Favorite Film Adaptations Of Children's Books

The Talk of the Nation summer movie festival continues. Movie buff Murray Horwitz talks about your picks for the best cinematic adaptations of beloved children's books. His favorite is The Wizard of Oz — what's yours?

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We know you missed your summer movie fix last week, but many of you may have soothed your feelings in the bracing chill of your local octaplex, maybe with the latest installment from Hogwarts, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

(Soundbite of movie, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince")

Mr. MICHAEL GAMBON (Actor): (as Professor Albus Dumbledore) What you are looking at are memories. In this case, pertaining to one individual, Voldemort, or as he was known then, Tom Riddle.

CONAN: That's a very literary edition of the TOTN summer movie festival today.

What is your favorite movie adaptation of a beloved children's book, or not so beloved, even? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And you can join our conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And with us, as always, is our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz. Nice to have you back on the program, Murray.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Good to be back.

CONAN: And let's stimulate - stipulate no movies from comic books, very dear to my heart, of course…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …but we'll do those another time. Also, no children's movies made from adult books. Now, that's an interesting take.

HORWITZ: Well, you know, it's one of the issues that when you assay this, I guess, a genre or just cluster of movies - is "Lord of the Rings" a children's book? I mean, most of us didn't read it until we were 18.

CONAN: And certainly, on the violence level (unintelligible) Rated R.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Rated R, exactly. And, you know, I've seen - there have been a couple of films, at least, including an animated cartoon of "Gulliver's Travels," which I don't think is children's literature, you know? But it does make for children's cinema.

There's also another ground rule, which is, again, no TV, which, so, you know, you can't have…

CONAN: But getting back to that children's films from adult books, here's one that sort of right on the cusp. There have been a lot of different versions of this book.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn")

Unidentified Female: (as Character) John Cooper(ph)?

Unidentified Male #1: (as Character) Present, teacher.

Unidentified Female: Ben Donaldson?

Unidentified Male #2: (as Ben Donaldson) Here, teacher.

Unidentified Female: Huckleberry Finn? Huckleberry Finn? Has anyone seen Huckleberry Finn?

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Several times, in fact, there - and apparently, that scene is stolen completely by "Ferris Bueller."

HORWITZ: That's true. It is, it's the Ferris - it's the Ben Stein does Mark Twain.

CONAN: Bueller.

HORWITZ: Right. You know, is - right, Huckleberry Finn - when we were growing up, they - I mean, Tom Sawyer was the real children's book, right?

CONAN: Absolutely.

HORWITZ: But still, Huckleberry Finn was something that they - that you knew about in elementary school and you didn't understand until you were maybe 45, you know? So…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Maybe not even then.

HORWITZ: Not even then.

CONAN: So those are the stipulations, anyway. And now, diversity here is a bit of an issue.

HORWITZ: Yeah. I mentioned the issue of, you know, what is children's lit and, you know, is it, you know, children's - books written for children that get turned into movies? I think, in general, that's what we're saying.

Also, I think we have to say, before we get to the idea of diversity, what are the reasons for there being so many films that have been adapted from children's literature. And it's a formula for success.

CONAN: Sure.

HORWITZ: I mean, people know these stories. They grew up with Grimm fairy tales. They grew up with Mother Goose stuff. So there's a built-in audience. Certainly, "Harry Potter" is the great example. But you're right, most of the…

CONAN: A bit of a reverse. In the old days, it was the parents. I read this book when I was a kid and I would take my kids to see a movie. Now, it's kids dragging their parents.

HORWITZ: This is what we call the eat-your-spinach approach to children's cinema.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: It's - watch this, it'll be good for you. But there really is a problem and a question of diversity. It's really interesting piece, I think, of social history. There are - unhappily, I would argue - children's adaptations -film adaptations of "Little Black Sambo." It was a very big and famous and well done, clearly racist movie by the Disney Studios called "Song of the South"…

CONAN: "Song of the South."

HORWITZ: …which were the…

CONAN: Zip-iddy doo dah.

HORWITZ: …folk tales collected by Joel Chandler Harris.

But now, you know, now, there's things like there are adaptations of "Anansi the Spider," but that's an African tale. There is some African-American stuff, "Sounder," which is the - a wonderful movie that's adapted from a book by William H. Armstrong. "The Wiz" is a black version of "The Wizard of Oz." But we should think of the great wealth of Asian and South American and Spanish and Portuguese literature - Middle Eastern. I mean, you know, there's "Aladdin" and "The Arabian Nights"…

CONAN: Sinbad. Yeah.

