Read it on screen!
It's half term, raining outside, and the kids are bored. They want to watch TV, but you'd like them to see something a little educational (even if they don't realise it!)
How about choosing a movie on DVD that's based on a book... and then getting them to read the book, too? Jo Berry chooses 10 movies adapted from books you can get right now (and none of them are Harry Potter)..
Lewis Carroll’s episodic fantasy stories have been translated onto the screen more than 20 times (including a Bollywood version and a Japanese TV series), but Disney’s animated 1951 version remains the best, perhaps because a cartoon is the only way to bring such quirky characters as Tweedledum and Tweedledee to life. Using parts of both Carroll's Alice In Wonderland and Alice Through The Looking Glass, it is, of course, the story of young Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont), who tumbles down a rabbit hole after the White Rabbit and ends up in a surreal world filled with odd creatures such as the grinning Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Queen Of Hearts. Packed with eccentric scenes as Alice has a series of adventures, it's colourful, fun and as surreal as Disney is ever likely to get (just check out the Mad Hatter's bonkers tea party). A cute introduction to the books.
At a time when most family films are packed with computer trickery, the old-fashioned, live action Five Children And It comes as a breath of fresh, if somewhat nostalgic, air and is a sweet adventure that should enchant small children while reminding their grown-up companions of the films we used to love as tots, such as long-ago delights like Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Based on the much-loved E Nesbit children’s book, the film follows five brothers and sisters as they are evacuated during the First World War, sent to stay with their eccentric Uncle (Kenneth Branagh), his hideous young son Horace (Alexander Pownall) and the dotty housekeeper (Zoe Wanamaker) at their run down mansion by the sea. It’s there the siblings – led by precocious Robert (Freddie Highmore) – find a secret beach that’s home to a Psammead, an 8000 year-old sand fairy they call ‘It’. ‘It’ (voiced by Eddie Izzard) can grant their wishes, but he’s a pesky creature, so each one tends to backfire before it fizzles out at the end of the day. With fun cameo performances from John Sessions and Norman Wisdom, this is a cute little traditional film rather than an exciting one packed with lasers, creatures (although there is a CGI dinosaur and, of course, ‘It’ himself) and special effects. In fact, what special effects there are – the kids wish to fly and sprout angelic wings, for example – are decidedly creaky, but that’s actually part of the movie’s charm.
Sigourney Weaver agreed to star in this movie because her daughter told her how much she loved the Louis Sachar novel on which it is based. And it was a good decision, as this is one of the best kids' films of recent years. After being falsely accused of stealing a pair of valuable trainers, young Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is given the choice of going to jail or to Camp Green Lake. Since the camp doesn't sound too bad, Stanley opts for that, only to discover it's a camp in the desert (with no lake to be seen) where the interred children are forced to dig large holes in the dirt each day by the Warden (Weaver) and her creepy cohorts Mr Sir (Jon Voight) and Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson). It seems that the Warden believes a treasure stolen by bandit queen Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette) many years before may be buried somewhere nearby and she is using the boys – who have nicknames like Armpit, Squid, ZigZag and X-Ray – to find it.
Aimed at older kids who will be thrilled by the complex plot as it flits between Stanley's misfortunes and the flashbacks of the legend of Kissin' Kate, and stories of Stanley's Latvian ancestors, this is funny, moving, smart and even bizarre, with superb performances by both the younger actors and the older cast (which also includes Henry Winkler as Stanley's dad and Eartha Kitt).
A cracking sci-fi animated adventure based on poet laureate Ted Hughes' novella, this was directed by Brad Bird, who went on to make The Incredibles. Like that film, this is just as entertaining for adults as for the kids it is aimed at, thanks to slick animation, a spirited script and great vocal performances. Set during the cold war, it's the story of young Hogarth (Eli Marienthal), who befriends a massive robot (voiced by Diesel) he finds near his home after the being has crashed down from outer space. Keeping his discovery secret from his mum (Jennifer Aniston) with the help of a local scrap dealer (Harry Connick Jr), Hogarth also has to hide the metal creature from a paranoid government agent (Christopher MacDonald) who is on their trail. It's like ET but with many metal appendages, as boy and robot bond, and it's surprisingly moving, too. A must-see for all ages.
First made as The Little Princess back in 1939 with Shirley Temple in the lead role, Frances Hodgson Burnett's book was transformed into a girlie movie delight by Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director who also made Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. When her father goes off to war, young Sara (Liesel Matthews) is sent to a private boarding school run by the nasty Miss Minchen (Eleanor Bron). And when news comes that her father is missing in action, the young girl is forced to act as servant at the school so she finds solace in an imaginary world, using her fantasies as an escape from reality. It's a lovely, often suspenseful tale, and is tackled superbly by Cuaron, who hasn't approached the film as if it is just for kids, instead directing and delivering a film that is just as enjoyable for grown-ups as younger viewers. A real treat.
