Behind many popular movies for kids is usually a great book that serves, at least in part, as its inspiration. Even if Pirates of the Caribbean isn’t your tankard of punch, there's a treasure trove of material to motivate your young Captain Jack Sparrow to read. After all, a movie represents just one interpretation of a story, so why not introduce your movie fan to say, Treasure Island? With just a little savvy, parents can use the excitement of watching a film to inspire a love of books.
With all its flashy special effects and multi-million dollar budget, it may seem hard to fathom how a mere book can compete with a blockbuster hit. As any book lover can tell you, sometimes all the Technicolor wonder of the big screen still can’t outshine the author’s own words in black and white. The key, experts say, is building upon your child’s interest in a good story. Parents needn’t worry about which comes first—the book or the movie. Experiencing different adaptations of a good tale can be especially rewarding.
Although no movie can capture the elaborate nuances and descriptive details of a book, some are able to capture the general spirit of the book. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, is a complex story brought to life in a wonderfully visual and authentic way. For many fans, Holes made the transition to the big screen while keeping the same great sense of adventure and suspense that attracted fans to the book.
Katherine Paterson, award winning author whose book The Bridge to Terabithia was recently released as a movie, says turning a book into a film has its benefits not only for movie fans, but for readers as well. “Certainly, a movie is good for book sales, but even if half the folks who buy the book actually read it, it will be great for readership as well.”
Still, not all books turned movie are created equal, and parents shouldn’t be placated into thinking that just because a film is based on a book, it’s somehow culturally enriching. If done poorly, without regard to the author’s original intent, a film based on a book can be a big disappointment for both kids and adults. Fans of a particular book often feel proprietary over characters that they have come to know in print, and sometimes an incomplete film portrayal can leave fans feeling a bit cheated.
Because of Winn Dixie is a favorite title for young readers for using humor to address difficult events, but many felt the recent film version overplayed the comedy, making the characters and situations too cartoonish compared to the poignant and offbeat portrayals found in the book. While immensely entertaining, the Harry Potter films cover only a fraction of the rich content of the novels. Given the number of young readers JK Rowling’s series has spawned, these omissions don’t go unnoticed.
“I sometimes don’t want books to be made into movies because the book is so descriptive. It puts such a great picture in my mind that I don’t care to see a movie for fear that it will change everything I imagined,” says 10-year-old Thomas Nicklin.
Fellow classmate Denny Okudinani agrees. “Books let your imagination run wild. They are so much better than movie and can give you greater adventures than movies. I only see movies after I read the book.”
Kris Fischer, Reading Specialist for Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia says kids can have a much better understanding and fuller experience if they take in both the movie and the book.
“There's a certain amount of richness that's lost in film that some children will never experience because they won't read the book…[The author] wants us to pull in our own past and make the book our own unique version with a special connections to our lives,” says Fischer. But the visual nature of films, she says, can benefit struggling readers and serve as a primer for others, especially if the movie tackles a difficult subject.
“Sometimes historical movies like Gettysburg (the 1993 historical drama by Ronald Maxwell) help you picture what really happened in history better than a book will," says young reader Caroline Banchoff. Still, she remains skeptical of other adaptations. “When the movie has different pictures than what I imagined, I end up hating the movie.”
For Jannie Johnston, seeing the movie beforehand can sometimes inspire her to finish a book. “I read slowly compared to my sister, but if I’ve seen the movie, I kind of know what’s coming and that gets me excited to get through the book.”
To get a better sense of which books make the transition to film more or less intact and to find helpful book discussions, parents may want to do a quick Internet search. Many sites, such as Walden.com or the Australian Film Commission’s non-profit site Metromagazine.com.au, offer a wide array of material that can compliment both the book and film experience. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB.com) is also a great source for information on the filmmakers and directors behind the projects. The discussion boards here, in particular, are a great source of fan feedback, especially for comparing the book to the film.
Patterson, however, never had to worry about her novel-turned-movie—the film’s co-screen writer was none other than David Paterson, Katherine’s own son. The Bridge to Terabithia, the story of two kindred spirits who create a mythical world to combat the pressures of junior high school, is based in part on real events from David’s childhood.
“An author knows that the movie will not be ‘just like the book.’ The two media have different demands. But I was extremely fortunate that my son, David, was a principal writer and associate producer of the film, Bridge to Terabithia. David, I knew, would fight for a film that not only preserved the story and spirit of the book, but that would do honor to his friend, Lisa Hill, who inspired the book. ”
To nurture the reader in your film lover as well as enhance the movie experience for the young book lover, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Make your film buff an honorary critic and ask them what they liked best and least about the film.
- Was the movie anything like what they had visualized?
- If your child liked the movie, but never read the book, suggest reading it together.
- Now that movies are promoted sometimes as far ahead as six months in advance, consider making the film version a reward for first reading the book
- Ask your reader to “cast” their favorite book. Who among friends and family most resemble certain characters?
- Encourage your child establish a book/cinema club with friends to talk about their favorite books and movies.
- Check out audio books from the local library so that struggling readers can follow the print version along with the lively recordings.
A freelance writer and TV Critic for Daily Variety, Laura Fries has been writing about TV and film entertainment for more than eighteen years. She lives with her husband, daughter and a small menagerie of pets in Alexandria, Virginia.
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