Character Makeovers: From Page to Screen

It often happens that the transition from a beloved children’s book to a successful movie is anything but smooth. One problem, probably unavoidable, is choosing a hero or heroine who matches the book’s description, as well as deciding whether or not to keep it in the original era or update things. Even before everyone had access to the Internet in its present form, there were still heated discussions about the perils of having one’s favorite book transferred to the big screen.

Sometimes the changes make sense. Other times, not so much. So, without further ado, here are six ways Hollywood decided to inexplicably change the book’s main character.

1. Slim down the character.

Who: Bastian Balthazar Bux of “A Neverending Story” by Michael Ende

Storyline: An overweight preteen boy with a passion for books steals a mysterious volume from a used shop and as he reads the adventure, is eventually transported into the land of Fantasia.

What we get instead: Adorable little Barret Oliver facing off against three bullies who individually are not much of a threat being roughly around the same size

Why? Maybe because Bastian only becomes slim and handsome in the book when he reaches Fantasia and begins having adventures there, but because that was only a small part of the movie, and perhaps they were already thinking about sequels, they scrapped that.

This also happened in the movie “Holes.” based on the book by Louis Sachar. The hero, Stanley Yelnats, of the great palindromic name is described as being overweight. It’s partly why the boys at camp nickname him Caveman. Instead we got Shia LaBeouf in the title role, who’s only “flaw” is that he’s kind of goofy looking.

2. Get the character Lasik.

Who: Klaus Baudelaire of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by Lemony Snicket

Storyline: Three young orphans: Violet, Klaus and Sunny are orphaned when their parents (perhaps) perish in a house fire. They are then sent to a variety of odd guardians while being pursued by the evil Count Olaf who wants to get his hands on their fortune.

What we get instead: Liam Aiken who does resemble his character just not with glasses

Why? Maybe they were considered superficial, but it’s a good thing they didn’t go on to make “The Miserable Mill,” a later book where Klaus is hypnotized by an evil optometrist, and the whole plot/symbolism revolves around that pair of glasses.

3. Feminize the character so she’s not too butch.

Who: Leslie Burke of “Bridge to Terabithia” by Katherine Paterson

Storyline: A preteen boy who feels misunderstood by his family and classmates meets a new girl (Leslie) who dresses and acts like a tomboy, and forms a fantasy world with him called Terabithia. Leslie’s family is actually not poor, but the clothes she chooses to wear are androgynous and contribute to her being an outsider at school.

What we get instead: Adorable and obviously feminine AnnaSophia Robb

Why? I don’t know. Hollywood prefers their outsiders to look sufficiently like the gender they’re supposed to be?

4. Make over the character so that she bears no physical resemblance to her counterpart in the book at any point in film.

Who: Velvet Brown in “National Velvet” by Enid Bagnold

Storyline: A plain, gawky horse-crazy British preteen wins a horse in a raffle and proceeds to train it to compete in the Grand National steeplechase.

What we get instead: Cute as a button Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role

Not content with that, they also changed the horse’s color from piebald (hence the name “The Pie”) to bay, thus making him look like pretty much every horse competing in the event.

Why? Maybe they couldn’t find a piebald horse for the role. Incidentally, the sequel, “International Velvet,” (not based on any book), made the heroine (Tatum O’Neill) look like your typical, gawky horse-crazy teen.

Another example of this is Ramona Quimby’s older sister, Beatrice “Beezus,” who is played in the film “Ramona and Beezus” (based on the inverted title by Beverly Cleary) by Selena Gomez, who is, objectively speaking, beautiful. However, neither girl (and none of Cleary’s main characters) is described as gorgeous, nor are they portrayed that way on the book covers used in the eighties.

5. Resuscitate the character’s deceased parent at the last minute.

Who: Sara Crewe of “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Storyline: A wealthy, imaginative young girl at a British boarding school winds up losing her father, becoming penniless and being forced to work as a servant – at least until rescued by a family friend.

What we get instead: Sara, played in (most recent) film by Liesel Matthews discovers her father is alive and well next door.

The decision to revive Captain Crewe began with the film starring Shirley Temple, and while a later TV-movie adaptation chose to leave the ending intact, the big screen movie reverted back to having the main character discover that her father is not dead. Or as the Monty Python character in “The Search for the Holy Grail,” puts it, “I’m not dead yet!”

Why? Too sad? It’s still a happy ending because the main character winds up with her original fortune and a new, kindly guardian.

