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Passing the Screen Test

Beloved books like 'Madeline' are finding their way into the movies. But keeping the magic and finding audiences isn't kid's play.

July 12, 1998|Valerie J. Nelson | Valerie J. Nelson is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Turning a classic children's book into a motion picture weighed heavily on producer Allyn Stewart. With "Madeline," she would be toying with the memories of generations of children as well as trying to remain faithful to a story that would end up being culled from four books.

It's a burden that also could be considered a boon, since author Ludwig Bemelmans' ode to independence and Paris comes with a built-in audience--since 1939, "Madeline" has sold 10 million copies. The movie, which opened Friday, has received an "uncommon amount of attention," she says, but staying true to the spirit of the book while making the movie was central to her vision.

"We were very aware of the dual responsibility of taking a classic piece of children's literature, which has some magical reason for why it's a classic," Stewart says. "We spent a lot of time asking ourselves, 'Why has this book been a classic for 60 years?' Not many books achieve the status of 'Madeline.' "

Maybe not, but that's not stopping Hollywood from turning them into movies. About a third of more than 70 family films in development or ready for release are based on books written for children or young adults. For a family movie to make it at the box office, it must appeal to parents as well, which is why many of those being made today are based on books, says Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source, a Los Angeles firm that tracks the industry.

"It doesn't have to be recent," he says. "It's better that these are books that parents recognize when they were kids. 'The Cat in the Hat' [coming from DreamWorks] is a perfect example."

Among the popular children's books making their way to the movies are such perennial favorites as "Curious George," "Stuart Little," "Babar" and the current mega-selling "Goosebumps" series.

Just as in movies made mainly for grown-ups, a good book doesn't automatically translate into a great movie. Yet filmmakers say certain common elements appear in films based on children's books that strike a chord with the audience. They have strong central characters with whom viewers can identify--think of "Harriet the Spy" or Jo in "Little Women"--and a universal theme, usually the kid (or sometimes an animal, say a pig named Babe) against the world. The best ones often are mythic, such as "The Wizard of Oz."

The box-office returns on movies based on children's books have been mixed, from the current Eddie Murphy hit, "Dr. Dolittle," a loose retelling of the Hugh Lofting story, to the disappointing audience response to "A Little Princess," based on the Frances Hodgson Burnett novel.

To succeed, films based on children's books must work on a number of levels, says Fonda Snyder, president of Storyopolis Productions. The company is currently in pre-production on a movie based on "Red Ranger Came Calling," cartoonist Berkeley Breathed's Christmas book about a 10-year-old's encounter with a crusty hermit who may be the retired Santa Claus.

Humor and intelligence help, as does strong storytelling. Many contemporary movies pulled from children's books have missed the mark because they make the mistake of being "too mean-spirited," she says.

"There's a mistaken sense of desire for buyers to equate commercial value with a mean spirit," Snyder says. "They forget that children are knowing, and appreciate humor and a great story. When there's heart in the material, it works for us."

Storyopolis, established in 1995, is particularly well-placed to know what books are popular with children because it also has a Los Angeles bookstore and art gallery that showcases the work of children's book illustrators. Producers and directors are always dropping in to find out what's selling, says Dawn Heinrichs, Snyder's sister and co-founder of the company.

Movie-makers who pay more attention to the value of the title than the message of the story are missing the point. "The thinking is, just because it's a huge-selling title, it's going to be a huge, successful movie," Heinrichs says. "There are so many potholes along the way that can take away charm and value."

The books in which Storyopolis is involved--such as "Red Ranger" and "The Iguana Brothers," an animated buddy movie starring two iguanas--don't have huge sales but "an incredible world that can be intimated in the visuals," Snyder says.

It's hard to judge the success of family films through their domestic box-office grosses, because many make their money through merchandising, or more often, videos, Bucksbaum says.

Michael Shamberg, one of the producers of the 1996 film "Matilda," argues that a movie is a success if it becomes a part of popular culture, not just because it finally makes a fair amount of money when it gets to video. By that measure, "Matilda," which grossed about $35 million and sold another $6 million in videos, is a success because of its "hugely successful afterlife," Shamberg says.

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