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Kids’ books face a rough path to the big screen

Turning a simple short story into a 90-minute movie can be tricky. Some movies tack on unnecessary back story, others add plot points that didn't exist in the book.

In an era when most mainstream films seem to have originated as TV shows, old movies or even action figures and board games, it’s no surprise that beloved children’s books are considered ripe for big-screen adaptations.

Novels, like the Harry Potter series or the works of Roald Dahl (including “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” coming to theaters in November), easily lend themselves to a three-act structure and two-hour running time; if anything, the adaptations become a question of what elements from the original book get to stay in versus what gets cut for time.

But what happens when the original book is something like Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” which is just a few sentences long? Or Dr. Seuss’ “The Cat in the Hat,” which famously uses just 236 different words over the course of the story?

Turning a children’s book into a feature film is akin to making a parachute out of a handkerchief, with the adapters having to adopt various strategies for fleshing out the material.

You may ask yourself, well? How did I get here? Providing back story to the events that unfold in the book not only beefs up the story but also adds a narrative hook, often absent from the source material, that movies so desperately need. In “Wild Things,” screenwriters Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze start the story before Sendak does, giving us an idea of Max’s life and the factors that guide his behavior. The Sendak book kicks off with Max being sent to his room without his supper, but the movie lets us know not only how Max misbehaves but also, and more importantly, why.

Taking an “X-Men Origins” approach and offering something of a prequel to a beloved story can be tricky, of course, since the screenwriters are taking a matter-of-fact, often open-ended situation that’s always been considered a given and trying to dig up roots for it. Some adults who grew up loving the book of “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” in which a grandfather tells a story of a place where food just rains down from the sky, felt betrayed by a movie version that’s all about an eccentric inventor who comes up with a device that makes the edible weather happen.

Probably the worst example of this strategy can be found in Ron Howard’s big-screen take on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — did anyone really care why the Grinch came to be so, well, Grinch-y? Learning about his unhappy childhood was akin to discovering that Jack Sprat and his wife were co-dependently enabling each other’s eating disorders or that Mary, Mary was quite contrary because she had unresolved mother issues. The film took an iconic character and dragged his wonderful awfulness into the realm of the mundane.

When in doubt, extrapolate If you dig deeply enough, there are secondary elements to be found within a book that will allow an inventive, visionary filmmaker to expand and inflate them into big, bold ideas on film. Eggers and Jonze, for instance, have taken the nameless and essentially characterless “wild things” from the original text and given them names and personalities. As with any child playing with imaginary friends, the beasts in the film reflect the best and worst of Max’s personality, and his interactions with them allow him to learn what he needs in order to finally go back home.

How this tactic can work — and backfire — can be seen vividly in two adaptations of the work of acclaimed author Chris Van Allsburg. His book “Jumanji” tells the story of two siblings who play the mysterious titular board game, only to find their home overrun with wild jungle animals and monsoons; it is only by following the game’s instructions and playing it all the way to the end that they are able to return the world to normal. The film version expands on the original, with two children resuming the playing of the game that had begun decades earlier and was interrupted, mixing the original morals of perseverance and attention to detail with a plot that deals with richer themes of regrets and second chances.

Van Allsburg’s “The Polar Express,” however, was less successfully tossed up on the silver screen. The book tells a lovely fable about faith, with a child taking a magical train to the North Pole on Christmas Eve; he asks Santa for a jingle bell from his sleigh, but it’s a bell whose sound can only be heard by those who believe in St. Nick. Robert Zemeckis’ bloated — yet still money-making and now annually revived — film throws in a hair-raising, wild locomotive ride, some scary hobos and a ridiculous ticking-clock plot device, elements that shatter the tone of the gentle source material. (The creepy, almost-human, children-of-the-damned motion-capture animation didn’t help either.)

Yet another Dr. Seuss adaptation, “Horton Hears a Who,” padded its running time with a subplot about the harried mayor of Who-ville and his misunderstood son. What, exactly, did any of that have to do with the tale of an elephant’s single-minded devotion in the face of skepticism? Not much, really, and that aspect of the film felt like an unnecessary add-on to the story (which, like “Grinch,” was perfectly suited to the half-hour TV special format years before the books were inflated to movie-size).

Taking such broad liberties just to fill out a feature-length running time begs the question: What’s the point in making a film of a beloved children’s book when you throw out everything that made the book special? Is the idea just to sucker people into the theater with a familiar property that doesn’t loan itself to a big-screen treatment? Which brings us to…

Just ruin everything Easily the very worst of the children’s-book movies, 2003’s “The Cat in the Hat” typified everything that can go wrong with taking a short, sweet-if-raucous tale and turning it into a wannabe box-office juggernaut. Dr. Seuss’ witty tale of mischief and mayhem becomes a bloated orgy of creepy innuendo, overwrought slapstick and general no-boundaries chaos. The never-seen “Mother” character suddenly has a job and a smarmy suitor while the Cat has become a leering and sniggering Mike Myers. Parents who took their children found themselves shocked by the unfaithful adaptation.

So it’s no wonder that Maurice Sendak has heartily endorsed “Where the Wild Things Are” while Dr. Seuss’ widow announced that “Cat” would be the last live-action adaptation of her husband’s work. Because it’s one thing to disappoint millions of kids and grown-ups who have taken a beloved picture-book to heart, but another thing entirely to annoy the rights-holder.

Follow Movie Critic Alonso Duralde at .