The Worst 13 Films Made From Children's Books
We already covered the best films made out of children's books. Now let's sit down and concentrate on the worst. And since I only came up with 21 really good ones (24 if you include Dan's suggestions to add A Little Princess or Disney's Wind In the Willows and my favorite version of Freaky Friday) I wanted to do 21 here as well. Now you would think that coming up with 21 truly awful adaptations would be easy-peasy. But I'm going for the worst of the worst. The ones that really make you feel ill. No mediocre bad movies! No, sir! Only the dreck will do. With that in mind, I could only come up with 14 of the worst. Feel free to suggest your least favorites. Please do not suggest anything merely bad, however. I want movies that actually insult your average child's intelligence. Extra points if they muck up the story significantly.
- The Black Cauldron - Best known as Disney's low point before it bounced back with The Great Mouse Detective and Little Mermaid. What drugs did Disney slip into Lloyd Alexander's tea to get him to sign away the rights to this one? It's a wonderful exercise in how NOT to make an animated feature, never mind an adaptation of a book.
- The Borrowers - I'll be clearer. I'm not talking about the 1992 version with Ian Holm or even the one containing the late lamented Eddie Albert. No, sir, I'm talking about the version that came out the year I was in high school and working in a movie theater. I must have watched the trailer for this film a good 100+ times. Add in the fact that its resemblance to the book can be boiled down to two thing: 1) There are small people called Borrowers. 2) The names are the same. Beyond that you're on your own. No one could save the film, either. Not Hugh Laurie, nor John Goodman. And who was responsible for this visual tripe? None other than screenwriter Gavin Scott who years later would go on to butcher The Wizard of Earthsea (which I shall get to presently). The other screenwriter? Well apparently The Borrowers went so well that John Kamps would later been given the greenlight to adapt Chris Van Allsburg's Zathura to the screen. Zathura, by the way, didn't make it onto this list because it is not mind-blowingly awful. Just mildly so.
- The Cat In the Hat - How much clearer than this can I be? Never EVER make a picture book into a full length feature film. The results are often middling to frightening. And yes, I know that there's going to be a filmed version of Where the Wild Things Are (which shall at long last answer the question of, "Whatever happened to Benicio Del Toro?) but it may be its very oddities that disprove the rule. In most cases, it's a bad idea to cover a comic in fur (see How the Grinch Stole Christmas below). It's a worse idea to throw in copious amounts of product placement and then sit poor Dakota Fanning right smack dab in the middle of it. What's next? Will Ferrell as The Lorax?
- Cheaper By the Dozen - You know, I almost forgot about this one. I had considered adding the 1950 version to my list of the best adaptations. Somehow, this remarkably awful 2003 version never even crossed my mind until I started thinking about how odd it is when publishers put movie covers on their books. And no odder a cover was ever placed on a book than the one from this monstrous movie. You wanna know what the book and the film had in common? I'll sum it up in four words: Man With Twelve Kids. That's it. Oh Steve Steve. Why do you do this to me? I used to love you, Steve. Remember the good times? The Jerk? The Muppet Movie? Even Father of the Bride was okay. Now you've just broken my heart for the sake of breaking it.
- Ella Enchanted - Here's a pretty good test of whether or not a film adaptation of a children's book is going well or poorly. Are there Matrix references in it? Yes? Then it's a bad movie. Ella so thoroughly and effectively mucked with a rather good story that it's hard to say exactly where the blame lies. The magical elf character (heretofore unknown in the book)? Cary Elwes? Let's just call it a general fiasco all around.
- Five Children and It - Bet you didn't even know they made this, eh? Bet you also didn't know that it had my beloved Eddie Izzard alongside such big names as Kenneth Branagh and poor Freddie Highmore. But the Psammead is akin to the genie in Aladdin in terms of goofiness and there's a bizarre subplot involving capturing It. Plus there's a mad scientist scene in a basement. *shudder*
- How the Grinch Stole Christmas - Oh what can I say here that hasn't already been said? I am, of course, not referring to the classic Chuck Jones version. But say what you will about Jim Carrey, at least he almost redeemed himself later as Count Olaf. That's gotta count for something.
- Peter Pan - And here I mean the Disney. How nice that by my alphabetizing these movies I'm able to put this one right after The Jungle Book. In this case, I'm going to remind you about the Indians in the film. Now I do have a special weakness for Hans Conried as Hook. And good old Kathryn Beaumont. Apparently she is STILL alive and doing Disney straight-to-video films. Go figure. But I've been distracted. The point is that this particular Peter Pan curls my whiskers.
- Pippi Longstocking - It's almost charming how terrible this was. Poor Pippi. I can still sing you the theme song if you bribe me heavily enough. Remember the whole walking on the ceiling stand up and cheer moment near the end? No? Exactly.
- The Secret Garden - I've praised the BBC production in the past. This Hallmark version, however, takes the cake. If I were to elect any of these films Worst Adaptation Ever, The Secret Garden would be a serious contender in the running. Here is how it begins: The war has just ended. Mary Lennox has returned after all these years to the manor where she grew up. She runs into Ben and suddenly we are swept up into the past and the story. This happens to begin with a deeply frightening, not to say disgusting, sequence of Mary's parents and parents' guests dying extremely slowly of cholera before our eyes. Okay, so they tell the story and then we're back in post-war England. At which point Colin appears, Mary and Colin talk about what a pity it was that Dickon died in the war, and then they have a passionate kiss. A nice first-cousiny passionate kiss.
- The Secret of NIMH - Pipe down! Settle down! I don't care if you adored this film when it first came out. Let's examine it carefully. First of all, apparently the original title of the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH wasn't sexy enough. Then, in a rather bizarre twist, the name of our heroine isn't Mrs. Frisby. It's Mrs. Brisby. If anyone can explain this switch to me, I'd appreciate it. But the whole having to save your home from a farmer... that's just too dull, isn't it? So let's throw in a magic stone that levitates objects. Oh! Even better! Let's kill off Nicodemus (who in the film is apparently 350 years old or so) and make the villain some rat named Jenner. The icing on the cake? Stick in a little voice work by Shannen Doherty. C'est manifique!
- The Wizard of Earthsea - Or rather, just Earthsea. Might I remind you that in the books almost all the characters have dark skin. Of course Miyazaki is apparently creating the Tales From Earthsea and he also has conveniently forgotten this fact. Earthsea was a particularly ugly beast, however. Great liberties were taken with the story, the characters, and the feel as a whole. For more details, check out Le Guin's take on the film in her Slate article, A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel Wrecked My Books.
- A Wrinkle In Time - I would have thoroughly enjoyed an article in Slate from the point of view of Madeline L'Engle on this equal monstrosity. There is, however, this selection from her interview with Newsweek about a year ago:
NEWSWEEK: So you’ve seen the movie?
Madeleine L’Engle: I’ve glimpsed it.
NEWSWEEK: And did it meet expectations?
Madeleine L'Engle: Oh, yes. I expected it to be bad, and it is.
Nuff said. Aside from the fact that Meg doesn't wear glasses, The Happy Medium kinda freaks viewers of the film out, and Meg doesn't tell Charles Wallace that she loves him at the end. Oh dearie dearie me.
Now obviously I couldn't include stuff I hadn't seen. Therefore almost all the made-for-tv animated and live action movies (including a particular 1979 disaster) have not found their way here. Also, if a book was poorly written to begin with, you can't blame the adaptation for failing. Certain unnamed books will be delicately placed in that category with a pat to the head. You're all bound, by the way, to love one of the movies I've listed here. Prepare your defense. Court will be in session presently.