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Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2009

Your Childhood According to Film Directors

From ‘Damn Yankees’ to ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ how movies ruin our imagination

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Before Damn Yankees was popularly known as the best/worst butt-rock outfit starring Ted Nugent, Damn Yankees was a hit 1955 Broadway musical and 1958 movie-musical. And before it was a hit movie-musical, it was a children’s book called The Year the Yankees Lost thePennant.

I discovered this book in 1992, effectively ending what had previously been a promising “Book It!” career. I read this book no fewer than 12 times that year, often rereading chapters several times, just as I would years later when I tried to study while intoxicated. The reasons for my infatuation can be summed up thusly: 1) Its Faustian plot revolved around a regular guy who sells his soul to the devil to become a star baseball player. 2) My baseball skills were once described by my older brother as “outstanding physical comedy.” 3) For a 9-year-old, I had an odd fixation with the Prince of Darkness.

Satan, to my pre-cynical mind, was as real and tangible as my mom or my dog or Jesus. He was simultaneously diabolical and debonair, and his possible existence (and, by extension, his inherent awesomeness) dominated my thoughts. And, if my scholarly understanding of him was correct, it was totally plausible that he might have a sporting interest, since I already knew that he had spawned the lion’s share of my hidden cassette tapes and all of the Clinton White House. Naturally, I had to see Damn Yankees.

“Underwhelming” isn’t really the word here, because 9-year-olds don’t know how to be underwhelmed. I was just confused. The Satan that I knew didn’t sing or dance, and certainly not both at the same time. The Satan I knew had balls for days. On a whim, my Satan could instantly morph into a serpent or an aging Vikings quarterback or a chili-cheese dog. But this Satan? He was effete and more smug than scary, like a baby-boomer Kevin Spacey. I wouldn’t lend this guy a pencil, let alone sell him my goddamn soul.

But, inexplicably to me, this show won awards. And apparently a lot of people liked it—smart people, who probably used words like “nuanced” and “spellbinding” and a bunch of others that mean fuck-all to a 9-year-old. A slew of stage revivals followed, and when it’s released as a film again (with Jim Carrey as the devil), I’ll attend just because I like wasting money and hating things.

The reason for my strong feelings is this: Whenever I think about this story, and in each subsequent attempt to reread what was once a book so vital that I purchased a copy solely for the bathroom, I don’t see the faces and scenes my young brain invented. I see spinning, whistling cartoons. I see an unfathomable bastardization of my imagined universe. In short, I see exactly what the director wanted me to.

All this, of course, is a loser’s lament, and a pretty poor one at that; after all, if so many films weren’t based on great books, they would probably still be making insufferable sequels to Rambo and Rocky and Die Hard. Even most movies adapted from children’s stories are usually pretty excellent, but of course what’s at issue isn’t the actual quality of the movies themselves. The issue is undeniable: When a director tells a children’s story in the way that it exists in his or her imagination, the film representation replaces—or manipulates, at the very least—the images we created for ourselves.

And this goes beyond merely thinking Tom Hanks is bizarrely miscast as Robert Langdon, or that seeing Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider compromises the way I play my Xbox; indirectly, movie adaptations of children’s books likely work to streamline the way an enormous number of people remember stories that were originally very personal and formative. When we watch Narnia, and experience the computer-generated Aslan, what happens to the world we created?

Obviously, there’s an elephant in the room, or, more specifically, Wild Things in the room. Two months ago, one of the most universally loved children’s books of all time was brought to the big screen, and no one—myself included—has anything negative to say about it. However, a basic irony is glaring: The singular theme of the story—that a child’s imagination is impossible to reign in or define—makes for some cumbersome tail-chasing. What better way to convey a child’s indefinable imagination than by defining it? I’m not saying it’s wrong, or even unwarranted. I’m just saying that no one will ever view the book the same way they once did.

Or the way they will next year’s Alice in Wonderland, brought to you by repeat offender and all-around kook Tim Burton. Or Curious George, or The Polar Express, or the entire Dr. Seuss filmography, or any of the other dozens of adaptations that, for better or worse, have collectivized our personal experiences into neat 90-minute packages. In fact, if you look up the most popular children’s books of all time, it’s hard to find any that haven’t already been or won’t soon be adapted. Except for one—and for that one, I’m thankful.

I’ll always have you, Everyone Poops.


Also from Tyler Sjostrom