The dangerous game of adapting children and young adults novels

It’s hard to imagine that when Richard and Florence Atwater were writing their classic children’s novel “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” they ever foresaw a future film adaptation featuring the burnt-out Jim Carrey dancing with a group of penguins to Vanilla Ice’s song “Ice, Ice, Baby.”

Neither Carrey nor Vanilla Ice were even born at the time “Penguins” was released, but the Atwaters probably would’ve had much higher hopes for a film adaptation of their novel. “Penguins” has a strong message about family values and has become a childhood favorite for multiple generations of readers, but it looks as if the film version will fail to have the same influence.

Scene & Heard looks at the recent film adaptations of classic children and young adults’ novels that should be embraced and the ones that deserve to be put in the yard sale bin with all the old toys.


“The Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)

Updating young adult novels for modern audiences can often produce films like last summer’s “Ramona and Beezus,” which turned Beverly Clearly’s innovative “Ramona” series into your standard family- friendly film. With “Rushmore” director Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” Anderson was able to update and even improve upon the source material.

Anderson’s film straddles a line between the past and present by keeping with the timeless themes of Dahl’s original work, while also bringing Anderson’s unique sense of humor to the material. The film features truly exceptional voice acting by the likes of George Clooney and Meryl Streep and a visual palette lively enough to keep adults and children satisfied.

In the film, anthropomorphic creatures that range from foxes to badgers to even rats all existed as well-developed and engaging characters. Anderson created a true melding of both his whimsical sense of direction and Dahl’s love for storytelling that just may teach you a few valuable lessons.

“Where the Wild Things Are” (2009)

It’s perhaps fitting that two of the best adaptations of beloved children’s books in recent memory came from directors that have both an eye for beautiful imagery and a knack for telling stories in ambitious new ways. Much like Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” director Spike Jonze took chances with Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and emerged with a triumphant but heartbreaking film.

The production of “Where the Wild Things Are” was marred by rumors of a troubled set and disagreements between Warner Brothers and Jonze regarding the creative direction of the film. Yet all controversy regarding Jonze’s portrayal of Sendak’s book would be set aside when the film was released to critical praise and modest financial success.

“Where the Wild Things Are” is truly a film about the loss of one’s childhood innocence, which can be both a frightening premonition for younger viewer and a sad reminder for those of us who’ve already grown up. Jonze approaches the world of the “Wild Things” with a sense of childlike fun, which is ultimately washed away in the tear-inducing final moments of this great film.


“Dr. Seuss’s ‘The Cat in the Hat'” (2003)

Perhaps the most common misconception a filmmaker can have when adapting a children’s book is that the audience waiting to see the film version isn’t very intelligent. “Edward Scissorhands” production designer Bo Welch epitomized this grave mistake with his directorial debut “The Cat in the Hat.”

Throwing pretty visuals and subversive gags at his audience’s face in a chaotic manner seemed to be Welch’s substitute for a cohesive plot and humor. Talented actors like Mike Myers and Alec Baldwin, along with the charismatic Dakota Fanning, were simply cardboard standees acting within Welch’s colorful but cluttered diorama.

Dr. Seuss has always been an author known for seamlessly enveloping familiar values and themes within his own wonderful creative vision and Welch proves he is capable of doing the exact opposite. While the film still managed to do decent business at the box office, a proposed sequel was appropriately canned.

“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lighting Thief” (2010)

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” director Chris Columbus turned to adapting the “Percy Jackson & the Olympians” book series after opting out of a third Harry Potter film. The “Percy Jackson” books, which follow the young Jackson’s attempt to stop a major war between Greek gods like Zeus and Hades, seemed like a reasonable fit for Columbus’ interest in the fantasy genre.

The main criticism of Columbus’ two installments of the “Harry Potter” franchise were that he did little to make the films any more than an exact copy of what readers had been enjoying in author J.K. Rowling’s original books. If “Percy Jackson” is the sign of Columbus making pre-established work his own, however, perhaps it’s better he only recreated Rowling’s words.

“Percy Jackson” is filled with a grotesque amount of product placement for Apple iPods and the jarring inclusion of modern pop hits by artists like Lady Gaga; the special effects, acting and most everything else that are downright embarrassing. Columbus appears ready to direct a second installment, but considering that even fans of the series haven’t responded to the film well, it should take more than even the power of the Greek gods to make that happen.