"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Four major film adaptations of children’s books (“Hugo,” “Twilight: Breaking Dawn [Part I],” “Tintin” and “War Horse”) have hit theaters in the past two months; throw in “Harry Potter” 7.2, released this summer, and you’ve got a pretty spectacular year for young-adult stories in Hollywood. The trend looks set to continue through next spring, with the release of the first “Hunger Games” movie in March.
We asked a number of authors — most of whom write specifically for young adults — to share their thoughts on the best and worst teen-book-to-movie adaptations, and to name the titles they’d like to see hit the big screen in the coming years. Their responses follow; please share your own nominations (for any of the three categories) in the comments below.
Gregory Maguire, author of the “Wicked Years” series
Without a doubt, my favorite adaptation is “Hugo,” from “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” This is partly because Brian O. Selznick wrote and drew his story to mimic camera techniques, and the great Martin Scorsese takes all his cues from the novel.
I am told that the movie based on “The Dark Is Rising” is pretty lousy; the novelist, Susan Cooper, begged me not to see it, and out of long-standing friendship I have obeyed her. I have never been able to watch any iteration of “Charlotte’s Web” because the magic of E. B. White’s prose is beyond the scope of film magic.
Maurice Sendak says, and I agree with him, that Disney’s “Pinocchio” is a better story than Collodi’s novel. I would insist that the 1939 film of “The Wizard of Oz” is better constructed than the 1900 novel on which it is based, and that “Return to Oz” is an overlooked masterpiece much better than the several Baum novels upon which it is based.
There are a few books with wonderful shapes (and I think shapeliness is one of the most important features of storytelling in the movies) that, if they have been adapted, I haven’t seen or know about. John Gardiner’s “Stone Fox” is one of them; Clayton Bess’ “Story for a Dark Night” is another. An older novel long out of fashion but inherently filmic, I think, is “Loretta Mason Potts” by Mary Ellen Chase.
And has there ever been a film of “The Pushcart War” by Jean Merrill? I love that novel.
Lois Lowry, author of “The Giver”
I think [movie adaptations of books] are pretty uniformly disappointing, with some (“Tuck Everlasting”) spectacularly worse than others. My only real favorite is the obvious “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which was not published as a YA book (though if it had been written today, it would have been).
R.L. Stine, author of the “Goosebumps” series
I think the film adaptation of “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” about a kid in the Midwest who sneaks out of his house late at night to watch a carnival set up — and discovers the carnival is a place of horror — captures the chills of Ray Bradbury’s novel. It’s faithful to the spirit of the book, although it’s impossible to capture Bradbury’s wonderful language on film.
I also thought the movie of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” was enchanting and fun. But most moviegoers didn’t agree. I was disappointed they never made a sequel.
I’d love to see some of William Sleator’s terrific fantasy-sci-fi YA novels turned into films. “House of Stairs” and “Interstellar Pig” would make great movies.
Sherman Alexie, author of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”
I think “Howl’s Moving Castle” has to be the best film adaptation of a young-adult book. The book is terrific but the movie is better. I know that’s blasphemy for a writer to say, but the imagination of the filmmakers — the images they create — are better than anything that I created as I read the novel. The filmmakers became my imagination. My two sons also think this is the best adaptation ever.The worst adaptation by far is the Mike Myers version of “Cat in the Hat.” They took the genius simplicity of Seuss and turned it into a beginning improv exercise for Myers. I can’t think of any live action Seuss adaptation that works. I’m terrified of what a megalomaniac director and actor will eventually do to “Go, Dog, Go!”
The movie I’d like to see is “Catcher in the Rye,” written and directed by David Cronenberg.
Kathryn Lasky, author of (among other books) the Guardians of Ga’Hoole series
I don’t see that many movies of children’s books. Certainly, the classic was “The Outsiders,” but I saw it so many years ago that now I don’t remember it. I just remember thinking it had this gritty quality to it that was very faithful to the book. Another movie that I thought was really great — and that surprised me — was “Holes,” the adaptation of the Louis Sachar book. It’s interesting: Sachar wrote the screenplay for that. And sometimes that doesn’t work so well — but I really think it did, in this situation.
Which book would I like to see adapted? “The Giver.” Why that book has not been turned into a movie I don’t know. I suppose right now, everybody’s into … vampires and very flashy, brutal dystopias; “The Giver” is so quiet, compared to that — no vampires. But that is the one movie that I feel absolutely should be made.