But all these changes pale when it comes to what happened to the main character in “Flicka,” an adaptation of the children’s book “My Friend Flicka.”

6. Give the character a sex change.

Who: Ken McLaughlin of “My Friend Flicka” by Mary O’Hara

Storyline: A preteen boy comes home to his parents’ ranch after failing his year at school, so his father decides to give him a colt to raise in the hopes of helping him mature and learn valuable lessons about responsibility, etc. The two sequels go on to follow the boy as he becomes a teenager, has more adventures with wild horses, and ultimately, falls in love.

What we get instead: Distinctly un-masculine, teenaged Alison Lohman

Why? Maybe there’s more of an audience for horse crazy young girls. The original movie starring Roddy McDowall did, however, keep the main character’s original gender.

Of course, there are multiple reasons why the team assigned to the movie script chooses to alter major character traits or character tragedies. Time constraints, for one, and again, writing the first with visions of the sequels to come.

As a rebuttal, however, you could argue that the original author chose to include these elements of their story for a specific reason, and that removing them destroys something about the world he or she is trying to create.

But maybe there’s just no pleasing everyone in the end.


A Look Back: The Truman Show

Truman (irony alert!) Burbank (Jim Carrey) lives in an idyllic island community. Every day is sunny, and he lives in a picture perfect, crime-free town with perpetually friendly neighbors, a beautiful wife (Laura Linney) and a lifelong best friend (Noah Emmerich), who both have a penchant for doing product placement. Trouble is, he doesn’t realize what they’re doing. Trouble is, “Truman” is a real person but also a beloved TV show character who lives in a carefully managed, well, set, meaning his life is televised twenty-four seven. He was the first baby to be owned by a corporation, headed by the sinister, vaguely Steve Jobs-looking Christof (Ed Harris). Yet until he’s in his mid-thirties, he doesn’t realize this – not until a stray prop falls from down the sky. He’s treated like Chicken Little when he tries to get to the bottom of the real deal, but his fears are founded.

So Jim starts to get suspicious of many of the things he’s always taken for granted, such as why his wife holds up baking products up out of nowhere and delivers a monologue promoting them (the whole Laura Linney storyline is truly creepy, but the mechanics of such a marriage are left to the imagination). Not only that, but his believed-to-be-dead father appears babbling warnings and gets hustled away to who-knows-where. Because he (supposedly) died during a sweeps week, this triggers questions. Also, Jim is still carrying the torch for a college sweetheart (Natascha McEhlone) who also disappeared, and every day he dissects magazine photos hoping to reconstruct her face. Thus, the questions that come out of nowhere and alarm Laura and the rest of the cast. For example, why does a yellow van circle the block on a half hour dot? Why is the route to the ferry always blocked when he tries to drive up to it? But no satisfactory answers are forthcoming. Eventually, Jim tries to leave, scaring the wits out of Laura, and prompting her to consider divorce. He will manage to get off the island in the end, but what will his reaction be to meeting the man behind the curtain?

Why does the set-up work at all? How could Jim, a naïve but reasonably intelligent adult, not realize that his relationships are shams? Director Peter Weir in the guise of Ed’s character provides the answer, “We accept the reality we’re given.” “Reality” isn’t as static as we’d like to think. To the loyal viewers of the Truman Show, Truman is a long-time friend, but then we see how quickly they reach to change the channel once the drama dies down. “Real,” reality shows are far from genuine – probably far more is scripted than the viewers are aware of.  As soon as you start wondering how to manipulate the audience, seeing them as puppets, that’s when a reality show becomes pretty much just another TV show.

A Look Back: Never Been Kissed

The TV channel VH1 once hosted a program, “I Love the 80’s,” featuring pop culture, historical events and other items of note being snarkily commentated on. While dissecting “21 Jump Street,” someone pointed out the improbability of it being second semester, and not a single one of the student body catching on that Johnny Depp is actually an undercover cop. It’s true that the American public high school, as depicted on screen, is an odd place, peculiarly accepting of the vampires, werewolves, aliens, teens from the future and yes, undercover agents who enroll and cause mayhem. Not once does one of the usual questions arise, such as “May I see your birth certificate?,” “Please provide proof of your last vaccinations, so we don’t wind up with an epidemic on our hands,” or “Why do explosions and people getting hurt always seem to happen when you’re in the vicinity?” Or if they do, they are dealt with off-screen.

