Words, they have meaning

So I saw Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs yesterday.  I’m not bothering to review it here, since it’s not likely on the “must see” list of most of my target audience, unless, like me, you have a school-age child.  Whereas I tend to view most children’s movies as something to endure, I found Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs surprisingly enjoyable, silly yet with a clever streak that appeals to the adults in the audience, and a refreshing lack of both fart  jokes and preachiness, despite its anti-gluttony message.  Plus, it featured the voices of both Bruce Campbell and Mr. T, so how bad could it have been?

Sometimes I’ll wait until after I see a movie to read the reviews, mostly to see if my opinion of it meshes with those of critics I generally trust, such as Roger Ebert, Peter Travers of Rolling Stone and the crew at The A.V. Club.  While reading the user comments for the review of Cloudy at The A.V. Club (which was just as, if not even more positive than mine), I came across this…

This really does look like it rapes my childhood. The book is a wonderfully melancholy and beautifully illustrated story about a good thing going bad. The trailer for the movie looks Fun! and Wacky! And Ugly too.

The “it rapes my childhood” line would be offensive if not for the fact that it’s kind of hilarious.  It’s also become kind of a cliche at this point: any time plans are announced to adapt a well-beloved cartoon or children’s book into a movie, or worse, remake a “classic” film, particularly if those cartoons, books or movies were popular during the 70s and 80s, someone claims that their childhood has been raped.  To paraphrase The Princess Bride, a film that as of yet, remains free of remakes and sequels, you keep using that word, I don’t think it means what you think it means.  If you must resort to using hyperbole, I think the word you’re reaching for is “pillaged,” or perhaps “plundered.”  It’s still melodramatic, as it suggests that you held the rights to Alvin and the Chipmunks in a carefully hidden coffee can until a band of roving Hollywood producers burned your house down and stole it, but it’s slightly less over the top than applying the word “raped” to it.

The grumbling over Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs is nothing compared to the outright gnashing and wailing over the upcoming, long-awaited adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, probably the single most beloved children’s book of the past forty-five years.  The complaints began from the moment the project was announced–it seemed the mere fact that the book was to be adapted as a movie was an insult to people, as if that hasn’t been happening since a week or so after moving pictures were invented, and as if virtually all children’s books aren’t made into movies or TV specials at some point, simply because they lend themselves to it.  They increased in volume when it was revealed that Spike Jonze was set to direct it, because Jonze, a favorite director of detached, ironic hipsters, has a reputation for making films that are visually interesting and unique, but somewhat lacking in heart and warmth, rendering him perhaps not the most suitable choice to film a children’s movie.  The fact that the script was a collaboration between Jonze and Dave Eggers, another patron saint of hipsters who is loathed by pretty much every other pop culture sub-group only snowballed the criticisms, particularly when it was realized that a 40-odd page book that consists mostly of pictures would have to be significantly padded in order to stretch it out for a feature length film.  After all, look how well that worked out for How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, where the Grinch was made into a sad sack who was the victim of childhood bullying by mean, avaricious Whos, and the Cat in the Hat was some sort of lecherous half-man/half-feline mutant.

After rumors that Jonze’s original cut was deemed by Warner Bros. to be too dark and scary for young audiences, the final cut is due to be released in a couple weeks, and I’m having a good laugh at how many people of my generation, meaning people in their thirties and even into their forties, are doing the equivalent of folding their arms, stomping their feet and declaring they won’t go see it, they won’t, they won’t, THEY WON’T! It’s one thing to refuse to see a movie just because you don’t want to see it–hell, 75% of the movies that come out these days look like utter shit to me, so I’m not going to see them.  However, much of the refusal to see Where the Wild Things Are seems to be based in some sort of weird, misplaced “principle,” of which the energy expended on it would be much more useful when directed towards, say, feeding the hungry.  They’re taking a stand, letting Hollywood know that they’re tired of having their most cherished memories of childhood snatched away and adapted, remade or repackaged for money! Everything we read, watched or listened to as kids now “belongs” to us somehow, and someone stepping in and doing something we don’t like with it is clearly just like rape.  Why, if Maurice Sendak was still alive, he would have never stood for this!

