Sunday, May 09, 2010

How NOT to Train Your Dragon

Let me share with you guys a little tidbit about my daughter. She’s ten years old and a total dragonista. Colorful stuffed dragons swoop from the ceiling of her room and line her walls and shelves. Why dragons? It all started about three years ago when I stumbled upon a book called “How to Be a Pirate,” which I bought because she was into pirates at the time, and because the sample pages on Amazon.com were very entertaining. Turns out that was the second book in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series. Little were we to know that we would be sucked into a hilarious, snarky and demented Pythonic book series (created by British author Cressida Cowell.) For the next few years, we would delight in reading these books together, over and over, acting out the parts in silly voices, laughing ourselves senseless.

And then along came DreamWorks.

When we first found out that there would be a movie adaptation of “How to Train Your Dragon,” we were both ecstatic. My daughter insisted I get her an audition as the voice of Toothless, the disobedient but adorable little pest of a dragon owned by 11-year-old antihero Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III. Well, that didn’t work out, but still we grew ever excited as the movie’s release date edged closer.

And then I saw the trailer.

Oh. My. God. There was no way I could let my daughter see this. It would break her heart. Because it was clear from that first trailer that DreamWorks had taken this wonderful book series… and basically urinated all over it.

Now let me make this clear: I am not saying the movie sucked. I didn’t see it. By all accounts the flick is wonderful, brilliant, heartwarming, with antiwar and tolerance themes that I am definitely down with. But still – no. Why? Because DreamWorks threw the source material under the bus. Even from that one trailer, it was clear that major changes were made. In the books, the Vikings and the dragons are not at war; in fact, ALL the Viking boys have pet dragons, and capturing them is part of the boys' ascension to manhood. Toothless is an adorable but difficult and spoiled little "common" or "garden" dragon the size of a cocker spaniel, who leaves poops in Gobber's bed and tries to pass them off as chocolate snik-snaks, and he likes to ride inside Hiccup's tunic where he can stay warm and avoid anything remotely heroic. There is no Astrid, but rather, there is a Camicazi. Hiccup does not manufacture cliché 'crazy inventor' gadgets like Belle’s dad in “Beauty and the Beast.” And he’s *11* (and probably does not sound like Jay Baruchel.) And on and on.

Here’s the reality: there was NO reason this film could not have hewed closer to the books and still been a great movie. Now I read the interview in the CS Weekly where the writers said they spent years trying to make the script work, but it was only when they gave themselves the freedom to jettison the source material were they able to really make the project fly. To that, I say: horse pertaters. Eight years ago, my partner and I did a draft of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (the last draft before Karey Kirkpatrick came aboard.) That was a tough adaptation. The source material had an inactive protagonist, no throughline to speak of, and the funniest bits were basically wacky asides that by definition have no place in a narrative screenplay. Countless writers before us had attempted to translate the book into a script and flamed out. But as true Douglas Adams fans, we found a way to solve those problems AND stay true enough to the source material to please the fanboys, earning rare praise from the ICM reader who begrudgingly commented that “these guys may have finally licked this one." Of course, we were kicked to the curb (and had nothing to do with the film, so don’t blame me!) but that’s another story. Point is, you don’t throw the ^#$^#! baby out with the bathwater.

By the time the second and third “Dragon” trailers hit YouTube, there was no avoiding them. My daughter did see them, and yes indeed, she was shattered. She still feels betrayed to this day. “Why? Why did they do that?” she wondered. It was tough to explain to her. We started talking about the Bond films -- the farther the films got from Fleming, the more they sucked. Of course, the filmmakers made gobs of money, so they never cared. But fans of literary Bond, WE cared. Well, this is no less true with kids' books. The fan base for the "Dragon" series may be much smaller than the "Harry Potter" or the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books, but still, the true fans want the movies to embrace the source material, not merely exploit the title and the milieu. Note that the "Potter" and "Wimpy Kid" filmmakers have both somehow managed to remain wonderfully true to the source material. I don't see any negatives profit-wise from their doing so -- just the opposite.

DreamWorks recently announced a sequel and ancillary projects to follow based on the megahit “How to Train Your Dragon.” I think it’s safe to say there were no lessons learned here. DreamWorks may well have made a great movie in "Dragon," yes. But they did it in a way that was downright cruel to the source material's core audience. And for that reason, I’m sticking on principle -- as is my daughter -- by refusing to see their movie. DreamWorks, you’re not getting one thin dime from me or anyone in my family for anything related to “Dragon” – ever.

Sometimes you just have to take a stand, as useless as it may seem. And yeah, I know Cressida Cowell has gone on record to say she loves the movie. But then, she got a very, very big check.

--Jim C.

3 comments:

K.G. said...

In fairness to the Hitchhiker's Guide film, it had... oh wait, the Eagles did that song... nevermind.

Anonymous said...

It's "interesting" that no one wants to touch a spec - they want something with an established audience, and yet they will then trash and alienate that audience by essentially tossing out the source material.

Towel Critic said...

So... What you're saying is, You don't like the movie, because they didn't mirror the books. Why does it have to be a book perfectionist, can't you just be happy there are now two universes of dragons rather than just cressida's? You even admit it could be brilliant (it is) But you stand by the source material and say this was is the only way. Why? Why is the old way the only way? (Ironic because isn't that what Hiccup is about, if you read the books which you have, you'll notice an underlying theme is accepting change, two steps forward one step backwards) So I don't understand why you can't just go in there and enjoy the movie for what it is? It's based upon, not a direct translation. Now I respect your opinion, and you can go see the movie and not like it, but don't give it flak when all you've seen is the trailer. Please. Not my favorite two universes. Httyd is famous for having great books and movies. Cressida loved the movie because... well. It's great.

I urge you to try it, even if it's only the first twenty minutes, Hell, not even that, just listen to the music, like, that should be enough. But I'm not here to disrespect your opinion, you don't have too. But it is a good take on her books, despite the many changes. (Again, change doesn't equal bad remember)