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Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Bridges of Madison County Syndrome (Children’s Literature Edition)

Seems like more and more children’s books are being turned into movies these days.  When I was a kid the pickings were relatively slim.  If I had to name all the films I watched based on children’s literature that were released when I was between the ages of 0-12, I could name you that awful Pippi Longstocking (aw zut . . . now the theme song’s caught in my head again), The Neverending Story (which some would argue isn’t a children’s book at all), and . . . uh . . . hrm.  Theatrical releasewise, that’s all I’ve got (unless you ascribe to the theory that Outside Over There became Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, which I do not, dedication to Sendak in the film’s credits be damned).  Yep, it was pretty much let’s-go-watch-the-Rainbow-Bright-movie or nothing when I was a kid.  No wonder Disney’s made such a killing all these years.

These days, we’re luckier.  Even if one children’s literature adaptation stinks, you can just wait a month for the next one.  And that got me to thinking.  I know that every time they adapt a beloved book to the silver screen you hear the familiar cry of, “the movie is never better than the book.”  But . . . what if that isn’t true?

My question to you today is this: Can you think of cases where the movie version of a children’s book is better than the original text?  Follow-up question, can you think of children’s films that have completely usurped their books in our cultural memory?

This is a two-pronged question, so let’s start with the first part; Movies that are better than their books.  Call it the Bridges of Madison County Syndrome.  There you had a book that fair dripped with the wretchedness of its writing.  But put it into a movie format and cast two Oscar winners and voila!  Instantly slightly better film (though still completely forgotten today).

There seem to be three possibilities here.  I posed this very question to some children’s literary experts last night and some of them agreed on a single title:

I’ve never read the book by Eleanor H. Porter.  Cheryl Klein pointed out to me that the film Polly that came out in 1989 with Keisha Knight Pulliam wasn’t half bad AND would make an excellent Broadway musical.  A good point.

The question is (and I shudder to mention it) would you count The Boy in the Striped Pajamas in this category?  You might.  I reviewed the film for Horn Book a while back and I stand by what I said about the movie.  It is better than the book, but that certainly doesn’t mean you should see it.

On a personal level I’d add in The Brave Little Toaster here.  In spite of the fact that the film briefly contains one of THE most racially offensive images you’ve ever seen in an animated Disney film still in print (and I include Fantasia‘s zebras in that statement) I still think it’s a top notch piece of work.  Besides, name me all the Disney films you know that contain imitations of Joan Rivers and Peter Laurie in the same scene?

And now the second part: Movies that are remembered long after the books have faded from the public perception.  This is a much longer list and Disney is responsible for a lot of the candidates.  Consider, for today’s example, following books:

Bambi by Felix Salten

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Between these two, I’d actually say that Old Yeller circulates more often in my library.  But that’s not saying much.

Then you have cinematic versions so good that small fights break out amongst the fans.  Do you love The Railway Children because of the text or because you loved the BBC production?  How many of us watched Megan Follows portray Anne of Green Gables and THEN were able to read the book? [<— guilty as charged]

There is a theory that states that whenever a movie is based on a children’s book, that book gets checked out of libraries in droves.  And there is truth to that.  Sometimes, though, it doesn’t move at all because folks never knew it was a film in the first place.  I certainly never sought out The Neverending Story when I was a kid (though that may have had something to do with the fact that I was a puppet snob and the special effects in that film didn’t meet my Muppet-based standards).  And maybe in the future some of the books being adapted today won’t be remembered while their film version live on in the cultural memory.  It’s the exception that proves the rule, but worth considering just the same.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. Walter Farley’s Black Stallion is mediocre. Carroll Ballard’s Black Stallion is a masterpiece.

  2. I’m planning on finally reading The Swiss Family Robinson soon but I’m guessing that I will think the movie is better. I also like the James and the Giant Peach film better than the book. Sorry, Roald! Hmm … and back to Disney, I like The Jungle Book movie better. I think with some of these, the movies are less apt to seem dated than the books.

  3. The Princess Bride? Did HBJ publish the novel for children? Probably not. Does anybody read it regardless?

    I also find it interesting that the adaptation of a book doesn’t eclipse the kid’s book even if the adapting director is a much more significant artist with a history of masterpiece adaptations. For instance, Coppola’s Godfather is, I think, superior to Puzo’s. His Apocalypse Now holds up pretty well to Heart of Darkness. But does anybody think his Outsiders will be watched longer than Hinton’s will be read?