Except there’s just one thing: Maurice Sendak is still alive, and unlike Alan Moore, who disavows every film adaptation of his work only after the check has cleared, Where the Wild Things Are was made not only with his full approval, but with his input.  After decades of turning down other offers to purchase the rights to his book, Sendak hand-picked Spike Jonze for the honor.  So if you think Where the Wild Things Are looks “ugly,” or if it seems to be “marketed towards pretentious yuppies for their hipster kids,” or if just its mere existence offends you, don’t blame Warner Bros. or Spike Jonze.  Blame its author, the only person who really has a say in what’s done with his or her work in regards to who it’s sold to, or his or her family, if they’re not around anymore.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat were both dreadful movies, but let’s not forget that the rights to the stories were sold American by the widow Geisel.  It’s rather ludicrous to complain about something being taken away from us that never really belonged to us in the first place.

I probably wouldn’t find this minor controversy quite so irritating and amusing if not for the fact that I’m on the side of wanting to see it.  I think as far as children’s movies go it looks pretty good.  It doesn’t appear that they’re trying too hard to be twee and “indie,” Arcade Fire songs in the trailer notwithstanding.  It’s not CGI’ed to within an inch of its life.  Best of all, it doesn’t look as though it’s been updated to reflect supposed trends and what “the kids are into” today, such as, God forbid, having the wild things break into a hip hop dance sequence.  As far as product placement, idiot adults being bested by smart-ass kids, teen pop stars on the soundtrack and all the other trappings that make the majority of children’s movies all but unwatchable, that remains to be seen, but it seems to have a leg up on most of the competition so far.  If I’m wrong, believe me, I will say so here.  If you don’t want to see it, then don’t, but let’s cut the “it’s raping my childhood” shit.  No, it really isn’t.  It’s not raping your childhood, or kicking your dog to death, or stealing your grandmother’s heart pills.  It’s just someone making money, which is pretty much why every decision in the entertainment industry is made.  Do authors of our beloved childhood books, or their families, really, genuinely care about what you or I think when they sell the rights to their creations? Probably not.  It shouldn’t change how you feel about the stories themselves, or what impact they had on your childhood.  If it does, then maybe they didn’t mean all that much to you in the first place.

2 Responses to “Words, they have meaning”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph: “Do authors of our beloved childhood books, or their families, really, genuinely care about what you or I think when they sell the rights to their creations? Probably not. It shouldn’t change how you feel about the stories themselves, or what impact they had on your childhood.”

    That’s just it – those stories only had impact at all because we, as children, believed they were lovingly written for kids, not dollars. Kids books are only unique when they’re written with love; you can easily differentiate those that are written for a good reason and those that are written to pay someone’s Sprint bill.

    To think that authors like Dr. Seuess or Shel Silverstein or Sendak were only in it for money (and I’m not saying they are) is heartbreaking, because it takes something you thought was personal and emotional and heart-wrenching and turns it into just another pair of Nike shoes or cup of Starbucks coffee.

    I mean, what if you found out that Mr. Rogers only did “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” because he had a nasty cocaine debt? Wouldn’t that rightfully change the tone of his whole experience and, indeed, “plunder your childhood?”

    I’m not staunchly on the “I won’t see this film!” team, but I do see their point. And, to be fair, it’s always only been an emotional point, anyway, so isn’t it allowed to be a little irrational?

  2. It’s not clear to me how the mere fact that a movie is made demonstrates that the book was written purely for lucre (or that the movie is, for that matter). I think Maurice Sendak was trying to make children happy; he had a vision. And he waited all this time and picked a director and insisted on input to try to keep the film consistent with that vision—presumably the same love that went into the book also drove his participation in the movie.

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