10 great films based on classic children’s books

A good book at bedtime captures the imagination of young children, but it’s not easy to reproduce the magic on screen. As the classic 1931 version of Emil and the Detectives comes out on DVD, here are 10 more films that pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

Emil and the Detectives (1931)

Berlin, 1931. In one part of town, Peter Lorre’s child-killer Hans Beckert is stalking the streets, preying on children who get separated from the crowd. In another, only a shade less menacing, young Emil is arriving on a train from the provinces, divested of the money his mother gave him by the boiled-sweet-offering stranger sitting across from him in the carriage.

These two early German sound films – Fritz Lang’s M and Gerhard Lamprecht’s Emil and the Detectives (both 1931) – portray a bustling metropolis where ne’er-do-wells lurk to ensnare or defraud the unsuspecting. But where Lang’s film condemns police, underworld and public alike in its vision of a morally corrupt society seeking a scapegoat, the boy hero of Lamprecht’s film triumphs over wrongdoing, marshalling a people’s army of pint-sized waifs and strays to help catch the thief.

Erich Kästner’s 1929 source novel, illustrated by Walter Trier, differs from other landmarks of children’s literature in offering no wonderlands, wonderful wizards or enchanted wardrobes. Instead, it takes place in a very real Berlin, where the sights and sounds of the modern city provide peril and excitement enough for its impressionable young adventurer.

Full of the dynamic visual prowess of the German cinema of the time, Lamprecht’s adaptation – from a screenplay by the young Billy Wilder and an uncredited Emeric Pressburger – adroitly captures the sense of the city in all its bewildering density and movement. Admirably unsentimental as a kid’s film, it doubles as a valuable street-level snapshot of the German capital in the immediate pre-Nazi years and as one of cinema’s most perfect transpositions of a children’s bedtime classic to the screen.

To celebrate its release on DVD (which also includes a rare 1935 British film of the story as an extra feature), settle in for 10 more timeless big-screen versions of vintage children’s novels.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book cover
Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (1900)

With this unassuming ‘Open Sesame’ begins L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the story of a bored young girl in farmland America who’s whisked off to the magical land of Oz during a cyclone. Theatre and early cinema versions of Baum’s story began to appear soon after publication, with Sam Raimi the most recent director to tackle the story, in Oz the Great and Powerful (2013). 

But MGM’s 1939 musical version is definitive, almost eclipsing its literary source with its dazzling Technicolor versions of the Yellow Brick Road, the Emerald City, the Wicked Witch of the West, and Dorothy’s affable companions, the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion. Judy Garland stole hearts the world over as a gingham-dressed Dorothy dreaming of somewhere over the rainbow.

Five on a Treasure Island (1957)

Director: Gerald Landau

Five on a Treasure Island (1957)
Five on a Treasure Island book cover
‘Mum, have you decided about our summer holidays yet?’ said Julian, at the breakfast-table. ‘Can we go to Polseath as usual?’ ‘I’m afraid not,’ said his mother. ‘They’re full up this year.’ The three children looked at one another in great disappointment. They loved the house at Polseath, and the beach was perfect for swimming.Five on a Treasure Island by Enid Blyton (1942)

As every Enid Blyton-reading child knows, Julian and his two siblings, Dick and Anne, settle for a holiday at their Uncle Quentin’s instead, where – in company with their tomboy cousin George and her dog Timmy – the ‘Famous Five’ become embroiled in the hunt for treasure around Kirrin Island.

In the late 50s, kids returned week after week to catch up with the Five’s adventure in this matinee serial from the Children’s Film Foundation. Directed by Gerald Landau, it charmingly captures the spirit of Blyton’s original. For any child who thrills to the idea of treasure maps, shipwrecks and ruined castles, these eight episodes of hijinks and derring-do remain manna from heaven.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Director: Henry Levin

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)
A Journey to the Centre of the Earth book cover
On 24 May 1863, which was a Sunday, my uncle, Professor Lidenbrock, came rushing back towards his little house, No, 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the old quarter of Hamburg. Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne (1864)

The French bristle at the idea of the novels of Jules Verne being classified as children’s literature, but in the English-speaking world abridged editions of his best-known works have long been book-at-bedtime staples. In the opening pages of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, Professor Lidenbrock hurries home to examine his latest purchase: an Icelandic manuscript containing an ancient code describing a route into the interior of our planet via a dormant volcano.

This 1959 film produced by 20th Century Fox is the best of several movie versions, with James Mason on good, gruff form as Lidenbrock, superbly realised production design of the phosphorescence-lit bowels of the earth, and some delightful dinosaur effects.

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

Director: Ken Annakin

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Swiss Family Robinson book cover
For many days we had been tempest-tossed. Six times had the darkness closed over a wild and terrific scene, and returning light as often brought but renewed distress, for the raging storm increased in fury until the seventh day all hope was lost.The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss (1812)

Modelled on Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson expanded its castaway count to include an entire family stranded on an island in the East Indies after their ship is sunk during a tempest.

Walt Disney’s 1960 adaptation takes a number of liberties with the original, but only accentuates the appeal with wonderfully elaborate treehouses, booby traps and the addition of a gang of pirates to imperil the family’s idyllic island homestead. John Mills features as the resourceful patriarch, alongside a colourful menagerie of exotic animal stars.

