Family films rooted in books — and why we should keep reading

The night Max wore his wolf suit
and made mischief of one kind
and another
his mother called him “WILD THING!”
and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!”
so he was sent to bed without eating anything.
There are some things we do in life that give us great joy. For me, reading to children is one of those moments. All four of my children were raised with a steady dose of books, not only before bed but throughout the day. Cuddling up on the couch with “Where the Wild Things Are” on a snowy day promises not only adventure and laughter — it introduces the child into a world which they can explore for the rest of their lives.

What is it about these simple stories that appeal to children and their parents? Sure, there are plenty of children’s books that don’t hold our attention, so what is it in “Goodnight Moon” that brings us back time and again? I’ve read the book so many times over the years that I can still say it from memory. A simple story of a bunny saying goodnight to everything in the room, and to the moon and stars and air and even to nobody. Or Max’s adventures, another book committed to memory, where Maurice Sendak lays out in just a few lines the basis for an entire dream which ends with a dinner that “is still hot.”

I saw an interview with Sendak where he explained that children are the toughest audience. Adults will work their way through a book, but if a child is not captured immediately, then the book sails across the room and they are on to the next one. These great writers create stories that children understand in simple language with driving rhythms that draw the reader in. Of course, reading is not just the writer interacting with us, but us interacting with the story and writer. We make each story our own. How I read the books differed from how my wife read them to the children.  My version of “Where the Wild Things Are” includes a time for children to dance during the “wild rumpus.” In reading these works we create our own private worlds with our children.

August 3, 7:30pm

Maybe that is why I hesitate to see film versions of picture books I love. I know, I should encourage you to see the movies we are showing over the next four weeks, and I do, but you won’t find me at “Where the Wild Things Are.” That book lives in a unique way for me and my children and I’m not interested in anything that builds on it. I’ve also never seen “The Polar Express” for the same reason. And, I’m hoping no one attempts a movie version of “Goodnight Moon,” although the author, Margaret Wise Brown, embraced new technologies for her books.

August 10, 7:30pm

But story books often work well in movies. Roald Dahl created unique (and strange) worlds that work visually and he initially supported the creation of a film based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” It became “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the 2005 remake brought back the original title), and now both the film and the book are “classics.” Stories such as “James and the Giant Peach” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” also bring to life Dahl’s developed stories. Dahl writes stories that can scare children, but, somehow, he seems to know how far he can push them. He treats children with respect, which is one reason his stories will continue to resonate with young readers.

August 17, 7:30pm

Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” was written for the best reason — it was for his daughter. In 2010, a first-edition of the book was found in his family’s possession with a handwritten note from Kipling. “This book belongs to Josephine Kipling for whom it was written by her father, May 1894.” That daughter passed away a few years after Kipling wrote the note — she was just six years old. There is no doubt those stories always meant something more to Kipling as a parent rather than just as an author. Kipling had more faith in children’s capacity for fear than Walt Disney, who fired the first screenwriters working on adapting the book for the original movie since they stayed too close to Kipling’s “dark” themes. It is likely that most of us know the upbeat Disney film version better than the book, and we are now showing the 2016 version which won the Academy Award for Special Effects for its use of live action/CGI technology. Remakes are not always well received, but this new version was a commercial and critical success. Great stories can come to life in different ways.

July 27, 7:30pm

And, we open with the most recently written book in our series, “The Tale of Despereaux” by Kate DiCamillo. The 2003 novel is already considered a classic and this heartwarming movie will only add to the award-winning book’s reputation. Read the press release or visit our home page for previews and information about the films.

So, bring the family, watch some great movies, and then go home and give your child a gift — read them a book.

Derek Emerson
Hope College Director of Public Affairs and Events

One Night Only Series Focuses on Judy Garland

One Night Only Judy Garland Poster

By Tom Hoover
Guest blogger and film lover

I remember getting to stay up late to watch The Wizard of Oz when I was in elementary school and being more interested in Dorothy’s friends and her dog Toto than I was of this plucky, jittery girl from Kansas whose only skill seemed to be singing mopey songs and skipping around.  Years later I grew to appreciate Dorothy’s adventure with more understanding and I even grew to love that one particular “mopey song”  for the masterpiece of bittersweet longing that it is.

