Words Into Pictures

 One of the most popular displays in our children’s rooms showcases children’s books that have been made into movies.  For every reader who complains, “the book was better!”, there’s another who delightedly discovers that a favorite movie was based on a good book.
 Currently in theaters is “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” an animated movie based on the picture book of the same name by Judi Barrett.  Translating a 32-page picture book into a 90-minute film means adding more characters and plot twists, but the critics seem to be positive about the results.

 In the original story, life in the town of Chewandswallow is filled with good food.  Three times a day orange juice, pancakes, hamburgers and other delicacies rain down on the happy inhabitants.  But then the weather takes a turn for the worse, and the people find themselves pelted with showers of bread and suffering through pea soup fog.  Something has to be done!

 The film offers a back story about how Chewandswallow’s weather came to be – a boy has invented the machine that showers the town with food – but the phenomenon of food falling from the sky remains a key component of the plot.  The book has been a favorite of younger elementary school readers for generations and has already found a new audience because of the film.

 Much anticipated is the live-action film based on Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”  Due to debut on October 16, this adaptation has generated lots of buzz because of its well-known creators, director Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”) and writer Dave Eggers (editor of McSweeney’s).  Unusually, it was the author who approached the director, rather than the other way around.  Jonze reports that Sendak encouraged Eggers and himself to “Take this, make it your own. Make it something personal. This book was something I made when I was your guys’ age.”

 Sendak reportedly has provided input about everything from the feathers on the rooster monster to the muzzle on the bull-like wild thing.  For those wary of stretching a picture book into a full-length production, Sendak’s active participation is a good sign.

 Not every author has the level of involvement Sendak has had.  Susan Cooper had nothing to do with the recent movie version of “The Dark is Rising,” a much-loved fantasy set in rural England.  Transformed into the story of a snarky American kid, the movie did badly with critics and audiences.  On the other hand, Katherine Paterson’s “Bridge to Terabithia” was adapted for the screen by her son David, whose own childhood friendship inspired the novel.  Despite a highly misleading trailer, the film was well received when it came out a few years ago.

 Looking ahead, producers promise the following movies coming soon to a multiplex near you:  “Cirque du Freak,” based on Darrell Shan’s popular horror novel for middle schoolers, on October 23; “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” based on Roald Dahl’s novel about three greedy farmers and their war with a wily fox, on November 16; and “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief,” based on Rick Riordan’s fantasy about Greek gods and contemporary kids, scheduled for next February.  

 How will the movies compare to the books?  Check out the books at your local library, and let your kids decide for themselves. 


Originally published in the Free Lance-Star on September 29. 2009.