Children’s Fantasy: Books Versus Movies

It’s a well-known rule in fiction that the book is always better than the movie. However, in my survey of children’s fantasy, I have discovered that this genre is the exception. In many cases, the movie versions of children’s fantasy novels are better than the books.

I cannot be sure of why this is exactly, but I have a theory, which has to do with the lengths of the books. A two-hour movie script is 30,000 words, while a typical adult novel is more like 90,000 words, and frequently longer in fantasy. This means that a lot of important material has to be cut out of the movie, which seriously detracts from the quality.

However, children’s fantasy books are usually 25,000-30,000 words, the same as the movie. This gives room to faithfully adapt the entire book and, as such, also gives the screenwriters more breathing room to adapt the book to the screen and smooth over the rough parts. The result is often a better story. So with this in mind, here is my vote for the book versus the movie for the children’s fantasy novels I have reviewed.

Mary Poppins: Movie

I’ve mentioned this one before. Mary Poppins is one of those children’s books that has no real plot. Things happen for no real reason, they’re not connected, and there’s no real character development. The movie basically adds the plot of “saving Mr. Banks“, which I believe makes for an immensely better story.

The Phantom Tollbooth: About the same

The movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth is a pretty faithful adaptation, although simplified a bit. This means that it shares a lot of the book’s foibles, like (again) a lot of random stuff happening. Neither is fantastic, in my opinion, but you’ll get a similar quality from both.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Books, but not by much

I have more opinions on The Chronicles of Narnia that I have room to talk about here. The recent trio of movies did not include The Horse and His Boy, but I would still recommend seeing the ones that have been made. The problems with the movies stem mostly from condensing the books, which is the main reason I would rank them slightly lower.

A Wrinkle in Time: Book

The Disney TV adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time is a surprisingly faithful and well-done one. However, I have two reasons for ranking it below the book in quality. First is the watering down of the religious themes–omitting all references to the “witches” as angels and changing their psalm of praise to God to a song “about joy”. The second is the muddling of a few plot points that would make it confusing to someone who hasn’t read the book, particularly Meg’s first mental battle with IT, which becomes a physical confrontation.

Peter Pan: Book

Honestly, the only thing missing from the Disney adaptation is some of the richness of the original. The movie is still good an definitely worth seeing.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Book

Don’t get me wrong. The 1939 film is considered one of the best movies of all time. But even this adaptation cuts out the last third of the book and loses a lot of the irony with the Scarecrow, who thinks he’s brainless but is actually the smartest of the bunch, and the Tin Man and Lion in their ways. Your mileage may vary, since the book itself is also in a very condensed form, but I think the book captures these subtleties better.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Movie

This is a tough call, since both book and movie are basically one long opium trip dream sequence, but I found the film to be a bit less of a slog on that front.

The Tale of Despereaux: Movie

Movie by a mile. The book is pretty good (Newbery-winning, after all), but the movie only improves on this by abandoning the device of telling the story out of order, engaging in a bit more worldbuilding, cleaning things up a bit, as by making the Gregory the jailer Miggery Sow’s father, and making Roscuro into a more sympathetic character.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM: Book

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie, The Secret of NIHM, but I still remember that it made some artistic decisions that I seriously disagreed with: making the whole story quite a bit darker was just the start. They inexplicably added a mystical element around Nicodemus, and they also killed him off, while he is still an important character in the book sequels.

James and the Giant Peach: About the same

Both book and movie are fun, though actually quite different from one another. Both are snappy, silly, and quite clever is their whimsical, child-like adaptation of the real world, and both are worth checking out.

Bonus stories:

Matilda: Movie

Matilda was one of my favorite movies growing up, so I decided to read the book, and I was underwhelmed. The movie’s tale of a telekinetic child prodigy facing off against a sociopathic school principal adds more than any other adaptation on this list. From an expanded account of Matilda’s father’s legal troubles to adding a central role for her telekinetic powers, including a daring raid on the evil Miss Trunchbull’s house, I was surprised there was even room to add that much. Do yourself a favor, and skip the book on this one.

The Hobbit: About the same

Today, The Hobbit is often assigned as high school reading, but it was originally written as a children’s book (albeit a long one) and was reviewed by the publisher’s ten-year-old son. I say that the new movies are on par with the book on the individual merits of each. As an adaptation, the movies are way to bulky and over-the-top, but as movies, they are pretty good, although I think they would be even better if they were made as a miniseries.

Harry Potter: Books

Okay, so the series is more young adult fiction after the second or third book. Even the first two books are quite long for children’s literature, which is why they are much better than the movies. Even here, J. K. Rowling’s world is far too rich for the big screen to do it justice. Someday, if the industry swings that direction, it might be interesting to see a faithful adaptation of the books done as a miniseries (or a series of miniseries, in the British style), but until that day, crack open the books.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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