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Book vs. Movie:
James and the Giant Peach
Written by Roald Dahl in 1961
Directed by Harry Selick in 1996
I remembered very little about this book before I reread it for this blog post and I'd never seen the movie. As far as Roald Dahl books go, even though I enjoyed it, James and the Giant Peach is not among my favorites. Talking animals (or bugs) are just not my bag, though I know a lot of people who love them. (maybe even a coblogger of mine) As usual, I watched the movie directly after the book. After doing so, I am so tempted to just write, "No. Just no." and call it a post written. Because of all the fantastical elements of the book, I understand and applaud the moviemakers for choosing to use claymation for portions of the film. The colors used in the movie are beautiful--it seems such a weird thing to compliment, a nice color palette--and I did enjoy the way the movie was filmed. Also, you must know that I am grasping for things that I enjoyed when I am complimenting the colors in the film, no matter how truthful my statement is. There was just more disappointment than entertainment in this movie for me to enjoy it.
Problem #1: Kill 'Em Dead
In the book, kickin' it Dahl style, James' awful aunts, Sponge and Spiker are killed when the gigantic rolling peach flattens them into the ground. Suitably comical way to die for a children's book. In the movie, they are inside a car when the peach rolls over them and they appear in the ending. I was happy that the movie didn't tone down the extent of their cruelty but why aren't they dead? Not that I personally need it to be very dark, but it is more true to Dahl's book, so why not just kill them off? At the end of the movie, the aunts come after him in New York to exert their power over him and all the people/insects end up capturing the aunts, tying them up, and unmentioned wigs fall off their heads. I suppose the filmmakers wanted the primary villains to run throughout the film.
This never happened in the book.
Neither did this. Definitely not.
Problem #2: New York, New Yoooooork
James and his friends are on a magical adventure in the book and New York is a surprise destination--they don't know where they are until they get there. I've thought about this one for a while and I don't see why the filmmakers had to run the whole dream of New York through the movie. In the beginning of the film, as in the book, James and his parents are living an idyllic life. There is a similar scene where James is shown having a day holiday at the beach with his parents. However, in the movie, they introduce an analysis of clouds, one of which looks like the Empire State Building and James' father gives him a brochure of NYC to set up his dream of going there. Then his parents get mauled by a runaway rhino, you know, as you do. (at least in a Roald Dahl book) So many of Dahl's books are about horrible people getting their comeuppance and about escaping terrible realities. (or terrible possibilities) I didn't like that the whole movie became about getting to New York. The book gives a feeling of mental escape from James' horrible guardians who mistreat him. The movie is more like a running away story.
Problem #3: If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It (OR DELETE IT!)
Claymation gives you lots of opportunities to create fantastical scenes. For example, if there is a cool scene in the book where the insects and James are attacked by a huge school of sharks, it might be cool to include that in the movie. Or not. Instead, the film features a single mechanical shark that shoots harpoons into the peach.
Or maybe the entire section of the voyage where James and his friends fly up into the clouds and realize that cloud-men are making hailstones, Centipede hassles them, there is a snowball fight, and then the characters literally crash through a rainbow. This would be cool to see, right? Well it isn't in the movie. Instead, there is an underwater scene (I know this whole movie is fiction but seriously, bugs underwater?) with pirates, a search for a compass, and Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas
. (not kidding) Why not just leave the cool scene as it was? It sounds horrible to say but it really made me wonder if they'd already had a bunch of clay Jack Skellingtons around the studio and decided to save money by using his character instead of making the ones from the book.
I totally understand a few of the changes. For example, in the movie the peach rolls over a fence which remains around the outside for the duration. It allowed for a change of scenery and for more action to take place outside of the peach. Also, the number of birds it takes to hoist the peach in the air doesn't seem like as many as described/pictured in the book but I wouldn't want to make that many claymation birds, thus, totally understandable.
