Lost in Translation—the Movie Version

So, Diana is a fan of the
Harry Potter books. Not, in the overall scheme of her literary loves,
on the scale of a superfan, but definitely an appreciator and reader,
if sometimes also a skeptic ("they're so famous but I think other books
should be as famous" sort of thing). But we have yet to see even one of
the movies. This is not because I have any feeling about the sacredness
of the printed version (at least with these books; I might with
others), but because  I have inadvertently trained my children to fear
and avoid movies. How? By not having television, not watching movies
their whole babyhood, resulting in two children who are now like a
tribe from the Amazon, who when they got taken in to watch a movie ran
screaming out of the theater when the person onscreen started walking
towards the camera. I never meant to do this. I like movies. I would
have (maybe) liked to see Up, or Wall-E, or Harry Potter. Not enough to
go to a theater and hire a baby-sitter and see them on my own, but I
like them.
We do watch some movies at home, the gentler, stranger more
our-type-of-movies movies, like Totoro, and Robin Hood (which we had
to work up to). We used to watch That's Entertainment! for the old
Esther Williams clips when we were getting Diana to learn to put her
head under water. But it feels like the whole conversation about "is
the movie version better?" is getting lost for all of these books. A
friend's son was a reluctant reader found that
watching the movie first sometimes made her child really inspired to
read the book in a way he wouldn't have been otherwise.
So I toss these questions I want answered to those of you who have any actual experience:
In general, are you against transforming of beloved books into movies?
Harry Potter: start with the movies or books?
Is what the movies did to Stuart Little as vile as it seems?
The movie of Where the Wild Things Are—really? Is it sacrilege?
Any good movies (literary or otherwise) for the nervous among us?

16 thoughts on “Lost in Translation—the Movie Version

  1. In general, are you against transforming of beloved books into movies?
    In theory, I’m not…but I don’t know that I’ve ever walked out of a movie theater and said “Wow, that totally kicked the book’s ASS!” I suppose I find comparing the two to be interesting, and I like seeing the translation of books to screen.
    Harry Potter: start with the movies or books?
    The books, definitely. The problem (such as it is) with the movies is the large chunks of plot they need to cut to keep the movies to a (reasonably) manageable 2-2.5 hours. One of the things my friends and I do (and we’re all in our 30’s) is we all see the new movie and then start debating furiously about what was cut and how big a deal it is, what we would add in if only one thing, etc.
    From what you’ve said, your girls are fairly timid when it comes to onscreen action…they may be more comfortable imagining the “scary” parts of HP rather than seeing a directors take on them.
    Is what the movies did to Stuart Little as vile as it seems?
    So much worse, but not nearly as horrific as what they did to Ella Enchanted…for which the writer and director should be shot.
    The movie of Where the Wild Things Are—really? Is it sacrilege?
    SO MUCH sacrilege!!!! They’re adding plot because DUH there isn’t enough to actually turn it into a full on movie. Why? Why? WHY are they doing this?
    Any good movies (literary or otherwise) for the nervous among us?
    For kids…
    Bridge to Terabithia
    The old PBS version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was better…and is less scary because it was made mid-80’s and the special effects aren’t as impressive by modern standards. They actually did the first 4 books well (LWW, Prince Caspian, Dawn Treader and Silver throne–first 4 by the numbering that we grew up with)and then stopped, which is sad
    The Anne of Green Gables movie that stars Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst is a favorite of mine.
    I don’t know where you can get it, but there was a PBS version of “A little Princess” that I thought was a great version, but the star was a bit old (she looked about 15/16)
    The newer Narnia movies are good…there are occasional “why” moments, but they’re pretty faithful.
    My former students tell me that the Holes adaptation was good, but I haven’t seen it. I saw City of Ember and I recall it being a good adaptation, but it had been a while since I’d read the book.
    For adults
    The old version of To Kill a Mocking Bird with Gregory Peck definitely stands the test of time.
    I also prefer the old black and white of Little Women with Katherine Hepburn
    Bridget Jone’s Diary wasn’t bad
    The Devil Wears Prada was good until the end, which they ruined.
    I’m still a sucker for Gone With the Wind, but that might have more to do with Clark Gable than the movie as an adaptation of the book. 🙂

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  2. Where the Wild Things Are seems particularly intolerable because it exists in a sort of mythic space outside plot. Providing motivation and reality to Max’s family is going to squash that space like a bug. It will become a story about specific real people and their specific real interactions and not a lovely little dance through the psyche.
    A ballet would make so much more sense. (And I hate ballet. But at least it doesn’t talk.)

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  3. I am a bookworm, above all. I have always read voraciously and been critical of what I read. However, film or movies are an equal art form as well, and a good movie is as good as a book. There is no comparison — they are different forms of art. When books are made into movies they can be sublime (The English Patient, The Secret Garden (the new one)) — but that might be purely subjective. I think the movie versions of Tolkien’s books are awful and preferred the books. My boys are anachronisms in that they don’t particularly like Harry Potter, so we don’t even go to those movies. That’s my two cents!

