Any film adaptation of a book usually has to contend with the burden of balancing source material with the challenge of translating it all to film. Film simply has different requirements than a book, the most obvious being that it can’t exceed two hours’ worth of material. This means that memorable scenes from the book get cut, minor characters get relegated even further to the background and, inevitably, some readers turned film-goers leave the theatre telling anyone who will listen, “The book was better.”
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is one film adaptation of a book that shouldn’t have to worry about this problem. If you’re not familiar with the source material here, Alexander is based on a book of the same hyperbolic name that is basically the children’s story version of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
Alexander doesn’t wake up to find himself transformed into a horrible bug, but he does get some gum stuck in his hair before he even gets out of bed, before embarking on an awful day in which he has to eat lima beans, gets picked on and come to terms with the fact that every man lives on the brink of total destruction. The story ends with some half-hearted words of comfort from his mom: she tells him not to worry, bad days happen to everyone.
So the difficulty of a feature length adaptation of this rather sparse and depressing source material is figuring out how to expand it, instead of the usual task of cutting it down. Judging by the trailer, the filmmakers have come up with a terrifying solution: Alexander no longer has just one bad day—his whole life is made up entirely of bad days. Instead of an unlucky everyman hitting a rough spot, in an unbelievably cruel and depressing change for a children’s movie, Alexander’s character is now defined by the terrible things that always happen to him.
To make matters even more disheartening, the premise of the film is that Alexander is part of a family—mother and father roles filled by Jennifer Garner and Steve Carrell—that couldn’t be happier. While Alexander spends his days tripping over sprinklers and catching on fire, his dad has an interview for a company where they ride kicktail longboards around, his mother is about to be promoted to Vice President and his brother is on the brink of becoming a licensed driver and going to prom with his beautiful girlfriend. Chronically ill-fated Alexander has to live in the same house with these forever successful people who parade around with sickening smiles stuck to their faces.
So what’s the film’s turning point? Surely Alexander doesn’t spend the whole movie getting kicked in the proverbial teeth, right? Does some of his family’s luck finally rub off on Alexander? Quite the opposite: Alexander’s curse becomes contagious. The bad day of the title refers to the day when his family is finally lowered to his level. Like some Old Testament harbinger of plague, Alexander watches as misfortune after misfortune befalls his previously unaffected family.
But Alexander is used to making lemonade out of the rotten, diseased lemons his life has continually pelted him with and he becomes the rallying point for his imperiled family, presumably teaching them how to carve meaning out of an indifferent universe. Used to handling existential dread on a daily basis, Alexander has found something that not even he can screw up.
Since this is a Disney movie, I assume it ends with a with some sort of consolation and happily-ever-after, but wouldn’t it be so much more in line with the source material if Alexander sees his entire family ruined and says something like, “Don’t worry. Bad days happen to everyone”—something his family has been forced to learn the hard way? If it ends with Alexander finally finding success, then we might see some of people leaving the theater saying, “The book was better.”