(Not-So)Silly Soapbox: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

I wish I could sit you down and read this book to you.  Like, right now. Cover to cover, in one sitting.

This is one of my all-time favorite books.  Sure, it’s a children’s book, but the story is so sweet, so endearing, so funny.  No person with a heartbeat could help but adore Mr. Popper from the moment you see him walking down the street covered in paint and bits of wallpaper, ’till the end when you’re waving goodbye to him and his penguins as they make their journey back to Antartica.

From start to finish, this is a great book.  No wonder it was honored by Newbery.  They’re kind-of known for having great taste in children’s lit.

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had the happy job of reading this book to my kids for the first time.  They ate it up, just like I had when I was little.  Some things are timeless.

My kids are being raised in a world where everything is available on a screen of some sort – movies, books, music, tv, art, games.  While technology definitely has its advantages, I have to admit, I dig that convenience far less than the average person.  The hubster and I often butt heads about this.  It’s his job to be on the cutting edge of home integration technology – a job he loves.  Which means we have more gear than any sane person has the right to (even if it’s far less than he would like).  And it’s something that the kids have adapted to from day one.  They’ll never know what an answering machine is.  What a rotary phone is.  They’ll never know the joy of going to the movie rental store to pick out a movie to rent.  There’s been a digital world at their fingertips pretty much since the moment they emerged from my womb.  They’ve grown up with this stuff.  So whenever we read a book together that’s a hit, it’s only natural that they’d ask whether there’s a movie for it (and if they can watch it in the car on their iPod).

My response, as the ultra-stellar-super-cool-number-one mom that I am is to simply roll my eyes, chalk it up to my boys being little miniature versions of their dad (who, by the way, is ultra-stellar himself), and Google the title of the book in question.  This time, it was Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Nope, I told them as I scanned the screen.  No movie.  Oh.  No, wait. (clicks on IMDb website)  They’re making a movie.  Oh.  (gulp)  It’s a Jim Carey movie.  Hmmm.  (squinches eyes)  Looks like they strayed from the plot a little.  There’s a trailer.  Let’s see.  (watches, dismayed)  Welllll….the main character’s name is Mr. Popper, and there are a few penguins, soo…I guess that’s the same.  

Thankfully, the movie wasn’t due to be released for several months, and the kids forgot about it.  *phew*  A family of five has to take out a second mortgage to see a movie in the theaters these days, so we usually only go if one of the children proclaims they might actually die if we don’t.  This usually only happens if the movie involves alien robots simultaneously trying to save/destroy Earth while some teenage busty babe – played by an actress who is clearly not a teenager – pretends to fix cars.  Gag.  Me.  Now.

(This, by the way, is a tactic I plan on using when The Hobbit is released.  I will die if I don’t see it in the theatre. The thought of missing it actually makes me feel faint and a little nauseous.)

So, we didn’t see it in the theatre.  In fact, we pretty much forgot about the movie altogether.  Until we found ourselves home this New Year’s Eve with kiddos who were anxious to watch a movie.  As we were scrolling through the rentable selection on AppleTV, Mr. Popper’s Penguins popped up.  And the kids remembered.

How bad can it be? I asked myself as the kids bounced up and down, noisily awaiting my decision.  I mean, even if they mess with the plot a little, it’s still Jim Carey.  He’s always good for a laugh or two.  Or at least a snorting chortle.  And there are penguins.  Penguins are cute, right?  If Morgan Freeman’s taught us anything, it’s that penguins are cute.

And so we rented Mr. Popper’s Penguins to ring in the New Year.


Let me tell you where the screenplay writers and director got it right:

(1)  There is a guy in it named Mr. Popper.

(2) A penguin arrives at his house via mail.

That’s it.  Those are the only two similarities between the book and the movie.  Oh my gosh, and it makes me so mad!  Not because they made the book into a movie – if there was ever a movie that could have rivaled the heralded children’s classic Babe (the book’s name is The Sheep-Pig) in the sweetness of the story, the humility and lovability of the main (human) character, and the ample personality and charisma of the main (animal) character, it’s Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

I understand that when a book is adapted for film, that the film will usually stray from the story a bit – that’s expected.  I don’t know if there’s a book out there that’s ever been made into a movie that hasn’t been changed at least marginally.  But this is a whole ‘nother animal completely.  They didn’t simply do some tweaking to make it more film-worthy.  They re-wrote the whole story.  Here are a few examples of how:

In the book… Mr. Popper is a poor but loving husband and father whose favorite pastime is daydreaming about adventuring into the wild.  In the movie… Mr. Popper is a very wealthy businessman who’s divorced, barely knows his kids, and daydreams about making lots and lots and lots and lots of money.

