cave canem

Cave Canem- Beware the Dog

Friday, May 11, 2012

Adaptation Failure: How to Train Your Dragon

I've been working on Dragonsdawn, but it's going slow. It hasn't been particularly bad, it's just been kind of boring. I haven't posted anything in a few days, though, so I thought I'd talk about something else that I think about a lot.

I know the movie How to Train Your Dragon is sort of old news, as movies go, but I still hear it talked about frequently. What I hear talked about with much less frequency is the book by the same title on which the movie is based. I have problems with many movies based on books, but I feel that this is one of the more egregious examples of a movie adaptation failing in every way to capture even a single aspect of the book on which it is supposedly based.

I know that a lot of people who haven't read the books by Cressida Cowell are fond of the movie. I would be willing to bet, though, that that's only because they don't realize how good the books are.

First, I will address the plot of the book for those who are unfamiliar with it.
 In the first book in the series, How to Train Your Dragon, the hero, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock the Third, is a young viking who is the son of the chief but is a bit of a nerdy loser. He and his best friend, Fishlegs, go with with their class of viking trainees to the place where dragons live in order to catch their own pet dragons, as is traditional for vikings. They are then expected to train the dragons as part of their viking training, turning them into pets. All the other kids manage to get themselves really cool dragons, but through a series of shenanigans, Hiccup and Fishlegs end up waking up the dragons by accident, and only manage, on their way out, to grab two dragons without getting a good look at them. The dragons end up being dull, boring common garden dragons. Hiccup's dragon has no teeth. (That's right, no teeth. At all.) The main conflict of the book, however, comes from the fact that while the recognized viking method of dragon training is to YELL a lot, Hiccup, who is bad at yelling, learns to speak dragonese and tries to reason with Toothless to do what he says. Much of the comedy in the books comes from the interactions between Hiccup and Toothless, as Hiccup tries to get Toothless to listen to him and Toothless, who is, like all dragons, inherently selfish, takes advantage of Hiccup. In the end, though, without giving too much away, Hiccup uses his ability to talk to dragons in order to suicidally try to save everyone from a giant sea dragon, and at one point Toothless is forced to choose between his selfish nature and his affection for the boy who gave him mackerel and mud baths. It's an adorable and hilarious children's story with charming illustrations and funny bios of different kinds of dragons, and the rest of the series is just as good. (Also, the dragons are like the size of dogs. There's none of this flying crap.)

The movie, of course, changes quite a few things. I understand why they wanted the dragons big enough to ride on; I guess I have to grudgingly admit that that flying scene was kind of cool. I don't understand why the vikings fought the dragons instead of training them; I loved the whole society based around training pet dragons. I also don't get why Hiccup couldn't speak their language; listening to him and Toothless bickering was one of the best parts of the books, and Toothless, who was a whiny, prickly little bastard, was a great character, and I was sad that that didn't come into the movie at all.

The worst bit, though, wasn't even that Toothless could talk. It was that he wasn't Toothless at all. Firstly, he is called 'Toothless' for a goddamned reason. HE. HAS. NO. DAMNED. TEETH. The entire point of Toothless was that he was a loser, like Hiccup. He was a tiny, badly trained, toothless, spoiled brat, and his internal conflict ended up being a major part of the climax of the book. In the film, he was rendered not only mute, but the antithesis of all the things that made him delightful and charming. He had no personality. He had no conflict. He wasn't a loser, either; in fact, he was an uber cool so speshul dragon, the rarest and most totally awesome dragon of them all. (The color is used to show contempt.) The movie took a character who was snarky, spoiled, loser-ish, and very flawed, but overall loveable jerk with a heart of gold and turned him into nothing but a cool car for Hiccup to fly around on to be the super cool hero guy. IT WAS FUCKING STUPID.

It was as if the makers of the film had failed to see the point of the books entirely. I don't know why they didn't just make the film they wanted to make, rather than dragging a great book into it. Hiccup and Toothless were supposed to save the day despite being losers; instead, they did it because they were never really losers after all, they were just misunderstood kool kidz. It was insulting, really. Toothless wasn't good enough to be a movie protagonist as he was. He had to be changed, made into the thing that he was meant to be the very antithesis of. He wasn't allowed to be small and weak and toothless and still save the day; he had to be made into something bigger and more impressive. That is entirely contrary to the point and message of both the book and the film. I have nothing but hate for this movie. I want my selfish, flawed bastard back.



  1. "I don't know why they didn't just make the film they wanted to make, rather than dragging a great book into it."

    My guess is that Hollywood just wanted a recognizable name to is the standard. (See: Battleship.)

    Anyway, the most surprising fact? The dragons were the size of dogs. My first thought was of Pokemon, and to that end makes me wonder why they didn't bank on that instead of changing the story as they did. Sure you'd lose the flying, but on the other hand, Pokemon! It's a win-win situation, at a base level.

    That said, if I was a dedicated fan of the book(s), I'd probably have a less tolerant reaction. To reiterate what I said in response to the Percy Jackson movie: "If I was a fan of the books, I'd be PISSED."

    1. You know, it was a little like Pokemon in the books now that I think of it? That's a funny thought.