Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The Wizard of Oz. Mary Poppins. Movies made from children’s books can mean blockbuster sales for Hollywood, and can be joyful, enduring touchstone experiences for families. Often, children may not even know that the movie they’re seeing is based on a book, or that—as in the case of Mary Poppins—the book may be markedly different in tone or content from the film. These days, producers hungry for good stories eagerly snap up film rights sometimes even before a book has been published, and the movie may hit the public scene shortly after the book’s publication. Is this a good thing? Do movies broaden the reach of a book, or are we losing readers to the silver screen? I think a little of both.
Sometimes, the existence of a movie kills a book, especially if it’s not as good as the book (and they so often aren’t). I remember my surprise as a young bookseller discovering how resistant kids were to reading Harriet the Spy, one of my all-time favorite middle grade novels and a formative childhood book for so many adult women I know. (We all went through a phase of adopting slouchy sweatshirts and carrying tiny notebooks with stubby pencils everywhere we went.) It turned out that these kids had seen the movie, and while they thought it was okay, it didn’t leave them wanting more. This experience—of recommending a great book only to be met with a disinterested “I already saw the movie”—has happened again and again over the years, to books as wonderful as A Wrinkle in Time, The Book of Three/The Black Cauldron, and Anne of Green Gables. It kills my book-loving heart when a movie—especially a mediocre or bad one—loses readers for the best books.
(I haven’t seen the Harriet the Spy movie, and I’m sure it’s fine, but I mourn for the lost readers!)
Kids don’t have any reason to know or question what they’re missing, of course. There were many movies I saw as a child and had no idea they were based on books. I adored Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (even though the child catcher Freaked Me Out), and it never occurred to me to wonder if the movie came from a book. I doubt that, even as avid a reader as I was, I would have cared if I had known. My sister and I loved the movie Paper Moon as teenagers; I’d never heard of the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown or wanted to pick it up once I learned about it. Heck, it’s happened as an adult, too. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was my parents’ favorite movie, and “Moon River” was their song, so I was introduced to it young and didn’t know until my 20’s or 30’s that it was based on a Truman Capote novel—which I admit I still haven’t read. The Princess Bride was a delightful movie, and it took me years after learning that it was a William Goldman book to finally read it. So I think that sometimes whichever format catches the heart first wins out.
Some books, however, seem impervious to the silver screen’s effects, and it may have to do with having earned and solidified such enormous amounts of widespread love and acclaim as books that kids are curious about and drawn to them in written form despite loving the movie version. Seeing The Wizard of Oz every single year on TV didn’t keep me from reading the entire L. Frank Baum series. Watching the Harry Potter movies doesn’t seem to keep most kids from reading the series—possibly because they can read the books long before parents will let them see the films. And there are many Game of Thrones fans who have come from the HBO series to the books. Ditto The Handmaid’s Tale. And The Hate U Give seems to be a story that kids seek out in book form regardless of whether or not they’ve seen the movie.
I do find myself wishing parents would do family read-alouds of the wonderful children’s books, or press those books into their kids’ hands (like Little Women!) before they show their kids the movie versions, so those reading experiences—so rich and so different in kind from the films—won’t be lost.