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  • Adapting Children's Books for Television:Interviews with Mary Pleshette Willis and Malcolm Marmorstein
  • Ellen Freyer (bio)

Ever since movies began, books have served quite naturally as a primary source of material. From the classics to the comics, from the Bible to best sellers, producers have sought to adapt the written word to the visual language of film.

Television movies have been no exception. Adult prime time programming of movies and mini-series has more often than not been based on mass market best sellers with instantly recognizable titles. "Sins," "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," "I'll Take Manhattan," and "Mistress" are all examples of recent mass market books turned into mass market television—fantasy based, larger than life characters, plot driven melodramas. The other major source for adult drama during the past several years has been the 'true life stories' which concern a current or controversial social topic. Stories concerning incest, wife abuse, agent orange, Alzheimer's disease, and most recently schizophrenia have all been developed into award-winning television dramas.

Because of the costs of production and the need for networks to offset the costs through advertising revenues—traditionally sparse for children's or family programming, since children are not major consumers—relatively little dramatic programming has been developed with the children or family audience in mind. Most children's entertainment on television, whether network or cable, has historically involved animation, puppets, host shows, music shows, quiz shows, storytelling or learning segments; and sometimes skits and spoofs. (Pee Wee's Playhouse, the unique new CBS series, has remarkably captured all these elements in one up-to-date, futuristic hi-tech environment, with humor and imagination).

Dramatic family programming has not generally turned to children's literature for inspiration. Current prime time family specials on NBC, as well as the ABC Disney Sunday night movies, tend to be based on contemporary original stories written for television, set in recognizable urban/suburban communities. Both producers and broadcasters' major concern for this type of programming has been [End Page 73] ratings (to bring commercial sales). Other dramatic programming has consisted mainly of the six or seven annual After School Specials (ABC) or Schoolbreak Specials (CBS), broadcast in the afternoons, and geared to teenage and young female adult viewers. Even when book-based, these programs follow the prime time pattern of dramatizing current social issues. Racism, drunk driving, teen suicide, anorexia, and homosexuality are topics of some recent award-winning programs. By dramatizing such issues, these programs justify their importance—and therefore their continued existence—to the networks in place of ratings and advertising revenues.

In strange contrast to this, PBS has neither the financial resources nor the commercial sales for broadcast hours to drive its selection of programming. Their need is for programs which will repeat successfully and have a long life span. While better endowed through subscribers and advertisers, a cable programming like HBO also needs repeatable programming to fill its seemingly endless broadcast schedule. As a result, both have turned to children's literature as a resource in the area of Family Entertainment.

What began for Wonderworks as a financial limitation may ironically prove to be the basis for its greatest contribution—a body of material that is based on three-dimensional characters and narratives with universal themes and lasting appeal, a video library which, like a good book, can be viewed and enjoyed again and again. Children who enjoy reading their favorite book over and over can now, with the advent of the VCR, view their favorite movie in the same way, even passing favorites on to a younger sibling or a friend.

For those who worry that this will inhibit children's interest in books, a soon to be published study by Dr. Maythee Cantor of the University of Minneapolis indicates that quite the opposite may be true. Elementary school students watching dramas based on books available to them in their classrooms sought out on their own and read all or part of the book for every program shown, even if the book was above their reading level.

One of the programs in this study was the Wonderworks Emmy-award-winning mini-series based on Anne of Green...


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pp. 73-86
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