The Top 11 Children’s Fantasy Novel Adaptations of the 21st Century

As I get older, I enjoy reading children’s books more and more. I find that they have more heart, more wisdom, more humour, and a lot less pretentiousness than adult novels. It doesn’t hurt that they’re frequently shorter, too (Grumpy Louise doesn’t see why the tomes get thicker and thicker, *grouch grouch*).  We also seem to be living in a bit of a adaptation Golden Age of some beloved children’s books – golden in rate of production, if not in quality… Which is why you need me to guide you to the good ones, naturally!

Why Top Eleven? Because this list goes up to Eleven, that’s why! So, let the countdown, and highly scientific analysis, begin.

11. The Secret of Moonacre, dir. Gabor Csupo, 2008. Based on The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)

The Secret of Moonacre makes it onto the list by virtue of its quality British cast, including Tim Curry, Juliet Stevenson, a personal favourite, Ioan Gruffudd (swoon!), and the fabulous Dakota Blue Richards as our thirteen-year-old heroine Maria. Orphaned Maria goes to live with her strict and serious uncle in his beautiful mansion. Exploring the countryside, she realizes that there is a magical secret in Moonacre Valley, intimately linked with her own ancestors, those of the rival De Noir family, and a legendary Moon Princess. Maria has a mystery to solve if she is going to save the valley. Other bonus features of this charming and whimsical tale are a boy who wears eyeliner and corsets galore. If you are fascinated by Victorian undergarments, but still want something kid-friendly, you will find many corsets, bustles, crinolines and petticoats in this film.

10. The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, dir. David L. Cunningham, 2007. Based on The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

It wasn’t rated very highly at the time, but I think it’s aged really well. The story is formulaic (though in 1973, when the novel was written, it may not have been so very D&D, MacGuffin-collecting, “I know exactly how this is going to go” as it now seems) and Christopher Eccleston, despite being the main villain and in almost every scene, is criminally underused. However, I love the fact that the magic and the danger in this story are so focussed on the land, weather and people of one English village, even though the world is at stake. In this story, both heroes and villains disguise themselves. Again, splendid cast, some humourous lines, and a family of six brothers! I love big families in films!

9. Five Children and It, dir. John Stephenson, 2004. Based on the novel by E. Nesbit (1902)

Once again, I think this makes the list because it’s about a family of children who have a fantastically low-key and realistic dynamic between them. Its other colossal bonus feature is Eddie Izzard’s interpretation of the psammead (or ‘sand fairy’, pictured above). Dude is hilarious, with world-weary wit, a crazy accent, and wiggly whiskers. This is a fantasy story that rather makes fun of fantasy stories – the psammead grants the children wishes, but they all go horribly wrong and have to be cancelled. It’s also interesting academically, because I think the screenwriters were directly influenced by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when they were adapting it – they turned the children into evacuees, and gave them a bizarre old man to live with. However, I can’t back that up with paperwork.

8. The Spiderwick Chronicles, dir. Mark Waters, 2008. Based on the series of novels by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black (2003 – 04)

I’m beginning to see a pattern here. There’s a family! A troubled family, with Mary Louise Parker as the mother, and Andrew McCarthy as the estranged father. One son has anger issues, one son shies from confrontation, one daughter wields a sword. Yes, a teenage girl with a sword. Just what the moviegoer ordered. This gets a place on the list by being much, much better than I thought it was going to be, and for successfully pulling off an American version of the old kids’ book trope, kids-go-into-countryside-and-discover-magic. Yes, magic! Faeries, to be exact. This film is full of goblins, hobgoblins, ogres, sprites, elves, piskies, gryphons, brownies and boggarts, all beautifully animated from Tony DiTerlizzi’s wonderful drawings. No wonder those kids look worried in the picture!

7. Eragon, dir. Stefan Fangmeier, 2004. Based on the novel by Christopher Paolini (2003)

Don’t judge me. I will not be judged. I am the reviewer, I do the judging, and I say that I like Eragon although it is basically Star Wars with dragons instead of lightsabres. I like it especially because it has a good soundtrack, pretty scenery, a well-animated dragon (although, much though I admire Rachel Weisz, she was so miscast in this) and Jeremy Irons. The other thing I like is that our dull-witted farmboy hero has a similar-looking slightly-older cousin played by Chris Egan (formerly of the Australian soap opera Home and Away), and they have sparring matches, and a dissimilar-looking slightly-older friend travelling with him. I like the idea of a chosen one having brother-figures watching out for him. Family aren’t like space pirates – they won’t abandon you. But that doesn’t mean they have to be nice about it.

6. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2004. Based on the novel by J. K. Rowling (1999)

Young Mr Potter had to be in here somewhere, and Prisoner of Azkaban is my favourite because it has much David Thewlis in it.

5. Inkheart, dir. Iain Softley, 2008. Based on the novel by Cornelia Funke (2003)

Books about how awesome it is to read can be tedious. Meta, and tedious. Inkheart, the novel, falls into this trap. It’s too long, with too much back-and-forward between locations, the characters are always getting split up, you forget who is doing what etc., and it discusses really obvious books like Peter Pan and Wizard of Oz. Inkheart the film, however, is a glorious, glorious thing. The cast is top notch – Helen Mirren, Paul Bettany, Brendan Fraser, Paul Bettany, Andy Serkis (miscast, but a quality actor), Jim Broadbent, Paul Bettany, an inoffensive little girl, and Paul Bettany. The story is great. Slimmed down from the novel, we meet Mo and his daughter Meggie. Mo has a talent; he is able to read characters out of books. Such characters, as you’d expect, are not happy. Dustfinger, Capricorn, Basta, Cockerell, Flatnose – all have been read out of a novel within a novel, and it seems like it must be an amazing novel! We get glimpses of what I will call, having read the series, the Inkworld, and it looks like the ultimate setting for an adventure tale. In the real life books, not so interesting, but the film is better than the books.

I think I’ll show you that picture of Paul Bettany as Dustfinger again. You’re welcome. You should know that in the film he breathes fire and goes topless. You’re welcome, straight ladies and gay gentlemen.

4. Bridge to Terebithia, dir. Gabor Csupo, 2007. Based on the novel by Katherine Paterson (1977)

The book is special to many people. The film is a beautiful adaptation that updates the action to the present day, but loses none of its essential sweetness and sadness. It makes the list by being heartbreakingly sad, introducing a new generation of children to the fact that life isn’t fair, and sometimes terrible things happen and break your world into smithereens. Dear parents, your children have problems of their own, please respect them. I know a lot of people got riled about the trailer when it first came out, because it did what trailers are supposed to do and give you completely the wrong idea about a flick. The trailer made it seem that our heroes, Jess and Leslie, discover a magical kingdom in the woods, when every reader knows that they merely create their own magical kingdom through their games. Anyone who saw the film realized that Gabor Csupo (making a second directorial appearance) did not turn it into a travesty Narnia knock-off at all, but kept it as a drama about the importance of the imagination. Points for winning through despite that trailer!

3. Millions, dir. Danny Boyle, 2004. Based on the novel by Frank Cottrell Bryce (2004)

Another film that’s more of a family drama, and really isn’t fantasy at all. I’m counting it, however, because it is set in a Britain that is transitioning currency-wise over to the Euro (pur-leeze!) and our wee hero Damian sees saints. Yes, sees them, talks to them, and they talk back. As a practicing Catholic as well as a sentimental person, I found this really affecting. Damian communicates with the saints because he is inwardly desperate to communicate with his mother, who has recently died and, he has been told, has gone to heaven. Don’t worry about him: this special little boy finds peace by the end. The film is also a funny ‘what-if’ story: what if Britain was going over to the Euro, what if a train was taking still usable pound notes to the treasury to be burned, what if the train was robbed, what if the robbery went wrong, what if a bag of money was found by two little boys? Damian believes it comes from God and should be used for good works. His more worldly brother Anthony has other plans. It’s simple and brilliant.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia: the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, dir. Andrew Adamson, 2005. Based on the novel by C. S. Lewis (1950)

The music is beautiful, the animation is top notch, the family dynamics are realistic. This is more than LoTR-Lite 4 Kidz. This is a  different Narnia to the novels, a bigger and more cinematic Narnia, and it’s jolly good. I put this on the list probably because of Tilda Swinton, who does sexy glacial kill-them-all androgyny like nobody’s business. She is stunningly beautiful, and will stun (or petrify) you beautifully. The voice cast includes Liam Neeson, who has a wonderful warm quality, and a no-nonsense Ray Winstone. This is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as you hoped it would be. It will not disappoint. Sequels, on the other hand…

