Fuse #8

Monday, May 08, 2006

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.


At 9:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't love Jungle Book, but I never had any problems with the orangs, possibly because I know Louis Prima is white. And, seriously -- if you have an opportunity to put one of the great musicians of the jazz/swing era into your movie, you don't say no.

At 10:08 AM , Blogger Liz B said...

I totally get that telling a story visually is different from telling a story with words, so that things must change.

But when everything is changed? Except the title? And when the changes affect the core of the story?

Why bother?

Does Yours Mine & Ours count? On the one hand, not technically a children's book; on the other hand, the Cheaper by the Dozen remake was more faithful to its source material than YMO. Which is telling.

Let me think what else....

At 10:22 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

So let's take a count. So far we've two people defending The Jungle Book. One because Prima was white and therefore jazz loving apes are not racist (some pondering to be done there) and one because racism was okay in 1967 when the film was made.

Moving on...

At 11:12 AM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

Two bones to pick with you:

I like the Borrowers. Granted, I haven't read the book, but I like the visual sense of the movie, and... c'mon, Jim Broadbent and Hugh Laurie! Side not: I saw this on a date, in one of the weirdest acts of movie-choosing ever.

I really like The Secret of NIMH. Sure, it makes changes from the book, but fidelity isn't always the greatest good when it comes to adaptations. I hear that Hoot follows the book down the line. I also hear that it sucks. Granted, the magic stone thing is bogus, turning the tale of a normal mother mouse's small struggle to save her family into something needlessly mystic (although I can almost accept it, if I view it as a metaphor for the strength of a mother's love). Even with that misstep, though, most of the way it's simply a touching story about the aforementioned normal, simple mother mouse, and it has some lovely animation in it-- Don Bluth's best and darkest, before he slipped down the drain into Pebble and the Penguin hell, probably driven mad by animating too many cutely-wiggling butts of anthropomorphized animals.

I agree with everything else. I remember seeing The Black Cauldron when I was a kid (and before reading the books) and thinking how cool it was, and loving the creepy, early computer-animated skeleton soldiers. Then the movie was never made available on video, and it grew in my mind into some sort of lost classic. Then I finally watched it in college (courtesy of a mutual friend's video collection) and boy was it awful. Yep. Some movies should stay lost.

At 11:15 AM , Blogger Dan McCoy said...

Also, potential racism aside (and I'm not convinced), I Wanna Be Like You is a great song. I mean, finally a Disney song that swings.

At 11:59 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Yeah, it really is a great song. I can't contest that. And the version done by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy? Supreme. You know what... I'm getting convinced. Maybe "Jungle Booke" should be taken off the list. People are making strong cases here.

However, The Borrowers and The Secret of NIMH stay. For God's sake they KILLED Nicodemus! Doesn't that count for SOMETHING???

At 3:02 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

No no, I know you're not. I'm not entirely certain what got into me this morning. My apologies. After much thought, however, "Jungle Book" shall stay on the list if only because it's resemblance to the book is trifling.

At 4:08 PM , Blogger Jackie Parker said...

Ok, so Hallmark's Secret Garden was one of those movies I watched over and over again as a kid. I can still quote the thing. You see, (and I have not ever read the book) in this version Mary was just a family friend - not a relative - making the 'passionate' kiss socially acceptable. However, imagine my horror when, in 7th grade they showed some other version that was more accurate in my English class and I learned the truth about my beloved version - that Colin and Mary really, really shouldn't have been in love. Totally ew. *shudder* But then, I do still like How I Live Now, as did some other people...

At 5:21 PM , Blogger Bkbuds said...

Wait, you forgot Disney's 'Robin Hood' where Robin and his merry band speak with Western twangs.

Or Cinderella, in a fit of post-World War II regression that has our baby-voiced heroine incapable of doing a darn thing for herself. The animals save her scrawny butt each time. All so she can realize her true calling in life -- as Princess Doormat!

Otherwise, I agree with all the other choices, including Jungle Book.

At 5:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read a review once describing The Secret Garden as "Young Lady Chatterly." And while I still love the book and most film versions, that description has stuck with me.

At 8:20 PM , Blogger McKoala said...

The first chapter of The Secret Garden is utterly chilling. The unlikable child forgotten in her room with only a lizard for company, not knowing that everyone else in the house is dead or gone. Cried buckets when I read it.

