Book or Film - Which is Better?

We've got a sneaking suspicion that many of today's videophilic students write their book reports after watching the film version of assigned books. BookSense explores the question in their "Books on Film" section, with a list of twenty recent films that have been successfully -- or unsuccessfully -- adapted from their original source. Read the book (first!) and watch the movie to find out for yourself which is better.

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Believing in The Polar Express

Mixed reviews demonstrate a need to adopt a sense of wonder
Reading Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book, The Polar Express, has become a cherished part of holiday celebrations for families around the world. Published in 1985, the 29-page illustrated book about a young boy’s reawakening of faith in the magic of Christmas is a treasured icon that gets revisited every year. Apparently, the families of filmmaker Robert Zemeckis and movie star Tom Hanks were no different, becoming enchanted fans of the book.

What was different, though, was that Zemeckis and Hanks had the imagination and the ways and means to consider turning the book into a movie. The project, with Zemeckis directing and Hanks acting, took years to develop and is appearing in theaters this holiday season.

“It became an annual tradition to read the story to my son while he was growing up and it never failed to fascinate him,” says Zemeckis. “The imagery has an otherworldly quality, existing somewhere between dreams and reality, which captures the mystery of a restless Christmas Eve.”

“For years, between November and December, depending on the children’s ages,” says Hanks, “I think I read it four times a week, twice a night, over and over again. So I’ve been aware of the story since my 14-year-old was three.”

When Hanks first proposed the idea of a big screen version to author Van Allsburg, they easily agreed the project should go to Zemeckis, who directed Forrest Gump and Cast Away – both movies that explored introspective human emotions. Bringing his book to the big screen may have seemed like an unattainable goal, but a creator of magical storybooks is used to miracles.

Van Allsburg’s life changed when his first publishing effort in 1979, The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, won a Caldecott Honor Award (runner-up). He followed with Jumanji in 1981 and The Polar Express in 1985 – and both of them won the Caldecott Medal. Winning twice is a very rare feat, and he was now legendary in the world of children’s books. The warm, transcendent quality of his work had changed the nature of children’s book illustration. No simple “cartoon treatment” of his most beloved work would do.

Van Allsburg trusted Hanks to “do the right thing” with the film rights to his book. He asked that it go beyond a purely animated feature (ala Toy Story) and be made as a live-action film. This is when they began exploring the use of motion capture, a process by which an actor’s live performance is digitally captured by computerized cameras – and made famous by the creation of the Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films. Would this allow the filmmakers to capture both the warmth of the children’s smiles and the frozen landscape of the North Pole?  

“We wanted to offer the beauty and richness of Chris’ illustrations from the book as if it were a moving oil painting, with all the warmth, immediacy and subtleties of a human performance,” says Zemeckis. He enlisted the help of visual effects wizard Ken Ralston, who worked with him on 1985’s Back to the Future. Raltson proposed an advanced motion capture process, which coincidentally, he and his Imageworks colleagues had been doing preliminary work on.

This new generation of “mo-cap” would be far more sophisticated than anything used before, capturing every discernable movement of an actor’s performance by simultaneously recording through 72 separate digital cameras and providing a full 360 degrees of coverage.

The Polar Express would be the first feature film to be shot entirely in this technology, now named Performance Capture. It turned out to be the perfect way to combine the warmth oil paintings with subtlety of human performance.

So, after almost three years of effort by a team of 600 technicians and $165 million was spent, Polar Express the movie has been released and reviews are mixed: descriptions like “nightmarish” and “creepy” have been used, and some have likened the animated characters to “zombies” and “dead-eyed mannequins" in their reviews. What went wrong?

Apparently many viewers don’t seem to get the concept that the filmmakers were aiming for, to bring the book illustrations to life, but still remaining in the “illustrated world” of the book. Zemeckis has described it as “moving paintings,” and those who know the book well will recognize each one of its illustrations rendered faithfully on screen in scenes throughout the movie.

I think The Polar Express is one of those movies for which a adapting a childlike sense of wonder enhances one’s enjoyment immeasurably. I suppose this could also be said for adults who read children’s books to their kids or take them to “kids’” movies. Maintaining a childlike attitude and allowing oneself to get lost in the pages – or the movie screen – is a plus.   VanAllsburg might well be addressing critics of the new movie when talking about grown-ups who manage to cross into adulthood without losing their sense of wonder: “We should envy them. The inclination to believe in the fantastic may strike some as a failure in logic, or even gullibility, but it’s really a gift. A world that might have Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster is clearly superior to one that definitely does not.”

Many critics apparently weren’t transported, or didn’t let their sense of wonder overcome their skepticism about the book-to-film format. Maybe they were looking too hard for “the man behind the curtain.” But just about as many reviewers have gotten it, and many are calling the movie a Christmas classic. The review team of Ebert and Roeper both gave the proverbial thumbs-up, and wrote these descriptions: "There's a deeper, shivery tone, instead of the mindless jolliness of the usual Christmas movie." (Ebert) and "The Polar Express remains true to the book, including the bittersweet final image." (Roeper)

Do some moviegoers have trouble with book pages coming to life? Why not suspend judgment enough to enter a dreamlike state and let the story carry you away, like a midnight train? (I saw it at a standard theater and totally enjoyed it – then went immediately to the mall bookstore to revisit the book -- I plan to see the IMAX version soon.) If you haven’t already seen it, do yourself favor, get childlike, and go. As the Polar Express’ conductor says, “It doesn’t matter where the train is going. What matters is deciding to get on.”

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Books have been the story source for Hollywood movies since the days of silent film, when bestsellers of the day like Uncle Tom’s Cabin were brought to life onscreen. In today’s world of multi-media conglomerates -- Viacom owns both Paramount Pictures and Simon & Schuster, for example -- the book/film connection is even greater, as successful books are expected to become films, and various tie-in books are often published as part of a major film’s marketing plan.

How can an independent publisher break into the game? Not easily, says Gerard Jones, author and creator of Everyone Who’s Anyone in Publishing, the world’s largest online directory of agent and editor contacts for authors. Jones compiled data for the site by tracking his endless efforts to find a publisher for his memoir Ginny Good (he calls himself the world’s most rejected author). Now Jones has added a film rights contact section to his website.

(Ed. Note: Ginny Good was published by Monkfish Publishing earlier this year, a story we covered in Way Cool: Gerard Jones Finally Gets Published!.)

“I thought New York was bad,” says Jones. “It’s a real mess down there in Tinseltown.” The standard answer to a query about submitting a book is “no answer,” he says. “It’s a real who-knows-who situation.”

Here are the links to Jones’ growing list of Hollywood film development contacts:
Tinseltown Literary & Talent Agents
Tinseltown Gobbed-Up Movie Production Companies
Tinseltown Independent Movie Production Companies

While you’re waiting for the studios to call, check out these sites featuring some successful book-to-film conversions, and maybe discover some clues to what makes a great movie book:

Mid-Continent Public Library’s 'Based on the Book' is a compilation of over 1,000 book titles, short stories, and plays that have been made into motion pictures since 1980.

The Unverse website (a Cliff Notes-style site especially for the “unversed”) lists “some good books that have been made into acceptable films (or some good movies made from acceptable books).”

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Who knows? With the wave of technological change occurring in the movie business, there’s bound to be a growing need for fresh new ideas. What better place to find them than in books by independent authors and publishers?