Mary Poppins (1964)

Director: Robert Stevenson

Mary Poppins (1964)
Mary Poppins book cover
If you want to find Cherry Tree Lane all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads. He will push his helmet slightly to one side, scratch his head thoughtfully, and then he will point his huge white-gloved finger and say: “First to your right, second to your left, sharp right again, and you’re there. Good morning.”Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (1934)

It’s to number 17, Cherry Tree Lane, London – the home of the Banks family – that umbrella-borne nanny Mary Poppins is blown on an easterly wind in the first of P.L. Travers’s beloved series of novels of children. Some sort of casting pixie dust was at work when Julie Andrews was turned down for the part of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady (1964), freeing her up to play Poppins in the 1964 Disney musical version, for which she won an Oscar for best actress.

She made the role her own, administering a spoonful of sugar to the wide-eyed Banks children, tying their tongues around the lyrics of ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and insta-tidying their nursery with a magical snap of her fingers. Robert Stevenson’s film is an evergreen high point in the Disney family film tradition.

The Railway Children (1970)

Director: Lionel Jeffries

The Railway Children (1970)
The Railway Children book cover
They were not railway children to begin with. I don’t suppose they had ever thought of railways except as a means of getting to Maskelyne and Cook’s, the Pantomime, Zoological Gardens, and Madame Tussaud’s.The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906)

But railway children they became when the Waterbury family are forced to move from London to a railside home in the Yorkshire Dales after their father is imprisoned for espionage. E. Nesbit’s story appeared in serialised form in The London Magazine during 1905 before being published as a novel in 1906. It inspired a rare note-perfect cinematic adaptation in 1970 at the hands of actor Lionel Jeffries, making his directorial debut.

Jenny Agutter plays Roberta, the eldest of the three siblings, who pass the time in their new rural setting by observing the comings and goings of steam trains and making friends with the kindly station porter (Bernard Cribbins). Though the story risks appearing quaint to modern viewers, few can deny the charm with which Jeffries pulled off this dramatisation.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)

Director: Mel Stuart

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory book cover
These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr Bucket. Their names are Grandpa Joe and Grandma Josephine. And these two very old people are the father and mother of Mrs Bucket. Their names are Grandpa George and Grandma Georgina.Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964)

The opening lines of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come accompanied with fabulous spindly line-drawings by illustrator Quentin Blake, so any filmmaker approaching this 1964 fantasy should do so carefully: child readers already know exactly what Dahl’s bewitchingly eccentric cast of characters should look like.

Dahl himself wasn’t a fan of the 1971 musical version, starring Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka, the enigmatic chocolatier who grants a factory tour to the lucky kids who find golden tickets in their Wonka bars. But generations have delighted in the film’s actualisation of Wonka’s crazy factory, with its chocolate rivers, candy trees and the hoards of orange-skinned Oompa-Loompas who man the production lines. Tim Burton brought his own pitch-black sensibility to the tale in 2004, with Johnny Depp as Wonka. For many, however, fond memories of the Wilder film were difficult to supplant.

Alice (1988)

Director: Jan Svankmajer

Alice (1988)
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland book cover
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’ – Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

When Alice spots and then follows the White Rabbit in Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 version of the Lewis Carroll novel, it isn’t on a riverbank. Instead, in her playroom, a stuffed rabbit in a display case suddenly jitters into motion, disgorges itself of some of its sawdust filling, breaks out of its glass confinement and is soon disappearing at pace across a muddy field, with Alice in intrigued pursuit.

The spirit, if not the letter, of Carroll is brilliantly reimagined by Svankmajer for a grotesque, child-unfriendly masterpiece that combines a live-action performance by young Kristyna Kohoutova with a toy shop’s worth of dolls and stuffed toys brought to eerie stop-motion life. The Czech animator moves Carroll’s original away from the fairy tale mode preferred by most of the many other film adaptations, into the surreal, genuinely unsettling realm of a waking dream. As a voiceover counsels during the opening credits: “Close your eyes or you won’t see anything.”

A Little Princess (1995)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

A Little Princess (1995)
A Little Princess book cover
Once on a dark winter’s day, when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night, an odd-looking little girl sat in a cab with her father and was driven rather slowly through the big thoroughfares.A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)

From a Southern Gothic spin on Dickens’s Great Expectations (1998) to one of the most acclaimed entries in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón clearly has an affinity for child-centred adventure. Despite its comparatively meagre commercial success, his often sublime English-language debut, A Little Princess, still stands as one of his best films.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s turn-of-the-20th-century novel is the story of a young rich girl, Sara, who’s sent back from India to be schooled in London, later to find that her royal treatment seeps away in favour of cruelty and bullying when she’s left suddenly penniless. Transposing the action from London to New York, Cuarón gives the story a ravishing, magical realist treatment, bathing the screen in an amber, doll’s-house glow. As Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times: “To see Sara whirling ecstatically in her attic room on a snowy night, exulting in the feelings summoned by an evocative sight in a nearby window, is to know just how stirringly lovely a children’s film can be.”

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle book cover
In the land of Ingary, where such things as seven-league boots and cloaks of invisibility really exist, it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986)

Conjured from the imagination of British author Diana Wynne Jones, the kingdom of Ingary is one of the more beguiling fantasy worlds in modern children’s literature. In the quaint old-world town of Market Chipping, Sophie, the eldest of three, has few prospects until a chance encounter with the enigmatic wizard Howl. Turned into an elderly woman by the spiteful Wicked Witch of the Waste, Sophie travels to seek help from Howl in lifting the curse.

Wynne Jones’s flights of fancy met their perfect cinematic match in 2004 when Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, 2001) marshalled the boundless invention of his Studio Ghibli to breathe animated life into this land of commonplace magic and enchantment. Among the film’s many memorable creations is Howl’s castle itself, which Miyazaki reimagines as a towering, spoke-spewing rust bucket on legs, rumbling and wheezing through the valleys.

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