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“Dumbo, the Flying Elephant”: Film and Book Comparison

Today, cinema is one of the most powerful means of influencing human consciousness. With the mass character of this art form, the result of such an impact becomes stunning. Millions of people draw an idea of ethical and aesthetic norms from films, as well as knowledge from various fields, including literature. Cinematography is inspired by plots from both classical and contemporary literature. At the same time, a successful film version can become a serious motive for reading the corresponding literary work. A problematic discussion field has been formed around the visualization of literary texts, the relationship, and sometimes the interdependence of cinema and literature, enriching and popularizing each other. The screen version provides for the processing of the author’s text into a script, which later forms the basis of the film. The screen version provides for the processing of the author’s text into a script, which later forms the basis of the film. This adaptation can be seen when comparing similarities and differences between the book Dumbo, the Flying Elephant written by Helen Aberson-Mayer and the film Dumbo (2019) directed by Tim Burton.

American writer Helen Aberson-Mayer, working as a clerk in one of the Manhattan offices, in her free time, wrote fairy tales about animals. Some of them were printed, and the fairy tale Dumbo the Flying Elephant became the basis for the Walt Disney cartoon. According to the writer’s son, in the difficult fate of the elephant calf, suffering because of its unusual appearance (huge ears), one can find echoes of the author’s biography, which also constantly suffered from misunderstanding of others (Pace). The plot of the classic Disney cartoon Dumbo (1941) was made based on this book. The stork brings the circus elephant Jumbo her first child Dumbo – with the ears so big that they annoy everyone around. Dumbo is weaned from his mother, he becomes a clown and an outcast, but with the help of his friend Timothy the little elephant finds an ingenious use of his ears and turns into the main star of the circus. The prototype for the main character of the book was the real elephant Jumbo – the first animal in history to gain worldwide fame. He was brought to Europe in 1862 as a little elephant, spent several years in the Parisian Garden of Plants, then was transported to the London Zoo, where it became the main attraction. People from different countries came to gaze at it, and, in the end, the elephant became a leading artist of American circus troupe The Greatest Show in the World (Pace). This fact itself suggests that the plot for the book was felt by the author, which was expressed in a detailed description of the scenes in the book, which, unfortunately, was missed in the film.

The creator of the film is an American filmmaker Tim Barton, producer, animator, and writer. For him, as the author of modern spectacular cinema, often based on black humor and macabre elements, the adaptation of such a literary work as Dumbo is considerably unusual. According to the plot of the film, circus rider Holt (Colin Farrell) returns from World War I without his left hand. Impresario Marc Medici (Danny DeVito) temporarily assigns him to look after elephants, especially pregnant Jumbo. When the latter has a baby elephant Dumbo, Medici, to his displeasure, discovers that he came out “freak,” the owner of absurdly huge ears. However, soon it will become clear that with the help of such ears, Dumbo is able to fly like a bird – and this will attract crowds of spectators and various adventurers to the Medici circus (Dumbo) – in particular, the unpleasant Mr. Vandemer (Michael Keaton), who wants to seat his protege from Paris on a flying elephant – the enchanting acrobat Colette (Eva Green).

Dumbo, against the background of previous film adaptations, turned out to be an independent work, without definite binding to the original. Unlike the classic Dumbo of 1941, Burton’s film, despite a certain fabulousness, tries to look more realistic. Burton literally and figuratively destroys the world of pleasure, fictional stories and cynical producers, opposing it to a free life in the bosom of nature for animals and a free creative union of a family circus for people. The villains are not evil enough, the good ones are unusually colorless; the care of children for the elephant, like the romantic line, is somewhat unconvincing and is expressed by banal truths that have a place on the “walls of publics in social networks” (Corrigan 34). An important aspect worth noting is the fact that, in spite of the realism, the film softens the events in many aspects, in contrast to the literature original, which is not afraid to describe sometimes terrible things. In the film, Dumbo’s mockery at the circus is more like a compassionate theater, an attempt to make the viewer feel sorry for the elephant, than a satire on an attempt to show the true, cruel form of the circus. The family was deliberately woven into the story in the film, adding humanity to the movie, on whose behalf the narration proceeds. However, alas, the family in this film is just for show, it performs its function as positive characters and has almost no effect on the plot. Among the main characters in the book, there were mainly animals: the little elephant’s friend and mentor was the little mouse Timothy Mouse, and crows helped him to cope with the flight (Aberson-Mayer 13-19). In the full-length film, the leading roles were assigned to people, while the animals stopped talking. This did not make the story worse, but rather it received a new direction with an important lesson. Tim Burton, along with screenwriter Ehren Kruger, adds more events to the old story, encouraging the viewer to empathize even more with Dumbo and at the same time observe how he influences people around him.

The viewer often evaluates any film adaptation, first of all, by how much it matches the original. This is what becomes the measure of the quality of the film. However, after analyzing the similarities and differences between the literary work and the film about the flying elephant Dumbo, one can conclude that a successful film adaptation is a kind of interpretation of the book text, a figurative embodiment of the director’s understanding of it, which complements the impression made by the original, brings new facets to it. General film adaptation involves the use of a work of art as a basis for creating a film script. At the same time, the director sees his task not in presenting the primary source, but in creating an independent, original work based on a literary text. In particular, one of the key modifications made by director Tim Burton is giving people the main roles, which gives the film more educational value when an unusual elephant is seen “ridiculed and exploited by so-called civilized society” (Travis, 2019, para. 1). The review provided by Travis seems to be one of the most detailed, deep, and well-thought. He makes comprehensive analysis of core characters, compares the implementation of plot with 1941 animation, and attempts to draw up a conclusion about the whole director’s vision, stressing that human characters in the film makes it deeper and more impressive for viewers.

Works Cited

Aberson-Mayer, Helen. Dumbo, the Flying Elephant. Whitman Publishing Company, 1941.

Corrigan, Timothy. Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader. Routledge, 2011.

Dumbo. Directed by Tim Burton, performance by Colin Farrell and Michael Keaton, Walt Disney Pictures, 2019.

Pace, Eric. “Helen A. Mayer, Dumbo’s Creator, Dies at 91.” The New York Times, 1999. Web.

Travis, Ben. “Dumbo Review.” Review of Dumbo, directed by Tim Burton. 2019. Web.

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ApeGrade. 2022. "“Dumbo, the Flying Elephant”: Film and Book Comparison." April 9, 2022. https://apegrade.com/dumbo-the-flying-elephant-film-and-book-comparison/.

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ApeGrade. (2022) '“Dumbo, the Flying Elephant”: Film and Book Comparison'. 9 April.

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