Literature, Film and Legacy: Reflections on a Random and Completely Unbalanced Sample

by Louise Freeman on May 6, 2013

As promised, here is my sampling of books and associated movies that I experienced in my own childhood, and my own thoughts looking back at them, in view of the question asked earlier about whether the films destroy the book legacy. I am interested in hearing from others, older and younger than me, about how their experiences compare.

Doctor Dolittle: Hugh Lofting’s Newberry-winning series was published between 1920 and 1950. My father adored the series as a boy and he, in turn, read it to me, when I was in elementary school; eventually, I re-read the entire series for myself. As much as we both loved the books, neither of us had any affinity for the 1967 movie musical. No one who understood the charm of the books about the mild-mannered, dumpy and completely asexual animal doctor from Puddleby-on-the-Marsh could relate to Rex Harrison’s handsome, singing vet with an ongoing love interest. Besides being a pretty unsuccessful film in its own right–Leonard Matlin’s review suggested its one merit was its ability to put unruly children to sleep–it apparently triggered backlash against the books by drawing attention to the unfortunate 1920’s racial stereotypes that were no longer acceptable in the 1960’s.  Attempts in the 1970’s to edit the unflattering ethnic portrayals into a more acceptable format (a move taken with the permission of Lofting’s son) unfortunately produced rather clunky stories and destroyed key plot points. I doubt many kids today read the Doctor Dolittle books at all.

As for the later “Dr. Dolittle” movies with Eddie Murphy, they had so little to do with the original books that it is pointless to mention them. Calling Murphy’s character “Dr. Dolittle” just because he wound up talking to animals (against his will, of course, as opposed to the diligent study of the original) makes about as much sense as calling the  “George of the Jungle” cartoons Tarzan. The only thing these movies could do for the books is leave potential readers wondering where the fart jokes are.

To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning book (1960) was followed by an Oscar-winning movie that won the author’s full approval; Ms. Lee was so impressed with Gregory Peck’s legendary portrayal of Atticus Finch, a character inspired by Ms. Lee’s own father, that she gave him her father’s gold watch. For myself, I read the book around 1980 and watched the movie for the first time a year or so after that. These were, after all, pre-VCR days when you had to wait for an old movie to show up on cable.

The To Kill a Mockingbird movie is arguably the best and truest film adaption of a great book ever made. It’s also the reason I say that a true book fan will always be disappointed by the movie. As good as it was, upon my first viewing, I was left very let down by all the details that were left out of the movie: the visit to Calpurnia’s church, Miss Maudie’s house fire, the mud-and-snowman, Miss Dubose the morphine addict and pretty much every action of Dill (I think Walter Cunningham had more lines).

But, even if it failed to capture some of the richness, there is no doubt that it was a very, very good movie. I would be interested to know, today, how many people encounter the book before the movie and vice versa. But clearly people are still enjoying both; To Kill a Mockingbird was #3 on NPR’s 2012 top 100 novels for teens, right behind Harry Potter and Hunger Games. I think this is a case where the book and movie complement each other and both contribute to Mockingbird’s continuing popularity.

Gone With the Wind: For this one, I saw the movie first, several times during in high school, both on TV and in the theater. I did not read the book until college, at the recommendation of my then-boyfriend (now husband), who had read and enjoyed it in his own high school English class. Melanie Wilkes is one of his favorite female characters of all time. My sister-in-law is also a huge fan of the movie and book and collector of memorabilia.

The film in this case is obviously more familiar to people than the book, but, once I read it, I did enjoy the book more. A lot of the backstory about the O’Hara family is filled in, Scarlett has a child with each husband and it is clear that Margaret Mitchell intended Melanie to be the one people admired, not Scarlett. Were it not for the popularity of the movie, I doubt I would have ever read the book, and I suspect that is true of many others.

What the movie did do is ruin any chance of a decent authorized sequel. It is quite clear from the book that, if Ms. Mitchell had chosen to continue the story, Scarlett’s two older children would have played a major part but, since they were written out of the movie, and since a follow-up movie was clearly a major motivation for writing a sequel to the book, the kids had to be written out as well. Hence, we got the monstrosity that was Scarlett, where she dumps them with her despised sister to raise before taking off for Ireland, conveniently allowing the author to skirt the question about how a modern author writes respectful historic fiction about black characters in the Reconstruction era.  I only read the sequel once, and didn’t even bother watching the TV mini-series they made of it; and I’m not sure my husband or his sister did either. Then again, I’m not sure having people write sequels to classic novels 100 years later is ever a great idea, even if the authors heirs are trying to prevent the publication of unauthorized sequels.

