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December 14, 2003

  • Big Red Dogs Don’t Talk
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    The season of The Lord of the Rings is upon us once again, which means that most of my friends will be arguing about the intricacies of Peter Jackson’s adaptation from now until Valentine’s Day. Since I can’t stand The Lord of the Rings—the books have bored me for twenty years and I’ve had no interest in seeing the films—I thought I would try to survive the torrent by pondering adaptations of ‘literary’ properties for film and TV that annoy me.

    Truth to tell, there are very few literary—I use the term loosely—adaptations that get me into a full-fledged froth. Simon Birch may be a complete bastardisation of one of my two favourite novels, A Prayer For Owen Meany, but I simply didn’t bother to see it. With my other favourite novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, I’ve studiously avoided watching the film adaptations outright, although the 1950s BBC adaptation with Peter Cushing is somewhat tempting.

    Even with the ones that I’ve seen I don’t get that perturbed. From Hell may be one of the greatest graphic novels ever produced and the adaptation may have been of any adult comic book but the one Alan Moore wrote, and yet I’m surprisingly sanguine about it. The Handmaid’s Tale was embarrassing to be sure, but far more embarrassing was Margaret Atwood’s defense of it.

    Surprisingly the only literary adaptation for film or TV that had me just about declaring war on Hollywood was, in fact, Clifford, the Big Red Dog.

    That’s right, the toddler cartoon on PBS.

    I learned how to read on my own in part thanks to Norman Bridwell’s marvellous creation in first grade. In fact, the first book I ever purchased with my ‘own’ money (okay, my parents gave it to me, but I got to hold onto it) was Clifford’s Good Deeds which I got from the Scholastic Book Club at school when I was six.

    Clifford, in case you have lived under a non-kid-lit rock, is the canine of one Emily Elizabeth (she narrates the books, beginning each one “Hi, I’m Emily Elizabeth. And this is my dog, Clifford.”). Clifford is like any dog. Except, of course, he’s big—about two or three stories—and he’s, er, red. Bridwell created his giant canine in 1963. He illustrated his stories with a style that screams out 1950s commerical art, but that only adds to the charm of the whole thing.

    One of the great thing about these books—and there are many—is that it’s about an ordinary lovable dog, just that he’s gigantic. As Bridwell said in an interview, “He’s red and he’s warm. Clifford does what you’d like to do but can’t. Because Clifford is so big and also because he’s a dog, he’s able to do the most unbelievable and imaginative things.” And yet, Bridwell also grounded the stories in a reality where his adventures, if you can call them that, happen out of ordinary circumstances—going camping, helping Emily Elizabeth with her scout badges, going to the circus.

    The stories follow a familiar pattern: Clifford’s attempts to help a situation usually land him in even more trouble because of his size. As Bridwell has said in interviews, “Clifford always tries to do the right thing, but he does make mistakes.” And yet, in the end he overcomes, and like all good dogs, wins out in the end.

    This to my mind, is perfect television for the preschool and just-starting-school set: A character that is primarily non-verbal but is funny, friendly and just a little awkward—like most pre-schoolers, really. When I heard there was going to be a Clifford cartoon, I couldn’t wait.

    Until I actually watched the darn thing.

    I couldn’t wait to hear Emily Elizabeth say “Hi I’m Emily Elizabeth…” except she didn’t. And I couldn’t wait to see how they brought Clifford to life, except they didn’t.

    Clifford talks.

    Not only does he talk, the late John Ritter gave him voice. Clifford now has a couple of other canine buddies (a pug and a poodle by the looks of it) to give him a posse to talk with. And they talk about wholesome and heartwarming learning things. And Clifford doesn’t do many Big Red Dog things, since he’s got buddies like the rest of us.

    I’ve never seen a more spectacular exercise in missing the point: the reason Clifford made me want to read was because it was about a dog that happened to be very big. It was not that he talked like a 40 year old guy and socialized conversationally.

    Let’s recap: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a desecration to the very act of filmmaking, but what really upsets me is that Clifford talks. I am complex. I contain multitudes.

    But the whole Clifford thing is important because it points to a Very Bad Trend in film and TV: the notion that adaptors know better than their audience when it comes to kids stories. And you know what? Nine times out of ten they don’t.

    Look at Cat In The Hat. I had a friend describe it to me thus: “My childhood figure of anarchic fun has become id incarnate. I feel so dirty.” Admittedly, I haven’t seen Cat in the Hat but I saw Imagine Entertainment’s butchery of The Grinch That Stole Christmas: Now the Grinch isn’t the only one that learns as the people of Whoville repent of their own consumerism. Yuck, yuck and more yuck.

    I want anyone adapting a children’s story for film and TV to pay very close attention to the next sixteen words: STOP MESSING WITH GREATNESS. THERE IS A REASON THESE STORIES WERE SUCCESSFUL IN THE FIRST PLACE, YOU MORONS!

    I’ve studied the difficult and complex art of adapting literary works to film, and you know what: you don’t make a non-verbal dog talk like a human because it is a more effective way to transfer literature to film. You do it because you are lazy as writers and producers. It’s harder to write for a non-verbal dog that behaves like a dog, even though in fact it would be funnier and more immediate for children. (And if you don’t believe me, watch Calliou sometime—it’s about a non-verbal toddler and all narrated. And pre-schoolers love it. Or try Teletubbies for that matter.)

    While I don’t give two hoots about whether “The Scouring of the Shire” is in the new Lord of the Rings movie, or whether or not A Clockwork Orange misses the whole point of the ending of Anthony Burgess’ novel, trampling on children’s books in adapting to them is to me a High Crime. These things need to be stopped. Clifford doesn’t talk.

    And let’s not even get me started on the genius that found it necessary to create Charlotte’s Web 2...


    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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