Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Picture Books Into Animated Features

Animated features have often been based on pre-existing stories, whether fairy tales like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or books like Pinocchio. In recent years, there's been a trend to create animated features from picture books. I recently watched Meet the Robinsons and was curious to see how the film compared to the book. I was quite surprised to see that the book had little narrative or conflict and next to no characterization. Its appeal comes from William Joyce's illustrations of a parade of eccentric characters and environments.

It's not hard to see why the book was attractive to Disney, but in many ways the book was a trap. The structural and dramatic requirements for a feature film are completely missing from the book. In fact, I found the weakest part of the film to be the second act, and that was the part of the film most closely based on the book.

The problem isn't limited to Meet the Robinsons. I've also recently looked at the book and film versions of The Polar Express. Chris Van Allsburg's art is impressive, but the pictures are almost entirely long shots. That's great for portraying evocative environments, but like A Day With Wilbur Robinson, The Polar Express is almost entirely lacking in characterization or dramatic tension. The film version relies heavily on spectacle and on sequences -- like the boy attempting to recover the girl's ticket -- that really serve no dramatic purpose within the larger narrative except to provide false suspense and fill screen time.

We're Back by Hudson Talbot contains the strong image of real dinosaurs getting mixed up with the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and taking refuge in The Museum of Natural History. The film version (which I haven't seen in years) was forced (like Meet the Robinsons) to invent a villain in order to create stronger dramatic tension.

All of the above books are too thin to support feature films without being augmented by new material that pulls the stories away from their origins.

Shrek is another book that doesn't really lend itself to a feature. Within William Steig's book, there is no suspense. Shrek meets a witch on page 5 who tells his fortune. The rest of the book works out exactly as she foretells with few surprises. The appeal comes from Steig's language, drawings and the upside-down notion of a character who is gross and ugly and loves it. At least the character of Shrek is a strong one, which gave DreamWorks something to start with. Shrek, as a character, is far stronger than any character in other books I've discussed.

In choosing projects, animation studios have to be careful not to be seduced by nice illustrations or novel environments. Shrek shows that it's good to have a strong character to start with, but it's even better to have a well structured dramatic conflict.


Michael Sporn said...

This is another great post. Thanks, Mark. Adapting books is hard work, I can tell you, and when you pull it off well the credit usually just goes to the book's author or illustrator.

George Cukor made a brilliant career out of adaptations that worked to his personality, and his films are well worth studying.

Kevin Koch said...

Yes, nice post. I think sometimes studios are excited by the prospect of taking a property that already has some key, appealing imagery and character design, and filling out the story and structure with their own invention. Unfortunately, it's very easy for that to end up feeling contrived or padded, since it's usually a group of people developing a single creator's unique vision.

I think Shrek is fairly successful because it's such a minimal story, so there wasn't much to retain except the basic nature of the main character.

Another pitfall to these projects is that the original creator often has to be satisfied, and the goal of a children's picture book is a lot different from the goals of a $100 million animated feature.

Steve Schnier said...

Hi Mark,
Good post. You underscore one of the key problems plaguing animation both TV and theatrical; where the production team/production entity has been seduced by the visuals.

A great image or design will keep the average viewer interested for maybe 30 seconds -- and then it all comes down to story. It's either there, or it isn't. And if it isn't - no amount of pretty pictures slapped up on the screen are going to save your show.

Floyd Norman said...

If you've got a great story, then make a feature film. However, trying to shoe horn a story line into a picture book or a high concept pitch is a dead end street.

You would think animation professionals already know this. Clearly they don't.

Steve Schnier said...

I think that the problem is that "we" are not the audience for our films. As filmmakers, we perceive the story differently. We focus in individual scenes and moments rather than seeing the movie as a whole.

We have to remember who we are making the movie for - the audience.

Jenny Lerew said...

"We focus in individual scenes and moments rather than seeing the movie as a whole."

But this is also what I respond to as a filmgoer-it's what tips the balance for me, turning an okay film into a memorable, "real" one. It's what every film is made up of--cuts, scenes, images and "moments". However, a strong character or characters have to be there, able to tie together the parade of scenes and moments. If you don't buy the protagonists it doesn't much matter what they do.

In my opinion what happens to derail films that might have worked is often too much story--as in plots that become way too complicated--events contrived to fill the narrative and fill out 85 or so minutes, instead of the characters' business driving the narrative where it has to go. It applies to live action in exactly the same way as it does to animation.

It's an excellent post and brings up a completely valid point about the allure of picturebooks. It's interesting to note that virtually every popular children's picturebook of the last 10 years or more has been optioned for a feature animation treatment by the major studios(including ones with no animation department per se). Seriously, every one. if I had the urge I could look up the Development Hell trajectories of a dozen titles. Most of them never make it out of DH for the reason Mark points out: no filmic story possible, only pictures and an "impression". It must seem like a natural at first: an illustrative fantasy world that has a lot of parent/child recognition-perfetc for animation! But there's probably no animal less akin to the film story than the average 32 page picturebook, which is such a singular art and a unique experience for the reader.

On the other hand, practically forgotten now are the dozens of excellent middle reader books that are much more suitable for adaptation to film: "101 Dalmations" was a smart, great book, very well written by Dodie Smith; same goes for Margery Sharp's books that "The Rescuers" was based on. There's where a lot of unmined adaptations still reside. The fact that those titles have been continuously in print since I was a kid says volumes about their viability.