It’s usually a given that film characters going undercover as something – whether it be a doctor, nanny or teenager will wind up succeeding impressively, even if they make a few blunders at first. Although “Never Been Kissed,” starring Drew Barrymore, is a movie with a plot more hole-filled than a block of Swiss cheese, it does get it right that a new student, regardless of how attractive ((hello, “Mean Girls,”) probably won’t be swept up by the popular clique by the second day of school. It does, however, have a rather odd portrayal of the field of print journalism, but the movie takes place in the late 90’s, pre-social networking era, which makes it a few degrees more plausible than if it happened today.

When the movie begins, Drew plays a mousy brunette reporter who lives a solitary life with her pet turtles and needlepointing projects, though she does have a more outrageous gal pal, played by Molly Shannon. Drew is, however, very bright and knows the difference between “nauseous,” and “nauseated,” and so her editor (John C. Reilly) gets the bright idea of having her pose as a high school student to do stories – but apparently, just on the popular people, though Drew and we don’t find that out until later. John (I am assuming) manages to introduce this idea to the principal with a straight face, and not only that, but he chooses Drew’s alma mater, where she was unpopular (in the “Carrie” sense, no less). Apparently, every staff member that might remember Drew has retired, or he’s counting on Drew to disguise herself really, really well. Alas, this is not what happens.

Drew does get points for visiting her older brother (David Arquette) who runs a dealership and picking up a car that appears to be in the budget of a teen. But she loses them promptly when she shows up in an all-white outfit complete with feather boa – yes, why one of her friends didn’t advise her to pick up the latest issue of “Seventeen,” I haven’t a clue. She’s also equipped with a hidden recorder that has a direct line to the tech guys at the paper, an arrangement which is described early on as “the all-humiliation network.” Her first day goes less than well, but she does make an ally with the leader of the math team, played by Leelee Sobieski (Hollywood’s idea of an unattractive teen girl), who takes Drew under her wing. Unfortunately, Drew’s editor soon begins to pressure her to infiltrate the popular clique, so after a humiliating incident at a dance club involving a pot brownie, David offers to enroll, too, and any shred of believability goes out the window when the student body not only accepts David, but regards him as a popular star baseball player. His popularity rubs off on Drew, and soon she’s being asked to the prom by school stud, Jeremy Jordan, and included in the A-list group of mean girls. But Drew is more smitten with her dreamy English teacher (Michael Vartan), who also admires her, and while he would never cross the line in ignorance, might just feel differently if he knew The Truth. But after the high jinx die down, life lessons are learned,  the truth does come out, and there’s a happy ending. One that would never happen in real life, but then these characters are straight out of Central Casting. Not to mention the high school.



Movie Review: The Bronze

“The Bronze,” made the last gymnastic movie I saw, which was “Stick It,” appear practically Oscar-nomination worthy. Both movies feature a tough-talking female gymnast who winds up learning a little humility on the road to redemption, as well as resolving some issues, but that’s where the comparisons end. “Stick It” is about a teenager, and “The Bronze,” stars Melissa Rauch (who also wrote this) as a washed-up former Olympian who took a bronze after injuring her foot and won the hearts of America. Perhaps this part was inspired by an occasion in the 96′ Olympic women’s gymnastics when Kerri Strug performed a second vault after injuring her foot, thus helping the team take a collective gold for the first time in history. In any case, with gymnastics, the philosophy that you should remount after falling off the horse should be taken literally. However, Melissa’s character is hanging on to her former fame long past her expiration date: she still lives in her hometown with her doting but increasingly annoyed father (Gary Cole), and spends the bulk of her days scoring freebies from milkshakes to track shoes. She steals, does drugs, and throws tantrums at the slightest provocation: basically, Melissa is Veruca Salt in a warm-up suit and ponytail. Oh, and a mouth like a “South Park” character.

Things turn bleak for Melissa when her father stops her allowance, forcing her to figure out some way of acquiring an income. Fortunately, her former coach commits suicide, and leaves a note promising Melissa that she will receive a sizable chunk of cash, as long as she helps current young hometown star (Haley Lu Richardson) make it to the Olympics. At first, Melissa is (as the soundtrack helpfully points out) a bitch: sabotaging the Pollyanna-like Haley’s training regimen, acting snide to the geeky gym employee (Thomas Middleditch); and so on. The head coach of the women’s gymnastic Olympic team is Sebastian Stan, a cocky former love interest (to put it politely) of Melissa’s, and he becomes her rival for who will ultimately coach Haley. Will Melissa recapture her old passion for gymnastics, and get possibly a few degrees more tolerable as a daughter, coach and girlfriend? Do you even need to ask?

