Once Upon A Time: A look at the 10 best children’s book-to-movie adaptations

The end of 2014 will see not one but two children’s literature classics make their way to the big screen. Judith Viorst‘s brilliant 1972 classic Alexander and the Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day transitions into theatres first – starting this Friday – with Steve Carell heading up a cast that brings the story of a certain miserable five-year-old boy to life. From a bad breakfast to chaotic car-pooling to a dismal trip to the dentist, life conspires to put a sizable damper on his day. But why spell it out? You’ve all read (or been read) the book at some stage, right?

Then comes an awfully big adventure for one of literature’s very favourite bears. Paddington– replete with multiple jars of marmalade, we’re sure – travels not just from the darkest jungles of Peru but from the pages of Michael Bond’s many popular stories to a theatre near you on Christmas Day.

That’s not to say Alexander and Paddington are the first to make the trip from storybooks to screens. Far from it. They are just the latest in a long line of cinematic children’s book adaptations; films that have allowed audiences to watch the literary worlds of their collective youth spring to life in front of them. From Narnia to Oz and back, join us as we count down what we think are 10 of the best adaptations to date.

NOTE: This does not include the awesome made-for-TV adaptations like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas orWinnie The Pooh.

10. Stuart Little

What’s surprising about the big-screen version of E. B. White‘s classic story isn’t that it made the transition so very well, but that it took so long from Hollywood to attempt an adaptation at all.To be fair, the film’s sequel aligns more closely with the novel itself, but the original was so successful, it’s hard to ignore. Entertaining in the extreme, with Michael J. Fox and Nathan Lane having a ball voicing Stuart and cat Snowbell respectively, this one is worth revisiting along with the original novel.

9. Where The Wild Things Are

When Maurice Sendak put pen to paper in 1963, writing and illustrating Where The Wild Things Are, the American created one of the most memorable children’s picture books of the 20th century. Given that, director Spike Jonze’s vision of a live-action, big-screen version of the adventure seemed a tad ambitious. But with the release of the film’s pitch-perfect trailer in 1999, audiences clued in to the fact the filmmaker knew exactly what he was doing. Infusing the final feature with an other-worldliness rare to even the best children’s films, Jonze managed to capture Sendak’s wistful look at youthful fantasy and imagination. In doing so, he helped a whole generation of fans discover Wild Things all over again.

8. Matilda

Author Roald Dahl has had many of his amazing novels adapted for the big screen. From Willy Wonka toJames and the Giant Peach to The Witches, each cinematic version has done well to capture the originality of Dahl’s creations…but if we had to pick one, which is sort of the point of list’s like these, we’d have to put Matilda at the top of our list. It reaches deep into the insecurities of children and their deep-seated need to be understood for what and who they are. The chaos that results from Matilda’s frustrations are comical in the extreme but at its heart, the film perfectly illustrates the magic that comes from acceptance and from just being and loving yourself. Add to that its insistence on the joys of reading and a vivid imagination, and its positivity can’t be beat.

7. Charlotte’s Web

It’s not that surprising that most of the best children’s books (and solid adaptations) deal with big, important moments or lessons everyone can relate to. E.B. White’s 1952 barnyard yarn is no different, touching on ideas of differences, friendship and mortality. We may not clue into and understand every nuance of these deceptively simple stories as children but the fact we remember Charlotte’s Web and continue to emotionally connect to it is what makes it so special. The best-selling tale of Fern, her endangered pet pig Wilbur and clever barn spider, Charlotte A. Cavatica, is largely considered to be the most successful children’s books of all time and the 2006 adaptation does a first rate job of doing it justice.

6. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

The Herculean task of adapting C.S. Lewis‘ intricate and involved adventure series would seem almost impossible but not only was it attempted, but it was a rousing success…a $1.5 billion kind of success. And it’s no wonder. The first film truly delivered the epic goods as the four Pevensie siblings enter the world of Narnia for the first time, and are guided by Aslan (voiced by Liam Neeson), a wise and powerful talking lion who just happens to be the rightful king of the land. Bonus points for giving James McAvoy his first major role as cuddly Narnian faun, Mr. Tumnus. Two more films followed the first, with another – The Silver Chair – set to hit theatres in the next few years.

5. A Little Princess

Like Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s 1905 novel, director Alfonso Cuaron‘s 1995 adaptation packs an emotional wallop. Issues of race, war, class and loss of a parent are woven throughout this magical, beautifully-filmed  tale of Sara Crewe and her time at Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Girls boarding school in New York. With a touching father-daughter relationship at its core, A Little Princess is at once a tale innocence lost but of strength found and adversity overcome. It may have been written over 100 years go, but it feels as fresh now – on screen or in print – as it ever did.

4. The Secret of N.I.M.H.

Based on Robert C. O’Brien‘s 1971 Newbury-award-winning book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Don Bluth‘s newly formed production company imbued their big-screen version with all of the warmth and awe of the original, even if it occasionally deviated from the source material. With more great characters (and voice talent) than you can shake a stick at, Auntie Shrew style, it became an instant classic for kids and parents alike. Listen up for both Wil Wheaton and Shannen Doherty as two of Mrs. Brisby’s children – Martin and Teresa. Did we mention it also has some of the scariest scenes ever included in any animated film? Because it does. From The Great Owl to predatory cat Dragon to the labs of NIMH to the Machiavellian rat Jenner, this is one movie that still gives us shivers. But it’s Brisby’s love and bravery, determined to do whatever is necessary to save her family, that stays with us even years later.

3. Alice in Wonderland

When it comes to fantasy worlds, there’s Narnia and Oz, but then there’s Lewis Carroll‘s Wonderland…and oh what a land. A singularly magical place where up is down, caterpillar’s get high, birds act as croquet mallets and a certain rabbit couldn’t keep time to save his life. Disney captured the vibrant tales as only they could, creating a memorable feature-length film that’s become a part of our pop culture zeitgeist. Though Tim Burton tried his hand at Carroll’s world, it didn’t come close to replicating the magic of the 1951 version. Interestingly enough, Disney’s version was critically panned when it first opened in theatres but went on to become one of their best-loved animated classics and we couldn’t agree more. And while we’re on the subject, why exactly is a raven like a writing desk?

2. Mary Poppins

Starting with P.L. Travers popular series of books about the practically-perfect British nanny, followed by Disney’s live-action adaptation — which just celebrated the 50th anniversary of its release this past August — Mary has been a delightful part of our world for 80 years. Though Travers was unhappy with the  big-screen version of her stories, most especially the songs and animation, it’s hard for us to imagine Poppins adapted in any other way. A Mary without Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious or A Spoonful of Sugar? Sacrilege! From Burt’s chalk drawings to tap-dancing penguin waiters to the fabulously feminist Mrs. Banks to Mary herself, we wouldn’t change a thing.

1. The Wizard of Oz

Though it differs slightly from Frank L. Baum‘s turn-of-the-century children’s classic, Victor Fleming‘sWizard of Oz is – quite rightly – the most beloved children’s movie of all time. With its clever colorization techniques, Award-winning songs, and endearing (and enduring) characters, not to mention its iconic, witch-y antagonist, it’s not hard to see why it tops so many lists – including this one. This look at friendship and family may be 75 years old, but this is one classic that only gets better with age.

Which childhood-story-based film is your fave?  Share your picks in the comments below!

(Originally published on Cineplex.com)

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