I am always skeptical when I see a motion picture based on a children’s picture book.
It’s bad enough, I’ve been called one of “those people,” whenever I see a movie based on a favorite chapter book, as I often have to bite my tongue to stop pointing out the differences. In the case of adapting a picture book into a feature length movie, however, I realized long ago any completely true adaptation would be akin to those 10-minute film strip projector shows we were often subjected to in grade school.
One to the latest of these attempts is Disney’s adaptation of Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which comes out on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital “On-Demand” on February 10. The question is, could Disney turn a simple narration about a young boy’s cruddy day–at least in his own words–into a full-on movie with multi-character appeal, all the while remaining true to the singular nature of the book?
I’ve found this hasn’t always been the case with picture book movie translations. Both recent live-action translations of Dr. Suess’s books, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat In The Hat, were huge disappointments in my mind. The commercially successful 2000 Jim Carrey vehicle, The Grinch, in its attempt to create a “back story” for the title character, corrupted the innocent, beautiful nature of The Whos in the story, completely changing point of the book. The Cat In The Hat was even worse, as it corrupted the mischievous innocence of The Cat himself with a seedy, gross, cheap laughs and scatological humor that was very not Seuss.
Another live-action creation, Where The Wild Things Are, was a beautifully done movie with visuals that celebrated the author Maurice Sendak’s distinct illustrations. The movie translation, however, left me with an entirely different feeling than the book did. I have probably read the book to my children and myself upwards of 100 times, and I feel warm and cozy at the end. Max comes back to the his reality with a hot meal and a happy face. We can relate to Max and his fits of fantasy-induced mischief, followed by that moment of melancholy clarity and appreciation for this life back home. In the movie, we know too much. We not only know the serious and sad world of Max’s “reality,” but the dark and eerie secrets of the Wild Things. These are things I never wanted to know, nor felt we ever needed to learn. It may have been a well-crated film, but I have no desire to see it again, nor do my children.
As for Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, I completed both the book and movie with the same feeling of contentment, even with the differences. Bad days happen–to everyone–but a fresh start is on its way tomorrow.
The movie worked for me, because rather than try to take a straight forward story and try to fill in the blanks with stretched-out, nonessential narrative, the book’s Alexander-centric story operated as a sort of prequel for the movie. We saw at the beginning how Alexander’s unfortunate days often go. The movie lets us see what comes next: Alexander’s all-too-familiar misfortunes falling on the shoulders of his entire family for once, with everything from botched interviews and driver’s tests, to forehead pimples and cough syrup highs. It doesn’t overlook Alexander’s affinity for Australia, one he repeats often in the book.
Actors Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner get top billing as Alexander’s parents, Ben and Kelly Cooper, but this story, like the book, was still about Alexander, played by Australia native, Ed Oxenbould. There were situations where Alexander wasn’t present in the film, but the focus needed to remain on Alexander, on how the family would be able to pull off a successful birthday party, and how, despite all the is happening during the day, they would be able to come together as a family.
There were a few over-the-top comedy “movie moments,” but it was the smaller, all-too-real ones that helped the movie complement the book, rather than try to improve upon it. The alarm clock mishaps, the public embarrassments, those misunderstandings that can spiral out of control, and that confounded confining seat belt. “Daddy really wishes he could swear right now!” Ah yes, I’ve been there, sir.
The Blu-ray’s extras included some of the usual behind-the-scenes looks, outtakes, and a music video by British boy band The Vamps, but the most memorable was the interview with Viorst, herself, and her son, the “real life” Alexander. In this feature, Viorst talked about how she was inspired to create the book, published in 1972, by seeing her son endure his share of bad days.
The now-grown Alexander expressed how he sometimes used the book to gain bragging rights during reading circle, and even impress a girl or two later in life. He said in the interview that he now fully realizes just how cool his mom is for having penned this now-classic story.
Making a movie fun and entertaining is one thing, but also making it relatable to different ages is an entirely bigger feat. Even more so, keeping it in line with the author’s original vision of the source material–regardless of the intended reader’s age–is an exceptionally hard balance to maintain. In that sense, Alexander’s family’s “terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day,” was a “wonderful, fun, heart-warming, very good” time.
For a full review of the movie, read GeekMom Kelly’s post here.
GeekMom received Blu-ray copy for review purposes.
Off the Page: Picture Books I’d like to See Hit the Big Screen
Alexander and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day did a great job bringing the spirit of Judith Viorst’s book to life, but there are other stories I would love to see become movies, if done properly, of course. Here are five of my favorites I hope to see someday:
The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs! By A. Wolf, as “told to” Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith. The well-worn nursery rhyme from a different point of view, was my first exposure to the Sciesksa/Smith collaborations, and I’ve loved their work ever since. The wolf was framed, I tell you. Framed!
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems. I think it’s only a matter of time before the movie industry recognizes the simple genius of Willems’s work, be it Pigeon, Piggy, or Elephant. Knuffle Bunny could connect with both kids and adults. Plus, just think of the adventures that “lost” bunny could have on the big screen.
Aliens in Underpants Save The World by Claire Freedman, illustrated by Ben Cort. There always seems to be some sort of animated alien invasion or visitation movie being made, but even the title of this story about a group of undies-loving aliens who use their plundered stash of underpants to repel a meteorite from hitting the planet would make a hilarious B-movie spoof.
The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch, illustrated by Michael Martchenko. It seems to be this one should have been done ages ago, and could be adorable in both live action or as an animated feature. The princess saves the day from a fire-breathing dragon, learns to love herself, and sticks it to that superficial little Prince Ronald all on one, brief story.
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean. Gaiman’s stories have made it on the big screen before, but his children’s picture book about a boy who, as the title says, trades his dad in for what he thinks is a good deal before having to go through several venues to retrieve him, is just quirky enough to work. Although we never see Dad’s face venture out from behind his newspaper in the book, this would be a great movie cameo, with the big reveal coming near the end from the character’s only spoken word, “Children.” This one, in particular, needs to happen.