A Wrinkle in Time: If Hermione can ever dig me up a time-turner, here’s what I am going to do with it. Grab J.K. Rowling and her books and transport her to 1962 and have her begin publishing Harry Potter then, without the benefit of social media. At the same time, I pick up Madeleine L’Engle and bring her to 1997, where she can publish her Time Quintet, not exactly a series, but five related books—with the internet at work. I encountered the first, A Wrinkle in Time, in fifth grade when my teacher read it aloud to us, and adored it. Looking back, IT is what sparked my interest in neuroscience. I read the two follow-ups A Wind in the Door and A Swiftly Tilting Planet over the next few years, though I had moved on to other things by the late 80’s and did not realize the last two books had been published until much later. The final two came out 24 and 27 years after the first, so in my revised timeline we’d  still be waiting on them, unless social media and modern economic realities prompted Ms. L’Engle to publish faster, which it likely would have.

If I could do my little experiment, I think it is possible we’d have had Wrinklemania instead of Pottermania, and perhaps even a World of Camazotz theme park in Orlando. Though I haven’t scoured through them recently for literary alchemy or ring structure–that’s the Headmaster’s job, in his copious spare time–I think the Time books accomplished something unequalled by “children’s” lit in modern times, except for Harry Potter: true multi-age appeal. The Time trilogy (I am only considering the first three here) can be read to grade schoolchildren, re-read by middle- and high-schoolers and read again in university or in adulthood, with each age enjoying the books in a different way and getting something different from them. I read the series to both my children when they were 7 or 8, before we started enjoying Harry Potter together and all through my reading I kept thinking… wow, these books really are as great as I remember.

Ms. L’Engle, feeling that a 1970’s film would not do justice to her creation, did not authorize a film to be made until 2003, when Disney released a three-hour TV movie. It was originally meant to be a longer, two-hour mini-series and the clumsy cuts showed; it also aired untilt 11 PM, well after the bedtimes of its target audience. No doubt Disney hoped to capitalize on on Pottermania with an adventure movie about three children and their adventures with three “witch” friends, but the effort fell flat and, in the end, wasn’t even especially well-publicized. I watched the last part, simply because when channel-surfing I happened to catch Kyle Secor (a then-favorite with me, thanks to his work on Homicide: Life on the Streets) with his glowing Red Eyes saying “Charles Wallace,” and I paused, stunned that there would be a movie made of one of my favorite books and I would be unaware of it. After finishing it up, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. So was Ms. L’Engle, who gave an answer worthy of the Weasley twins when asked if the film met her expectations, “Yes, I expected it to be bad, and it was.” All Christian references are removed, Meg was attractive and smart-mouthed instead of a misunderstood misfit with glasses and braces, the Man with Red Eyes is the principal villain and a former colleague of Mr. Murray’s (a pointless connection, not even hinted at in the books) and IT is the size of a small school bus. Disney must have realized its mistake as well, because, as much as my kids have watched the Disney channel over the years, I have never seen the Wrinkle movie rerun.

However, A Wrinkle in Time remains a popular read, frequently on “best of” lists by teachers and librarians, but kids’ affinity for it today is in spite of the movie, not because of it. Supposedly Disney still has the movie rights and plans a remake in the style of Narnia and A Bridge to Tarabithia; I hope they can pull off something better that will inspire more kids to revisit these books.

The Clan of the Cave Bear: This was the first and by far the best of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series. This was probably the first adult book I enjoyed sharing with my parents; during the summer of ’82 we were on a western camping trip and passed the paperback around between us. As biology teachers, they were intrigued by the Stone Age setting, and the charming story of an orphaned Cro-Magnon children been raised by kind but decidedly different-thinking Neanderthals was a riveting tale. Unfortunately, the sequels rapidly deteriorated in quality, as Ayla devolved into a unbelievable Stone Age Supergirl who, by her mid-twenties has domesticated the first animals (a lion, a wolf and a horse!), discovered you can start fire with flint, invented baby food, the bra, and the needle, performed the world’s first surgery without killing the patient and, most impressively, figured out that sexual intercourse has something to do with human reproduction. As my dad remarked midway through book three (The Mammoth Hunters) “I’m just waiting for Ayla to invent the microwave oven.” She might well have, if she hadn’t spent so much time Sharing Pleasures with her hot new Cro-Magnon boyfriends and gaining spiritual enlightenment via hallucinogenic plants. Other than cook up a lot of freshly killed meat with different herbs and sharing in excrutiating detail how she does it, I don’t remember much else of what happened in the follow-up books, and I hadn’t even realized a sixth had been published until I looked the series up on Wikipedia when writing this post. Judging from the number of one-star reviews on Amazon, I didn’t miss much, but I’ll put it on my library list for a mindless vacation read (after I sample the fourth and fifth Time Quintet books, that is).

