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How To Train Your Dragon: How To Create A Movie Adaptation

How to Train Your Dragon Book & Movie Covers

Let me tell you a story, and you can tell me how well you know it. 

Once upon a time, there was a scrawny, red-headed boy of ten. He was the son of the chief of his Viking tribe, where brute strength was held above all else. The boy had few chances to prove himself to his father and his people, one of which was selecting a large and mighty hunting dragon. For you see, in this Viking world, people used dragons instead of horses and falcons for travel and hunting. But of course, because he had rotten luck, the red-headed string bean of a boy got the smallest, cutest dragon of the lot—one which happened to have no teeth at all. Undeterred, the boy, who could speak to dragons in their language, set out to train the tiny terror of a dragon and prove to his father that he was a worthy son and that brute strength wasn’t everything. And so the story began. 

Book Hiccup holding Book Toothless

Now, let me tell you another story. 

Once upon a time, there was a scrawny, brown-haired boy of sixteen. He was the son of the chief of his Viking tribe, where brute strength was held above all else. The boy had few chances to prove himself to his father and his people, one of which was killing a dragon. For you see, in this Viking world, dragons were a plague that stole their food and burned their villages. But of course, because he had rotten luck, the brown-haired boy shot down an infamous dragon of the night while no one was watching. Undeterred, the boy set out to find his kill, only to find a live dragon that was not as vicious as he had thought it might be. And so the story began. 

Now, you may be wondering. What in the world do these two stories have to do with one another? Well, these are both How to Train Your Dragon. Yes, that is right. The above stories are the first book and movie of the How to Train Your Dragon series. “But wait, they aren’t very similar at all!” Says you. And yes. You are right. Characters might be represented in both, but sometimes the characters don’t have the same character. Some events might be similar but play out entirely differently in each. The ages are different. The villains are different. The dragon species are different. The world is different. 

And, get this? The plots are different. 

But, as I mentioned in my post about the failed Percy Jackson adaptations, How to Train Your Dragon is beloved. No, not just the book series. The movies, as well. And no, it is not “the people who love the books hate the movies” and “the people who watch the movies hate the books.” No. How to Train Your Dragon is one of the few book-to-movie (and show) adaptations where book and movie audiences love both the books and the movies (and shows). They see them as equals. 

But how did the creators of the How to Train Your Dragon movies pull off creating a film franchise so unlike the books that appealed to the readers? How did they avoid the typical, “Well, if they had just made it like the books, it would have been better” comment? That is what we are going to look at today. 


Young Hiccup Movie Concept Sketches

“It was our goal,” Director of the How to Train Your Dragon movies Dean DeBlois said in an interview, “to take the original concept of the story and bring it to the level of some of our favorite fantasy adventure films, with real-world stakes, exciting action sequences, and more mature character interactions and themes.” And this was the direction that they took.

Initially, their idea was closer to that of the book, but when they realized their audience, who had grown up along with the How to Train Your Dragon books, were older, the creatives behind the movies had to make a decision. Unlike the first Percy Jackson movies, which aged up the characters but left the story and stakes the same (which were meant for much younger characters to handle, which made the older characters seem not that bright), the creators of the How to Train Your Dragon movies not only aged up the characters, but the stakes of the world to go with them, just how they were in the book series itself. “But how does that work,” you might be asking. “That is still different than the original book series, right?” And it does boggle the mind. Hiccup at the end of the book series is the same age as Hiccup at the beginning of the movie franchise.


A sleeping pile of dragons

What does How to Train Your Dragon have in common with Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and Chronicles of Narnia? Any guesses? Not only are they middle-grade stories, but they are also coming-of-age stories. We can watch characters grow throughout the stories; in most cases, we can grow along with the characters. And this was a theme that the creatives behind the How to Train Your Dragon franchise understood and used as the backbone of the movies. If your audience who has read and grown up with the books are older now, what do you do? Age up the characters and have them (and the stakes) keep growing into adulthood alongside their audience. 

There is, in fact, a line from book nine of the How to Train Your Dragon series that paints this picture very well: 

A small plea to the readers:
Do not blame the story.
Up until now, Hiccup has just been playing at adventure, learning to be a Hero when the stakes are not so high. But darker and more difficult times are coming now to the Isle of Berk. 
Please do not blame the story.
The story cannot help itself. We do not realize it at the time, but sometimes the story we are all a part of is not just a story about Vikings and islands and dragons. 
It is a story about growing up. 
And one of the things about growing up, one of the inescapable, inevitable laws, is that one day…
One day…One day…
It is going to happen. 
I am sorry, but it’s true. 