I can’t think of any others that I feel quite so passionately about. There’s a beautiful, old British book, that I just think is one of the best fantasies ever: “Tom’s Midnight Garden,” by Philippa Pearce. I think that would make a beautiful movie.
Jane Yolen, author of “Owl Moon” (among many other works)
My three favorite adaptations of movies are the following. Most recently: “Hugo,” which I found charming, deliciously antique, occasionally vertigo-inducing, and smartly made. The only Disney adapation of a book/story I have ever liked is “Tangled.” And I think the Judy Garland “Wizard of Oz” is better than the book, which, while wildly inventive, has such flat affect and overly simplistic prose that it makes my teeth ache.
Three that I would like to see made are Shannon Hale’s “Goose Girl” and the books that follow it, Patricia C. Wrede’s “Enchanted Forest” books, and Bruce Coville’s “Magic Shop” books. I know that’s cheating because I would be getting multiple movies out of a choice of three, but nobody says these kind of choices are fair. As a fourth, I’d say Anne McCaffrey’s “Harper Hall” books. All of these could be made now with the advent of CGI.
As far as the worst — hands down is the Disney “Jungle Book.” Making those animals cute, singing and dancing in a cute jungle, still gives me the heeby-jeebies. Gorgeous writing flattened into Disney tropes.
Jo Walton, author of “Among Others”
I must be the worst person to ask this question — I always hate films of books, because movies by the necessities of their form change things and leave things out. If I don’t like a book, I’m unlikely to see the movie, and if I do like the book then I almost always think the movie spoils it. The same goes whether it’s a book for children or adults. I think movies should do what they’re good at and stick to original stories, or use short work or plays as their inspirations. The only exception to this is William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride.”
Maggie Stiefvater, author of “The Scorpio Races”
I love movie adaptations of books. I know some people hate to see their favorites desecrated, but I think you can accomplish a lot in a movie you can’t in a book, and vice versa. I adore books and movies with very consistent moods throughout, and I love cleverness, and I love wry humor, so it should surprise no one that my favorite book-to-movie adaptation is “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It charms utterly with its so-ugly-it’s-pretty ’70s paint job throughout, whimsical stop-motion animation, and precocious dialogue. Also, Mr. Fox is my hero.
My dream adaptations? I’d love to see Rick Yancey’s “The Monstrumologist” made into an eerie, Victorian movie. And Natalie Standiford’s “How to Say Goodbye in Robot” would make a great movie, fitting solidly in the “wistfully humorous could star Zach Braff” genre.
Patrick Ness, author of “Monsters of Men”
The best — and most shamefully overlooked — adaptation has to be the “The Iron Giant.” Based on Ted Hughes’ book and directed by Brad Bird, who did “The Incredibles” (and the upcoming “Mission Impossible”), it’s everything a brilliant YA film should be: exciting but smart, human without being gooey, moving and funny and surprising. It’s a terrific film. I know too many children’s authors personally to talk about ones I liked the least, I’m afraid, but as for one I wished would be filmed, I’d have to say “A Wrinkle in Time.” Weird, mind-bending, humane, it’s not necessarily a blockbuster, but there’s room for art everywhere and that definitely includes YA.
Cassandra Clare, author of the “Mortal Instruments” series
For my money, the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy is the best adaptation of a fantasy series that appeals to a lot of young people ever put to the screen. They committed fully to their fantasy world, to inhabiting it completely, and understanding what the books were really about. At the end of the day, for me, adaptations are really about the characters, and “Lord of the Rings” was one of the few adaptations I’ve seen where those characters seemed to truly live, to have histories and real reactions and doubts.
A more recent one I thought was overlooked and really enjoyable was the adaptation of “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by David Levithan and Rachel Cohn. The movie is charming and captures that sense of being out all night when you’re a teenager and it feels like anything is possible. As for ones I don’t like — a lot of people love it, but I hated “The Neverending Story.” I was a tiny kid when it came out but a big fan of the book and half the book was left out! I was crushed. I did once hear someone say, “Never judge a book by its movie,” and I think that’s probably true.