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  4. I’m so glad you have this topic! My daughter (5 and 3/4) is like your kids about movies. She has still not seen one in a theater, and while she does watch some DVDs, that didn’t really start til she was 3 or 4 and she is highly sensitive. Like, The Muppets Take Manhattan made her run screaming from the room. Ditto Fly Away Home. She loves some of the PBS shows that are for younger than her age group (Kipper, Thomas the train, Bob the Builder, etc).
    So I am definitely on the hunt for movies that are a) not offensive to my values/tastes (i.e., I’m not letting her watch any Barbie movies), b) decent enough for me to sit through, c) gentle enough for my delicate little flower. There’s a lovely little Christmas movie, very early Jim Henson, called Emmett Otter’s Jug Band and it’s perfect. But you can’t watch that every week all year.
    As for the questions:
    Books into movies in general: I’m not against it, but it’s good to look at it as a different work in a different form. Movies and books can’t do the same thing and to expect them to is unfair to both. I do think a movie can extend a beloved book’s reach and life, but it is tricky to blunder around destroying the magic of readers’ very own mind-pictures in a book. It’s a miracle that they found a child actor who could both play Harry Potter and who looked so much like him. I haven’t seen all the HP movies but from what I’ve seen, they’ve done pretty well by them.
    Harry Potter: Start with the books OF COURSE. I believe one should always start with the format that came first. Everything else is a bastardization, even if it’s a really good one. I’m a purist.
    Didn’t see the Stuart Little movie but I’m sure it was as vile as it seems. That little book is so perfectly wrought that Hollywood could only have wrecked it.
    I never really got attached to Where the Wild Things Are, don’t think I read it, or maybe I just didn’t like it as a kid, and it hasn’t done much for me as an adult either. That said, it seems too imaginary and ethereal to translate well.

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  5. I think it really depends on the length of the book and the time spent doing the movie “right.” When a book is too long, the movie can never do it justice, because there just isn’t enough time to cover everything. That being said, here are some of my favorites.
    The Tale of Desperaux (just as charming and wonderful as the story)
    Anne of Green Gables (just the first one. The second two are good movies, but don’t really follow the books at all.)
    Stardust (actually, I like this movie better than the book)
    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the first one. I love it and feel that it holds it’s own)
    I think the Where the Wild Things Are movie looks FANTASTIC, but it could go either way. I’m looking forward to finding out.
    I love the Narnia movies. Love them to bits.
    Also, Lord of the Rings.
    The first Charlotte’s Web. (It’s almost verbatim from the books and the narrator’s voice just kills me with goodness)
    Ones I think fail:
    Harry Potter (I just don’t find them that entertaining and they leave too much out.)
    Stuart Little
    Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (hardly even begins to follow the plot)
    City of Ember (if you haven’t read the book, it’s a great movie, but if you have, it’s really irritating.)
    Inkheart (same as City of Ember)
    My biggest pet peeve is when a movie is being made from a book and its like they never even read it. That drives me nuts!

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  6. I’m equal parts bookworm and movie buff and my daughters (11 and 9) are much the same. We most often read the book first and discuss the movie’s merits second. If we see a movie that isn’t based on print we still discuss plot, character development and, this is big for us since we a family of artists, the visual aspects.
    PS Harry Potter is a ‘must read’ first thing. The movies, while wonderful, don’t cover every little nuance Ms. Rowling comes up with and that adds to the richness of those books in such a HUGE way.
    PS2 We recently rented “Zathura” and we absolutely loved it except for a few swear words. Why did they do that? It almost ruined the movie for me. Had to have “the talk” afterwards and I hate that.

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  7. Wow! So interesting. I never even mentioned Where the Wild Things Are, though it is clearly touching a nerve for all. Full disclosure: Chestnut is performing today in her camp’s version of Where the Wild Things Are. She is one of 3 Maxes, and as her parent I can only think she is going to ROCK that book.
    And for me, the ruining moment in most movies? Even the teeniest gratuitous violence.

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  8. We also don’t watch much TV or movies (though we have seen a few Disney DVDs). I have three kids: 5 1/2, 3 1/2 and 1 1/2.
    We most recently watched the old version of Charlotte’s web, which is basically the book + songs. I remember watching this at the library when I was a child — I think that they used a movie projector and it was a really big deal at the time (the late 70s). We haven’t yet read the book, though we have a copy (or 2) floating around the house.
    The oldest two read books with Dad before bed — several short books and then a chapter from a longer book. They are currently working their way through the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (the old series). While I’m nursing my daughter (1 1/2) I get to listen to the stories, too. One day I came across the “premiere” TV movie at the library on DVD, so we watched it. It was really fun — and since I was exposed to the show as a child I already had the Melissa Gilbert version of Laura in my head.

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  9. — the rest of my comment.
    I’m not against turning movies into books. I like them both, but I tend to love books more than movies. It’s like someone else it translating the story, so you’re getting second-hand information from the movie — all filtered through someone else’s experience.
    I do enjoy movies, but I like to read the book first. And don’t change the ending — that’s the worst!