If there was any thing more disappointing than the later Earth Children sequels, it was the 1986 Clan of the Cave Bear movie, with Darryl Hannah as Ayla. It was so bad that Ms. Auel sued to get the movie rights back, with most of the critics and book fans cheering her on. The movie was a failure in pretty much every sense and certainly didn’t help sustain the book series. It’s impossible to know if the bad movie or the bad sequels ultimately killed this series, but it is too bad, because the first one was really good. Honestly.

Flowers in the Attic: Confession time here. This trilogy, a hybrid gothic horror/Harlequin romance, was the hot series to read when I was in high school and yes, I read it. Unlike Clan of the Cave Bear, this was not one you discussed with parents or professors. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to even include them in the company of the others I have mentioned, the books were poorly written, poorly plotted and end the end, purely without merit. It just took us gals of the 1980′s a few years to fully realize 1) uncles who marry nieces are creepy 2) brothers who fall in love with their sisters are even creepier 3) kindly physician father figures who let their 15-year-old wards seduce them are equally creepy and 4) no storyline, however imaginative, can ever make all that palatable.  I think that revelation happened about the same time we realized that frizzy perms, shoulder pads, acid-washed jeans and rhinestone jewelry were not an attractive fashion combination. For a hilarious review of the series, see here. (Language alert, but if you have read VC Andrew you are in no position to complain about four-letter words anyway).

I have never read the series, but I suspect Fifty Shades of Grey has tapped into a similar market, and will be looked back at with similar embarrassment. I am just glad my own daughter has better options like Hunger Games, Divergent and Matched.

But, the point of this post is “popular young adult fiction, with and without movies” and there was a Flowers in the Attic movie, in 1987, about a year after Clan of the Cave Bear. The only thing I can conclude from this cinematic effort is that filmmakers of the late 1980’s must not have thought females readers of the era were especially discerning about their movie choices.  (They probably figured all the frizzy hair, padded shoulders, acid washed jeans and rhinestone jewelry had addled our brains). They must have assumed we’d pay to see anything, because this adaptation was, if anything, worse than Clan of the Cave Bear.  Not even the inspired casting of Louise Fletcher as the evil grandmother–note that the marketers chose to feature her on the VCR cover rather than the teen protagonists–could save this turkey. V.C Andrews herself (who approved of the movie enough to appear in a manor window washer cameo) died shortly before it was released and, although her “brand” would continue with ghostwriters, none of the rest of her series enjoyed anywhere near the success of the first.

Percy Jackson: Just because I don’t want to end this series on something as bad as Flowers in the Attic, I will turn to a present-day “Harry-lite” series, and a favorite of my 13 year old son. My knowledge is limited, as I only read the first book and have never seen the movie, but my son acknowledges Rick Riordan as his favorite author, and has eagerly devoured everything he has ever written. However, both of my kids hated the first film and are indifferent about seeing the second. Unlike the Harry Potter movies, they have never asked to purchase Percy on DVD, nor have I ever seen them re-watching the film on cable. The disappointing film has not dampened my son’s enthusiasm for the later Red Pyramid and Heroes of Olympus series or for the 39 Clues series to which Riordan contributed. If anything, the disappointing movie seemed to reinvigorate my son’s liking for the books, as he is fond of telling people how much better they are.

So, have I come to any conclusions? Based on my limited data set, the general pattern I see is 1) when good books are followed quickly by reasonably good and populat movies, (GWTW, Mockingbird) they tend to be mutually reinforcing and likely help the book remain popular longer. When bad or deteriorating series are followed by a loathsome box office flop (Clan, Flowers) the movie does nothing, and may even hurt the potential of future books. For the two good books on my childhood list that were followed by bad movies (Doctor Dolittle, A Wrinkle in Time), it is harder to judge the impact, given that there was literally a 40-year delay between the heyday of both of these books and the movies that subsequently butchered them. But, if the Percy Jackson series is any indicator, a disappointing movie does not have to doom a book series.  The most potential for damage occurs if, as occurred with Scarlett, authors (or those hired by the author’s estate to preserve the copyright) have their future visions constrained by the choices of filmmakers to leave out key details. The best ways to prevent this would be to either 1) wait until the book series is finished to make the movie or 2) make sure the author has enough creative control over the screenplay to prevent deletions and changes that could hamstring future writing. J.K Rowling exercised such discretion when she insisted that Kreacher be included in the Order of the Phoenix film, though I wish that she had been equally vigilant with the Two-Way Mirror.