Nancy Werlin, author of “Extraordinary”
[For my favorite,] I have to go back to the adaptation of “A Little Princess” in 1995. It was a nearly perfect version that honored the needs of the movie audience while remaining faithful to the book.
The basic problem I’ve seen, over and over, is that the movie versions get saccharin or overly silly where the book does not. It’s as if filmmakers don’t trust their audiences the way writers do. Every adaptation of “Charlotte’s Web” has erred in the too-sickly-sweet department — a complete misunderstanding of what E.B. White was doing. Similarly, “Harriet the Spy” had none of the tart realism of the book. Not horrible movies per se, until you compare them to the books.
Also, I absolutely loathed the live-action “Grinch.” It was a misguided effort from the beginning, because if there ever was a story that needed to stay in animation, this is it.
For middle-grade realism, I would love to see Deborah Wiles’ National Book Award finalist, “Each Little Bird That Sings,” as a movie (by a director who can avoid dipping into sentimentality). It’s set in a funeral home run by the most wonderful family ever. For young adult, I’d pick Holly Black’s recent “White Cat” series. It’s a fascinating alternative America where magic is real but illegal, and so there’s an underground network of “curse workers” who function basically like the mob.
Kristiana Gregory, author of (most recently) “Stalked”
“Because of Winn-Dixie,” by Kate DiCamillo, was a charming movie — adorable dog and kids — but it lacked the emotional depth that I enjoyed when reading the book.
I’ve read “Walking Up a Rainbow” by Theodore Taylor several times, and always thought this adventure on the American frontier with a 14-year-old orphaned heroine would make a wonderful movie.
Diane Duane, author of the “Young Wizards” series
So far I think “Narnia I: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” comes out on top, and not just because C. S. Lewis’ work has always been such an influence for me. That story was always going to be tough to adapt effectively for a modern audience, and everything could have gone so spectacularly wrong had the producers succumbed to the pressures that get piled onto any property tightly anchored to a time and place in the real world that is not modern North America. I can just hear what some of the early development meetings must have sounded like. “Can’t we move it into the here-and-now? We’re going to alienate our target audience. They don’t know anything about wartime London, anyway, so let’s just move the characters to New York or LA, they can get into Narnia just as well from there …” Doug Gresham and the Lewis estate should be commended for standing their ground and keeping the films’ story line away from the here and now and safely in the there and then.
Which is the worst? If it’s feature film we’re discussing, probably the adaptation I’ve seen that stands out as most completely screwed-up would be “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising.” The basic concept was eviscerated and left staggering around like a zombie-ized shell of itself, and all the good character business was either dumbed down, ripped out or rendered meaningless. It infuriated me, because that book was the anchor of one of the great mid-’70s YA fantasy series, a nuanced piece of work. And I don’t even know where or how to start realistically assigning blame, because again, so many things can go wrong with a YA-novel-based film project. But then adapting any novel property for film – and I speak as both screenwriter and novelist here – is simply one of the very hardest things, comparable to breaking rocks with your forehead or trying to win a land war in Asia. Any screen adaptation that even mostly works has a whiff of the miraculous about it.
[As for books I'd like to see adapted,] I have a longtime soft spot for Joy Chant’s “Red Moon and Black Mountain,” partly because she took the kids-fall-through-a-portal-
Celia Rees, author of “Witch Child” and (most recently) “The Fool’s Girl”
With any movie adaptation of a novel, whether written for children, young adults or adults, I tend to watch it as a film and not make comparisons with the book, because they are very different media, and what might work on the page might not work on the screen (and vice versa). A novel will have to be cut and condensed considerably to fit into a couple of hours of screen time, so I’m quite happy for the filmmaker to make quite radical changes; that doesn’t bother me, and neither do I mind if the characters are not how I imagined them to be.
I do find that a poor, badly written book will become a poor movie. On the other hand, a richly and complex novel might be too much for the filmmaker to handle and might not “work” very well. I’d say that the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” falls into this category.
I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and the movie version of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”… Some writers’ books seem to lend themselves to the screen very well (I’m thinking about Kate DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn Dixie”). … [And] I loved Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula.” …
One of my favorite YA writers is Robert Cormier. I wonder why no one has made a movie version of one of his novels. I [also] think Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” trilogy would make a great movie, but it would be a big challenge for the director.