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  10. I, too, LOVE movies, perhaps not as much as I love books, but I do, in fact, love them both. I think the key with movies vs. books is that you have to take them for what they are and appreciate how they work within their limitations. There are no limitations to a book, or a child’s imagination. I think the latest HP movie does a really good job of telling the story within the confines of a movie. A movie is NEVER a replacement for a book, but can often serve as a pleasant compliment.
    As for HP, I agree that you should read them first, but if you have a child who doesn’t seem interested or is intimidated by a few thousand pages, then I think the first movie is intriguing and is the most closely linked to the book (totally understandable as it is the shortest).
    I’m interested to see Where the Wild Things Are. I have always enjoyed the book, but not in a best book ever kind of way. I think the movie will be one possible story with a million other possible stories remaining untold. I won’t pass judgment good or bad until I see it, but I’m certainly not afraid of it or appalled by it.

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  11. Good movie for gentle viewers- Meet me in St. Louis with Judy Garland. Only one scene was even slightly scary for my not very adventurous daughter- she loved it from age 5 on.

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  12. Sarah–the first Charlotte’s Web? The animated one, w/ Debbie Reynolds providing the voice of Charlotte? Where they add some gosling that becomes Wilbur’s sidekick? I have to disagree.
    The newest one (w/ Julia Roberts) isn’t bad, actually. They add a homey narrator, which is kind of silly, but the mood of the book is more or less preserved. Of course, they also add a couple of crows that keep trying to take out Templeton, so I guess it’s not perfect either…

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  13. Bridget Jones’ Diary and About a Boy are two rare instances where the movie is just as good as the book. Most fail so terribly (Nanny Diaries, Shopaholic), that I wonder if the fans of the book are even considered at all.
    Cloudy With a Chance … is one of my favorite books, but it’s the amazing illustrations that make it so endearing. I’m not expecting the movie to be a thing like the book, however it does look like it could be a lot of fun (as long as I don’t try to make ANY comparisons between the two.)
    I enjoyed: Mathilda, Eloise, Charlotte’s Web.
    Harriet the Spy is different, but appealing in its own way.
    I was really disappointed in Meet the Robinsons. The book was such a fun fantasy, it could have been a wonderful movie if the “evil” element was toned down. My kids were both too scared to stay for the whole movie.

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  14. I guess my kids are more adventurous with movies than I thought. My 5-year-old is into the Star Wars and all possible superheroes. And my 3-year-old, for whatever reason, is completely obsessed with “Short Circuit.” (Which I have to admit, I like too!)
    Regarding Harry Potter: the stories are so wonderfully written that they do an amazing job of allowing a reader to create complete imaginary visual worlds. The movies are great fun, but though I love movies in general, I would never consider buying all the movies; I am, however, anxiously waiting for the box sets to go on sale so I can acquire all the books. They just do so much more for the imagination.
    In general, I will admit to being a “purist,” but truthfully it’s really being true to what I perceive as the original. For example, I grew up with the Gene Wilder version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” I read the books too but didn’t pay much attention to the back story. When the recent movie, with Johnny Depp, came out, I was dismayed at how much they had changed, only to realize later that this version is much closer to the original novel. So I adore all Roald Dahl and am happily reading the book with my son, but the less “accurate” version of the movie will always be the “real” one to me.
    Yes, I tend to bristle when I see that a beloved book is going to be made into a movie, because I know that now a whole bunch of kids will grow up picturing the story the way the movie told it, instead of the way the book did. And sometimes it’s because I simply don’t believe that the story will translate well. But in my heart, I know that often, it’s just my insistence that whatever I know is the only “real” version.

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  15. If your children like Totoro, they might like the rest of the Miyazaki films:
    Kiki’s Delivery Service: not scary at all, very suitable for a younger audience. About a little witch who starts a delivery service with her broom.
    Howl’s Moving Castle: Do not expect it to be much like the Diana Wynne Jones Book, but it is a fun film.
    Spirited Away: perhaps for when they are a little older. A bit more challenging, since it’s about a girl who has to rescue her parents from an enchanted bathhouse.
    Castle in the Sky: some scary things, but also really beautiful. Cool pirates!
    Definitely for an older audience (i.e. they scared the pants off me as an adult): Nausicaa & Princess Mononoke. Wonderful films, but often scary!
    There are others, but you can’t get them in dub. If you don’t mind subtitles, try to find Pompoko, which is about raccoon-dogs and has a peculiar charm all its own. (That one is really, really sad, though. I warn you.)
    I am of the camp that thinks that books tend to be better than films — although sometimes films do something different yet great. They are, after all, a different art form.
    On the other hand, all too often, the film is just really terribly awful. Like what they did to the “Dark is Rising” series. Ptooey!

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  16. Harry Potter: start with the books – so much more magical and the movies just make it come alive.
    Stuart Little: loved the books, but the movie sort of ruined it for me.
    Where the Wild Things Are: I don’t get why they felt this would make a good movie. You can’t do any better than the book! I am planning to avoid that one in hopes my daughter remains enchanted by the written story.
    My kids are nervous movie watchers as well. We’re going to try Curious George at the free family movie tomorrow, but I imagine we’ll be leaving early. Maybe when they get a little older they’ll enjoy it more!

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