“The Bronze,” is to young gymnastics fans what “Black Swan” was to would-be ballerinas – totally inappropriate to be viewed, unless you happen to be a jaw-droppingly permissive parent. The movie is rated “R,” and unlike some movies, it becomes clear why within the first five minutes. The main character cusses like a truck driver, even after her “redemption,” and there’s a sex scene which answers the question: How might two Olympic medal-winning gymnasts do it? The answer turns out to be a scene that probably took as much choreographing as the gymnastic scenes, but is, alas, like most of the movie, not particularly amusing.

A Look Back: The Royal Tenenbaums

A famous writer (Tolstoy) once claimed that happy families were all alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. This may be true, but it also seems like each unhappy family in a Wes Anderson film has at least a few similarities, such as the children all being precocious and their parents loving them, but not always having the healthiest way of showing it. This is true of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which features what might qualify as a dysfunctional family. When this came out, I assumed the clan’s surname was symbolic and had something to do with fir trees because “Oh Tenenbaum,” is “Oh Christmas Tree” in German (or at least it was in my piano book as a kid). But no. Tenenbaum was just chosen because the director liked the name. “Royal” is the name of the patriarch (Gene Hackman), and as the viewer quickly learns from the narrator (Alec Baldwin), he is not exactly a candidate for Father of the Year.

The Tenenbaums consist of Royal, his wife (Anjelica Huston), and their three children, who grow up to be Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson. As children, they displayed a gift for financial analysis, playwriting, and tennis respectively, but as adults, they seem stuck – both in their relationships and in their pursuits. Also part of the plot is their neighbor and friend, who grows up to be a novelist, played by Owen Wilson and still retains his hero worship of the family even as he becomes famous himself. Since Gene moved out when the kids were growing up, Anjelica has dedicated her life to nurturing them, but now she’s starting to look for a life of her own – which may mean a romance with her financial analyst, played by Danny Glover. This does not sit well with Gene, who suddenly decides that he wants to be closer to his family. The problem is, however, that since his sins range from stealing young Ben’s savings to regularly reminding Gwyneth that she’s adopted. no one is especially eager to reciprocate.

His children aren’t thrilled to have their absent dad reappear because they’re dealing with issues of their own: Ben has lost his wife and now behaves like Captain Von Trapp to his two young sons; Gwyneth is trapped in an unfulfilling marriage with psychiatrist Bill Murray; and Luke is having meltdowns on the tennis court. Owen is now an alcoholic, and still carries the torch for Gwyneth. All these problems will come to a head after Gene claims he has cancer and moves back into the house. He does have success in connecting with his two grandsons, starting with the line, “I was thinking about grabbing some burgers, then hitting the cemetery,” and initiating them into a series of antisocial behaviors montage-style. By the end, there is a reconciliation of sorts, but it will take a suicide attempt, an accident, a dead dog and some acknowledging of uncomfortable truths to get there.

The story takes place in New York, but it’s not exactly a modern-day NY, like the characters, it seems to be stuck in an old-fashioned time warp. Each character has a secret, though how meaningful it ultimately is varies. Some have to face up to their problems; others have to realize that they aren’t that significant in the first place. By the end of the movie, this unhappy family is a little less unhappy and a little more on the way to something – perhaps happiness, perhaps just plain acceptance of each other’s flaws, which then may give them the confidence to do something of real significance – or perhaps not.


Movie Review: The Brothers Grimsby

Disney updates aside, classic fairy tales, such as those by the original brothers Grimm, tended to be rather, well, grim affairs complete with graphic mutilation, harm coming to innocent children and violent death scenes. I don’t know what the two German authors would have made of “The Brothers Grimsby,” a movie which contains two men on the run hiding out in an elephant vagina, and a running gag about celebrities contacting AIDs, but if they really did have a twisted sense of humor, they might like it. Who knows?