In the book… Mr. Popper receives a penguin in the mail from his hero, Admiral Drake, as a gift for a kind letter he wrote to the Admiral.  In the movie… Mr. Popper receives a penguin in the mail from his dead father (who was an adventurer) who never had time for his son when he was alive.

In the book… Mr. Popper teaches his clever penguins to dance and perform together, and he and his family hit the road to do a traveling show (and have many adventures together).  In the movie… Mr. Popper uses his penguins to try and win back the love of his kids and ex-wife.

In the book… Mr. Popper finally gets the dream of his lifetime when Admiral Drake returns and offers to take him on a trip to Antartica to return the penguins safely home.  In the movie… Mr. Popper finally gets the dream of his lifetime by managing to purchase Tavern on the Green for his real estate company, thus becoming parter in the firm.

Sorry.  I have to say it one more time.  Blarrrrrg.

I get it.  Movies with cute animals, spunky kids, physical humor, and parents getting back together work.  I mean, when I was a kid, I could recite The Parent Trap word for word.  But to take a book like Mr. Popper’s Penguins and break it…it seems so totally unnecessary.  Why not just write an entirely new movie, name it Mr. Miller’s Macaws, and be done with it?  Believe me, nobody in their right mind would have ever thought the two were similar…because by changing the name and the type of bird, you just completely erased any similarities at all between the book and the movie.

I would love, love, love to see this movie done again.  The right way.  Set in 1938 when the book was written.  With humble, sweet and charming characters.  With birds who are not named ‘Loudy’, ‘Bitey’, ‘Lovey’, and ‘Nimrod’, but have names like ‘Captain Cook’, ‘Greta’, ‘Columbus’, ‘Victoria’, and ‘Magellan’ – to name a few.  With hilarious hijinx that involve more than the birds pooping on Mr. Popper.

How do you feel?  Have any of you read the book?  Seen the movie?  Have a favorite book that’s been slaughtered by Hollywood?  Think I’m full of crap?  Talk to me, people!


27 thoughts on “(Not-So)Silly Soapbox: Mr. Popper’s Penguins

  1. Gloria Richard Author says:

    Well, said, MYNDI!

    Sometime this week, I will plop myself in a chair at Barnes and Noble and reread Mr. Poppers Penguins. Count on it.

    The one that springs immediately to mind (perhaps b/c of the season) is The Grinch. I LOVE Dr. Seuss. I LOVE the animated movie with Dr. Seuss’ lyrical words and the LOL visuals.

    I DO NOT LOVE the Jim Carrey movie with the same title. What’s up with Carrey messing with our children’s books?

    The Harry Potter movie adaptations stay true to the story, but no movie can replicate the snark and spit-on-the book funny one-liners JK throws at us in that series. For the record, I own the whole set, but have not read and will not read the final in the series. Too dark. No Hogwarts. I’d rather let the series end for me after book six.

    Curious minds, and all that jazz..,.

    What did your kids think when they saw the movie?

    • Myndi Shafer...one stray sock away from insanity. says:

      They liked the movie – not because it followed the book, but because it appealed to what 7 and 9 year old boys like – physical humor, potty jokes, obvious bad guys getting what’s coming. They L O V E D the book, though, and wished the movie would have been more like it. I don’t think it offended them nearly as much as it did me. 🙂 🙂

    • Myndi Shafer...one stray sock away from insanity. says:

      I love Harry Potter, too! My least favorite was year five…Harry was in such a gloomy place, I oftentimes found myself wanting to smack some sense into him. The last book was one of my favorites. It was sad not to be in the halls of Hogwarts, but Neville’s coming of age made the whole thing worth it. I love how his story was an undercurrent throughout the books, and how Rowling really allowed it to bloom at the end. Fabulously beautiful. I hope you pick it up and give it a go at some point!!

  2. themidnightnovelist says:

    I know exactly what you mean! I love the Percy Jackson series and they all but destroyed the movie. They changed what some of the characters were like and completely disregarded the bad guy…I mean, who DOES that? I hear they’re making a second movie, though. Here’s to hoping they clean up their act a little bit and start making it closer to the books. I mean, people love the books for a reason. The closer the movie is to a book, the more fans will go to see it. It sounds like simple logic to me, but apparently…it’s not.

    • Myndi Shafer...one stray sock away from insanity. says:

      I think it’s kindof like trying to cut your own bangs. You start out with good intentions, but just can’t get them straight, so you cut a little more, and a little more, until sure, you might have a straight line, but what you’ve got left isn’t worth saving. Somebody needs to snatch the scissors away from Hollywood and give them a good, long, finger in the face talking to. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Okay, well, not all of Hollywood. Just the overly-ambitious-bang-choppers.

