So after watching "Five Children and It" yesterday, I had the sneaking suspicion that it was not much like Five Children and It. But it had been nearly 16 years since I read the Nesbit, so I went and pulled it off the shelf.
Umm. Well, the first clue that they had changed things for the movie was that the back jacket of my copy of the book says, "First published in 1902, Five Children and It was an instant success for E. Nesbit and is an enduringly popular book with readers today." So...the main plot with the father being gone to fight WWI was, as I suspected, entirely tacked on for the purposes of the movie. He was not even gone fighting a more obscure action with the armies of the British Empire, in the book. He was mostly left home in the city to work while the children went to the country, but that's a bit different -- much less dramatic. Will Daddy's business get shot down by the accounting pirates? Wait, I think that's a different movie. Anyway, the war plot was exactly the standard children's war movie plot: Daddy is gone, Daddy is missing, will Daddy get back alive? And the answer, of course, is yes, because the vast majority of people who make movies for children do not trust the said children. Bambi's mother's death was not acceptable because she was a cartoon deer, because if you're going to make movies with cartoon deer, making people care about the cartoon deer is really your best bet. Bambi's mother's death was acceptable because kids can cope with hard things in art -- can, and need to.
But putting the father's war absence at the emotional center of the movie distorted everything else around it -- as of course it would have to, if it was to be any good, and yet it wasn't any good anyway, it just distorted things for nothing. So the wishes granted by the Psammead -- the main thing in the book -- slanted more and more towards trying to deal with the war and their father's MIA status -- and not even in a very clever way. Also, in the book, the four older siblings are roughly equals. Jane is clearly the youngest and Cyril is clearly the oldest, but I think it's equally clear that only the Lamb, the youngest, is very different in age from the others. The book is not a situation where a 6-year-old sister is playing with a 15-year-old brother. In the movie, the same is roughly the case -- we are told that Cyril is 13, and Robert is 11, and Jane and Anthea's ages are not clear but their sizes are such that they are probably 10 and 12, respectively, or 9 and 12 at the very most -- but the writers have imposed the same overt dynamic on the brothers' relationships as was in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," the movie version. Even some of the dialog was verbatim ("You're not Dad!"). There is no question that Nesbit's Cyril and Robert have little, if any, influence on Lewis's Peter and Edmund. But if the movies had not been made in this order and this close together, I would have sworn that one had directly copied the other, because they were that overtly similar. I found it moderately appropriate in the movie Narnia: it was more overt but not fundamentally different from the relationship Peter and Edmund had in the book; and, too, the evacuation probably made the Little Father and Little Mother roles of the oldest son and daughter even more intense, especially if there was a broader range of ages. But not every movie has to be a war movie. You can see the movie writers thinking, "We need more tension. We need more drama." But in fact, you don't. Not every story has to be an OMG LIFE OR DEATH story or a HAHAHA OH TEH FUNNY SILLINESS story.
The second added-on plot -- yes, there was more than one -- was the other standard children's movie plot: children are sent to live with eccentric/horrid relatives. Horrid younger relatives learn to behave themselves and become chums with Our Young Heroes. Bah. In the book, there was no Uncle Albert/Alfred/whatever the hell Kenneth Branagh was named. Nobody missed him. Nobody finished the book thinking, "Y'know, what this book really needed was a role for Kenneth Branagh in heavy makeup and a dressing gown." When people called Cyril "Squirrel" in the book, it was because they were teasing/nicknaming him, not because they were HAHAHA SO ECCENTRIC AND ABSENT-MINDED. And the Horrid Cousin Becomes Less Horrid With 1) Terror and 2) Friends plot is extremely boring. And also I am entirely sick of the well-adjusted large family showing the maladjusted only child the error of his/her ways. Not everybody has to be an extrovert, people! Deal with it! A quiet, solitary, and intellectual childhood is not the same thing as an unhappy one.
And the movie could not figure out what it meant magic was like. The uncle's household was supposed to be borderline magical, or at least eccentric, with days going missing and a secret passage in the greenhouse (leading to a magical beach), and so on. The servant was pretty heavily implied to be magical herself. In the book, on the other hand, the Psammead was in a gravel pit. Nothing more distant or fantabulous than that. Just a gravel pit, like you might find near...anything, really. The magic was very special itself, but it didn't need extra layers of special slathered all over it. When you have a wish-granting sand-fairy, that's enough. You don't have to light signs reading, "MAGIC THING HERE!" But then the Horrid Cousin, who had grown up in this environment, was somehow less receptive to magic than the title Five Children -- why? How? Because he was Horrid, of course, and Lonely. Naturally.
The Psammead also cheated in favor of the children in the movie. In the book, if they'd been over water when their wings were supposed to disappear, their wings darn well would have disappeared, and they would have been hauled on a passing fishing boat or something like that. Instead, the Psammead stepped in and blew them back to their uncle's garden. Wheee.
And and and, Jane is given a violin, at which she is horrible, and the admonition to practice it, because she will be glad of it someday. And then -- of course! hurrah! -- she is glad of it, because the Psammead cheats to give them a tyrannosaur whose savage beastliness is soothed by her attempts at music. Making at least the third standard tacked-on children's plot in this movie. Blech.
But the worst of it was -- well, the worst of it is pretty well encapsulated by a few lines in the sequel, The Phoenix and the Carpet, which I'm reading today. When the children wish to be taken somewhere they can do good, the magic carpet leaves them where they are, and:
'Oh! I see what it means,' said Robert, with deep disgust; 'it's like the end of a fairy story in a Sunday magazine. How perfectly beastly!'
'You mean it means we can do kind and good actions where we are? I see. I suppose it wants us to carry coals for the cook or make clothes for the bare heathens. Well, I simply won't. And the last day [before Christmas] and everything. Look here!' Cyril spoke loudly and firmly. 'We want to go somewhere really interesting, where we have a chance of doing something good and kind; we don't want to do it here, but somewhere else. See? Now, then.'
And the thing is, the magic carpet listens. They don't have to spend the day at home, having wasted a wish; they do get to go do fun kinds of good and kindness somewhere else, because the book is not about learning to bloom where you are planted or any other slogany bits of moral like that. It's about adventures. And in the beginning of The Phoenix and the Carpet, it's talking about the previous book:
The children had found a Psammead, or sand-fairy, and it had let them have anything they wished for -- just exactly anything, with no bother about its not really being for their good, or anything like that.
It's not that the kids can't learn anything from their adventures in the books -- they do, or at least they should. But that's not what the magic is about. It's not about learning their lessons and appreciating what they have and all that stupid nonsense. They fly around and steal plums and end up stuck on the top of a tall tower when they ask for wings in the book. In the movie they virtuously try to see their father with them, and end up turning back a fleet of Zeppelins menacing Great Britain, because their wings made the Zeppelin commanders think they'd seen angels. Oh, bullshit.
If you're going to make a war movie for kids, make a war movie for kids. Children turning back enemy fleets with their angelic faces? Treacly nonsense. Fathers arriving home safely after, what, a week of war? You're just hoping that none of the kids is educated enough to say, wait...the Great War lasted longer than a week (especially for countries other than the US!); perhaps Father, now safe and uninjured, will just have to go back into his plane again.
Magic is allowed to be magic. It doesn't have to be Seven Easy Lessons In Doing Good. E. Nesbit knew that. She also knew how tiresome it is to children to have people trying to reform you -- as tiresome, in fact, as it is for the rest of us. Skip the movie -- everything it does has been done better a million other places. Read the book, though, because nobody else ever manages to be E. Nesbit.