In the Hollywood tradition of doing whatever another studio is doing, two formative picture books from my childhood are coming soon to theaters. Both Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs will be released this fall, and so, following another Hollywood tradition, trailers for each were released this past spring.
Turning a 40-page book, half-filled with pictures, into a feature-length movie is daunting, and judging by recent attempts, fraught with failure. (The Cat in the Hat, The Polar Express, and Curious George immediately come to mind, though I have admittedly not seen a one of them.) Matt Kirby identified the main pitfall of the process when he wrote, “Picture books are an art form altogether different from other types of literature. For me, they are an alchemy of story, poetry, and image, almost impressionistic works.”
“Impressionistic” is particularly apt; the process of turning a picture book into a film cannot be much different than adapting a painting. (I’m sure somebody has tried). The trailers for both Where the Wild Things Are and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs reveal the different philosophies of adaptation held by the creative teams behind each film, and offer insight into how the filmmakers went about turning their impressionist source material into something for the masses.
The difficulties that Where the Wild Things Are has encountered are no secret; the film was pushed back a year to allow director Spike Jonze to re-edit and finesse the film after Warner Brothers found it to be “too weird, too scary… subversive,” and generally unsuitable for children. Though it’s not known what changes Jonze has made, the trailer still appears to hint at these elements, elements that were present in the book.
If there’s one thing the trailer captured perfectly from the book, it’s the tone. The book was unafraid to explore the fears and uncontrollable emotions of childhood. Sometimes a kid just needs a wild rumpus. That spontaneity and release is right on the trailer’s surface when Max and the Wild Things howl from a cliff’s edge at nothing and no one, or when the Wild Things toss Max and each other through the air, seemingly without consequence.
Likewise, the tone of Cloudy is where the most egregious changes have been made. The book always had a subtle undercurrent of foreboding, especially at the end when the weather revolts and and the townspeople are forced to flee Chewandswallow. Based on the trailer, I don’t see the film delving into such unsettling territory. A film where the kids cheer when a giant pancake crashes on top of their school likely would not then turn every character into a refugee, nor would it include imagery as indelibly creepy as this image from the book:
The trailer for Wild Things also upholds the source’s economy of language. The book never contained more than three lines of text on a given page, and often had none. Fittingly, the trailer includes only a single line of dialogue and no voice-over narration. Wild Things author Maurice Sendak was a master of showing, not telling. His illustrations were so evocative they did most of the work for him. Jonze, or at least the editor who cut the trailer, understands this.
Cloudy never had such restraint. It was surprisingly wordy for a picture book, so perhaps it should be no surprise that the trailer includes narration littered with food puns. I’m not sure how telling the audience to “Prepare to get served” will help sell the movie, but I suppose it tested well.
Then there’s the issue of backstory. This is the most obvious area to expand on a picture book-turned-movie, since it lengthens the plot without changing the essential structure of the book. Wild Things adds backstory by explaining the childhood alienation Max feels. His father appears to be gone and his mom is dating a younger man. Meanwhile, Cloudy seemingly abandons the frame story of a grandfather telling his grandchildren of the magical land of Chewandswallow, instead focusing on a crackpot inventor who discovers a way to turn rain water into food, destroying the beautiful simplicity of the book, which never explains the food-based weather patterns. A brief shot in the trailer resembles Times Square in New York, suggesting that the film isn’t set in Chewandswallow at all, but in an approximation of reality.
But judging a film by it’s trailer is clearly a fool’s exercise. Some of my favorite trailers have lead to unspeakably awful movies (I’m looking at you, The Phantom Menace). Yet, I would guess that more than any other factor, audiences base their viewing decisions on the previews and advertisements they see. So when a trailer indicates that Cloudy With a Chance of Meatball has jettisoned everything save for the barest approximation of the picture book’s premise, people will notice. Likewise, an Arcade Fire song over a trailer can’t disguise the fact that Where the Wild Things Are looks to be made by filmmakers who understand what made the book special.