Page to screen: children’s books make great films

How to Train Your Dragon 2, the sequel to the hugely popular 2010 animation from DreamWorks, has been released in England behind the rest of the United Kingdom, but did you know the world Toothless and Hiccup inhabit is originally based on a book series? A lot of our favourite family films are based on children’s literature.

For years the children’s fiction shelf in the library has been a popular source of material for filmmakers. Some of these films are exceptional pieces of cinema, while others are so forgettable you barely remember their existence until you locate them in the bargain DVD bin.

Some titles that have either stood the test of time or are examples of amazing cinema are:

How To Train Your Dragon – Cressida Cowell

How to Train Your Dragon

How To Train Your Dragon was the not so surprising hit from DreamWorks. Revolving around a Viking teenager called Hiccup, whose father is the chief of the village of Berk which is terrorised by dragons on a day to day basis. Shooting down one of them, the deadly Night Fury, Hiccup discovers that the most feared dragon is actually very gentle and only acts in self defence. With a little help from his friend Astrid, he must prove to the clan that Toothless and the other dragons can be trained.

The book series was written by London-based author Cressida Cowell who doesn’t mind that the plot of the film differs from her books:

“I feel that books and film are different media and sometimes stories change. What I really wanted was for DreamWorks to make a wonderful movie. So I was open to the idea of them making changes, particularly because the film keeps true to the spirit and message of the book… and the characters and the world I created.”

Mary Poppins – P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins

If you saw Saving Mr Banks last year, you will be privy to the knowledge that P.L. Travers did not want her books to be adapted into a film. In fact, it took a great amount of persuasion to convince her to sell the rights to Walt Disney. The biopic leaves out many facts about Travers relationship to Disney as you would expect, but one thing that does ring true is this: she hated the completed film. And yet today it is one of the most beloved family movies of all time.

What is so magical about Mary Poppins that we’re still singing about flying kites and spoons full of sugar even now? Was it Dick Van Dyke’s infamous Cock-er-ney accent, the musical numbers, the animated characters interacting with the live action actors, or simply the delight that is Julie Andrews?

All we know for sure is that the world of cherished children’s book adaptations is inconceivable without the nanny who is ‘practically perfect in every way.’

The BFG – Roald Dahl


Most people would jump to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the 1970s film starring Gene Wilder, as a great adaptation of a Roald Dahl book. Probably the most faithful book-to-screen conversion though is the British animation The BFG. Voiced by David Jason, the Big Friendly Giant whisks a young orphan called Sophie away to Giant Country where she helps him collect dreams and defeat the nine human bean guzzling giants he lives alongside.

A hilarious song about whizzpopping, imaginative animation and a visit to the Queen at Buckingham Palace made this adaptation a treasure for children. Steven Spielberg is currently developing a new film with DreamWorks to be released in 2016, the 100th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s birth.

Harry Potter – JK Rowling

Harry Potter

The most successful film franchise of all time is the Harry Potter series. Seven books spawned eight films between 2001 and 2011. People agree to disagree on which of the films is the most faithfully adapted and overall best, but the entire franchise was a success from start to finish.

Some believe the key to its success is how faithful the films were to the source material. JK Rowling kept very tight reigns on the project in the beginning, offering advice, steering the screenwriter away from character and plot discrepancies, and she even went as far as to insist the films remain as British as possible – made in Britain with an entirely British cast.

With so many book adaptations straying from the source material until they are barely recognizable, the Harry Potter fandom showed its appreciation for staying true to the books by delivering box office magic.

Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are

How is it possible to make a 90 minute feature film from a world famous picture book that is just 338 words from beginning to end? With a lot of padding. Still, Spike Jonze’s 2009 adaptation went over well with audiences, even if it didn’t quite set the box office alight.

Max, portrayed by Max Records is a disobedient little boy who is sent to bed without his supper. Determined that he is right and his mother is wrong, Max creates his own world within his bedroom, a forest inhabited by ferocious wild creatures. Becoming their ruler, the book and the film detail his journey and eventual wish to return home for supper after all.

With such thin source material to work from, Where the Wild Things Are is very much built from the perspective of the creative team behind the film and takes far longer to bring the moral of the story to its conclusion (101 minutes to be exact).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

Based on the book by C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was released at Christmas 2005 and made a whopping 700 million at the worldwide box office. The following sequels, Prince Caspian and Voyage of the Dawn Treader were inevitable.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie are evacuated to the country during the Second World War only to discover Narnia, a magical land blanketed in snow in the upstairs wardrobe of their new guardian’s home. When all four Pevensie children find their way into Narnia, they discover that they, as two sons of Adam and two daughters of Eve, are destined to join with the mighty Lion Aslan to defeat the evil White Witch (a magnificent Tilda Swinton), and then rule Narnia once peace has been restored. Easier said than done when Edmund is already under the White Witch’s spell and spies are everywhere.

For a book that is sparsely descriptive when compared to other classics, Disney did a wonderful job of bringing a 60-year-old tale into the 21st Century. The film is all the more charming for the creators resisting the temptation to modernize the setting.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz – L. Frank Baum

The Wizard of Oz

“We’re off to see the wizard, the wonderful wizard of Oz!” Judy Garland and gang chirped back in 1939. Hollywood’s first eyepoppingly technicolor feature gives you eye strain when the murky black and white of Kansas transitions to the brilliant light of Munchkin land.

Based on the book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the film differs the source material in many ways. For example, Dorothy’s famous Ruby Slippers were Silver Shoes in the book. The filmmakers changed them to take advantage of their newly expanded colour palate. Sadly most people respond to this piece of trivia with “It’s based on a book?”

Dorothy Gale finds herself stuck in the land of Oz when a twister scoops up her house and transports her over the rainbow. Glinda the Good Witch informs her she must follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City to ask the Wizard for a ride home, so Dorothy and her dog Toto set off, making new friends in the Brainless Scarecrow, the heartless Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, all the while pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West who wants her sister’s shoes back.

The Wizard of Oz won two Oscars in 1940 for Best Original Score and Best Original Song and is still a family favourite during the holiday seasons. You also may not know that Baum was a follower of the spiritual discipline of Theosophy, and the book and film are filled with references to this.

What other children’s literature have you found made an excellent film? Let us know.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is out nationwide now!

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