The Hollywood toy story

Films based on children's toys are proving popular in Tinseltown, but are the commercial gains super

Earlier this week Warner Brothers announced that it is set to bring a film adaptation of Lego to the big screen in 2014. The Lego film will, excuse the pun, build on Hollywood's proven track record of making films based on children's toys. Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy has grossed a staggering $2.6 billion since the first film was released in 2007. While toy manufacturer Hasbro and Spyglass Entertainment studio will be hoping that next year's follow-up to the 2009 G.I. Joe film can match the $300 million box office takings of the first.

Though it would do both the film-makers and marketeers a disservice to assume that making money from films based on toys is child's play, Hollywood is certainly enthusiastically tapping a fruitful resource.

Next year will see the release of perhaps the strangest of these toy adaptations to date with Battleships. Liam Neeson may have "acquired a certain set of skills" throughout his acting career , but it is questionable quite how many of them he will need to draw on when he stars alongside Rihanna in John Berg's interpretation of a game many of us associate with long car journeys.

With a budget of $250 million dollars, headline writers may already be perfecting their variations on a box office sinking pun, but Hollywood's major studios seem to think they are onto a winner with the boardgames on the big screen formula. So much so in fact that a strategic partnership between Hasbro and Universal has put film versions of Risk, Candy land and Monopoly purportedly in the pipeline. Indeed the latter has even managed to get Ridley Scott on board as director.

Dorothy Parker is once thought to have said "the only 'ism' Hollywood believes in is plagiarism". It is certainly true that Hollywood has a voracious appetite for adapting certain genres to cinema and it is also true that over time the source of Hollywood's inspirations regularly changes. Books (Lord of the Rings, The Godfather), plays (Driving Ms Daisy, Romeo and Juliet), TV programmes (Star Trek, Naked Gun), comics (Batman, Superman, Spiderman), video-games (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil) even theme park rides (Pirates of the Caribbean) have all at one time or another been the stimulus du jour, and now it seems, it's children's toys and boardgames.

But isn't this latest development slightly different? Isn't Hollywood now fishing for ideas in such shallow waters, not because of their artistic merit, but because of their potential for commercial gains?

Professor Thomas Leitch, Director of Film Studies at the University of Delaware and author of Film Adaptation and its Discontents, believes this was always the case.

"I'd question the assumption that Hollywood used to be abrim with creative energy but has lately run dry, since it seems to me that Hollywood has always quite deliberately chosen to be in the business of manufacturing reliably reproducible mass entertainment, an enterprise in which originality is neither sought nor welcomed except insofar as original concepts can be readily replicated."

If Hollywood's methods haven't changed, what of its purpose? The overt messages in films like G.I Joe or Transformers seems more mass marketing than mass entertainment. What was once an ancillary function, even a necessary evil to fund a project - the merchandising - now seems to be the sole intention of some films.

This Leitch concedes to be true in some cases, but notes that it is not as recent a phenomenon as we might suspect.

"I think the pivotal figure here is Walt Disney and the crucial period the mid-1950s, when Disney was launching both his television program and Disneyland, the first of his theme parks. Each of these endeavours was clearly designed to promote the others, and to showcase both Disney's forthcoming projects and his impressive back list as well."

In 1995, another American professor, Janet Wasko, wrote:

"It is not inconceivable that in the future...manufacturers and joint promoters will demand more knowledge of the film and may even try to influence the production in order to maximise the benefits accruing to them."

Writing at a time when films sold commemorative toys and weren't based on them, Wasko's comments seem almost innocent now. Although avarice has probably always trumped art in mainstream cinema, it has never done so in a more apparent way than now, leaving the marketing tail well and truly wagging the Hollywood dog.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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