  3. Ginger Calem says:

    Great post Myndi. Clearly I lived under a rock because I have never read Mr. Poppers Penguins and it sounds delightful and endearing. I did see previews for the movie and knew it was not my kind of gig. 😉

    There was a movie where I felt as indignant as you and robbed as you feel, but apparently it was so upsetting to me, I’ve completely purged it from my memory bank. If I remember it, I’ll tell you. But I distinctly remember walking out of the theatre appalled at how they destroyed a great book. Haruuuhmph!

  4. Diane Capri (@DianeCapri) says:

    I didn’t see the movie and didn’t know there was a book. But you make it sound so amazing that now I’ll have to read it. 🙂 Books-to-movies transition is always a challenge. A friend says that’s because there are book people and movie people and they like/want/will pay for different things. What do you think?

    • Myndi Shafer...one stray sock away from insanity. says:

      That’s probably the case to some extent…but for myself, I love books and movies, both. Some books are pretty tough to translate on-screen, and I can appreciate that. But this little story…it would have stood just fine without all the ‘work’ they did to it. 🙂 You should really read the book – if you like kids lit at all, it’ll leave you grinning. I would have never picked it up again had it not been for homeschool – I’d forgotten about this book entirely, until I saw it was on the reading list for our curriculum. So happy to have stumbled upon it again!

  5. Coleen Patrick says:

    Well I am so glad I didn’t “win” on our last movie night (I was the only vote for Mr. Popper). I think I will head on over to the library’s web site and put a hold on the book–you have me nostalgic for a great kid’s book now 🙂

  6. Tameri Etherton says:

    I’ve been wondering about this movie, but now that I know there is a book well, I’ll get that and skip the movie.

    You’re so cute about that Hobbit thing. You must, must, must see it in the theater!

  7. Nigel Blackwell says:

    Hi Myndi.

    I share your pain. We rented the movie, too. I watched parts of it, that was all I could stand.

    I’ve never read the book, but the film speaks volumes about Hollywood’s influence on society. Mr Popper, a film about a materialist who’s parents couldn’t care less about him, uses a bunch of penguins to try wining back the ex he ignored and the kids he didn’t want while gaining a promotion … all because HE wanted to be happier. A blockbuster for sure. Grrrrrrrr.

    Another really sad kids book to movie is The Cat in the Hat.

    Enjoy the Hobbit 🙂


  8. Paige Kellerman says:

    That makes me sad. I feel like good children’s literature I grew up with is constantly being remade and hacked to pieces…but what are we to do? Probably the best thing is exactly what you’re doing by reading all those wonderful books to your children. That’s my plan..:) Not to read to your kids…but mine…just so you don’t think I’m showing up on your door step, anytime soon..LOL. And I definitely need to re-read The Hobbit before it comes out!!! Might. Pee. Pants. In. Anticipation.

  9. Colin Falconer says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Myndi. Hollywood seems to be obsessed with ‘vehicles’ for actors rather than stories. ‘Oh this Mister Popper sounds like a great vehicle for Jim Carrey’. I share your frustration, not just with kids movies but more and more of the formulaic crap that’s coming out of Hollywood. Read an interesting thing the other day that cinemas had a very bad year last year – more people are staying home to watch movies they downloaded themselves and not one of the top 5 downloads was a Hollywood movie – they were all foreign or indies. All the technical gadgetry and over-emoting from Jim Carrey won’t save a script that doesn’t have a soul. Great post!

  10. Louise Behiel says:

    Your post makes me very glad I don’t watch movies, Myndi. Sorry to say I haven’t read this book but I’m going to get it for my granddaughters. they too live in an uber tech house and they assume (at 4 and 18 mon) that phones are for games. I can only imagine how they’ll be in a few years.

  11. Fabio Bueno says:

    Myndi, I understand how you feel. Hollywood destroys so many beloved books. I get that books and movies are two different media, and it’s always an “adaptation” etc. LOTR and Scott Pilgrim are great examples of really good tranfers, but they’re the exception, sadly…

  12. Jennette Marie Powell says:

    OMG Mr. Popper’s Penguins was one of my favorite books when I was a kid! I was so excited when my daughter brought it home from school when she was in 2nd grade – and so disappointed when she told me she couldn’t get into it. And now I’m so glad I never bothered to see the movie! Just reading about it makes me… blarg is right!

  13. Rabia says:

    I have no desire to watch Hollywood mangle yet another book, but your post makes me doubly glad that I haven’t had the slightest interest in the movie. Ugh.

  14. No Reimer Reason says:

    Adrianna and I just read the book a few months ago as part of our Sonlight 1st grade curriculum. We both loved it. (We read it before the guide said to because it looked so cute and we couldn’t wait!) She is already asking to read it again!

    We will probably see the movie too even though, judging from the previews and now from your review too, I’ve warned her that it is nothing like the book.

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