Visions of sugarplums in someone else's head


Imagination is a movie you make in your mind

film versions of beloved books supplant those very personal pictures.

November 25, 2001|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN ARTS WRITER

"You know what the imagination is?" Santa Claus asks the little girl.

"Oh sure, that's when you see things but they're not really there," she answers.

"Well, you've heard of the French nation, the British nation. Well, this is the imagination. It's a wonderful place."

What a great scene. It's from the 1947 Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. Santa Claus, played by Edmund Gwenn, is trying to convince a little girl named Susan, played by Natalie Wood, that he exists. The dialogue touches on something important -- that we have the pleasure, every day, of creating and inhabiting worlds of our own making, in our own minds.

Watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone last week reminded me of what we gain, and what we lose, when fine storybooks are transformed into movies. Imagination begins as something private. Ask 10 people to create a mental picture of a monster and then describe it, and you'll inevitably get 10 different creatures.

For many of the children around me in the theater, the movie's opening scene marked the moment in which their individual Harry Potter worlds became truly homogenized.

It's true, of course, that J.K. Rowling, the author of the (thus far) four-volume Harry Potter series, presented us all with the same story: A young, orphaned boy living with mean-spirited relatives discovers that he's a wizard. He is transported to a rich and colorful world populated by letter-delivering owls and evil trolls, beautiful unicorns and kind centaurs. But part of the Harry Potter magic is that Rowling's books let us flesh out the details. Anyone who reads them is the owner of a unique, personally envisioned Potter world.

Don't misunderstand me. I enjoyed the movie. I loved watching Harry fly through the air during his first Quidditch game -- a purely delightful blend of polo, soccer and even basketball played astride soaring broomsticks. I liked seeing the chocolate frog -- a creature I wish I had invented. But my own vision of "Harry," and the "Harry" created by Rowling, was forever displaced by the face of the young actor Daniel Radcliffe the moment it appeared on the big screen. For many of the youthful audience members, this was the first experience of seeing a beloved storybook made "real" by Hollywood -- and the first experience of that peculiar variety of loss.

Not that they seemed worried about it.

Straight into the brain

I remember feeling a sense of disconnect when I first saw the film version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, a book I'd read years earlier. I could easily envision what each character looked like, from the loving Marmee to the outspoken Jo. But after seeing the 1933 film version, I could not escape it: In my mind, Jo had become Katharine Hepburn. These days, for a younger generation of film aficionados, Jo looks like Winona Ryder, who portrayed her in a 1994 remake.

That's the power of visual images, said Shirley Peroutka, chairman of the communication and media department at Goucher College. "Visual images are profoundly affecting and we do retain them. Psychologically speaking, they go straight into the brain."

Perhaps if unknown actresses had played the part of Jo in either screen version of Little Women, I would have found them less jarring. "In a way, a famous actor can pollute the characters. We no longer see Jo, we see Winona Ryder and all of her previous roles," Peroutka said. "A film that has no known actors works better in that regard than a star who comes with all that pre-existing baggage."

Sometimes though, actors capture the essence of a book's character so completely that, at least to me, they transcend both media: They simply own the character.

Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. It didn't matter how many times I had read the book before I saw the 1962 movie, nor does it matter how many times I've read it since: Peck is Atticus Finch, lawyer and father of Jem and Scout.

'I thought it would be smaller'

My friend Eva Metz, who is 9 3 / 4 years old (Potter fans will recognize that as a significant number), said her Harry Potter movie experience was generally positive.

I consider Eva, a fourth-grader at Stoneleigh Elementary School, an expert. She has read the first Harry Potter book six or seven times; the second and fourth books four or five times and the third book only three times because it is lost, perhaps in the basement of her parents' home.

For Eva, the first on-screen sighting of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the boarding school attended by Harry, was a thrill. "It was pretty and exciting," she said. And it had the effect of making her feel as though she were there.

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