HORWITZ: …as we can look forward, I think, to in the next 50 years a golden age of diversity in children's cinema.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255, email: talk@npr.org. Let's start with Krista(ph) in Chapel Hill.

KRISTA (Caller): Hi. I love your program.

CONAN: Oh, thank you.

KRISTA: I just wanted to say to your guest that I really appreciate his comments about the golden age in children's books coming up. I really feel that way too. There are so many great books on the market right now. There's Shannon Hill's up and coming series, E.D. Baker has some great series out that I think will be really interesting with film in the future.

I remember reading a quote by a famous author, Madeleine L'Engle, with "A Wrinkle In Time" series, where she said she didn't start out to be a children's writer. She just wrote books. And when she discovered adults couldn't understand them, she marketed them for children.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. What's your favorite one, Krista?

KRISTA: Oh, what is my favorite one of Madeleine L'Engle or...

CONAN: No, no. Your favorite…

HORWITZ: Film adaptation.

CONAN: …film adaptation.

KRISTA: Oh, absolutely. It - so far it's C.S. Lewis' book, his famous Narnia series, but I think that's only because of the budget.

(Soundbite of laugh)

KRISTA: I find that with a lot of the series, Madeleine L'Engle's, of course, "A Ring of Endless Light," they just try to revise Susan Cooper's "The Dark Is Rising" series a couple of years ago and that was a disaster, I think the problem is when you purge a lot of the orthodoxy and the sort of didacticism out of these books, you end up making them a little more simplistic than they were meant to be.

CONAN: Well...

KRISTA: So we end up getting them a little bit more sort of mystical, paganistic, and we lose some of the more structural elements of the storyline.

CONAN: Well, Narnia, of course, an allegory of, well, religious basis. And…

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: …a battle between good and evil.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe")

Mr. CAMERON RHODES (Actor): (as Gryphon) They come, Your Highness, in numbers and weapons far greater than our own.

Mr. PATRICK KAKE (Actor): (as Oreius) Numbers do not win a battle.

Mr. WILLIAM MOSELEY (Actor): (as Peter Pevensie) No. But I bet they help

CONAN: And that a quote from Joseph Stalin, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Krista, thanks very much for the call.

HORWITZ: Papa Joe, as he was known. But Krista does mentioned series. And there are all kinds of - "Harry Potter" is obviously true, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Prince Caspian," "Doctor Dolittle" books, they're - and of course "The Wizard of Oz," of which...

CONAN: "Doctor Dolittle" was a terrible movie...

(Soundbite of laugh)

CONAN: Twice.

HORWITZ: Well, I like the score.

CONAN: No. All right. All right. All right.

HORWITZ: Talk to the animals?

Conan: Well, let's get Andrea on the line from Wichita.

ANDREA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, Andrea.

ANDREA: Hi. My favorite would probably be "Willy Wonka."

CONAN: Willy…

ANDREA: Any Roald Dahl children's novel that's been made into a movie actually is pretty good.

CONAN: And like - not unlike the Narnia books, and indeed a lot of these, that aspect of darkness in these books really is what makes them very appealing, Murray.

HORWITZ: Yes.

ANDREA: Yeah. I mean, you can be an adult and read those and they're still so good.

HORWITZ: Isn't it true that the best - maybe we're onto something here, thanks to our callers. Isn't it true that the best children's books do have a kind of hard edge to them, or as you say, a darkness or - something that…

CONAN: Something that scare the bejesus out of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: Or to give them a dose of reality. I mean, if it's all, you know, puffy and hearts and flowers and, you know, that doesn't have the - quite the same staying power as something that tells us about how rough life can be.

CONAN: This bulletin just handed me - the New York Times is reporting the Dr. Seuss book "The Lorax," is being made into a movie for probable release in 2012.

HORWITZ: Do I know "The Lorax?" I think there's probably a thorax rhyme in there somewhere, but...

CONAN: I'm sure - no, I do know "The Lorax." But anyway, Andrea, thanks very much for the call.

ANDREA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And that, of course, we've got the other movie out, "Where the Wild Things Are," coming in - what? October, I think.

HORWITZ:: Right. And this is the Maurice Sendak thing that is - it's one - it's interesting. There's - you would think that - and you would be right, that picture books, things that were - that are not particularly - I'm going to get in trouble with this - literary - in that there's a lot of text but there are a lot of pictures, would lend themselves to motion picture treatments. And they have. You know, "The Three Little Pigs" and "Jumanji," and even "Shrek." And you mentioned Dr. Seuss' "The Cat in the Hat" and "Polar Express." They're a bunch of picture books that have made it into...