Wizard of Oz
Performing Somewhere Over the Rainbow

None of that awakening would have come about if it hadn’t been for Judy Garland’s Oscar winning performance as Dorothy.  She was so great in the role that generations of people have been won over to the tremendous talent that was Judy Garland solely on the strength of that singular performance.  Hundreds of singers have covered “Over the Rainbow” but none have achieved the impact and reach of Judy’s interpretation.  That song is forever hers. But Judy was much more than that song or that movie.  

Meet Me in St. Louis
The Trolley Song from Meet Me in St. Louis

Building upon The Wizard’s huge success, Judy was kept busy with making a series of MGM musicals throughout the 1940’s.  Two of her most successful films were Meet Me in St. Louis and Ziegfeld Follies.  Of these two, Meet Me in St. Louis was the one that had Judy truly transitioning from a younger studio phenom to a full-fledged adult star able to carry a film and bring in the box office numbers.  Meet Me in St. Louis produced some of Judy’s most beloved musical hits – “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  Director and future husband, Vincent Minnelli was instrumental in crafting Judy’s look and performance in the film.  The picture is a wonderful tribute to Hollywood’s vision of a time gone by.  Judy’s voice was never better and her new look was full of wide-eyed vitality with just the right amount of worldliness.  Minnelli required the best from Judy and the results are a stunning performance from an actress almost unrecognizable from the naïve farm girl she portrayed in Wizard of Oz just a few years before. This film is my favorite among the MGM musicals with Judy in the cast.

Towards the end of the 1940’s the frantic pace of production, a series of short failed marriages, and Judy’s growing drug dependence took their heavy toll.  She was hospitalized several times for exhaustion and suffered a nervous breakdown.  Eventually, roles dried up and her contract with MGM was canceled. Going into the 1950’s, Judy drifted in and out of the public eye, occasionally appearing on TV variety shows.  She managed to re-invent herself as a stage singer which revived her career to the point where she was appearing on stages around the world to sold out crowds.  After a particularly successful run in Great Britain, Judy returned to Hollywood with her then husband, Sidney Luft to independently bankroll and produce a pet project – a musical re-make of A Star is Born, a Hollywood backstage story that closely mirrored Judy’s life at that time.  

A Star is Born
Garland and Mason in A Star is Born

I love this film more for the drama between Judy and James Mason than any of the musical elements (except for the wonderfully overwrought version of “The Man That Got Away” that Judy sings with gusto and loads of bawdy vibrato).  Judy’s honest, harrowing performance is the one time on film that we get close to anything that might be like the real Judy Garland. The film was a great critical success and audiences loved it.  There was even another Oscar nomination.  However, none of this positive press resulted in a big box office and the film ended up losing money.  Roles never materialized, the money disappeared and another of Judy’s marriages imploded.  Judy appeared in a few more small films but eventually returned to television appearances and the concert stage.

After a near death, Hepatitis scare at the end of the 1950’s, Judy bounced back once again with a one-off concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963 that was the musical sensation of the year.  The recording from the show went on to chart 13 weeks at number one on Billboard and garnered 4 Grammy awards including Album of the Year and Female Vocal of the Year.

Following the success of the Carnegie Hall concert, Judy re-made herself again by tapping into her vaudeville roots and taking to the stage singing in elaborate stage shows around the world.  She never returned to Hollywood and only appeared on television sporadically.  By late 1969, the years of relying upon medication to fuel her days caught up to her and in the words of her Wizard of Oz co-star, Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow) “She just plain wore out.”  Judy Garland passed away at the age of 47.

Judy Garland was one of the most unique, beloved and tragic stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Her journey from child star to musical sensation to tragic early demise is a complete American Hollywood tale that is no scripted fantasy, but the real legacy left by one of the most massively talented entertainers the industry has ever seen.

Read our press release and visit the Knickerbocker Film Page.