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10 Movies That Were Better than the Book

Another Harry Potter movie opens soon, and so begins another round of criticism about how the film does or doesn’t live up to the book. But for all that griping about the books done wrong by Hollywood, what happens when the movie is really better than the book? Check out these kiddie flicks that rocked the books. – Jeanne Sager

  • Shrek

    Didn’t know this was based on a book, did you? You’re not missing much. The 1990 version written by William Steig is crudely drawn, and its ogre is missing the sweet inner onion layers of everyone’s favorite curmudgeon. Shrek onscreen makes a good show of being a beast, his gruffness aided and abetted by Mike Myers’ spot-on Scottish brogue. Shrek on the page is simply beastly, and proud of it. Stuck in the palace hall of mirrors, Steig’s ogre is shocked by the hideous creatures all around him – until he realizes they’re all him. “He faced himself, full of rabid self-esteem, happier than ever to be exactly what he was,” Steig writes. Bring back our self-effacing swamp settler and give us a double dose of donkey.

  • Bambi

    If you thought mama deer getting blown away in the movie was harsh, try reading Bambi as told by Felix Salten. While Mom’s busy dying, Bambi is scrambling to get away and meets “a dying pheasant, with its neck twisted,” as well as Friend Hare’s wife, whose “hind leg dangled lifelessly in the snow, dyeing it red and melting it with warm, oozing blood. . . In the middle of her words, she rolled over on her side and died.” True to nature? Yes. Child appropriate? If you’re a fan of the “give my kids nightmares for a month” canon, then yes. Something stinks about this book, and it isn’t Flower.

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  • Cinderella

    The poor little orphan girl in the Disney movie has it rough there for awhile, but try being the Cinderella in the original Grimm’s Fairy Tale. Her dad was very much alive and totally blind to his witch of a second wife. When dad asks his daughter and stepdaughters what they want from one of his trips, he takes Cinderella’s wishes at face value and brings the stepmonsters pearls and jewels while the little cinder girl gets the branch from a hazel bush. Gee, thanks Dad, but the mice made better benefactors.

  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966 version)

    Now before you get your Dr. Seuss-loving panties in a bunch, it’s not that the book was bad. But we’re hard-pressed to imagine a time when the mean one wasn’t voiced by Boris Karloff. The animated flick redefined one of our Seussian favorites, and helped our heart grow two sizes. The Jim Carrey version, however – and we quote – “stink, stank, stunk.”

  • The Little Mermaid

    Ursula the sea witch was a kind-hearted old soul next to the enchantress in Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale. He cut the tongue out of the mouth of the Mer-King’s youngest daughter and treated her with a potion that would let her retain her “graceful movements,” but make “every step [she took] cause [her] pain all but unbearable.” That Ariel of the Disney tale let go of her precious voice for the love of a boy is hard enough for parents of little girls to bear, but the lengths the original mermaid went to hook herself a man are best left in the 1800s, when the Anderson tale was written.

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  • How to Eat Fried Worms

    The 1973 book is a goofy send-up of little-boy antics, but Billy Forrester’s tender tummy and worm-eating quest finds real meaning in the 2006 flick about a new kid at school faced with an impossible quest: He has to eat ten worms by seven p.m. on Saturday – or end up wearing worms in his pants to school on Monday. Instead of noshing on nightcrawlers for a measley $50 like his written counterpart (who ate fifteen, and ended up being “the first person who’s ever been hooked on worms”), the live action Billy is a hero for new kids everywhere. He shows up the bully, realizes girls can be good friends, and starts getting along with his little brother.

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  • The Neverending Story

    A movie based on a book about a book that takes a kid on an adventure worthy of the movies? If you can follow that, you can follow the story of Bastian’s journey to Fantasia and back. This is another case of a book that isn’t exactly bad (it has its own cult following), but for kids who grew up fantasizing about their own fluffy, puppy-headed Luck Dragon in the ’80s, the movie is still the best option for sharing the story with their kids. The book is just too long, made for reading in installments to younger kids, and its twists and turns are – while fantastical – sometimes hard to follow on the page. The original was written in German, and the English translation can be awkward going. It’s also plagued by a moral that does not translate to younger kids; Bastian turns from the fat kid with no friends to a powerful one, but in the book all his changes and all his abilities cannot completely conquer unhappiness. The author (Michael Ende) was so angry at the film that he sued for the production of the movie to be changed, but he lost. Rumor has it another film adaptation is in the works. And that, folks, is why they call it neverending.

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  • Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

    Ian Fleming has had his fair share of books loosely adapted for the silver screen (“James Bond” ring any bells?) – the word “loosely” being the operative word when it comes to his children’s tale of that marvelous flying machine. Hollywood threw in a love story that’s Truly Scrumptious, exing out old Mimsie (the mom, who was very much alive on the page). In doing so, they gave Professor Caracatus Potts, the kooky widower trying to do right for his kids, a higher purpose.

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  • Mary Poppins

    Julie Andrews made her sweet, but the real Mary was anything but. Strict, vain and kind of cranky, P.L. Travers’ carpetbagging nanny was not going to sing out explanations about the world around Jane and Michael Banks (and their twin siblings in the book). This excerpt from the original Poppins book sums her up quite well: “Michael sighed happily. He loved the story and was never tired of hearing it. ‘And it’s all quite true, isn’t it?” he said, just as he always did. ‘No,’ said Mary Poppins, who always said ‘No.’” Sounds like someone could have used a spoonful of sugar. Author Travers, by the way, hated the movie.

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  • Old Yeller

    A Newberry Award winner, it’s been reprinted and branded as a “perennial classic.” In other words, another book that isn’t bad . . . Still, we find the heart-wrenching loss of Travis’ dog more moving onscreen. Is it the baby face of Kevin Corcoran (the little boy who played the youngest Coates boy in the 1957 Disney film) or the sweet disposition of Tommy Kirk (who played Yeller’s bonded-for-life best boy, Travis)? More likely it’s Spike, the canine actor who brought to life the joyful friendship of a boy and his dog. He made you believe a mutt could fend off a bear and a bunch of wild hogs to save his family. Spike made us sob hysterical tears when we were kids, and then brought on another gushing river when we sat down as adults to watch it with our own kids.

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