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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Role of Children’s Literature in Contemporary Cinema

I was watching Gone Girl for the first time with friends the other day because occasionally I like to remember that there are literary adaptations out there of books for people above the legal drinking age.  Mind you, when you’ve a one track mind like my own, every mega-adult hit has a children’s literature connection.  The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was based on the idea of an adult Pippi Longstocking, said Stieg Larsson in interviews.  That sort of thing.

Mind you, you don’t have to go far to find the world of books for kids seeping into Gone Girl.  The titular character turns out to be living a life that’s a mix of Christopher Robin and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice.  Amy’s parents are child psychologists who wrote an award-winning bestseller picture book series called “Amazing Amy”.  The books took their child’s life and, to her eyes, improved upon it.

So everyone is watching Gone Girl getting wrapped up in the mystery, twists, and turns and here I am trying to figure out exactly what the deal is with this book series.  Credit to the filmmakers, they actually whipped up some fake covers for the books:

There’s a bit of a Betsy-Tacy/Laura Ingalls Wilder thing going on there as well, except the books are these preachy picture books instead.  I tried to think of a picture book series where you watched a character grow up and found myself stymied.  Huh.  I guess it hasn’t been done.

As for the art, it’s sort of lesser David Small.  I have noticed that when fake children’s books appear in movies the art is always done by someone in the animation field.  They very rarely ask a book illustrator to make it.  In this case the art isn’t bad.  You could believe in a series with it.  Heck, if Pinkalicious can be a smash hit, who are we to judge?  Turns out, you can find the artist in question.  It’s a Kirk Van Wormer.  An animator, naturally, his site says “he has provided illustrations and development with his writing partner Christopher Cook for some really great projects (check out all the sections above!) for theater, movies, print and the Advertising world.  You can see some of this work in the new David Fincher film Gone Girl, where he hand crafted all of the children’s book illustrations for Amazing Amy, as well as additional interior work presented exclusively on iBooks.

Yep.  iBooks.  Seriously, the amount of work put into this fake series is impressive.  It has a fake publisher (Stetson & Schumer). It covers a range of topics.  And two of the books won fake awards Look close and you’ll see that they’re recipients of the “Pewter Book Prize”.  I’m going to assume that it’s a faux parents choice award of some sort.  I’m also going to give Van Wormer some extra points for this title in the series:

Note the diary in the stove.

And it got me to thinking about how children’s literature is viewed by filmmakers.  More often than not, it’s seen as a glamorous profession.  Remember when Parker Posey starred in that short lived television show about a children’s book editor and the premiere had her stepping into a limo to go to work?  Oh, how my editor friends laughed!  It happens with authors too.  In Gone Girl we visit a book premiere for the latest “Amazing Amy” title where the publisher has staged a fake wedding.  Amy, the real woman, is forced to sit down with prying reporters who ask her about her  own marriage prospects.  I enjoyed watching this with the belief that these were reporters from Publishers Weekly and SLJ with some bloggers thrown in for fun.  Aren’t we the nosy ones?

Over the past few years the creators of children’s books don’t tend to come off looking all that great on film.  I’m not talking about real people (though you can stuff that Miss Potter and Finding Neverland down a deep dank dark hole and leave it there) but fake ones.  Remember The Door in the Floor starring Jeff Bridges about a depressed author/illustrator?  Or Young Adult, about a YA author (Charlieze Theron) that was basically saying that all writers for teens are living in the past and need to grow up?  Then there was Elf where children’s book publishing is seen through a cynical lens and the culmination of the film ends when our hero writes a picture book about his adventures.  Note that the art on that book was ugly as all get out.

This year there weren’t any films that I could find specifically about authors of children’s literature, but that didn’t mean it didn’t keep cropping up.  Arguably the best horror film of the year, The Babadook, would not exist if it weren’t for children’s books.

Australian in origin, The Babadook is about a boy and his single mother who find a creepy pop-up book on their shelves.  Called “The Babadook” it reveals a top-hatted horror character who wants to be “let in”.  All told the movie is a metaphor for the stress placed on parents and why some become monsters themselves and hurt their own children.  I highly recommend the interview with the author here.

As for the art itself in the book?  Check it out, but only if you’re not easily scared:

The artist in this case is Alex Juhasz, a multi-talented animator who might have a future in the field if he ever wants to switch his focus.  I think the childlike aspect on display is done with a great deal of purpose so I’m giving this one a thumbs up.  Naturally I think it would have been better if they could have enlisted the skills of a Jim Kay or coaxed Stephen Gammell into doing it (not that he would have), but when I consider how freaked out I get over these images alone I think Juhasz has succeeded entirely.  In another children’s literature connection, he’s the Stop Motion Production Designer/Character Designer/Head of Puppet Department on that gorgeous looking Little Prince movie I’d so like to see.

The last movie of 2014 that used children’s literature in some way (that I can think of anyway) was the Richard Linklater film Boyhood.  Linklater made sure to include scenes where the divorced mom read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to her kiddos.  Later, we visit a Harry Potter midnight release party for, if I’m remembering correctly, Half Blood Prince.  It comes off as a kind of rite of passage more than anything else, and though children’s books don’t crop up again at any point, I was happy to see them appearing in any way, shape, or form in the film.

Did you happen to notice children’s books in any other recent films?  Lay ’em on me.

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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.

Comments

  1. Disney released a movie last year called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, based (one supposes) on the book of the same name. The adaptation was completely awful. Strangely, I watched it anyway. Alexander’s mother, Kelly (played by Jennifer Garner), works for a publishing company in this movie. Her subplot revolves around her work on a book called “Who Is Ready to Jump on the Potty,” a toilet-training kiddie tome that is mistakenly published with the word “dump” instead of “jump.” Pretty sophisticated stuff.

  2. Director Wes Anderson created some fictional books for his film “Moonrise Kingdom”. Here’s a lovely blog post about it from Jody Kihara: http://www.jodykihara.com/2013/01/moonrise-kingdom/

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh yes! Well remembered. I liked the titles of the books, though the covers struck me as a bit samey. Great link!

  3. Erin Murphy says:

    There’s “Dedication,” with Mandy Moore as a put-upon young illustrator forced to work with an established author (Billy Crudup) on a new picture book. It never ceases to amaze me how movies involving the publishing world don’t bother to get any details right.