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.


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