I stumbled across some very engrossing news the other day.
Lionsgate has acquired the movie rights to the “Magic Tree House” book series and is developing multiple live-action films to be released by its Summit Entertainment label.”
Not just a Magic Tree House adaptation. A film franchise.
Are you kidding me, Lionsgate?
Are you kidding me!?
For those poor souls whose parents or teachers failed to introduce them to the wonderful early chapter book series by Mary Pope Osborne, Magic Tree House sees elementary school siblings Jack and Annie travel through time, collecting knowledge to help Morgan le Fay from Arthurian Legend (don’t worry, she’s good here).
I won’t lie to you, I straight up fell out of my chair at work.
According to a Variety Magazine article dated February 4th, 2016, “Author Mary Pope Osborne will executive produce along with her husband Will Osborne[…]Will Osborne and Jenny Laird have written the script for the first installment, based primarily on Book 29, ‘Christmas in Camelot.’ In the movie, Jack and Annie rediscover the tree house after having outgrown it and are summoned to Camelot to be its saviors.”
Much of that synopsis worries me—except for the part where Mary Pope Osborne is involved.
Jack and Annie have some experience as saviors; they’re pretty much Morgan le Fay’s first line of defense for any problem she’s having. But the idea of Jack and Annie as “chosen ones” summoned to save Camelot just screams YA adaptation, and, simply put, that’s not what Magic Tree House was about. Christmas in Camelot itself was a way of introducing young readers to the basics of Arthurian legend, just as every other installment of the series was about introducing them to the basics of historical time periods. It’s only a little about Jack and Annie, who more or less exist as “the adventurous one” and “the cautious one.”
“But what does this matter?” you may ask, “and what does it have to do with a potential Magic Tree House film?”
Consider the prospect of a universally lambasted Christmas in Camelot film. Everyone hates it. You despise it because it changed what sparked a childhood love of reading and learning into a teen self-fulfillment epic. Critics hate it because it feels like every other YA-inspired movie, with bland characters and save-the-world storyline.
But…if Mary Pope Osborne produces it, does that absolve the film of any storytelling crimes? She’s in charge of the whole shebang, right? If the movie’s how she wants it, who’s to argue?
Enter Death of the Author: the theory which says a work should be judged and valued based solely on the work itself, not by what the author says about it.
The intricacies of this theory, penned by Roland Barthes in 1967, soar far above the idea of author-as-screenwriter, and apply more readily to authors of children’s literature that have created entire websites to amalgamate out-of-canon-yet-still-canon information about their work. Barthes supports his theory by suggesting that the text is the only thing that can matter to the reader, because the text is the sole place where a million different thoughts, ideas, and perspectives land on paper.
“A text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader. […] The reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.”
Would a Magic Tree House film franchise change how we see the original series of books? Would we go back and read more into Jack and Annie’s characters if the movie does more with them? Would we read Mummies in the Morning picturing Annie’s future as sophomore class president and Jack’s destiny as NAQT quiz bowl champion? Unlikely, as the two entities would likely feel incredibly unconnected—thematically and narratively.
Still, Death of the Author becomes important if we decide that however Mary Pope Osborne and Will Osborne decide to produce and write their movie, it’s the right way. Because they’re the authors. However, according to Barthes,”We know that to restore to writing its future, we must reverse its myth: the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author.”
It seems improbable that the worst-case scenario would occur. With someone as in-touch with the essence of the work as the creator herself, it’s doubtful she would miss the mark so entirely as to make this conversation happen. And we’re all more likely to enjoy it if we look at the idea as an “inspired by” movie rather than a strict adaptation.
Still, a teenage Jack and Annie? Are you sure?
Images obtained from:
Barthes image obtained under fair use.