Posted by Chris Lang on February 8, 2013 at 11:50 AM

Welcome to Why It Just Doesn’t Work (WIJDW) where I analyze scenes from movies, comic books, and other entertainments and explain why they are illogical, out of place, and/or just … don’t work.

This column is a bit different. Rather than focusing on just one movie in particular, I’m going to be focusing on the cinematic adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ classic books.

Dr. Seuss was one of the most brilliant writers of children’s literature ever, producing several works that are enjoyed on many levels by children and adults alike. His works are full of whimsy, imagination, and sometimes bizarre names for the people, places, and things. But amidst all the whimsy, Dr. Seuss also told some fascinating stories with good morals to them. ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ tells us that there’s more to Christmas than presents, feasts, decorations, and noisy parties. ‘The Sneeches’ exposes the absurdity of discrimination, and ‘The Lorax’ has a rather obvious environmental message.

With all this in mind, I suppose it’s not surprising that some of Dr. Seuss’ works have been adapted to the big screen. We’ve had a live-action version of ‘The Grinch’ featuring Jim Carrey, and a live-action version of ‘The Cat In The Hat’ featuring Mike Myers. And in the past year, we’ve had a full-length CG animated ‘The Lorax’. These adaptations have received mixed reviews at best. And as of this writing, I don’t remember anyone having anything good to say about the Mike Myers ‘The Cat in the Hat’ movie.

‘The Cat in the Hat’ film, in particular, had everything that was wrong with ‘The Grinch’ movie: Not only was there a lot of expansion that detracted from the original story, but there was also an abundance of crude or vulgar humor that seemed only there so that the filmmakers could Avoid The Dreaded “G” Rating. In fact, Dr. Seuss’ widow hated ‘The Cat In The Hat’ movie so much that the Theodore Geissel (Dr. Seuss) Estate would no longer authorize any more live-action adaptations.

This has not, however, prevented further feature-length animated adaptations, such as the 2012 ‘Lorax’ film and another version of ‘How The Grinch Stole Christmas’ that is said to be in the works.

However, the one problem all of the above-mentioned Dr. Seuss adaptations share is that they are trying to tell stories that can be told in thirty minutes. The original books are not very long at all. They’re thirty pages or less.

Back in the 60’s and  early 70’s, animated adaptations of several of Dr. Seuss’ books were made, and unless I’m mistaken, none of them went over 25 to 30 minutes. Even then, some expansion and addition had to be added to fill in the time.

Probably the best-known of these adaptations is the Chuck Jones-directed animated special of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Narrated by Boris Karloff, the special is very faithful to the original story, which is not surprising since Dr. Seuss himself collaborated with Chuck Jones in the making of it.

However, to fill time, there are a number of sections added. The Grinch’s speech describing the noisy Christmas parties of the Whos goes into far greater detail than the original version, naming the various toys and musical instruments and party items and showing how the resulting noise drives the Grinch mad. The sled ride into town is also longer, with some added slapstick. And of course, we have a lengthy montage of the Grinch stealing from the Whos’ houses, accompanied by the most popular The Villain Sucks Song ever, ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’.

Moving on, we have the animated adaptation of ‘The Lorax’. Again, we have a thirty-minute adaptation that’s faithful to the original, but with some expansion. In ‘The Lorax’, a number of songs are added to fill the time without detracting from the original’s story or morals. The Barbaloots (the playful ape-like beings) have two songs: First, there’s the joyful ‘Under the Trees’ while they play their games under the Truffula trees, and second is the dirgelike ‘Barbaloot Suits’ as they prepare to leave what is now a barren wasteland.

We also get ‘A Fish Out of Water On Hot Dry Land’ where the fish evacuate their polluted waters and head off in search of cleaner water (and this isn’t a stretch — there are some species of fish that can do this). And then the Onceler (the big businessman behind the Thneeds business that devastates the Truffula tree forest) gets a song ‘Once in A While I Sit Down With Myself’ where he has an internal dialogue without the audience ever seeing his face. There’s also some montages of the rise and eventual fall of the Onceler’s business.

The original animated adaptation of ‘The Cat in the Hat’ probably has the most expanded material, but that’s mostly because ‘The Cat In The Hat’ isn’t as strong on story as ‘Grinch’ and ‘Lorax’. The story is just ‘an unusual character visits a bored boy and girl, makes a mess of the house, cleans up after himself, and leaves’. So of course there’s plenty of new material here.

