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When Great Books Become Very Bad Movies

(Courtesy Penguin Random House)MoreCloseclosemore
(Courtesy Penguin Random House)

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This past year has tried my patience. I used to believe I could be open-minded. I had trusted that I could stand up for what matters to me without casting aspersions on the character of those on the other side. I had been sure that I could — within reason — give folks who approach life differently the benefit of the doubt, and that I then could go my own way in peace.

But I am here to tell you that I have reached my limit.

"Ferdinand," the movie, is evil.

I hate this movie, I won't make nice about it, and I am sorely tempted to be ugly to the people inflicting this animated travesty upon children.

Had the film sprung up out of nowhere, with no source material, it would not have rendered me apoplectic. In real life, though, this major motion picture is based on “The Story of Ferdinand,” which happens to be one of my life-long favorite artistic endeavors in any genre ever.

These moviemakers have done the unforgivable. They have ruined a work of genius. They more or less gobbled up a Beethoven symphony and spat it back out as the rinky-dink ringtone on your 2002 flip-phone.

“The Story of Ferdinand” is a masterpiece. This classic picture book, written by Monro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, was published in 1936 and has never been out of print.

Set once upon a time in Spain, the book spins the tale of a gentle bull who politely declines to join the other bulls in the pasture to “run and jump and butt their heads together." Ferdinand does not want to fight with his friends, and he does not want to fight in the bullring in Madrid. Instead, our protagonist  prefers the shade of a cork tree, where “he liked to sit just quietly and smell the flowers.”

Does the plot ring a bell? If not, go read the book. That will take you maybe three minutes, four minutes tops. You’ll find 36 pages of text — including the page that says "The End." Not one of those pages includes a passage as long as five sentences; most pages feature a sentence or two.

This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows a scene from the animated film, "Ferdinand." (Twentieth Century Fox via AP)
This image released by Twentieth Century Fox shows a scene from the animated film, "Ferdinand." (Twentieth Century Fox via AP)

The movie is 107 minutes long.

The book is brilliant, sly and humane. The nuanced writing and art are simple and pure. “The Story of Ferdinand” offers a low-key salute to non-violence, an affirmation of  non-conformity, and an endorsement of — as the kids say nowadays — living your best life.

The movie is all overkill, all the time. Granted, it doesn’t ditch the message entirely, but it mucks it up with excess, sacrificing whatever virtue it might have achieved on the altar of amped-up everything.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. The flick is rated PG — “for rude humor, action and some thematic elements.” As if to live up to those low expectations, the movie adds a passel of zany madcap sidekicks, a horror-movie angle to scare the bejesus out of the sippy-cup set, and words words words words — so many words.

I get it. To create a major motion picture out of a slim, almost minimalist picture book, you must pad the thing out.

But that’s the rub. Why do it? If you need to change it into almost the opposite of itself to create something perceived to be palatable on the big screen, then maybe you should just ... not. Padding it out turns “The Story of Ferdinand” into an interchangeable adventure romp full of wacky hijinx and — because what film for young children is complete without this? — the murder of parents! Plus extra-special life-altering loss! Climactic scene in a slaughterhouse? You betcha! We see your thematic elements, and raise you morbid terror and existential dread!

Oh, and the banter. Lordamercy, the banter. It violates the spirit of the book, panders to an imagined demand for cheap “relevance,” and is just flat out bad.

“Angus, you’re talking to his butt.”

“Whooooaaaah, this is some next level stuff.”

“Can’t wait to show you off to the rest of the guys. They’re gonna fertilize the yard.”

“Move it, Guapo. I don’t wanna die looking at your butt.”

“I’ve fallen and I can’t giddy-up”

“Sucks to be you.”

I would quote you more, but enduring the movie sapped me of my will to live. My plan had been to take notes as I watched, so I could report on this journey from bookshelf to multiplex. Instead, however, when the lights came up I realized my pen had rolled behind the seat as I’d sat for who knows how long with my arms crossed and my toes curled — my lips silently mouthing "No. No. No. No. NO!”

Now, listen.

“The Story of Ferdinand” features a line that’s stuck with me since childhood. An interlude that sings of wisdom and unconditional love, this sentence has served as the brightest lantern on my maternal path. It’s guided me towards raising my sons with the confidence to be true to their own souls.

The narrator explains that when Ferdinand cozied up under the cork tree, his mother would, sometimes, worry about how he felt ... over there ... by himself ... while the other bulls skipped around butting heads. Ferdinand assures her that he likes it better exactly where he is. And, as we grin at a drawing of the matriarch wearing a bell that says “MOTHER,” we read this indelible advice:

“His mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.”

In the movie, Ferdinand does not have a mother.

Indignities like this are beyond what I can stand.

The very idea that unsuspecting small fries are showing up for this movie without first experiencing the perfection that is the picture book? Hold me back before I kick a few choice Hollywood shins. Sorry, Ferd, but pacifism may very well be overrated.

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Sharon Brody is the voice of WBUR's weekend mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, she anchors the news for Weekend Edition and other popular programs.

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