M.T. Anderson, author of “Octavian Nothing: The Pox Party”
An interesting case of a Newbery Honor Book turned movie is the 2007 adaptation of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” (called “The Keeper: The Dark Is Rising”). The original novel, published in the ’70s, established a lot of the common tropes of kids’ fantasy novels – for example, the odd penchant of Forces of Light in general for engaging underage teens to save the world. (Really? Is that a wise choice? Are those the only resumes they receive?)
The qualities of the original that make it a classic of the genre also make it a tough thing to adapt into a movie. It’s richly atmospheric and moody, even dreamy, evoking a Celtic Christmas that is ancient and half-pagan – but the confrontations between Light and Dark are subtle. The action is almost ritualistic.
For the movie, they threw the whole Celtic thing out the window and focused on action. By sapping the story of everything that made it particular (its mood and its focus on a seductive blend of British mythologies) they left behind only the elements that have been imitated so many times in the 30 years since the book’s publication that they’ve become cliché. So the filmmakers managed to create something that fans of the book hated – because it gutted the original material – while at the same time boring the hell out of everyone who didn’t know the book, because all that was left was insipidly generic. There is some pleasure to be had in seeing Ian McShane (“Deadwood”) play a guardian of the Forces of Light. Some of the bustling family scenes, scripted by the talented John Hodge (“Trainspotting”) have verve. Otherwise, the movie was universally panned.
So, this holiday season, stick with another Walden Media fantasy adaptation about kids thrown into a miraculous wintry world: their much more faithful and delightful “Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” In that movie, attention has been paid to detail, down to the characters’ splendid British overbites. Hoorah for World War II buck teeth chomping down on Turkish delight, and a Merry Christmas to all.
Y. S. Lee, author of the “Agency” series
The worst film adaptation I’ve seen is “Anne of Green Gables: The Continuing Story.” It’s not really an adaptation; more like poor-quality fanfic that imagines Anne Shirley moving to New York, where she finds fame and fortune at a publishing house (I believe; I had to stop watching about 30 minutes in). I can see the temptation to enliven the story a bit, because the Anne series is so domestic in its focus (and what small-town kid doesn’t love a New York City sojourn?). But hearthside bliss is L. M. Montgomery’s whole point: As an orphan, Anne’s desire is to find a permanent family and she does this by having her own, not by working for twinkly-eyed, big-city publishers.
I’d love to see Erin Bow’s “Plain Kate” adapted for film. It’s a quest story with Russian fairy-tale flavor and a talking cat, and it’s gorgeous, powerful and unsentimental. I’m also eager to see how an unbeautiful heroine (Kate is “plain as a stick”) might translate to the screen.
Sara Zarr, author of “How to Save a Life”
The other day I watched the film adaptation of “Tenderness,” by Robert Cormier (the last book he published before he died). Though some of the story details differed from the book, the film was so incredibly tense and moody that it captured the feeling of reading Cormier. For me, so much about experiencing a book is about experiencing a feeling. If the movie version can evoke the same feeling, without necessarily sticking to the book as if it’s a blueprint, it’s a success for me.
Robert Muchamore, author of the CHERUB series
I’d have to say [my favorite movie adaptation is] “Babe” (based on Dick King Smith’s “The Sheep Pig”). It’s a rare example where screenwriters have changed a lot of details, but retained the feel and emotion of the original story. You have to accept that film and text are different media. Too often, film adaptations either follow the plot of the book too slavishly and end up being stodgy or strip out so much that it feels nothing like the book on which it’s based.
I find it fascinating that theater directors agonize over changing a few lines in a play, but in the movies the script is chopped and changed during production and gets rewritten based on the thoughts of producers, investors and the lead actor’s ego. As a writer I’m naturally biased, but I can’t help but wonder if all this mucking about is one of the reasons why such a high proportion of movies are so poor.
The one [bad adaptation] I’d pick would have to be the film of Anthony Horowitz’s “Stormbreaker” (partly because we’ve been dissecting its epic-flop status while working on a movie script for on my own CHERUB spy series). “Stormbreaker” just got everything wrong, from casting an actor who was way too old for the main character, to being unable to decide whether it was a kids’ comedy or a teen thriller.
Which book would I like to see adapted? I’d have to say Malorie Blackman’s “Noughts and Crosses.” It’s not just that it’s a great book, it also has the kind of depth and emotional structure that would work well as a movie.
