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'Mars Needs Moms': How a picture book got the Hollywood treatment

Author-cartoonist Berkeley Breathed describes how 'Mars Needs Moms' grew from a picture book to a Hollywood movie, with lots of worries about how his plot-driven progeny would change.

March 06, 2011|By Berkeley Breathed, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • From bookish tot to Hollywood hot: Breathed imagines his storybook tale "Mars Needs Moms!" before and after the years at Madame Hollywood's Finishing School for Picture Books.
From bookish tot to Hollywood hot: Breathed imagines his storybook tale… (Berkeley Breathed )

We had a birth on Aug. 24, 2006. A difficult delivery — some screaming and tears. Yes, unplanned and yes, conceived in sin.

A bit later I sold her on Buena Vista Street to some shadowy men wearing shiny loafers without socks. They drove her off into the Burbank night, muttering about "big plans." She cried. I cried.

Selling your baby is emotionally tricky.

On the other hand, they paid me in cash and I'll need hair plugs one day. They're $400 each.

Stop with the shocked look. As a struggling new parent without a spare $100 million for expenses, I was in no position to raise my painted progeny myself. And "progeny" is exactly what picture books are to those of us who conceive, birth, nurse and wipe the clichés from their little watercolor bottoms. Yes, I know every artist refers to their creations as their babies, including the kid who recites the Pledge of Allegiance in burps. But picture books really are story babies, and they're uniquely born begging to adolesce onto a movie screen. The problem is that adolescence is where things can go really wrong. One word: Snooki.

My own book baby was named "Mars Needs Moms!" and she dropped from the womb pudgy with plot: A wrathful boy declares his world better without mothers, and alien commandos arrive to make it happen. Plus rocket ships, ray guns, 2 million mom-less Martians in a hollowed-out planet and a controversial genre-cracking third-act twist that got me axed by my publisher of 25 years. In contrast, the third act of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" is eating a pear.

My kid was trouble. She needed Madame Hollywood's Finishing School for Picture Books.

But which one? Hollywood charm schools have had iffy results with their recent picture-book grads, but it'd be highly indelicate for me to simply blurt out the names ("The Cat in the Hat") of their unlovely, awkward debutants ("Where the Wild Things Are"). Because once upon a time they were all adorable ("How the Grinch Stole Christmas") babies.

But at least they got to grow up. Madame Hollywood has taken several of my other book tots in the past decade. Poof. Never saw them again. My wife and I have a nightmare that we'll be watching "Sesame Street" one morning and recognize one of their ravaged, ruined faces sharing a trash can with Oscar.

So this time I chose the school on the Disney lot run by Robert Zemeckis, a technology-tinkering mad genius Henry Higgins in red Keds sneakers, which isn't ironic because this is Hollywood. He'd molded a poised, comely Fair Lady from the picture book "The Polar Express."

So one day three years ago I gave his people my infant story and they ran off with her. I've heard almost nothing during her maturity. No teary calls, no pleading texts, no request for fatherly advice or script notes. Like any good boarding school, Hollywood discourages parental meddling from home lest it trigger nervous bed-wetting. By the producers.

But now my babe is grown and finished, and they'll let me meet her in exactly three hours from the time I'm writing this. I will report back to you my reaction in the last paragraph, which I'm leaving blank until after I see her and she breaks my heart.

She will break my heart if she loses hers. That's the real trick for Madame Hollywood's Finishing School: making sure we picture-book parents can still find our cherub after they're done. In the shiny, big-budget battle-ax they unveil, will we picture-book parents still recognize the gossamer charm of our toddler? The cute little narrative nose, the scrubbed thematic thighs, the soulful smile, is she still in there somewhere?

That's an entirely different question, of course, from whether she's a good movie or not. You can't ask me that because I can't be trusted. First, I've got skin in the game: I have some back end of the film. That is, like most authors, I am due a comically tiny fraction of the film's profits after expenses. Net movie profits. Let that phrase roll around on your tongue like the word "leprechaun."

And second, it's futile to ask either a picture-book parent or a real parent for an honest assessment of their grown up child. It's a minefield in a nuclear waste site. Can you ask Papa Perry if Katy Perry is an impressive person while her breasts are shooting whipped cream? No. He is left only to stumble about, stunned, looking for the little girl he loved somewhere below the dairy topping.

Me too.

"Mars Needs Moms" was conceived on an August night five years ago. My actual flesh-and-bones son Milo, 4, had pushed away a plate of broccoli, declaring he'd eat it when California balanced its budget. My wife returned fire and dropped his PlayStation into the compost bucket. Before I could foam him with flame retardant, out he came with "I wish I'd never had a mother!"

For minutes, the evil residue of that foul sentence lingered in the air like Darth Vader flatulence. I feared it might drop the dog.

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