1. Peter Pan, dir. P. J. Hogan, 2003. Based on the novel by J. M. Barrie (1911)

I believe, despite what you may have thought from my remarks about Inkheart, that Peter Pan is possibly the best book ever written for children which adults can enjoy just as much if not more so. This film, which I first saw with my little sister, will never be bettered as a screen adaptation of it. It is lushly coloured, it is sexually charged, it is funny and charming and clever. The adult characters are wonderful – Richard Briers as the cuddly yet ruthless Mr Smee; Olivia Williams as the mother who captivates both husband and children with her beauty, present yet always mysterious; Jason Isaacs as the repressed Mr Darling and as the dashing and melancholy murderer, the greatest pirate of them all, Captain James Hook. The music is tinkly, energizing, suggestive of flying over waves of the sea and waves of air and technicolour planets and stars. I want to fly to the Neverland – I know the way.

It’s perfect. You will believe in fairies.

And so we come to the end of our countdown. Well, my countdown. What didn’t make the list? Films I haven’t seen, including City of Ember, and films I didn’t like, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events (I believe they call those, ‘scenes’ rather than ‘events’, Mr or Ms Filmmaker), Nim’s Island and The Golden Compass, which despite having great casting, great design, a great story and lots of money to pay the CGI gnomes, was badly directed and ended a reel too soon.

Now, I know that ranking films is a personal thing, so if you’ve got a difference of opinion, I’d love to hear it in the comments.

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24 Comments

  1. I’m not judging you! I’m not judging you!
    Totally in agreement with you regarding kids’ books – big kids’ book fan. I loved ’em when I was in their target audience, and I still love ’em now. The way I see it, a good book is a good book, regardless of who it’s targeted towards, and I dearly hope to someday add my own creations to the mix.
    While I haven’t seen most of these (and I don’t think I’ve ever even HEARD of ‘Secret of Moonacre’, book or movie), I did think ‘Prisoner of Azkaban’, ‘Terabithia’ and ‘Millions’ were definitely worth watching. I have to disagree with you on ‘Spiderwick’ and ‘Wardrobe’, though – I didn’t think ‘Spiderwick’ was anywhere near as good as the books, and while ‘Wardrobe’ was pretty good for what it was – it had some good performances, and the visuals were breathtaking in parts – there were some directorial choices that I really didn’t agree with, and some cutesy bits added in that I heartily disliked. I prefer the ’70’s animated version, myself. Still, each to their own.
    So out of curiosity, which kids’ books would you be interested in seeing movie versions of? I’d love to see a good ‘Doctor Dolittle’ adaptation myself (yes, I know it’s already been done, but the Eddie Murphy movies are terrible, and while I have a deep fondness for the Rex Harrison musical, it’s a tad on the shallow side). ‘The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle’ could be an AWESOME movie if it were done correctly. Also, I’m hankering for someone, ANYONE, to do an Oz movie that gets it RIGHT.

    • We should totally review the Rex Harrison musical! Some sort of collaborative effort might be in order.

      Speaking of ‘Spiderwick’, I found a copy of the tie-in field guide in a charity shop just today for £1.49! Bought it, naturally. Pages and pages of DiTerlizzi illustrations, all mine!

      I grew up with the ’80s television adaptation of ‘Wardrobe’ myself.

      I think the books I’d most like to see adapted are little known masterpieces called ‘The Webbed Hand’ and an ‘Elementals’ trilogy. Can’t even remember the authors, how awful! I like them because they are basically all-ages fantasy, but you can give them to children because the bits that are inappropriate for them just fly over their little heads.

      • The Rex Harrison version definitely needs more love, all right. No matter who reviews it or how, reviewed it should be.
        I think all great kids’ books are like that – they only get better as you get older, and you notice things that you never would have noticed before. In my rereading of old favorites, I have had more ‘ohhhhhh – so THAT’S what it means’ moments than I can easily count.
        And if we’re talking about the more obscure end of things, another adaptation I’d really like to see would be one of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’, which is one of my favorite books of all time. It could make a FANTASTIC movie if done correctly.

  2. denebthall wrote: Also, I’m hankering for someone, ANYONE, to do an Oz movie that gets it RIGHT.