CONAN: "Polar Express" was not so much.

HORWITZ: Nice pictures.

CONAN: Nice pictures. Yeah. Let's go to Lauren. Lauren, with us from Golden, Colorado.

LAUREN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

LAUREN: I wanted to say that my - I loved "Coraline."

CONAN: "Coraline" in 3D.

LAUREN: I also loved the movie. It was completely fantastic.

CONAN: That's the Neil Gaiman book, of course, and adopted for screen and just out, what, this past year.

LAUREN: Yes. It was really good. And even (unintelligible) it was really cool.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.

LAUREN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Here's an email we have from Rebecca in St. Louis. From the scenes of the English moors to the music, the growth of the characters, Mary and Colin, in the 1993 version of "The Secret Garden," it still brings me joy, especially now that I am an adult.

HORWITZ:: There have been a couple of versions of "The Secret Garden." And -again, this is one, I think, that we can say has a little hard edge of reality to it, a little bit of pain, and that makes it stick in the memory.

CONAN: Let's see if can go next to Natasha. Natasha, with us from Manchester in Connecticut.

NATASHA (Caller): Hi there. That's kind of funny because I was going to say the exact same 1993 version of "The Secret Garden." I thought they really captured - when it starts in India there's - the score is so beautiful and they really captured that desolate lonely feeling. And then when she gets up to the moors, it's a different kind of loneliness and it's very cold and gloomy. And I was very happy when I saw as a girl how well they stuck to the story from the book.

HORWITZ: I agree, Natasha. And - I said Natasha. I should have said Natasha. And I think that that's one of the strengths of this whole area of film, because you're allowed, because it's kids, to do something a little bit more magical, a little bit more imaginative. And filmmakers love that kind of - a little moodier, you mentioned…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

HORWITZ: …the kind of tone of it. And filmmakers love that freedom.

CONAN: Natasha, thank you very much for the call.

NATASHA: Thank you.

CONAN: And of course there are straight-out adventure stories as well, including William Goldman's "Princess Bride," which is, of course, a mélange of many genres, but here some great acting in this - Wallace Shawn accepting, well, a challenge.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Princess Bride")

Mr. WALLACE SHAWN (Actor): (as Vizzini) I can't compete with you physically. And you're no match for my brains.

Mr. CARY ELWES (Actor): (as Westley) You're that smart?

Mr. SHAWN: (as Vizzini) Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?

Mr. ELWES: (as Westley) Yes.

Mr. SHAWN: Morons.

Mr. ELWES: (as Westley) Really? In that case, I challenge you to a battle of wits.

Mr. SHAWN: (as Vizzini) For the princess? To the death? I accept.

CONAN: Which - this is Cary Elwes there in the role.

HORWITZ: It's - yeah, it's just - it's a wonderful - a Rob Reiner film, as I recall. And really, really well-done. And there's another one where there's a kind of magical air. And even if it's a realistic story, there is something - you know, that we think of horse films like "National Velvet." But there's that wonderful film - I think of it is a Mickey Rooney film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: He's not the star - and that's "The Black Stallion." And there's just a - it's a Francis Ford Coppola film, and there's just wonderful moodiness and tone in it. It's a great movie.

CONAN: You happened to have picked my particular favorite children's movie there…

HORWITZ: Oh, I didn't know.

CONAN: …and which adaptation from children - loved the books. And also, I love this particular movie. And of course it begins - the Walter Farley books, and it begins the movie with Alec's father. They're on the ship. It's about to get shipwrecked but I don't want to give it away.

HORWITZ: Right.

CONAN: But Hoyt Axton. And he's reading Alec a story about the - about - well, a famous horse named Bucephalus and the king of Macedon who wanted to kill him because - well, nobody could ride this horse.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Black Stallion")

Mr. HOYT AXTON (Actor): (As Alec's Father) Just then a voice called out from the edge of the crowd. He said, I can ride the horse. Everybody looked around, they said, who said that? He looked over and it was a little kid, just about your size, just about your age.

CONAN: That was Mickey Rooney. No, no, no - it was Alexander the Great. We're talking about children's books adapted to the movies with our movie maven Murray Horwitz. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Andrew. Andrew with us from Cleveland.

ANDREW (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call. "Golden Compass" was one of my favorite adaptations. And I was so sad to see it not as well received because it cancelled out the hopes for the next two books to be filmed. And it's - not unlike many sequels with dark edges, the second book is the strongest of the series.

HORWITZ: I'm sure that the producers of the film agree with you. I'm sure they thought this was a franchise. These books are enormously popular. People get - you should forgive the joke - religious about these…

CONAN: A-ha.