  4. Betsy, I believe you and I are about the same age and I remember A LOT more movies based on books from my childhood! In fact, that was one way that I discovered so many great books. (And some not so great ones– “Pinocchio” I’m looking at you!) You appear to only be counting ones that were in theaters when we were kids, and yeah, the pickings were really slim. But if you include readily available videos the numbers get substantially higher. I would never have picked up “Mary Poppins,” “The Princess Bride”– yup, read the book and it’s hilarious!–, “Pollyanna,” ‘Pippi Longstocking,” “Black Beauty,” “Bed Knob and Broomstick,” “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh,” “The Neverending Story”– my favorite fantasy book–, “Freaky Friday,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “One Hundred and One Dalmations” and the list goes on. I was one of those children who, when watching a movie, paid enough attention to the credits to find out if there was a book. And then I would go read the book. This is why even though many bemoan the fact that so many children’s books become movies, I strongly support them. If the movie gets children to read the book and then think about which medium works better, then I’m all for it.

    Now, another interesting point to ponder is how many children’s movies are made from books that weren’t written specifically for children? “The Princess Bride” was not written for kids. It was written for adults– the author’s note at the beginning proves this– but yet many children and teens love the movie. The same goes for “The Last Unicorn.” That book was written for adults, but the movie is a cartoon and is seen more as a children’s movie because of it. And yes, the same also goes for “The Neverending Story,” although one could argue that the book is really ageless as well as well as timeless. (Though admittedly, neither book or movie are for everyone.)

    I do wish we didn’t currently have what I’ll call “The Harry Potter Syndrome” in that many production companies seem to think any children’s book will make a great movie. Some books are better left to the imagination!

  5. The Wizard of Oz–at least, the movie witch has become iconic. I think the movie has permeated our culture in a way, perhaps, the book hasn’t.

  6. P.S. I’ve read that critics say Disney’s Pinocchio movie is much better storytelling than the original book, which is apparently dense and rambling.

  7. I prefer Brad Bird’s Iron Giant to the book. And I second Black Stallion, particularly for the opening 30 minutes.

  8. Mary Poppins! I’m not saying the book is BAD, I’m saying the movie is so much BETTER! It has an actual plot arc! It has exceedingly catchy songs! And it has Julie Andrews, who is, simply, A Goddess! My toddler has been on a watching Mary Poppins kick over and over for the past year, but this is one movie that I actually don’t get sick of!

    This topic reminds me of watching Mrs. Doubtfire as a teenager, and how I was the only person who even KNEW it had been based on a book (Alias Madame Doubtfire), and I had actually read it before. I think it’s interesting when they make movies based on books nobody has heard of, vs. books that have rabid fanbases. I think in the first case the moviemakers have a lot more leeway to change the plot around than in the second case, and that makes a difference….

  9. I don’t think I’d agree about Pinocchio – it’s certainly not fare for the modern child, but a good translation is a quick and interesting read. I’d say The Rescuers has been eclipsed completely – how many kids know there’s a series of books about Miss Bianca? And I think pretty much any movie adaptation is better than the original Peter Pan.

  10. I personally love all the Mary Poppins books, but…yeah, you’re right. Re. Doubtfire, Anne Fine used to be majorly popular – take a look at a library shelf that hasn’t been weeded for a while. She’s still a big deal over in the UK, although her popularity over here has waned, at least in my library. She seems to be mostly writing beginning chapter books now – Jamie and Angus anyone? Her older book Flour Babies still checks out frequently, despite the awful cover.

  11. Bridget Heos says:

    I liked the movie Nancy Drew better than the books. I got a better sense of Nancy in the movie, in which she is so earnest it just breaks your heart. But I’m sure the movie won’t surpass the books in terms of cultural impact!

  12. Tom Angleberger says:

    It always comes back to this:
    101 Dalmations!

    One of the top-grossing movies ever. (12th when adjusted for inflation).

    The movie is fun. The animation is phenomenal. And it’s got the Cruella De Vil song.

    Meanwhile, the book is boring, ill-done and sexist beyond belief. (I refer to the depiction of Mrs. Pongo, who doesn’t even seem to have her own name, much less a brain.)