At least from my perspective, the Harry Potter and Hunger Games movies, though far from perfect, are closer to the successful the GWTW and Mockingbird camps than the disastrous others. Veronica Roth seems to be taking an active role in the upcoming Divergent movie, so I am cautiously optimistic on that front, too. The readers of a completed series who also partake of a film experience before or after reading undoubtedly get a different experience than the first-time readers, particularly those of serial fiction who get to watch the storyline unfold over several years. But does it have to be one that “destroys the legacy?” Not necessarily, I submit.

I would love to hear other’s comments on these and other book/movie dyads. In particular, I am trying to think of a classic children’s fantasy series that has not had the cinematic treatment, and I can’t think of one. I suppose if we had had this conversation five years ago we could have put Narnia and Lord of the Rings/Hobbit in that category, but what is left?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Ken May 6, 2013 at 1:56 pm

I read “A Wrinkle in Time” a very loooong time ago and hardly remember any of it except that I was favorably impressed. It doesn’t surprise me that the movie adaptation flopped; it would seem a difficult book to film.

Certainly I’ve seen “GWTW”–it’s one of the great films of all time, even with its flaws–but have never managed to get past the first couple of chapters of the book. “TKAM” is likewise in the cinematic stratosphere; I read the book maybe once for school, liked it well enough, but am not devoted to it the way some are.

The best example immediately springing to mind of a great, classic novel that was horribly translated to film was “Dune,” at least the dark, clunky 80s attempt by David Lynch. One of the cable networks produced a much more passable version of the original and its two sequels about 10 or so years ago.

One of my favorite books as a boy was “The Phantom Tollbooth.” I just loved all the word-play; the Jules Pfeiffer illustrations were an added plus. But I’ve never managed to catch the film, which shows up occasionally on the cable movie channels. I hear it’s a mix of live-action and animation.

Probably “Star Wars” does not aptly fit into this discussion; if memory serves, George Lucas did not release his novelization of his own screenplay until shortly before the film’s debut. I doubt the book would have made much of an impression if it wasn’t for the phenomenon of the film.

Maggie D. May 6, 2013 at 2:02 pm

This is a very interesting post.

I don’t think that Edward Eager’s “Half Magic” series, or E. Nesbit’s “5 Children and It” books (although how many books are in that series? Two?) have been filmed, but the former isn’t very well known, I think, and Nesbit’s books are very old. I almost mentioned Nesbit’s books with the Bastable children but they aren’t fantasy. I think that Nesbit’s ‘The Enchanted Castle’ could be a lovely movie, in the right hands–perhaps an animated adaption by the geniuses at Studio Ghibli… but that’s another question.

Nana May 6, 2013 at 6:13 pm

I saw GWTW several times as a teen and loved it. As a young adult I decided to read the book assuming it better, but was disappointed. It was fun spending so much time with characters I loved, but it seemed too slow. Too something. I was too attached to the film. The same thing happened when I was 17 with “Dr. Zhivago.” I saw the film like 30 times because it was playing at a theatre near my school. Then I tried the book and it seemed intolerably long and boring. In these two examples, the movie won and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’d seen the films so many times prior.

As a girl my favorite books included “Treasure Island”, “Hunchback of Notre Dame, “The Three Musketeers” and “Little Women.” Only the Hunchback with Charles Laughton was good enough. Katherine Hepburn as Jo made that version pretty good, but not as good as the book. These were epic stories unlikely to be matched cinematically. On the other hand I saw “The Wizard of Oz” in the cinema and then read it and found the book better. The film is special but in a weird campy way. And don’t even get me going about Disney’s treatment of Alice, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. I actually banned Disney in my house when my kids were young and they are grateful today. We found the animated “Watership Down” to be quite worthy of the book. And likewise LotR was a great compliment to the books (like HP), but the Hobbit?? YUK.

As a young teen I read “Rebecca” which was great and the film was a winner too. Ditto “Jane Eyre.” And forget about it…Olivier as Heathcliff was better than the book IMHO. In that case I never bothered reading the book again. I read all hundred and something Agatha Christie books as a young teen, but luckily never saw any films until PBS began showing very good adaptations. I wonder if I would ever have read them if I had already seen the denouement onscreen.

This is where it bugs me most…when it’s a good mystery. And why I worry about HP. It’s a mystery that suffers if you know ahead who dies and who wins. I re read Harry all the time despite knowing all, but isn’t it because my initial experience was so intense and miraculous because I did not know? In the cases I listed above, usually I stuck with the one I encountered first or most. So I hope parents will encourage (insist) their kids to read Harry before they see him. In reading about him, they will understand who he is and why he does what he does. After that, it is fun to see it all alive in front of you. But when you just see him and watch him without reading, it’s purely a visual experience absent of all his deeper motivations. The film perfectly compliments the books after you know and have felt the real story.

