Swallows and Amazons (out now) is an upcoming British family film, adapted from the successful children’s novel of the same name by Arthur Ransome. Set in 1929, the book follows the whimsical outdoor adventures of four siblings, The Walkers, whilst on holiday in the Lake District. In their adventures they come across an island whilst sailing their dinghy ‘The Swallow’, and meet with two sisters The Blackett’s who are camping on the island who sail ‘The Amazon’. Together the 6 children make a truce against a common enemy; the Blackett’s Uncle Jim Turner or ‘Captain Flint’, who is so committed to finishing his memoirs that he is not spending any time with his nieces and becoming grumpier and more unfriendly. The story is gentle and downplayed, showing less of the action and drama that would be present in a similarly constructed Enid Blyton adventure children’s book, instead emphasising the fun and merriment of simply being a child.
From the look of the film from the trailers, certain story elements have been changed to make the story more accessible and exciting for modern viewers. This includes Jim Turner (played by Rafe Spall) being reimagined from being a focused and grumpy author to being an international spy, the addition of Andrew Lincoln to the cast as a secret agent pursuing Turner, and the change of name for the unfortunately named ‘Titty’ to ‘Tatty’. Whilst many of these are superficial changes, drastically adding a huge plot point like the spy storyline is a risky move, particularly when it comes to pleasing fans of the book. This seems to be a problem for many book-to-film adaptations, which are criticised routinely for making unnecessary changes and deviations from the source material. Occasionally when the film ends up being too faithful, it is again criticised for not being accessible as a film in its own right. But when the mix between the source material and a talented director’s vision is handled correctly, the result can be some of the best films to ever grace the screen. Over the course of this article I will look at my four least favourite children’s book adaptations, as well as my four personal favourites.
Stormbreaker is a spy action film that follows 16 year old Alex Ryder, who is recruited to join MI6 and to gather intelligence on Stormbreaker, an advanced computer system. This was the first film to be adapted from the semi successful book series by Anthony Horowitz, and was initially intended to be the first in a huge franchise. Unfortunately for those involved, the book didn’t manage to translate well to film and Stormbreaker is now considered to be one of the biggest cinematic flops in recent memory. Whilst the lack of believability and the staggering level of wish fulfilment works to some extent in book form, the film comes off as pandering and irritating, and with a genuine lack of excitement throughout, it makes the film lame and boring.
Eragon is a pretty forgettable fantasy story from author Christopher Paolini, about a young farm hand named Eragon, who after finding a dragon egg in the mountains is dragged into an epic quest concerning evil Kings and a huge rebellion. The books adaptation is universally considered to be a pretty naff film, not only for the title replacing the D from Dragon with an E and expecting its audience to take it seriously, but also from its overuse of lame fantasy clichés and a boring hero’s journey narrative without the interesting world building given in classics like Lord of the Rings or the Discworld series. Not even the inclusion of Robert Carlyle, Jeremy Irons and John Malkovich to the cast can make this any less of a stinker, with the film just acting now as further proof that not every children’s fantasy book can have the same success in being adapted to screen as Harry Potter did.
2. Danny the Champion of the World
Jeremy Irons again, curse that man. Possibly the worst book to film adaptation ever made, Danny the Champion of the World was adapted from the less well known novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, and is established as a vanity project of sorts for star Jeremy Irons and his real life son, Samuel Irons. Like the book, the films plot centres on Danny; an English boy who lives in a gypsy caravan with his father, William, and their wholly unpleasant scheme to poach all the pheasants from the estate of local magnate Mr. Hazell. Trying to make the subject matter more light, the film has the sickeningly tripe revision of little Danny freeing all the pheasants, as well as other story additions that don’t mesh into a Dahl story. The acting is absolutely abysmal, particularly from Danny, in the grossest piece of nepotism outside of Jaden Smith in After Earth. Whilst in the book Danny is likeable, here he is snivelling and irritating, and casts a negative shadow over the entire film.