    Wizard Of Oz? Are you saying you do not like the Judy Garland version? Unpardonable sin, that.
    Orion_mk3: I would like Coraline better if the father’s regression had been done like in the book (basements are far scarier than gardens).

    • I like the MGM version fine for what it is, but what it is just ain’t Oz. Book-Oz is far darker and stranger and weirder than that – it’s a fairyland utopia where monsters dwell. The original ‘Wizard’ is full of conflict that the movie basically removes and replaces with catchy songs – and don’t even get me started on what they did to Dorothy; we’d be here all day. MGM-Oz is a lot of fun and I can see why people like it, but it’s a sanitized version of the real McCoy.

  3. If you are fascinated by Victorian undergarments, but still want something kid-friendly, you will find many corsets, bustles, crinolines and petticoats in this film.

    There’s Girl Genius. And I’ll bet The Secret of Moonacre doesn’t have multi-hued violent sociopaths with campy German accents. 😛

    Regarding Eragon, we will judge you if it pleases us. Judge judge judge. And The Agony Booth will judge you further.

    Then there’s the matter of YA books which got crappy film adaptations. In particular, I’m thinking of The Lightning Thief. In spite of the occasional heavy-handed Green Aesop, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is excellent stuff, as is its sister series The Kane Chronicles.

    A YA fantasy series I hope never gets a film adaptation is the Crackpot Hall series by Ysabeau S. Wilce. This is because I’m all but certain that the lead character Flora Fyrdraaca ov Fyrdraaca would get glammed up. One of the major points of the character is that she’s very unglamorous, being short, overweight, and having frizzy red hair.

    • I read ‘Eragon’ and thought, this is such a well-written rip-off that it’s a great pity it got published. I firmly believe that Paolini has raw talent, and just needed to get past his fan-fic stage. Once he starts having his own ideas, I thought, he is going to be so embarrassed about ‘Eragon’. When I heard that they were making a movie, I thought, well, it’s such a trope-ridden book it actually might make quite a good one. Then it got bad reviews. I debated going to see it or listening to the critics. Then I thought, Louise, this is just the sort of film you enjoy. See it and enjoy it, don’t be ashamed. So I bought a copy very cheaply, and lo and behold I enjoyed it. I know it’s silly and derivative and the acting isn’t up to much, but I enjoy it still. I quite enjoyed the Percy Jackson film as well, but then I hadn’t read the novels yet. I’m such a classics nerd, though, that I was bound to.

      I’d like to point out that being short, overweight, fluffy and ginger certainly does not preclude glamour. May I modestly refer you to my profile picture… 😉

  4. I’d add:

    Holes, based on the Louis Sachar book
    Escape to Witch Mountain
    Charlie and the Chocolate factory

    I’m not sure why you included Bridge to Terabinthia, it’s not that much about fantasy at all except for a bare few scenes. The Seeker I heard was a horrible rendition of the book, and eragon is, well, eragon. I’d kill for John Christopher’s Tripods novels to be made into a film, or anything by Madeline L’engle.

    • You’re right, ‘Holes’ is a great film. I love the way the whole story comes together at the end – the peaches and onions, the Yelnats family, Kissin’ Kate – and Sigourney makes a fantastic villain. I’m sure there was a bit where her character talked about air conditioning that really made me laugh.

      You don’t think ‘Bridge to Terebithia’ is “much about fantasy at all” and perhaps you’re right about the novel; I think the film is to a great extent about fantasy, if you define it as an act of fantasizing, or daydreaming, or imagining. Leslie and Jess are two ordinary children who find that role-playing a magical king and queen binds them together and helps them in their ordinary lives. Terebithia is clearly inspired by the fantasy novels Leslie (perhaps not Jess) has read, not least in its name! And, to return from the sublime to the mundane, it is clearly fantasy that a single teacher would do anything as unprofessional as invite a lone student out with her for the day.

      Maybe ‘The Seeker’ isn’t a faithful adaptation of the book. That doesn’t mean it’s not an enjoyable film. When I made the list, I didn’t weigh being a good adaptation very highly, or if I did, it wasn’t conscious. I was rating them more as films that happen to be adaptations, rather than as adaptations. Do you get my meaning?

      Totally agree about L’Engle. Never read any ‘Tripods’ novels.

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