Pitch Meeting: Dr. Seuss on Film

With The Grinch being a box office juggernaut, it seems inevitable we’re gonna get a deluge of Dr. Seuss based movies in the years ahead. But feature length films based on the works of Dr. Seuss . . . they don’t have the best track record.

Seuss wrote very short children’s books, without enough plot (if they had a plot at all) to fill up 90 minutes of screentime. Add in the seeming unwillingness by filmmakers to do an entire movie in rhyme, one of the key appeals of Seuss’s writing, and you’ve got a lot of adaptations that just don’t work.

So what would you do, if you were in charge of the next Dr. Seuss book to be turned into a movie? Which one would you pick, and how would you develop it for the screen?

If it were me, I’d go with The Butter Battle Book.

Most of Seuss’s books have neither sufficient amounts of plot nor the sort of big stakes that people expect from a feature film, but The Butter Battle Book is an exception, dealing with a slowly escalating conflict between two nations that ends with both on the edge of destruction. The passages where the Yooks and the Zooks build increasingly elaborate machines to attack/intimidate each other? Those might as well have “insert extended slapstick comedy sequence here” written on them, perfect for an animated kids’ film. Add a subplot about the grandson narrator befriending a Zook girl on the other side of the wall, and them trying to make their two nations understand each other, and you’ve got yourself a movie!

Such a film would undoubtedly attract a lot of controversy. The book was written as a fairly obvious allegory for the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, but the idea of a wall being built between two nations, the pettiness and insanity of prejudice, and a conflict started by an overzealous border patrol agent? Those are gonna carry a lot of resonance today, but depending on how it’s handled and marketed, that could actually increase the film’s popularity.

Now, the biggest question with such an adaptation is how you handle the ending. The book famously ends with both the Yooks and Zooks in possession of a “Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo” that can blow up the entire enemy nation in an instant, with representatives of each side holding one over the other’s side of the wall, threatening to drop it. The book gives no resolution to this stalemate; it asks who will drop their’s first, and can only respond with, “We’ll see.”

As much as I’d love to see a major motion picture use that ending, I just don’t see the studio executives allowing it; certainly not in a kids’ film. So what I’d do is, you get to that stalemate, build up the tension of the moment . . . then, very rapidly, that subplot between the Yook and Zook children comes to a head, teaches everyone to respect the other side, eases the tension, and brings peace to the two nations. It seems almost ridiculous how quickly and perfectly it resolves . . . then we get some closing narration from the grandson where he says this is how he’d like to see the conflict end, implying (to the adults in the audience, at least) that this happy ending is something he made up while watching his grandfather stand on the wall with the Bitsy Big-Boy Boomeroo in his hand. So you get to have it both ways.

Oh, and obviously the name might need changing. What about . . . The Bitter Butter Battle?

That’s my pitch for a film adaptation of Dr. Seuss. What are yours?