    This one ranks up there with the all-time greatest book-to-movie upgrade: The African Queen.

  13. I definitely agree with the Rescuers and 101 Dalmatians. Personally, I’ve always preferred the Secret of NIMH film over the book.

  14. Stephanie Whelan says:

    I agree on 101 Dalmations–though I like parts of that book, it is incredibly sexist. I think I’m one of the few people who enjoyed Bambi, by Felix Salten more than the Disney–but it isn’t really a kids movie. Swiss Family Robinson is a headache of a book to try and read–I did try once, but gave up. Growing up I had a novelized version of the Disney movie that I read and that was lots of fun by comparison.

    Charlotte’s Web has the unusual distinction in my mind of being both a fabulous book that is still read year after year and an amazing animated movie. The live action version not so Much.

    Wizard of Oz is completely coopted by the movie. See how many children will argue with you if you point out Dorothy wore Silver Slippers rather than ruby. Of course Disney managed to coopt a whole hoard of fairy tales with their retellings. I’m wondering though if Lady and the Tramp was based on a book . . .

    I think Heidi has also become known mainly by the movie rather than the book.

  15. It’s true that Pinocchio is a mess of a story, but it’s nevertheless one of the most fascinating books ever published, in my opinion. And, in my experience, it’s a great book to read to a kid. The Disney movie (which was not bad, but didn’t have much to do with the book) unfortunately obscured Collodi, at least in the U.S. It’s a pity.

  16. Regarding Swiss Family Robinson, I listened to an audiobook version of it last year and I found the tone very patronizing and sexist, which isn’t terribly surprising considering it was first published in 1812. Even so, it read more like a survival guide than the adventure the movie is, and I was disappointed that there was no incredibly fantastic tree house like they have in the movie. I mean, who has watched the movie and *not* wanted to live in that house?!

    Although I wouldn’t say it was necessarily better than the novel, the 1995 movie version of “A little princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett was at least on par with the book. I thought it was very faithful to the story and the magical scenes were wonderfully executed.

  17. Don’t Look and It Won’t Hurt was good Richard Peck, but Gas Food Lodging, its filmed variant by Alison Anders, was even better.

  18. The Shaggy Dog, which certainly wasn’t great cinema, was still better than the book it was based on, The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten (not sure if this one counts though….the book was clearly targeted towards adults). One way or the other, the movie has certainly eclipsed the book, which is long out of print.

  19. Please don’t flame me hairless…but I liked the movie version of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs better than the book. (Of course, all they had in common was the title and the image of a giant pancake falling on a school.)

    Totally agree that The Godfather is a million times better as a movie than as a book. (Which reminds me, so were the film versions of a bunch of James Bond novels — Goldfinger and Casino Royale [the Daniel Craig version]). But um, they’re not kidlit. (Though I did tear thru all the Bond books in my parents’ basement when I was 11. Then I shaved my legs for the first time. True story. Good talk.)

    I did not know Gas Food Lodging was based on a book! The movie is INCREDIBLE.

  20. You happened to pick a couple of books I LOVED as a kid — Pollyanna and Bambi. The book Bambi is many hundreds of times better than the movie. But as another commenter pointed out, it’s NOT a cute book for little kids. The sequel to Pollyanna, Pollyanna Grows Up was the first romance I read — and loved. The book goes a lot deeper about “The Glad Game” and makes it not seem trite.

    One movie I think was way better than the book is Shrek. I thought William Steig’s version was pretty weak. (Though I don’t think that about any other William Steig book.) I also thought the Jumanji movie was better than the book, and also Matilda. Also Stardust, by Neil Gaiman (though that’s not a children’s book).

    Oh, and here’s another: I think The Lord of the Rings was better as a movie, even though I love the books. But the editing of the movies made them easier to follow. I hate in The Two Towers where he spends half the time with one group and then half the time with the other. I liked it being interwoven.

    In general, I find I like movies that add to a short book (like Shrek and Jumanji) or simplify a complicated book (like Lord of the Rings and Stardust). If it tries to do exactly the same thing as the book, it can never quite measure up, because you just don’t have as much time to work with.

