a children’s book comes out, suddenly copies of the original text begin to disappear from library shelves. But listing terrible children’s book to film adaptations is like shooting fish in a big, slippery, slimy barrel. How much more interesting to consider the good adaptations instead. How very much more subjective. Inspired by both the San Francisco Chronicle’s blog post on the subject, NPR’s recent piece, and the subsequent child_lit listserv discussion, here is my own personal list of adaptations to full-length feature films (sorry, Grinch) that I think worked particularly well. Some videos will spruce it up a bit too, don’t you think?
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – And right off the bat I cheat by including a made-for-television movie. And a Canadian one at that! Shocking. That said, this was one of the few instances where an actress (A) Had to play both pre and post-puberty and (B) Had to make a character, that could easily go twee, not only likeable but loveable. Megan Follows did so admirably. Here we see a scene that I always found incredibly satisfying as a kid.
You can see the Megan Follows audition tape here too.
Babe by Dick King-Smith – In spite of the fact that it is based on a chapter book, the movie felt inclined to add a touch more plot and drama to the script. Fortunately the additions worked and the film has a very lighthearted sense with an occasional dark undercurrent to give it some zing. Truth be told, I watched this movie more than once in college. For lack of a good scene, we’ll just watch the trailer.
The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas M. Disch – All right. So what am I trying to say when I call these the best adaptations? Particularly when the films are clearly their own beasts, as in the case of Toaster and friends? Well, sometimes it comes down to a great film that was only vaguely based on the original text. Now my husband and I have a debate as to what the best psychedelic children’s film is. He’s all about the Dr. Seuss movie The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. Average scene from the film seen here:
Fah. You call that weird? I’m all about The Brave Little Toaster, which I will defend to my grave. You be the judge. Which is stranger?
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson – This film scared the living daylights out of librarians when the trailer first premiered. Were they going to turn it into some crazy fantasy flick? They were not. And with David Paterson, Katherine’s son, having written the screenplay, there was definitely somebody involved in the moviemaking process that cared about the book. The result is possibly Walden Media’s best film to date. It is also one of the rare non-fantasy titles turned into a children’s film. This scene I’ll include because when I watched it in the theater I found myself thinking, "A movie with kids that’s actually shot outdoors? With real trees? In this day and age? Woah."
Coraline by Neil Gaiman – Some of the kids in the bookgroup I run refused to see it after viewing the trailer. They hated the idea that anything in the book had to be changed for the film. We discussed how sometimes a book just has to have some things rearranged in order to work on the big silver screen. Some children remain incredulous. Others adore this movie. To my mind, it captures the heart of the novel and manages to be visually stunning to boot. It’s too new for any scenes to crop up online. We’ll just go with the trailer then.
Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas by Russell Hoban – Well, what can you say? It’s perfect from tip to toe. The ultimate Christmas children’s book to film (sorry, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever) to date. I wanted to include the song "When the River Meets the Sea" but that’s not available. The opening then:
And, of course, there are the bloopers.
The Harry Potter films (books by J.K. Rowling) – My blood-soaked rant about the last movie aside, this is one of the more successful book to screen adaptations, and probably the MOST successful children’s book series to ever be adapted to celluloid. For nostalgia’s sake, here’s the trailer for Film #1.
Holes by Louis Sachar – If the movie has committed any crime, it gave the world Shia LeBoeuf. But back then he wasn’t the one-handed inexplicable action star he is today. He was just a skinny kid with frizzy hair trying to make things right. And sure, Stanley Yelnats is supposed to be a large, chubby individual, but that skinnification was seemingly the only change made between the book and the film. It didn’t hurt matters any that Louis Sachar helped write the screenplay, of course.
I liked the Psych reference to Holes too, for that matter.
The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes – Which I have never seen nor read the book of. So my inclusion of it here is based on hearsay and conjecture. Still, pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to agrees that this was an amazing film based on the barest slip of a book.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis – Some have called it cold, but I though the first movie in this series had much to recommend it. Granted the dual sword-fighting witch element was a little weird. But it somehow managed to be faithful to the book while also ending up the correct length for a feature film. This trailer was once shown to a group of children in my library (the Jefferson Market Branch) prior to the film’s release. Nice and long.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien – Not a scene from the film. Just something I felt inclined to include. You have all seen these movies, after all. Nothing more needs to be said, I think.
I lied. One more thing has to be said.
Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce – Another case where the author had a heavy hand in the creation of the film. In this particular case, to the point where the book was pretty much written in tandem with the film.
Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – And no, I do not refer to the Disney animated version. Nor Hook, for what it’s worth. I’m talking about the delightfully bizarre version that came out in 2003. I mention it because it took the very weird feel of the book and then cranked up the bizarro factor another two notches. The fact that its Tinkerbell was also in Swimming Pool the same year should surprise no one. And then there was the shirtless Hook element. But that’s neither here nor there.
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket – A strange case of adapting three books into one film. The movie wasn’t perfect, but there was an oddly admirable intent at work. It had the tone down, certainly, though one did wonder about the choice of clothing. It was like Steampunk without the guts to go all the way. Can’t fault the credits a jot, of course.
The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum – I’ve always said that in this day and age someone should really consider doing a straight and by-the-book adaptation of this novel. You could have a real Tin Man! A real lion! You could do all the special effects perfectly! But to be honest, the original movie musical is still amazing, and its special effects continue to stand up after all these years. Who doesn’t get chills when the music starts at the beginning? Anyone? Anyone? Love that movie. Love it to death.
And now the confession. This isn’t necessarily an original blog post on my part. Back in 2006 I wrote the piece The Top 21 Children’s Books Made Into Films. But clearly I’ve grown pickier in my choices in the intervening three years.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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