23 September 2014

Finding Neverland Has a Lot to Answer For

In 2004 Miramax released Finding Neverland, with Johnny Depp playing a handsomer-than-real-life James M. Barrie, Kate Winslet as a more-widowed-than-real-life Sylvia Llewellyn Davies, and Freddie Highmore as one of her less-doomed-than-real-life sons.

It was a modern “prestige picture,” with a historical setting, literary roots, paeans to preserving childhood imagination, and a noble dying parent. All the odd aspects of Barrie’s relationship with the Llewellyn Davies family and of late-Victorian Britain were blurred away.

That movie made $116 million worldwide, more than four times its production budget. More important, it was nominated for seven Oscars and won one (for best score), which is what studios want in a prestige picture. Harvey Weinstein is now producing a Broadway musical based on it.

Two years later the Weinstein Company offered Miss Potter, starring Renee Zellweger as Beatrix Potter. Last year Disney (owner of Miramax) gave us Saving Mr. Banks, with Emma Thompson as P. L. Travers and Tom Hanks as Walt Disney; the company entered that deal to protect its brand, but the result was another prestige picture that distorted literary history.

There were, to be sure, earlier biopics about British children’s-book writers, such as Dreamchild (1985) with Ian Holm as Lewis Carroll and Shadowlands (1993) with Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis. But those were about the contrasts between childhood literature and adult life, not about fantasy stories making everybody happy again.

It’s possible that Hollywood now thinks it’s run out of dead British children’s authors who are famous in the States. (Evidently E. Nesbit is not well known enough, and her solution to family troubles too worrisome.) The studios have therefore moved on to American children’s-book writers.

This week the Hollywood Reporter broke the news that New Line Cinema bought the script for Road to Oz, a biopic about L. Frank Baum. The writer, Josh Golden, has even been working with one of the Finding Neverland producers, Nellie Bellflower. (And somehow the team of Golden and Bellflower doesn’t seem like they would turn out an unflinching look at the human condition.)

The John Ritter TV movie The Dreamer of Oz (1990) already showed it’s possible to fit Baum’s life into the arc of a man prone to fantasizing who redeems himself through telling children’s stories. Oz proved its potential to generate international box-office success with Oz the Great and Powerful last year (and its potential to lay an egg with this year’s Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return). So this screenplay might actually get made.

Interestingly, New Line is part of the same Time Warner corporation that owns rights to the 1939 MGM movie. This biopic might therefore be able to use elements from that film, which Baum never saw, but which could trigger the requisite warm nostalgia from viewers who don’t know the real story.


Mark R Hunter said...

With so much of the world convinced Oz didn't exist before 1939, I wonder how much singing and dancing the new movie will feature?

I liked the Ritter movie; something tells me a bigger budget isn't going to improve on it, with historical accuracy or otherwise.

Laurel said...

I'm waiting for a Margaret Wise Brown movie. THAT I'd go to see.

Leonard Marcus needs to break into screenwriting.

J. L. Bell said...

There are definitely children's-book authors whose lives and personalities could make entertaining movies. But the studios seem to think we viewers want treacly, uplifting, and largely inaccurate movies.