HORWITZ: …books and the Philip Pullman "Golden Compass" series. And why it didn't hit, I don't know.

CONAN: Okay. Andrew, thanks very much.

ANDREW: No problem, Neal.

CONAN: Let's go through a couple of emails quickly. "Phantom Tollbooth," this from Becky in Des Moines. I'd like to nominate this as one of the best movie adaptations. "Ever After" - Cinderella - loved it, writes Karen in Tucson, Arizona. And let's see if we can go to Suzanne in Davis, California. As a little girl I loved to read books by Roald Dahl over and over again. To this day, the film adaptation of "The Witches" still brings back memories of how scared I was of the movie as a child. Those squared toes are terrifying. She's absolutely right.

"Sounder" is a great movie, sent from Keith. And this is from Sherman. "City of Ember" was a good movie which made me read the book at its larger series. However, I think the movie bombed at the box office and no sequels are planned. Don't you hate it when that happens? Let's get another caller in. This is Leslie. Leslie calling us from Kansas City.

LESLIE (Caller): Yes, hi. Thanks for letting me on.

CONAN: Go ahead.

LESLIE: I think you might be remiss in saying that most children's movies from adaptations actually are very bad. I mean, consider "The Grinch" - "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"?

HORWITZ: Well, the animated version with Boris Karloff was pretty good. But…

LESLIE: That's what I mean.

CONAN: That's the TV show.

LESLIE: I couldn't bare to go to the - I think, it was Ron Howard that did it…

CONAN: Right.

LESLIE: …because they throw too much in it, special effects, you know, just potty jokes. I mean, it takes an intelligent person to put something like that to screen.

HORWITZ: Right. It's - it - well, I mean, you have no dearth of intelligent people, it's just things often go wrong. And…

LESLIE: But who are they marketing it to though?

HORWITZ: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. And "The Cat in the Hat" was no better.

LESLIE: I'm sorry?

CONAN: "The Cat in the Hat" was no better.

LESLIE: No. That was even worse.

HORWITZ: Right.

LESLIE: I couldn't even watch the previews. I mean, I think they underestimate the ability of a child to enjoy a good story.

HORWITZ: Well, also, you bring up a really good point, I think, Leslie, because these are live action films made from cartoons or from picture books. And a couple of our correspondents, Becky and Karen, mentioned "Pinocchio," "Cinderella," and it took them to bring up the fact that some of the best children's - adaptations of children's literature have been animated. I don't think any of us would have known that Italian tale if it hadn't been for - about Geppetto and the wooden boy if it hadn't been for Walt Disney.

LESLIE: That's right. That's right.

CONAN: And of course this is the story of the craftsman - the puppet maker…

HORWITZ: Geppetto.

CONAN: Yeah, Geppetto. And of course we all learned about this from Disney.

(Soundbite of movie "Pinocchio")

Mr. DICKIE JONES (Actor): (as Pinocchio) Like you, I can talk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: (as Pinocchio) I can walk.

Ms. EVELYN VENABLE (Actor): (as The Blue Fairy) Yes, Pinocchio. I've given you life.

Mr. JONES: (as Pinocchio) Why?

Ms. VENABLE: (as The Blue Fairy) Because tonight, Geppetto wished for a real boy.

Mr. JONES: (as Pinocchio) Am I a real boy?

CONAN: Ah, Jiminy Cricket stole the picture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HORWITZ: He had the better song.

CONAN: Finally, Murray, we have to ask, what is your favorite of all times?

HORWITZ: Oh, this is such a tired, flat-footed, but I would like to argue, unassailable choice - this is L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz."

CONAN: That's the first picture that made me wonder, what does the L stands for?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And, of course, this is - well, the eternal story with however many great people, but among them the fabulous Judy Garland.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Wizard of Oz")

Ms. JUDY GARLAND (Actor): (as Dorothy Gale) Yes, I'm ready now.

Ms. BILLIE BURKE (Actor): (as Glinda) Then close your eyes and tap your heels together three times. And think to yourself, there's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home.

Ms. GARLAND: (as Dorothy) There's no place like home.

CONAN: And Murray is tapping his heels together three times…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: …or maybe just preparing to…

HORWITZ: Get me out of here.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Murray, as always.

HORWITZ: Thank you, Neal. A real pleasure, thanks.

CONAN: Murray will be back next week for the most delicious movies in honor of the upcoming "Julie and Julia." We'll be picking our favorite movies about food. If you'd like to get in an early nomination, just put Movie Festival in the subject line and email us, talk@npr.org.

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