As Christmas approaches, give in to the temptation of relaxing in front of the screen – and why not? From cartoons to musicals, some of the greatest films of all time are adapted from children’s books. Laura Fraine picks ten of the best.
Fairy tales, graphic novels, picture books and epic novels all provide the source material for screenwriters and directors seeking inspiration. The children I know aren’t hoodwinked by the books they should read – like us adults so often are – they have an eye for authenticity and a nose for a good story: where these elements are found, the rest follows. The best film adaptations retain something of the essence of the original text, but don’t try to outrun it. They bring their own original vision. There are many other films I could have chosen – The Jungle Book (1967), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) are just three I am sad I missed, but I have included films that should inspire further reading as much as watching. I hope you enjoy them.
One Hundred and One Dalmations (1961)
Dodie Smith, illustrated by Alex T. Smith Egmont 978-1405288750 £8.99 pbk
Dodie Smith might be better known for her romantic masterpiece I Capture the Castle, but after Cassandra there was Cruella. Smith’s children’s novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians was inspired by her pet Pongo and published just six years before the animated Disney film’s release, launching one of the greatest on-screen villains of all time, the glamorous and ghastly Cruella de Vil.
Mary Poppins (1964)
PL Travers, illustrated by Lauren Child, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0008289362, £20.00
I came to PL Travers’ Mary Poppins book series late, already with a firm Julie Andrews-ish idea of how our eponymous heroine should behave, and was shocked to find that the original Poppins might be equally magical, but is also sinister, vain, proud and often quite unkind. So, Walt Disney and Robert Stevenson had added more than a spoonful of sugar to the 1964 hit musical. I don’t mind. Give me Dick Van Dyke tap-dancing on the roof any day.
The Snowman (1982)
Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Robin Shaw, Puffin, £12.99
Created by Dianne Jackson for the fledgling station Channel 4 in 1982, The Snowman has become as much a staple of Christmas as turkey and Santa, and offers a gentle 26-minute respite in an often chaotic period. The merchandise and spin-offs make it easy to forget the real magic of The Snowman, but both Raymond Briggs’ wordless picture book (1978) and the subsequent film remain irresistible: a story of friendship and loss that uplifts us even as it breaks our hearts, the perfect family film for all ages. This Christmas, Michael Morpurgo gets in on the act with his own chapter book retelling of The Snowman.
The Princess Bride (1987)
William Goldman, Bloomsbury, 978-0747545187, £8.99pbk
My favourite family film, The Princess Bride has it all: true love, adventure, duals and giants. It is also brilliantly funny, with both subtle and slapstick humour, so that all the family can join in. William Goldman wrote both the screenplay and the 1973 book, which is presented as an abridgement of S Morgenstern’s original text – but that’s another joke. The book has achieved cult status and is more likely to be found in amongst edgier novels in HMV than in your children’s book corner, but is suitable for ages 10+. All together now: ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’
The BFG (1989)
Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake, Puffin, 978-0141365428, £6.99 pbk
I thoroughly enjoyed Steven Spielberg’s 2016 The BFG, starring Mark Rylance as the gentle giant, but for me the 1989 made-for-television animated BBC film by Cosgrove Hall is the one to beat. Compared to Spielberg’s cinematic wonder, the cartoon feels scrappy, low-fi and off-beat – and I love it all the more for it. David Jason’s giant wanders the streets of London at night, catching children’s dreams, when he accidentally awakes Sophie and steals her from her orphanage. The giant is tender, scary and of course lots of fun, while their simple friendship is one of the most touching in children’s cinema.
The Sheep Pig, Dick King-Smith, Puffin, 978-0141370217, £5.99 pbk
Dick King-Smith was already in his 60s by the time he achieved fame with his sixth children’s novel, The Sheep-Pig (1983), winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His wise and kind books have a timeless quality that imbues children with a respect for nature and a love of animals. Back in the 1990s, when Babe hit our screens, speaking animatronic animals seemed like the height of technology. That is no longer the case, of course, but like King-Smith’s books, the quality of the film endures.
Harry Potter series (2001-2011)
J.K. Rowling, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 978-1408855652, £7.99 pbk
Can it really be 17 years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? Having been just too old for JK Rowling’s series the first time around, I watched the films first and have more recently been enjoying the books with my children. It is the wrong way around, of course, for the magic was presented to me on screen, rather than conjured up in my own mind. But, what magic! Who could resist the trials and tribulations of Hogwarts, Hermione Grainger’s intellect, Ron Weasley’s friendship and Harry Potter’s own struggle?
The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick, Scholastic, 978-1407103488, £16.99 hbk
Inspired by the wonderful graphic and prose novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo tells the story of the birth of cinema and is itself a love letter to the craft of film. Music, lighting and 3D effects work in alchemical harmony, while the Parisian train station where Hugo (Asa Butterfield) lives behind the station clock teams with life, comedy and drama. This family film will thrill all but the youngest of cinema-goers, but don’t miss out on the book – it’s a really special text.
The Hobbit trilogy (2012, 2013, 2014)
J .R.R. Tolkien, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0007458424, £7.99 pbk
When the first of the three Hobbit films was released in 2012, it was as a prequel to the hugely successful Lord of the Rings series, which had already turned legions of fans back on to the wonder of JRR Tolkien. But for readers, it all starts with The Hobbit. For me, as for so many other children, The Hobbit was the first ‘big’ book I read, which as we know is its own kind of adventure. The epic voyage from hobbit hole to Misty Mountains is one of the most immersive experiences in both literature and cinema.
Paddington (2014) and Paddington 2 (2017)
Michael Bond, illustrated R.W. Alley, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978-0007458424, £6.99 pbk
Paddington Bear celebrated his 60th anniversary in 2018 and while we all love the little bear from Peru, you’d be forgiven for thinking there was little more to him than marmalade sandwiches and a tatty duffle coat. The films already watch like timeless classics, and send us back to the books too, which remain remarkably fresh. In both there is a joyful anarchy, knowing humour and charm by the bucketload – plus, a powerful message about what it means to be accepted that feels authentic and strikes home.
Laura Fraine is a journalist based in the North East.