Book to movie adaptations have been happening since the Lumière brothers invented cinema over a century ago. The first director to take a shot at it was French director Georges Méliès, who released Cinderella in 1899. More adaptations followed, from 1940's Pride and Prejudice to 1971's The Godfather. In the upcoming weeks, viewers will be able watch the latest book-to-movie adaptation with Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.
Many of the movie adaptations of banned books have been as controversial as the books themselves. 1971's A Clockwork Orange, is one such example. The film being as violent as the book it was based on. Upon release in the UK, director Stanley Kubrick asked that the film be withdrawn from cinemas after it inspired copycat behaviour. American Psycho (2000) is another such example. When the movie was released it was criticized for its violence, homophobia and on-screen sex. Just ten years prior the book's publication was met with derision by feminists such as Gloria Steinem.
Arguably these books have valid reasons for controversy, as they have an enormous amount of brutality in them. But what of children's books? Yes, books such as A Wrinkle In Time, The Giver and Bridge to Terabithia have found themselves on the wrong side of the censors list for years. The reasons range from being too Christian (A Wrinkle in Time) eugenics (The Giver) to atheism (Bridge to Terabithia).
It's interesting what happens when children's banned books become movies. Certainly it can still lead to controversy and debate. But more often than not, the filmmakers provide additional context to help viewers better understand the message being conveyed. It is during this process that some of the potentially more questionable content is toned down. Therefore, upon release, the movie has less bite than the book.
The Giver is one such example. The book is heavy on internal struggles, less so on external ones. This provided a challenge to the filmmakers, who had to make certain adaptations to the plot for filming purposes. But it resulted in a movie whose larger themes of individualism were so watered down that many were disappointed. It was considered a missed opportunity to discuss the downsides of a so-called utopia. Nevertheless, it was a box office hit, earning $65 million on a $25 million budget. Most likely the lack of controversy surrounding the film meant parents felt safe in allowing their children to watch it.
Some people may argue that the content in a book that led to its banning should not be portrayed on screen for children. Others may argue that the movie adaptation could offer an opportunity to address sensitive topics and encourage critical thinking. Those filmmakers certainly have an opportunity to address those concerns in the movie adaptation.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Disney actively chose to downplay the Christian themes that are prevalent in the book. This was done as a way to be more inclusive to viewers. Certainly what remained were the overreaching themes of love, of critical thinking and of lightness triumphing over darkness. Additionally, the diverse cast was celebrated by many. However, in taking away the Christian themes, which feature heavily in the book, the plot was left riddled with holes. It was as though the screenwriter had hacked away at the plot so much, the resulting script was a wrinkled mess. It didn't go unnoticed by viewers either. The movie bombed at the box office.
Regardless of the approach taken, it is likely that the release of a movie based on a banned children's book will generate both attention and discussion. Certainly that is the case of the upcoming movie Are You There God, It's Me Margaret. The book has been frequently challenged due to its themes of sexuality and religion. Margaret gets her period, and finds affirmation of God existing. Parents will be both nostalgic and excited to let their children watch the adaptation of what was a seminal novel for them. But in today's culture, the film will most likely seem blasé to many children. Periods are no longer hidden. Religion is not as dominant. This of course calls into question why the book is still frequently challenged by parental groups.
With these book to movie releases, both parents and educators can use the opportunity to talk to children about censorship. They can discuss what freedom of expression means. At the end of the day, that is probably the most important lesson that children can learn from these movies. Why was the book banned? Why was the movie changed? This type of questioning against social constructs is important. And if we have a great movie out of it, then all the better.