Pat Schmatz, author of “Bluefish”
Movies and books are such radically different methods of telling a story, it’s hard for me to think of them in conjunction. A book can make a terrific movie, or a terrible movie — it depends on how the visual story is told. I don’t exactly credit or blame one for the other.
One of my very favorite movies is “Stand by Me.” It was based on a novella (not a YA, exactly) by Stephen King.
I would love to see a movie based on “Fighting Ruben Wolfe” by Markus Zusak. Boxing stories seem to do quite well in movie format, and this would be a good one.
Rae Carson, author of “The Girl of Fire and Thorns”
My all-time favorite movie adaption is Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Black Stallion,” based on Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel. The movie is gorgeously cinematic, and Mickey Rooney is the quintessential Henry Daily, but it’s the moving bond between horse and boy that makes the film soar.
And on the subjects of horses and racing and gorgeously cinematic children’s books, Maggie Stiefvater’s “The Scorpio Races” would make a wonderful film. Warner Bros. has acquired the rights, so I have high hopes!
It’s also interesting to note how movies have changed the way books, especially children’s books, are written. Many authors now write with a cinematic perspective, “directing” their novels to paint a wide-lens picture, then focusing in on details and blocking scenes in a film-friendly way. I even see the influence of the “over the shoulder” shot in written dialogue.
Daniel Nayeri, author of “Straw House, Wood House, Brick House, Blow,” and the “Another” series
My favorite movie adaptation: I think pretty much everything associated with “Holes” by Louis Sachar has been gold. The book is near flawless, and the film somehow managed to capture not just plot and character, but also the tone. One of those rare moments when a great book wins all the awards and sells a bunch of copies and makes a great movie and launches the career of Shia LeBeouf … “Howl’s Moving Castle” was also great.
My least favorite movie adaptation: See, this is a trick question. Some bad movies are wonderful adaptations of bad books. Who’s to blame for “Battlefield Earth,” for example? I don’t think “The Wizard of Oz” can rightly be called a “good” adaptation. It might be a good movie, but it didn’t do the world of Oz any favors (aside from keeping it in print for so long).
The books I would love to see as movies: Also a trick question? What if they’re ruined for a whole generation with a bad movie? I didn’t read “Little Women” for years because I’d already seen the movie. Even so, I’d like to see “The Witch of Blackbird Pond”; that could be dark and moody and brilliant. I’m very excited for “The Storm in the Barn” to be a movie. “The Westing Game” would make a great movie too (like “Clue,” for kids!).
Amy Kathleen Ryan, author of “Glow”
The best film adaptations bring their own magic to an already magical story. The best example I can think of was “Bridge to Terabithia,” adapted from Katherine Paterson’s beautiful novel. The performances were all moving, and the use of special effects was completely tasteful. All in all I’d say this was a very successful adaptation, and it made me cry almost as hard as the book.
As far as an adaptation that didn’t work as well, I was a little disappointed in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” To be fair, this novel would be incredibly difficult to make into a film. Somehow, though, I felt the movie didn’t quite hit the mark, and I think the problem boiled down to Aslan, the kingly lion. The story relies on his majesty and his remarkable wisdom and grace. All these qualities would be near impossible to capture in a CGI character. This animated Aslan looked stiff and wooden — like a doll. As a result, I didn’t feel the admiration for him that the book inspired, and so all those dramatic moments that pivot on what happens to him lost their power for me.
A young adult novel that would make a great movie? There are so many to choose from! I really loved “A Northern Light” by Jennifer Donnelly. The backdrop is a murder mystery set in the early 1900s, but the real story is about a young woman’s struggle against the poverty and low expectations of her family. It’s incredibly moving, and I think it could make a very fine film in the right hands.
Gigi Amateau, author of (most recently) “A Certain Strain of Peculiar”
I’m planning that “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s book by the same name, will be my favorite ever kid-book-turned-movie. On Christmas Day right after dessert, my family and I will head to the movie theater to catch it on opening day.
Now, you said six YA books that I’d love to see made into movies? Sure, no problem: “If You Come Softly,” by Jacqueline Woodson. “Eli the Good,” by Silas House. “The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind,” coming in March 2012 from Meg Medina, will make a stunning movie. [Also] “Skellig” by David Almond, “Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli, and “Huntress” by Malinda Lo.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)