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 }

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: