Friday, March 19, 2010

Ramona and Who?

The trailer for "Ramona and Beezus," based on Beverly Cleary's children's books, made its debut yesterday. Disney Channel star Selena Gomez is headlining as Beezus Quimby, an odd choice for a character who is about as far from a corporate-branded, perma-smiley TV starlet that you could imagine. But putting that aside, anyone at all familiar with Cleary's books will notice one thing immediately about this adaptation - seventeen-year-old Selena Gomez is much too old to play Beezus.

The Quimby sisters were introduced in Cleary's Henry Huggins books in the '50s, and soon took the spotlight in "Beezus and Ramona," published in 1955, and the subsequent Ramona series. Beezus started out around the age of eight and was never older than twelve or thirteen until the very last volume - published a decade and a half after the others - saw her enter the uncharted waters of high school. Beezus in the new film, as played by Gomez, is clearly well into her teenage years.

The change may seem minor, but Cleary's books were all about the joys and agonies of childhood and siblinghood as seen through the eyes of children. At least two generations have grown up reading about the girls surviving botched birthday cakes, bad haircuts, school troubles, and each other. To lose the child's voice and point of view is to lose much of the series' appeal. Fortunately the actress playing Ramona appears closer in age to the original version, but the disparity with Beezus will almost certainly change the relationship of the girls.

Beezus is only the latest young fictional character to be aged up in transition to film. Last month's "Percy Jackson" saw its main character go from a twelve in the books to his late teens in the film. The male lead of "City of Ember" was also twelve, but played by a twenty-two year old onscreen. And then there's the latest version of "Alice in Wonderland," which avoided the whole issue by having the film be a semi-sequel to the books, featuring Alice as a nineteen-year-old.

Explanations for these changes are rarely given outright, but one did come up in a recent article about the upcoming animated feature, "How to Train Your Dragon." Initially the heroes were ten-year-olds, but aged up to sixteen when the studio expressed dissatisfaction with early results and the film was essentially scrapped and rebooted. Or, as the LA Times Hero Complex blog put it, executives felt that "if 'Dragon' didn’t have older characters and more ambitious action scenes, its audience would become limited and it would suffer at the box office."

In other words, the studio was not willing to risk making a film aimed solely at children. It wanted yet another 3D-ready action spectacle that would play to a broader audience and was perfectly willing to warp the original source material until it matched their preconceived template for one. Dreamworks Animation production co-president Bill Damaschke even had this to say about the earlier, more faithful version of the film: “It was not a universal story that everyone would love.” Which begs the question why Dreamworks optioned the material to adapt into a feature in the first place.

I can see the practical reasons to avoid working with child actors, especially considering the amount of time and money involved in some of these massive blockbusters. But the idea that movies about children are somehow less accessible than movies about teenagers and adults doesn't hold water. Plenty of films like "Harry Potter" and the "Narnia" series didn't suffer from having youthful leads. And can you imagine Steven Spielberg making "E.T." with a teenage Elliot?

It's no secret that Hollywood only wants to make movies for teenagers and young adults right now, and seems terrified of doing anything that doesn't pander directly to this limited subset of the moviegoing population. Do they really believe that this audience won't see films with protagonists that are younger than they are? Are the studios now afraid of making kids' films for kids? Is Dora the Explorer now a niche product? Is that what this has come to?

If anyone needs us, Ella Funt and I will be under the bed rereading "The Mouse and the Motorcycle."

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