Problem #4: Centipede is a Newsie
There are several different illustrated versions of the book so I'm not sure if I can generalize or not but in the version I was reading the insects were just that--large insects. No clothes and no crazy accents. In the movie, each bug has their own clothing and some have accents and magically, Centipede has turned into a Brooklyn-accented, cigar-smoking, Newsie from the 1930s. Go ahead and imagine what Newsies
would've been like with a claymation centipede in the role Christian Bale played.* And while we are on the topic of musicals, this movie is only about an hour long and kids love songs so I see why some songs might've been necessary, however I don't remember any of them now (a few hours after watching the movie), they were not part of the book (though there were some songs that Centipede sang), and Randy Newman is involved in several of them. (personal preference alert) I might be wrong on this account, but it did not even sound like the lyrics to the songs were the ones from the book.
*Note: James and the Giant Peach has a higher rating on IMDB than Newsies does. Pssht, yeah right.Problem #5: My Own Personal Nightmares
Another weird moment from the insects came from Spider acting very maternal to James and wrapping him in her web to go to sleep. Thanks, James and the Giant Peach
, for putting a visual to an ultimate nightmare of mine. Especially when it isn't in the book.
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There is also a completely bizarro dream/nightmare sequence in which James' head has been put onto a caterpillar body. I can never unsee this weirdness. Now neither can you. It isn't in the book, by the way. Nor are the birds who are carrying the weight of the peach shown to be overexerting themselves. Yes, I know that they are just claymation birds and that it isn't real, but I got a little bit sad when I saw the birds covered in ice, barely able to flap their wings, especially because it was added just for the film. I remember a discussion I had a few months ago wherein I talked with someone about how desensitized we are to human violence but how cruelty to animals affects many of us while reading books and watching movies. I can read about serial killers, even real ones, and feel disgusted and scared, but the moment someone tortures an animal, I am outraged. I suppose it is the element of helplessness. Anyway, I don't think I needed to see the frozen birds.
There were a few aspects of the movie that I did enjoy. Though the actor who plays James seems to have some sort of weird accent/lisp-thing going on, he looks perfect for the part, and the claymation version of him is adorable. Like I said earlier, the visual aspect of the movie (except for the crazy nightmare part) was beautiful and I like that the film retained the dark tone of the book.
This makes me thirsty.
There are very few actual actors in the movie, but I was ecstatic to find one of my favorite actors cast as the magical man who gives James the crocodile tongues. (that is how the giant peach is created) Pete Postlethwaite
was such an underrated actor. (you might recognize him as Kobayashi from The Usual Suspects
) The actresses who play Sponge
are similarly perfect. I should've added Spiker's teeth to the list of my personal nightmares.
I loved the peach pit. (the non-90210 one)
When James and his friends get to New York, the peach lands on the tip of the Empire State Building. In the book, it is just an impetus for James and his insect buddies to achieve the dreams they've hoped for--the silkworm spinning silk, the centipede becoming a runner, etc. The movie does allow for this to happen, but it mostly occurs as a series of newspaper clippings that run during the credits. Instead, the great hurrah at the end is about the aforementioned should-be-dead aunts coming after him in New York. A policeman and the crowd listen to James' story of his adventures and they realize that the aunt have treated him poorly, so his aunts end up being wrapped in insect silk and hung from a crane. (not hanged, just hung) James then lives in the peach pit in Central Park, as in the book. Though I was happy with that one aspect of the ending, I wanted to see the visualization of each of his insect friends finding their niches in America. What a missed opportunity. I'm really glad they included that random pirate scene. Not.
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"Barely tolerable, I dare say. But not handsome enough to tempt me."
(From Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen and directed by Joe Wright in 2005)
We'd watch this, but only to make fun of it.
Honestly, I never want to see this movie again. It is not a terrible movie and if someone was unfamiliar with the book, I daresay that it would be quite enjoyable. However, there were so many unnecessary changes made to an already magical plot that the primary emotion I felt while watching was disdain. I will read the book anytime I have a hankering for James and the Giant Peach. And if you are interested in the story, pick one or the other.