Steve Morrison May 6, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Wikipedia says Five Children and It has been filmed. From the same source, The Enchanted Castle was made into a BBC miniseries in the late seventies.

Maggie D. May 6, 2013 at 8:17 pm

Thanks for the heads-up, Steve–now that you mention it, I think I do remember hearing that there was a film, but it slipped my memory. Should have checked on Wikipedia myself :)

D. Scott May 7, 2013 at 9:32 am

Excellent article. It made me think back to junior high school when I read most of Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series. The 1979 film with Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney and Teri Garr (and executive-produced by Francis Ford Coppola) was a good adaptation, I think. It is a lot different from many popular children’s movies today, which seem to have a clause in the writer’s contract mandating screaming or a song every thirty seconds or so to keep kids’ attention. The Black Stallion holds your attention with long periods of silence, as when Alec and The Black are shipwrecked together, and with hushed, natural conversations, as when Mickey Rooney teaches Alec to ride on a bale of hay in the barn. The effect is magical, and I would love to see more films for young adults employ this technique today.

Forrest Leeson May 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Chuck Jones’s PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH was as debacular as the WRINKLE IN TIME travesty. HOWARD THE DUCK levels of source fidelity.

carrenm May 9, 2013 at 8:26 am

I remember stumbling on the BBC mini-series version of “Pride and Prejudice” when it originally aired in the mid-1990′s. I was in grad school at the time, and it prompted me to fall in love with all of Jane Austen’s books, which I’d somehow never read before that, though I was familiar with them. I honestly can’t say which I prefer as I’m immensely fond of both the print and screen versions. In some ways, I think that my enjoyment of one enhances my love of the other and vice versa. I’m also a fan of the “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” book, but that’s another issue entirely.

Hana May 17, 2013 at 9:22 am

I missed most of these books, except for a Wrinkle in Time, LOTR and HP (and Pride and Prejudice — totally agree w. you carrenm on the BBC version).

I thought that the Divergent books rambled a bit too much and gave us very little sense of place — they might actually be better as movies. The actress they’ve cast as Tris was phenomenal in The Descendants, so I’m fairly optimistic.

Ender’s Game was written in 1977 and it’s finally being made into a movie. The cast is top notch and the trailer looks promising. I’ve got my fingers crossed on that one, too.

I’m also cautiously optimistic on the Catching Fire/Mockingjay movies. The trailer and the very interesting series of posters suggest to me that the follow on films might be more interesting than the first HG film.

James May 18, 2013 at 8:24 pm

I enjoyed The Hobbit, and found it much better than reviews would have suggested it to be. For me, the film is an asset to the book, similar to To Kill a Mockingbird.

I thought The Hunger Games film was weak compared to the books, mostly in terms of set design. It also lacked emotion, for me, although my eldest disagrees vehemently.

I found the Twilight films generally disappointing, and felt like they got worse over time, as they became more exercises in connecting all the the (plot point) dots. But it would be hard to argue that they didn’t benefit the books in many respects.

Whereas, although I haven’t seen The Host, it sounded like the poorly-captured film — especially the portrayal of the seekers — may have doomed the book’s sequels as well as the films. Which is aggravating and disappointing on several levels.

From my own childhood, the book and film combination that I remember best is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wonderful film, wonderful book, love both. No matter how corny the author thought it to be. The final lines — dictated while filming the last/final scene of the shoot, over then-tenuous long-distance telephone to the set in Germany by the screenwriter on vacation alone on a kayaking trip to Canada, at a payphone in a remote, solitary, abandoned bait shop on the very edge of all civilization, with no one else around (good thing he picked up that phone!) — is among the finest moments in film. As they soar into the heavens. Wonderful.

For me, the most egregious problems arise when the themes (and/or metaphors) of the books are hijacked by the films, inevitably toward something more trite, contrived, or cutesy. And a good example of this is the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory film. The film is not bad, in itself, but by derailing the story off into another theme entirely, it spoils things immeasurably (at least for me).

Louella Knowles July 10, 2013 at 5:38 am

The first book in the Earth’s Children series is the Clan of the Cave Bear. I first came across this through a friend’s review on goodreads and had been in a quest to find it ever since. The appeal here was this is a historical fiction based on the first interactions between the modern humans and the Neanderthals, and considering we at present don’t know the past…the mystery was hard to pass this off my TBR list. And find it I did at the cafeteria library where I work along with the last book of the series.

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