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Edgy auteurs adapt kids' books

Edgy auteurs adapt kids’ books — Why Spike Jonze, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson are getting into the family-film business

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Disneyland’s Alice in Wonderland ride is dreamy and soothing — and Tim Burton’s idea of a nightmare. Did you really expect the director of gorgeously odd visions like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd to take a trip on a pastel caterpillar through a garden of singing flowers? Burton’s at work on a live-action, 3-D version of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Needless to say, he and Disneyland differ greatly about what lies at the end of the rabbit hole. ”For me, it’s about being alone in a strange world,” says the director. ”They’ve gotta change that ride. We’ll give people a different version of the story, and then they’ll have a choice.”

Conversations in the back of the family minivan are about to get a whole lot more intense. Over the next handful of months, three famously edgy directors will release movies adapted from classic kid lit. In October, Spike Jonze (Adaptation) delivers a live-action version of Where the Wild Things Are. In November, Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) unveils his stop-motion-animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. And Burton’s Alice in Wonderland follows in March. In these cost-conscious times, it’s surprising — and encouraging — that studios entrusted serious budgets to such offbeat sensibilities. ”These directors understand children in a different way,” says Wild Things producer Gary Goetzman. ”They’re not afraid to go crazy out of their minds with joy and laughter, and they’re not afraid to go deep because they know kids have both those extremes.”

What drew Burton and his peers back to the age of innocence? As art-house movies quickly become an endangered species, family films are a refuge for serious-minded filmmakers looking to tell personal stories in a marketable genre. ”This is a moment in time when it’s extraordinarily difficult to make any kind of drama, particularly interesting, complicated ones,” says producer Dan Jinks (Milk), who made Big Fish with Burton in 2003. ”Directors who want something that’s not formulaic are looking to really interesting family movies with source material like Roald Dahl or Alice in Wonderland. That way, they can express themselves and be inventive but still be commercial.”

Family audiences may not be used to such idiosyncratic visions. Yes, they’ve been offered emotionally complicated movies, such as Up, but more often, they have been served confections about talking Chihuahuas and crime-fighting guinea pigs. Attempting to elevate the genre has been anxiety-producing at times. During production of Where the Wild Things Are, Warner Bros. reportedly worried that Jonze’s raw, poignant movie might not sit well with young kids. But Jonze’s vision ultimately carried the day, thanks in part to the moral support he got from the book’s author, Maurice Sendak. As the director puts it, ”Maurice really said, ‘I want you to take this, make it your own, make it personal, make it dangerous — in the same way the book was considered dangerous when it first came out.”’

Anderson went on a similar journey with Fantastic Mr. Fox. He wanted to express what Dahl’s book had meant to him as a child, rather than simply churning out something harmless for the youngest kids in the audience. ”It was the first book I actually owned a copy of,” he says. ”And my brothers and I were a bit obsessed with digging underground forts and tunnels because of all the digging they do in the book.” When Anderson and Noah Baumbach sat down to write the screenplay, they had a specific audience in mind: ”ourselves as 11-year-olds.” Now, like Burton and Jonze, they just have to hook some real 11-year-olds, too.

Additional reporting by Jeff Jensen and Dave Karger