  21. Stephanie Whelan says:

    Sondy, have you ever tried picking up the BBC version of the Lord of the Rings? They do a radio play performance that has caught and held my imagination through two decades. Tolkien tends to write a little dry, and the movie certainly is brilliant and my husband and I love it, but there are scenes that aren’t in the movie that are profound and powerful that come across in the radio play perfectly.

    Can’t say I liked Stardust the movie–but I didn’t like the book either so there’s that.

    One thing I realized with books and movies when I watched the first Harry Potter is how difficult it is to take what is written exactly into visual movie presentation. The book worked with Harry as the cipher through which, we the audience see the world of Hogwarts. But in the movie he comes across as bland and almost dull because I think the presentation was too close to the book–we’re not seeing through Harry’s eyes in the movie.

    Another movie that has eclipsed the book–though it seems the book has been reprinted, is Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key. Memories of that movie and the weirdling instrumentation they used whenever the kids used their powers stick with me.

    I’d love to see someone do a movie of Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Loved the book as a preteen and still re-read it for nostalgia’s sake.

  22. It’s teen instead of children’s, and modern, but the Twilight movies are SO MUCH BETTER than the books. (Maybe because of the editing to get it down to 2 hours?)

  23. Tom Angleberger says:

    Lots of great stuff on this growing list!

    Pinocchio is a good choice, but the book has its moments: i.e., splat!

    The Little Princess is indeed a fine movie!

    Babe is a very good book, but I think the movie is great.

    And how about “That Darn Cat?” I own the book, but have never read it. But the Haley Mills/Dean Jones movie would be hard to beat!

    And as for Harriet the Spy … best kidlit soundtrack ever thanks to Jamshied Sharifi, James Brown and Eartha Kitt!

    I hope this time next year we are all in agreement about how great the Tin-Tin movie was!

  24. I see that Sondy mentioned Shrek for the first category, but I think Shrek screams the second category – most kids in my library have no idea that Shrek was ever a book. Just today, I was reading the adorable new book called “Miss Brooks Loves Books (And I Don’t)”, and when the book version of Shrek appeared in the story, all of the kids were surprised and amused.

  25. Can I be forgiven for thinking that the film adaptation of Inkheart was better than the book?

    [Ducks rotten tomato]

    The storytelling just seemed so much more streamlined in the film.

    [Ducks stinking cabbage]

  26. Stephanie mentioned Escape to Witch Mountain — I loved that book as a kid and thought it was far better than the movie (though I enjoyed the movie and the cheesy sequel – haven’t seen the new one that has very little to do with the original story). The book is less airy-fairy than the movie, more down-to-earth (for a science fiction/fantasy story), and develops the characters better. Time to reread it!

  27. I thought that the book Harriet the Spy was hundreds of times better than the movie! Rosie O’Donnell as Ole Golly? What the heck were they thinking? Music is good, though. I have to say that I read Anne of Green Gables and Heidi before I ever saw the movies, as well. I was into the classics as a kid in a big way.

  28. Seconding IRON GIANT.

  29. Thirding Iron Giant and seconding Matilda. I think Matilda is the perfect example of a filmmaker not being afraid to inject his own artistic sensibility to the project. Matilda is as much a Danny DeVito film as it is a Dalh story. The same could be said about Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Nic Roeg’s Witches suffers, I believe, by the lack of Roeg. Watch Performance or Don’t Look Now and then watch Witches. I doubt you’ll find much in Witches that you’d consider “Roegian”.

  30. Not strictly a kids’ book, but if NC Wyeth illustrated it, it can’t be completely outside the pale, either: LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Pretty great movie, famously unreadable book. Gotta stand up for the original JUNGLE BOOK, though: its language is too much for most today’s young readers, and Kipling is probably tainted by his association with colonialism in the minds of their elders, but on its own terms, the book is rich and beautiful, especially in the second volume, which for some reason isn’t often included in contemporary editions. “The Spring Running”, the story in which Mowgli finally leaves the jungle for good, is a heartbreaker.

  31. I quite liked the Charlton Heston version of Treasure Island, but wouldn’t be so bold as to call it better than the book. I do think the Winnie the Pooh animations have usurped the popular consciousness, but maybe that’s changing with the iPad version…

  32. As a child I preferred Disney’s The Little Mermaid over Hans Christian Andersen’s book. The ending of the book was too sad for me at the time.