The Bridges of Madison County Syndrome (Children’s Literature Edition)
Seems like more and more children’s books are being turned into movies these days. When I was a kid the pickings were relatively slim. If I had to name all the films I watched based on children’s literature that were released when I was between the ages of 0-12, I could name you that awful Pippi Longstocking (aw zut . . . now the theme song’s caught in my head again), The Neverending Story (which some would argue isn’t a children’s book at all), and . . . uh . . . hrm. Theatrical releasewise, that’s all I’ve got (unless you ascribe to the theory that Outside Over There became Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, which I do not, dedication to Sendak in the film’s credits be damned). Yep, it was pretty much let’s-go-watch-the-Rainbow-Bright-movie or nothing when I was a kid. No wonder Disney’s made such a killing all these years.
These days, we’re luckier. Even if one children’s literature adaptation stinks, you can just wait a month for the next one. And that got me to thinking. I know that every time they adapt a beloved book to the silver screen you hear the familiar cry of, “the movie is never better than the book.” But . . . what if that isn’t true?
My question to you today is this: Can you think of cases where the movie version of a children’s book is better than the original text? Follow-up question, can you think of children’s films that have completely usurped their books in our cultural memory?
This is a two-pronged question, so let’s start with the first part; Movies that are better than their books. Call it the Bridges of Madison County Syndrome. There you had a book that fair dripped with the wretchedness of its writing. But put it into a movie format and cast two Oscar winners and voila! Instantly slightly better film (though still completely forgotten today).
There seem to be three possibilities here. I posed this very question to some children’s literary experts last night and some of them agreed on a single title:
I’ve never read the book by Eleanor H. Porter. Cheryl Klein pointed out to me that the film Polly that came out in 1989 with Keisha Knight Pulliam wasn’t half bad AND would make an excellent Broadway musical. A good point.
The question is (and I shudder to mention it) would you count The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in this category? You might. I reviewed the film for Horn Book a while back and I stand by what I said about the movie. It is better than the book, but that certainly doesn’t mean you should see it.
On a personal level I’d add in The Brave Little Toaster here. In spite of the fact that the film briefly contains one of THE most racially offensive images you’ve ever seen in an animated Disney film still in print (and I include Fantasia‘s zebras in that statement) I still think it’s a top notch piece of work. Besides, name me all the Disney films you know that contain imitations of Joan Rivers and Peter Laurie in the same scene?
And now the second part: Movies that are remembered long after the books have faded from the public perception. This is a much longer list and Disney is responsible for a lot of the candidates. Consider, for today’s example, following books:
Bambi by Felix Salten
Old Yeller by Fred Gipson
Between these two, I’d actually say that Old Yeller circulates more often in my library. But that’s not saying much.
Then you have cinematic versions so good that small fights break out amongst the fans. Do you love The Railway Children because of the text or because you loved the BBC production? How many of us watched Megan Follows portray Anne of Green Gables and THEN were able to read the book? [<— guilty as charged]
There is a theory that states that whenever a movie is based on a children’s book, that book gets checked out of libraries in droves. And there is truth to that. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t move at all because folks never knew it was a film in the first place. I certainly never sought out The Neverending Story when I was a kid (though that may have had something to do with the fact that I was a puppet snob and the special effects in that film didn’t meet my Muppet-based standards). And maybe in the future some of the books being adapted today won’t be remembered while their film version live on in the cultural memory. It’s the exception that proves the rule, but worth considering just the same.
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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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