Once upon a time, there were two little inseparable, orphaned brothers from the working class Great Britain town, Grimsby. The oldest, Sacha Baron Cohen, is faced with a dilemma when only one set of parents turns up to adopt a son. Sacha nobly tricks his younger brother (Mark Strong) into going with the couple while he stays behind and remains in the foster care system. Fast-forward twenty-eight years, and he’s a happily married football fan (soccer to Americans), with a wife (Rebel Wilson) and a rambunctious brood of nine. He’s never given up looking for his younger brother, and he finally gets lucky and finds Mark, now a M16 agent, on the job at a conference headed by a woman who vows to “cure the world.” After some wacky high jinks involving Daniel Radcliffe and a boy in a wheelchair, Mark gets into trouble and has to hide out at Sacha’s home, where presumably no one will look. Surprisingly, this doesn’t work, and the two must join forces to elude Mark’s would-be assassin, as well as journey to the World Cup Finals held in Chile, where a deadly virus is set to be unleased. There is a happy ever after, but not before both men have been shot at, had their privates set on fire, and gotten perhaps a bit closer than either would prefer.

There’s one moment which mocks the tropes of action movies, when Mark pitches through a glass window and walks away without a scratch, followed by Sacha, who jumps through the hole and yelps, “Ouch!” Otherwise, there’s a lot that is familiar, such as bombs that are amazingly easy to escape, simply by jumping into the air and flailing one’s limbs comically. Sacha, who’s playing an ordinary bloke whose exercise consists of cheering on his favorite teams, finds his inner Mr. Miyagi, and does some effective kung-fu-ing when his life (and Mark’s) is threatened. There’s also the part where Sacha commandeers the mike at the soccer match and makes a speech defending working-class “scum,” pointing out, “It’s scum like us that built the hospitals that are closing. It’s scum who keeps the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise alive.” This whips them up into a frenzy, and they help defeat the bad guys, although since the actor got a redneck crowd to happily sing a vile song in “Borat,” he’s not a stranger to impromptu eloquence. But despite the raunchy humor, there are a few touching moments, mostly due to the two boys playing their younger selves. Just don’t go to see this movie with anyone who doesn’t find this sort of thing amusing – you will be in for a very awkward hour and a half otherwise.

Movie Review: 99 Homes

Growing up, I developed (mostly unconsciously) notions about recreational drugs, not just from Public Service Announcements and Movies of the Week, but from regular television and the movies. Smoking, in the eighties, could go either way, but if you smoked cigars, it likely meant you were a pompous rich person who lacked a moral compass. Pot, however, worked its way into my consciousness as the “good” drug, since all those who used it were depicted as doing nothing more dangerous than wearing flowers in their hair, sitting around campfires singing, or marching for peace. But cocaine on screen tended to be portrayed as a “bad” drug, or at least one in which yuppies snorted it up on restroom mirrors and then went and cheated on their spouses or downsized a corporation. Now, of course, a character smoking can help get you a PG-13 rating, and is generally not a positive quality for a protagonist to have, unless he or she is a historical figure. Vaping had not yet been invented in my youth, but if movies like “99 Homes” are any indication, it’s a habit which signals that the character is morally challenged and is perhaps missing a chunk of his heart.

The villain of “99 Homes,” is a real estate broker played by Michael Shannon, who vapes and remains stone-faced as he evicts resident after resident from their foreclosed homes in Florida. At the beginning of the movie, he is annoyed because the cops want to question him about the poor man who has just committed suicide and is being carried out in a covered stretcher because he preferred death to homelessness. His next set of victims are a recently laid-off construction worker, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a single father who lives with his mom (Laura Dern) and his son, who insist (perhaps rightly) that there’s been a mix-up with their mortgage payment schedule. They argue for awhile, but are forced to vacate the premises and move to a seedy motel which houses other evictees. After running into a series of dead ends when he tries to find work, Andrew begins working for Michael, a job that begins with cleaning up a vacated home to eventually doing the evicting himself (for which Michael helpfully offers him a gun). At first this seems to be a way to retrieve his foreclosed home, but as the job turns into a nightmare, he finds himself sinking in ethical quicksand, and must decide how to halt things.

“99 Homes” ends on an abrupt note, which may leave viewers scratching their heads and saying, “And then what?” But it does a good job making you yourself wonder how far you would go to keep your family home. (If you answered, “Pay my bills on time,” that’s what some of these people genuinely believed they were doing.) Michael’s character doesn’t see himself as a bad guy, just a victim of the government’s lack of ethics and then as a survivor. The title comes from the statistic he gives Andrew – that out of a hundred foreclosures, only one is going to manage to get on the ark and avoid drowning. To be that one might just require doing something you wouldn’t imagine yourself doing ever.