My favourite television show as a child was the 1981 animated series Belle & Sebastian (Meiken Jolie). I spent so many years of my adulthood trying to find it on VHS or DVD. To this day it is only available in bootleg form or in a rare French language-only DVD box set. This is a story that means a lot to me. It represents much of my childhood and it rekindles my youthful sense of adventure. I also adore the original novel and consider it one of the smartest pieces of children's literature. The story tells of the adventures of Sebastian and a huge white dog that he befriends in the Pyrenees mountains. With local villagers out to kill the misunderstood dog (Belle) Sebastian runs away into the mountains in search of his long lost mother who left him behind several years earlier. Their adventures detail a daring pilgrimage, police evasion and meeting people along their travels. There is even another little pooch who tags along with them...
My excitement went into overdrive when I first read about the story being adapted into a French live-action film... but sadly my enthusiasm was crushed when I saw it. The only resemblance to the original book and the animated series is its title and the two lead characters. Their story has been bastardised beyond recognition and there is nothing about the narrative arc that rings true. I was willing to allow it some liberties. Their adventure is a long one and unless the film was spread out into a trilogy then, of course, a lot of the details would need to be changed and/or omitted entirely. Instead director Nicolas Vanier has thrown the book out of the window, introduced Nazis, given Sebastian a whole new range of characters to travel with and given his journey a entirely different purpose. This new film now has him skirting around Nazis and leading a Jewish family through the mountains to Switzerland. Where the book and tv series kept the darker themes lurking in the shadows (but always present) this film brings them all out into the light and presents them as poorly conceived caricatures.
Ok, so to put my hat of objectivity on I would say that BELLE & SEBASTIAN is a beautiful looking film and that it is superbly acted. The Pyrenees landscapes and mountainous backdrops provide it with a stunning atmosphere that, alone, will carry viewers away with wonderment. The characters of Sebastian and Belle are gorgeously fleshed out and their personalities are precisely as the book had them to be. The little boy is incredible and his canine sidekick is adorable. Viewers who are unfamiliar with the original text or it's previous adaptations (was also a French live action tv series in the 60s) will be unaware of its extreme deviations and will probably be swept up by it. I envy them.
Liberties with adaptations are perfectly fine... but to entirely restructure a story and its purpose beyond recognition is unacceptable. I am baffled as to why they've done it. The original story has much more heart and wonderment that to abandon its concepts is to deprive the audience from a whole lot of magic.