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Friday, March 26, 2010

Consider the Source: How To Train Your Dragon

Dragon

DreamWorks' How To Train Your Dragon is the kind of adaptation that seems to take place in an alternate dimension from the original book. Like the novel, the film takes place on an Viking island called Berk, most of the characters have the same names and dragons are all over the place. Apart from that, the film, while highly entertaining, has practically nothing common with Cressida Cowell's original YA book.

Subtitled, "Heroic Misadventures of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III" and allegedly "translated from the Old Norse" by Cressida Cowell, How To Train Your Dragon depicts the coming of age of Hiccup, the scrawny, 11-year old son of a Viking chief. Where in the film, dragons are hostile but misunderstood marauders, the book depicts dragons as being half-domesticated, comparable to hunting dogs or trained falcons. The book begins with Hiccup, by virtue of being the chief's son, leading his peers on a raid of a dragon's nest to capture young dragons. Hiccup ends up with a undersized reptile that rembles a "Common or Garden Dragon," but which he claims is an undiscovered breed, the "Toothless Daydream." When Hiccup's attempts to make "Toothless" behave fail, he consults a would-be scholarly Viking text, How To Train Your Dragon, but is dismayed to fine that it consists of one line: "YELL AT IT; THE LOUDER, THE BETTER."

Instead, Hiccup becomes what a 21st century reader would call a "dragon whisperer" and tries to use flattery, persuasion and the promise of riddles to get Hiccup to behave. His fellow Vikings scoff at Hiccup's unmanly behavior, but he teaches himself Dragonese. In a more formulaic story (like DreamWorks film, for instance), Hiccup's humane approach would payoff big. In the book, Toothless persistently proves to be as  stubborn and uncooperative as a grumpy housecat, and roughly the same size. Instead, Hiccup's ability to speak Dragonese provides crucial assistance when a Godzilla-sized dragon called The Green Death washes ashore on Berk and, with eerie hauteur, mentions his intention to eat every living thing on the island.

Cowell caters to the kind of silly, bathroom humor that will appeal to boys (and plenty of girls) of all ages. Viking characters have names like "Dogsbreath the Duhbrain" and "Badbreath the Gruff," with Hiccup's mother Vallaharama bearing a moniker worthy of a roller derby champ. Similarly, the book's illustrations are comically crude, as if scrawled by a first grader gripping a piece of charcoal. Although the book' jokes tend to aim low (the film proves surprisingly restrained by comparison), Cowell's rollicking storytelling proves quite appealing over the course of the series, which throws Hiccup into hilariously dangerous situations. Hiccup continuously survives thanks to his ingenuity, while Toothless never breaks character to be too loyal or heroic. Cowell's book suggests that having a dragon as a pet, even if you can talk to it, proves to be a major pain in the ass.

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