How to Train Your Dragon Book Nine: How to Steal a Dragon’s Sword, prolouge pt 1 -- Cressida Cowell 

This is what the team behind the movies did, masterfully crafting a coming-of-age story for their older audiences. So, instead of a young boy growing into an awkward hero, then an uncertain leader, then a courageous king, we see a young man grow into a heroic leader, a responsible chief, and an honorable grown man with his own family. But the themes of heroism, responsibility, and courage are not lost in translation. 


Concept Sketch of Astrid riding Stormfly

Books are a lot of work. Movies are a lot of work. Even movies we don’t like or don’t do well still take hundreds of talented people to pull together. But it must be said that some movies stand above the rest, and those are usually stocked with people with a love and a passion for the masterpiece that they are creating. And, in the case of successful book-to-movie adaptations, they are usually stocked with people who have a deep love and respect for the original story they are drawing from. How to Train Your Dragon is a wonderful example of this. In every concept sketch, in every design of dragons, to the colorful cast of characters, to the larger-than-life locations, you can feel a deep admiration. From the careful training of animators to make sure the dragons’ wings caught the wind just so to the soaring score of John Powell’s (winning Film Score of the Year and Best Original Score for an Animated Feature in the IFMCA, among many others. Seriously, listen to this music if you haven't already), to the passionate voice actor performances, quality, and love are the names of the game. But the story doesn’t end there. 


Painted art of dragons flying over the ocean

As I mentioned, How to Train Your Dragon is a coming-of-age story with themes of growing up, heroism, courage, and responsibility, among other things. But something sets How to Train Your Dragon apart from other coming-of-age tales such as Harry Potter and Percy Jackson: It begins with the end.

How to Train Your Dragon is not the story of a boy currently telling his story but an old man telling the stories of when he was a boy. The beginning is the end and starts with a sense of inevitability. That is when we hear the infamous line, “There were dragons, when I was a boy…” And that line is not lost in the movies, far from it. 

For even though the plots may not be the same, the characters may not be the same, the dragons may not be the same, the endings must be. Hiccup is not an old man in the movies, only partially up there in years, but he is still passing on this melancholy declaration. Whatever it was, whatever we have loved and witnessed over three movies (and several seasons of shows) or twelve books, is no more. Growing up always happens…and every story has an ending; not all are happy. Some, well, some are pretty bittersweet. 

For a series with little surface resemblance to its origins, How to Train Your Dragon holds the spirit and keeps the fire strong. It does not seek to change important events in Hiccup’s life, such as losing those he loves or carrying the burden of the chief, nor even deciding to let go of his best friend. It does not remove the wonder of dragons in the world or how riding one for the first time would feel. It does not remove the whacky humor, larger-than-life cast, or the bustling world. 

And it is in these memorable, emotional, fantastical moments, the movies not only shine with the spirit of the books but also bring us a brand new story to love, laugh, and cry alongside. 


Book Toothless and Movie Toothless Funny

While stories such as Percy Jackson and Last Airbender failed in their to-movie translations, How to Train Your Dragon (among other masterpieces) proved that you could not only successfully adapt books to screen with excellence, but you can also create something different from that source that those who love the books can hold in equal esteem. Though some readers only want to see their vision of the books on the screen to the letter, most of us recognize when the movies carry the spark that makes the books what they are, the themes that connect them to us, and the love and passion that fellow fans of the books have brought to our screens. Let us, as readers, not say, “Well, if they had made it like the book,” and instead look for that spark and passion on the screen. 

There were dragons when I was a boy. 
There were great, grim, sky dragons that nested on the cliff tops like gigantic scary birds. Little, brown, scuttly dragons that hunted down the mice and rats in well-organized packs. Preposterously huge Sea Dragons that were twenty times as big as the Big Blue Whale and who kiled for the fun of it. 
You will have to take my word for it, for the dragons are disappearing so fast they may soon become extinct. Nobody knows what is happening. They are crawling back into the sea from whence they came, leaving not a bone, not a fang, in the earth for the men of the future to remember them by. 
So, in order that these amazing creatures should not be forgotten, I will tell this true story from my childhood. I was not the sort of boy who could train a dragon with a mere lifting of an eyebrow. I was not a natural at the Heroism business. I had to work at it. 
This is the story of becoming a Hero the Hard Way...

How to Train Your Dragon Book One: A Note from the Author -- Cressida Cowell 

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1 Comment

This post makes me wanna read the books.

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