There’s the search for the Cat’s missing family gredunza (just what a gredunza is isn’t explained until the end, when it’s revealed that it’s the vehicle the Cat uses to clean up everything and leave the premises with). There are also a number of songs added, most notably ‘A Cat of Many Countries (A Cat of Many Hats)’ where the Cat goes into what he and his hat are called in other languages, and ‘To Find the Missing Something Find Out Where It’s Not’ (connected to the search for the gredunza).

All these additions work, for the most part, because they’re true to the world and characters of the story, and they don’t distract too much from either. And because all of those adaptations are only thirty minutes.

However, when you try to adapt material like ‘Grinch’, ‘Lorax’, and ‘The Cat in the Hat’ to feature-length (90 minutes or more), you run into a problem. There’s just not enough material to make a full-length movie, so inevitably one has to add a LOT of things that were not in the source material.

So of course it’s not surprising that the Jim Carrey ‘Grinch’ movie, the Mike Myers ‘Cat in the Hat’ movie, and the 2012 ‘Lorax’ movie added many characters, subplots, and backstories that were nowhere to be found in the originals. The problem is, all these things end up distracting and detracting from the original stories. We get new antagonists that didn’t exist in the originals, backstories that might go against Dr. Seuss’ original intentions (especially in ‘The Grinch’), and some rather bizarre characterizations that clash with Dr. Seuss’s original version. (Making the Whos materialistic in the Jim Carrey version and having to also learn the lesson just isn’t as powerful as the original version and the Chuck Jones adaptation where the Grinch is the only one who doesn’t understand what Christmas is about and ends up having his heart ‘grow three sizes that day’ when he figures it out).

The thirty-minute adaptations stayed true to the original stories because not only were the additions true to the original stories and characters, but they also did not have to add too much. When going for 90 minutes, one ends up having to add so much that what’s added almost inevitably distracts from the original story, and ends up almost telling a different story altogether.

So for me, anyway, that is why doing feature-length adaptations of Dr. Seuss’ classics just doesn’t work.

 

As always, feel free to leave your comments below.

mraspiringactor
01:15 PM on February 08, 2013 Pretty much agreed on this!

Just out of curiosity, what did you think of Horton considering you never mentioned it in the article?

Ratin8tor

05:37 PM on February 08, 2013 I can say one good thing about The Cat in the Hat movie: It’s a really good movie…

… IF it was about an original IP. Had it not been named after the book, I think the movie would have been a whole lot better in the long run, since it’s not spoiling a classic.

But I still find the movie genuinally funny. I liked it’s oddball sense of humour and surrealist worldview. And I think it does work well as a movie, just not an adaption.

But a looooot of Suess’ stuff had political messages lost today. I mean Horton was all about America looking after Japan after the war. But that cultural example is lost on today’s audience.

Chris Lang
01:18 PM on February 08, 2013

mraspiringactor says…
Pretty much agreed on this!

Just out of curiosity, what did you think of Horton considering you never mentioned it in the article?

I didn’t mention Horton because believe it or not, I’m not all that familiar with the original Dr. Seuss story, and haven’t seen enough of it or the adaptations to comment on it. The stories I DID mention, however, are ones I’m very familiar with.

mraspiringactor
01:54 PM on February 08, 2013

Chris Lang says…
I didn’t mention Horton because believe it or not, I’m not all that familiar with the original Dr. Seuss story, and haven’t seen enough of it or the adaptations to comment on it. The stories I DID mention, however, are ones I’m very familiar with.

Oh OK.
Reply

 

BigBlackHatMan
01:22 PM on February 08, 2013 It runs into the problem of turning any poetry, which is what I consider Seuss, into a film. You lose the whimsy and charm of it in my cases. Good work

Infamous Jak

12:40 PM on February 08, 2013 Yeah, I just did a blog on this, and came to the same conclusion, the reason they don’t work is that there is no way to turn a 20 page kids book into a 90 minute film without it feeling padded and streched out. Good work on this article.
Reply

Moviefan12
12:04 PM on February 08, 2013 I completely agree with you that Seuss films do not work. One thing I’ve noticed with most of them is lack the spirit & charm of Seuss.

Les
01:43 PM on February 08, 2013

Chris Lang says…
I didn’t mention Horton because believe it or not, I’m not all that familiar with the original Dr. Seuss story, and haven’t seen enough of it or the adaptations to comment on it. The stories I DID mention, however, are ones I’m very familiar with.

It’s funny, because Horton Hears a Who-the book, cartoon and the full-length CGI adaptation have a definite story that has characters, story arcs and room to flesh out environments and the characters, themselves. In other words, it’s the only CGI adaptation that justified itself for being a full-length feature. There are some parts to it that weren’t needed, or just plain silly fluff filler, but most of it was well done. Give this story a shot, my friend. You might just be surprised. Peace.
Reply

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