Louisa May Alcott's lovely girlie classic has been filmed many times, and there are two super movie versions well worth sampling. The most modern is the 1994 movie, with the impressive cast of Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes, but the most engaging is George Cukor's 1933 version, a spirited, beautiful version that will simply thrill fans of the novel. It's the story, as every girl knows, of the March sisters. With their father away during the American Civil War, they are struggling, with beloved mother Marmee (Spring Byington), to make ends meet, while the older girls find first love, first disappointment and even tragedy in their lives. Katherine Hepburn is simply perfect as tomboy Jo, while Frances Dee, Joan Bennett and Jean Parker all make good impressions as Meg, Amy and Beth. Lovely stuff. If you can't see this version, the 1949 adaptation with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor and Janet Leigh is an adorable, if sugary alternative.
Parents tired of super-slick animated movies and family blockbusters that come with their own range of action toys/computer games/breakfast cereals should sit their offspring down to watch this adorably quirky and old-fashioned movie, based on a series of little-known children’s books (the Nurse Matilda stories by Christianna Brand). Emma Thompson, who wrote the screenplay, stars as Nanny McPhee, the rather ugly and mysterious nanny who turns up on the doorstep of Mr Brown’s (Colin Firth) house to bring his seven unruly children into line. Of course, there’s more to Nanny McPhee than meets the eye and Thompson has terrific fun as the anti-Mary Poppins (imagine Supernanny mixed with Anne Robinson and you get an idea where Thompson is coming from), backed by an impressive child cast and Brit actors including Celia Imrie, Imelda Staunton, Angela Lansbury and Kelly McDonald. Absolutely enchanting for everyone.
One of the best American novels of all time (written by Harper Lee) was adapted into one of the best American family films ever made. Gregory Peck is just superb and won a well-deserved Oscar as Atticus Finch, the lawyer in 1930s Alabama who defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl. As seen through the eyes of Atticus' young daughter Scout (Mary Badham), it's as much about the lessons his children learn about courage and fairness as it is about the case and racism in the South. Badham is natural and believable (she was nominated for an Oscar), and there is moving support from Phillip Alford as her older brother Jem and John Megna as their pal Dill (when Lee wrote the book, she modelled Dill on her childhood friend, Truman Capote). Meanwhile, Robert Duvall, in his first big screen role, makes a lasting impression as kids' boogeyman Boo Radley, the neighbour who, according to Jem, is kept chained up by his father, "eats raw squirrels and all the cats he can catch… his teeth are yella and rotten. His eyes are popped. And he drools most of the time." Yes, there are moments that some children may find scary, and the film does have adult themes, but it's essential, heartfelt viewing for everyone.
Very small viewers can be introduced to Toad and his pals through the Thames TV animated series that ran from 1984 and featured voices by David Jason, Michael Hordern and Peter Sallis, or the lovely animated made-for-TV film featuring Alan Bennett, Michael Palin and Rik Mayall (1995). But the best adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's novel for all the family is 1996's barking adventure from former Monty Python star Terry Jones that brings Toad Hall and the riverbank to glorious life. Poor Mole (Steve Coogan) is mourning the loss of his home due to vandalism by nasty weasels. Ratty (Eric Idle) suggests a picnic to cheer him up, but they get waylaid by the motorcar-obsessed Toad (Terry Jones), and soon the whole of their idyllic lifestyle is threatened by Chief Weasel (Anthony Sher) and his gang. There are no animal costumes or computer trickery to tell the tale (just a bit of clever make-up), but each actor gets under the skin (or fur) of his character brilliantly, and the laughs come thick and fast.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's infamous detective, Sherlock Holmes, gets a teenage makeover for this adventure executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. While it bears no resemblance to any of Conan Doyle's novels, as an idea for a movie it's kind of cute – Sherlock (Nicholas Rowe) is at boarding school when he meets young John Watson (Alan Cox) for the first time. Together they investigate a mystery involving a religious cult, Egyptian mummification, and murder. A sleuthing adventure set against a foggy English backdrop, this is part Indiana Jones, part Victorian gothic drama, and part tongue-in-cheek comedy as the duo put their detective skills to the test. Lovers of Conan Doyle's crime novels may be horrified as their hero is given the Spielberg touch (there's more swashbuckling than deduction here, and there are some very un-Victorian special effects) but as a piece of entertainment it's fun throughout, and it could inspire kids to give the Conan Doyle books a look.