1. The Cat in the Hat
After the success of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, filmmakers were eager to adapt more of Dr. Seuss’s absurd and charming collection of children’s stories into feature length adaptations. The Cat in the Hat is one of these, and takes a lot of liberties with the short story source. The original story is very simple; a cat arrives, causes chaos and after cleaning up leaves again. Whilst the main plot parallels that of the book, the inclusion of a lot of unnecessary and dumb subplots to make up a feature length running time bogs down the film, resulting in the final product being charmless and ugly. Whilst new subplot additions worked in The Grinch due to Jim Carrey’s fantastic performance, here Mike Myers just can’t carry it. The cat is creepy, the children are irritating and the humour is abysmal. The film was so bad in fact that Seuss’s widow Audrey Geisel decided to not allow any future live action adaptations of Seuss’s work. Probably for the best…
First up on the good book-to-film adaptations list is the film Holes. Based on the bestselling novel by Louis Sachar, Holes tells the story of Stanley Yelnats, an obese young man from a cursed family who is wrongly convicted of a robbery and sent to an unconventional juvenile detention centre, where the young offenders are tasked with digging a hole in a dried up lake bed every day. In remaining rigidly faithful to its source material and having Sachar himself write up the screenplay, the result is one of the most faithful adaptations of a book in cinematic history. The young actors are great, including Shia in an early leading role before his descent into batsh*t craziness. The older supporting actors are also brilliant, including Jon Voight as the sunflower seed popping Mr. Sir and Sigourney Weaver as the villainous Warden Walker.
3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Not many film franchises have had as much of an impact on cinema as Harry Potter. Lasting for eight films, the Harry Potter film franchise is the second most profitable franchise of all time, earning $7.7 billion dollars worldwide. The popularity of the franchise has lead to many other children and young adult book adaptations hitting cinemas, from the good (The Hunger Games) to the bad (all the Hunger Games sequels). The key to Harry Potters success is a culmination of a number of factors; the fantastic lead and supporting actors that truly embody the spirit of the book characters, the faithfulness to the source material and a fresh director for almost all the films to give them each a unique style. The best of the bunch comes in The Prisoner of Azkaban, with a welcoming darker tone than the previous two instalments, fantastic visuals and great direction from Alfonso Cuaron.
What could have been a cheap and pandering children’s film somehow managed to end up being one of the sweetest and most visually stunning British films made in recent memory. Based on the book series by Michael Bond, Paddington follows pretty much the same narrative from the books. The film begins with Paddington Bear arrive from Darkest Peru and being adopted by the Brown family. Effortlessly managing to capture the magic of the books and the quintessential Britishness of the Michael Bond source material, Paddington blends the old fashioned with the modern in a downplayed and respectful way. You never see Paddington having to deal with the trials and tribulations of modern London, and you don’t get a horrible scene of Paddington rapping or swapping out his red fedora for a baseball cap or some other horribly dated attempt to be “down with the kids” that a weaker writer might have included. With the strong direction by Paul King from The Mighty Boosh fame, Paddington is trusted to carry the story without any unnecessary narrative tweaks, and the result is fantastic.
1. Winnie the Pooh
Winnie the Pooh is a timeless collection of short stories by author A.A. Milne, which has the various toys and stuffed animals belonging to the author’s son Christopher Robin getting into adventures in the fictional Hundred Acre Wood. In amongst the wonderful cast of characters is the eponymous Pooh bear, a lovable, dim witted bear with a love for honey. The book was adapted into a series of shorts (and an eventual feature) by Walt Disney in the 1970s and quickly grew to become one of their most successful and recognisable properties. I grew up on both the books and the film, and whilst they are both vastly different they both manage to be appealing in their own ways. What this adaptation (and almost all Disney adaptations of famous novels) manages to do so well is find that blend between the original stories charm and the unique characters, whilst also retaining the animators and voice actors own style. This results in one of Disney’s best films, and one of the most endearing children’s films of all time.
Swallows and Amazons will be released in cinemas on the 19th of August