At 9:39 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Actually, I have a real fondness for that "Robin Hood". It's absolutely insane. I've never heard the word Nottingham infused with more Southern verve. I think there are two British voices in total in that film. It's akin to that moment in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" where Kevin Costner puts out his wrist at the beginning and says in a perfect American newscaster accent, "This is British courage".

I consider the book of "The Secret Garden" to be the finest children's book ever written. There's a perfection to it. And there's no shame in adoring that Hallmark production when young. I myself loved and watched over and over again "The Phantom of the Opera" done for CBS with Burt Lancaster and Charles Dance. Anyone else remember it? No? Exactly.

At 5:46 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget that %$#@*& travesty of an adaptation of Charlotte's Web.

At 12:08 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

The Princess Bride is not a children's book. Hence, it is not on the Best Movies List. That and I don't care for the book. Great movie, though, I agree!

Charlotte's Web!!!! How could I have forgotten the animated Charlotte's Web? Dreck with a tune, that is. Officially noted.

At 4:14 PM , Blogger Louise said...

I have to put in a vote of support here for both Disney's Robin Hood and the Jungle Book. I loved both as a kid.

At 9:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am doing this anonymously because people will probably insist I surrender my library card.

The Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an abomination. (And Johnny Depp is no Willy Wonka either.)

At 10:54 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Many would agree with you. Hence my posting "Willy Wonka Frankenstein" in which I take the good parts from both. You are hardly alone in your dislike of both films.

At 11:19 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ella Enchanted should be the number one WORST adaption. I wanted to see the movie so badly, but I didn't, and when I caught the last twenty minutes on television I was so appalled I thanked my lucky stars I didn't pay $10 to see it in theatres.
I'll stick with my books from now on. Hollywood can keep their movies.

At 11:39 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to agree with you. Those are the worst movies for kids ever made. The Jungle Book was the most disappointing one, they ruined the story for me. I bought it because that was one of my favorite stories as a child, they could have done a better job!! . However, Peter Pan is one of the greatest movies ever, i disagree with you, i don’t think it should be in the list. I read the book and got the movie and love them both!. ;-)

At 12:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Jungle Book`s only main problem was that it took away the serious parts on the story and turned it into a comedic musical. But nevertheless, the movie is entertaining,fun, and well-animated. Shere Khan is even better as a villain here than he was in the book. Besides, jazz music fits the story very much.

But the Secret of NIMH is a bad movie? Balooney! I understand that you find the use of magic unnecessary, but I think it was meant not only for dramatic effect, but for symbolic matters concerning the character development of Mrs Brisby. In fact, her character is much better fleshed out in the film than in the book, and the darker drama on the film makes it more adult than one would expect. Besides, the animation on The Secret of NIMH is ABSOLUTELY PERFECT.

But it seems that you forgot to mention the worst adaptation in here: Disney`s Little Mermaid. I know many people love this film, but I can`t stand how they took the depressing, dark but hopeful atmosphere of the fairy tale and turned it into a campy, light and pastel-colored comedy. The animation in this movie isn`t that great either: the characters look too cartoony and caricaturish, the backgrounds are either gray and dull or bouncing with pastels and singing background characters. Not to mention that there are no elaborate color effects or strong character expressions like Bambi had. The voices aren`t very memorable, and Sebastian... The most useless and annoying Disney sidekick I´ve ever seen. Well, I guess fans of princessy flicks like Pocahontas, Swan Princess and Thumbelina likes this better, but I couldn`t care less about this overrated candy floss.

At 9:27 AM , Blogger besszilla said...

Great list. And I agree for the most part, but my number one worst adaptation ever is Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass. Just like picture books, long tales do not translate to the screen well, but as long as you can keep the heart of the book I can live with it. This did not. Just horrible.

At 10:52 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You forgot "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!" (I'd like to call it something that rhymes, but I'm a lady!) They took Ian Fleming's caper tale and turned it into teeth-rotting cotton candy -- with music no less! And then they had the nerve to make a Broadway musical out of it!

At 11:27 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

What drives me crazy about Cheaper by the Dozen is that they didn't trash a fictional book, this was a biographical tale of a family that actually existed...in the first half of the 20th century. If Steve Martin wanted to make a movie about a big family, why couldn't he have used a little creativity and made up his own title?

At 1:49 AM , Anonymous Spurwing Plover said...

I read CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN in english class but i understand they made it inro a realy horrid remake and a worst off sequile and worst off is they modernized it to suit a more PC crowd of wackos The director should be sent to outer siberia


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