'Little Prince' Adaptations Aren't Easy — Just Ask Orson Welles In 1943, the legendary filmmaker tried (and failed) to turn Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's book into a movie. Director Mark Osborne got considerably further. His adaptation hit theaters on Friday.

'Little Prince' Adaptations Aren't Easy — Just Ask Orson Welles

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Pity the person who tries to adapt "The Little Prince." The classic story by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is about a pilot who meets a child from another planet. The book has sold hundreds of millions of copies around the world. Now there's a new movie adaptation of "The Little Prince" by a director whose credits include "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" and "Kung Fu Panda." NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: I can hear "The Little Prince" purists now groaning that the co-director of anything to do with SpongeBob...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS")

TOM KENNY: (As Spongebob Squarepants) Hurray.

BLAIR: ...Would dare touch this literary classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE PRINCE")

RILEY OSBORNE: (As The Little Prince) What planet is this?

BENICIO DEL TORO: (As The Snake) This is Earth. This is Africa.

BLAIR: Turns out, it was Antoine de Saint-Exupery's family that asked Mark Osborne if he would direct "The Little Prince."

OLIVIER D'AGAY: The first response was no.

BLAIR: Olivier d'Agay is the great nephew of Saint-Exupery and manages the writer's estate.

D'AGAY: Mark is so honest guy (laughter) that he was really scared to think to an adaptation of this lovely book.

MARK OSBORNE: I just said there's no way that you could possibly make a movie that is everything the book is to everyone.

BLAIR: And that's a lot of things - a meditation on childhood, a fable about friendship, even a war story. Mark Osborne has his own history with the book. He met his future wife when he was an art student at the Pratt Institute in New York. While they were dating, he was accepted to the California Institute of the Arts to study animation.

M. OSBORNE: We had a long distance relationship at some point, and it was really hard on us. And she gave me her copy of the book as a way to keep us connected, and she used the quote, you know, it is only with the heart that one can see rightly what is essential is invisible to the eye.

BLAIR: That bit of wisdom comes from a fox the Little Prince meets as he visits different planets.

M. OSBORNE: That was the quote that meant a lot to me and to us at that time because she was saying if we can't be together, we'll still be together.

BLAIR: Osborne says his own memories of the book gave him an idea.

M. OSBORNE: I couldn't stop thinking about the idea of using the book as sort of the beating heart at the center of a larger story that was about the experience that one can have with the book.

BLAIR: In Osborne's movie, we follow a 9-year-old girl's experience of reading "The Little Prince."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE PRINCE")

MACKENZIE FOY: (As The Little Girl) Once upon a time, there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely bigger than himself and who had need of a friend.

BLAIR: She's introduced to the story by its author, a former aviator who lives next door.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE PRINCE")

JEFF BRIDGES: (As The Aviator) He was very fond of sunsets. One day he saw 44 of them.

FOY: (As The Little Girl) What?

CHRISTINE NELSON: It's a book that so many people claim as their own, and so making a film of such a beloved story is a real risk.

BLAIR: Christine Nelson is with the Morgan Library and Museum in New York, the Saint-Exupery original manuscript for "The Little Prince." She says the history of trying to adapt the story is fraught. The first person to buy the film rights was Orson Welles in 1943. He wanted to make a live-action film with some animation and approached Walt Disney.

NELSON: He went to this meeting with Walt Disney and told him his vision, and apparently Disney stormed out of the meeting saying, you know, there's only room in this project for one genius. And so the whole thing fell apart.

BLAIR: Grown-ups, as the Little Prince might sigh. In 1974, Stanley Donen, who co-directed "Singin' In The Rain" came out with a movie musical starring Gene Wilder as the fox wearing an orange suit and tie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE PRINCE")

GENE WILDER: (Singing, as The Fox) We'll go a glance at a time, a small advance at a time. We'll be afraid a bit and shy a bit, avoid each other's eye a bit lest off in each day...

BLAIR: It flopped. The Morgan Library's Christine Nelson thinks the main problem was the 6-year-old actor who played the Little Prince, a tough role.

NELSON: You know, he has to have the sweetness and the silliness of childhood. He has to show a little bit of world weariness of someone who's traveled the world and witnessed loneliness and isolation. And in the end, he has to have this great wisdom. That's a pretty tall order for a 6 year old.

BLAIR: It's also a tall order for certain audiences.

What is the audience for this movie?

D'AGAY: (Laughter) That's a good question because we we had the same question in 1943

BLAIR: When "The Little Prince" was first published. Christine Nelson says Saint-Exupery never specified his intended audience. He dedicated the book to an adult friend of his, a Jew living in Nazi-occupied France. He asked children to forgive him for dedicating the book to a grown-up. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

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