Home Is Not Where the Heart Is: Dreamworks’s Adaptation Fails Its Source Material


Listen, they’re cute, but…

Earlier this year, Dreamworks remade the book The True Meaning of Smekday into a movie called Home, which racked up a lot of money. However, in adapting the book, they ended up changing almost everything that was awesome about the book—so much so that I reviewed the book and the movie as two completely different stories. Now that the DVD of the movie is finally out, I thought it was about time that I compared the book and the movie, to further illustrate where the movie adaptation went wrong. The movie destroyed the book’s protagonist, theme, and diversity, leaving us with just a bunch of dancing squishy aliens. Spoilers for both book and movie after the jump.

In the movie, J.Lo is renamed Oh. I don’t know why, but I assume the creative team thought it would be confusing, given the real-life Jennifer Lopez’s involvement with the movie. For the purposes of this post, though, I am going to call both the book and movie characters J.Lo, to save us from being confused when I jump between the book and the movie.

the true meaning of smekdayFirst, of course, is Tip. In the book, there is no question that Tip is the narrator. The book starts as a school assignment—Tip is made to write about the meaning of Smekday, and the book emerges from that essay. As readers, we start the story with Tip, and follow her as she loses her mother to the Boov, packs everything in her car, and starts driving to Florida. J.Lo doesn’t come in until Tip is well into her journey. In the movie, the roles are reversed. We start the story with J.Lo as he narrates Moving Day—what the Boov call their invasion of Earth. Tip doesn’t appear in the movie until after J.Lo’s all moved in to his new Earth house.

However, going further, not only did the Tip of the movie not get to be the protagonist, she also didn’t get to drive as much of the movie as the Tip of the book got to. For example, in the book, it’s Tip who decides that they’re going to Happy Mouse Kingdom, it’s Tip who decides they’re going to Arizona, it’s Tip who hides J.Lo from other, less friendly humans, it’s Tip who insists on keeping her cat, and, last but not least, it’s Tip who finds out about the Gorg allergy that ultimately defeats them. In the movie, though, Tip just gets to be J.Lo’s backup. Unlike book Tip, who wanted to help save the Earth and get rid of the Gorg, movie Tip only wanted to find her mother. J.Lo is the one who is focused on fixing his mistake, and thus, he’s the one who discovers that the Gorg are after Captain Smek’s rock, and he’s the one who risks life and limb to return it to the Gorg. Tip gets screentime, but that’s not the same as Tip having agency for all of that screentime.

The movie’s most egregious error, which I mentioned briefly in my review of the movie, was how it changed the book’s theme from colonialism/imperialism to the incredibly clichéd “we should all get along” trash. To be honest, when I first heard there was going to be an adaptation, I didn’t think Dreamworks would go with the colonialism theme because it aggressively attacked past American actions, but after watching the movie, it seemed to me that the only reason Dreamworks changed the theme was to give J.Lo more of a storyline. In both the book and the movie, J.Lo accidentally brings another alien race, the Gorg, to the Earth. However, in the book, it’s Tip who stops the Gorg. This is because Tip is our protagonist, and it fits her storyline. She finds out that the Gorg are so intolerant because when their race started dying out, they cloned the most intolerant Gorg so many times that they eventually became a race of just clones. Tip discovers that this Gorg, and thus all Gorg, had a cat allergy. By cloning her cat and releasing a horde of cloned cats upon attacking Gorg, she’s able to get the Gorg to leave Earth.

In the movie, however, J.Lo gets the action. We start by learning about J.Lo’s flaws—he’s lonely, he doesn’t have friends, he keeps making dumb mistakes and no one likes him. Then we learn about the Gorg. J.Lo tells Tip that the Gorg are a race of takers, but he eventually finds out that the Boov, not the Gorg, are the ones who stole things. J.Lo discovers that Captain Smek stole the Gorg’s rock, and inside that rock are the Gorg’s future children (so it’s really an egg). After discovering this, J.Lo returns the egg to the Gorg leader, and we complete J.Lo’s character arc and the theme of the movie: everyone has feelings, and no one wants to be lonely. J.Lo ends the movie with lots of friends and the Gorg and baby Gorg stay to party next door. It’s clichéd enough that I can’t see a reason Dreamworks chose to rework the movie’s theme around it—unless they just wanted to make J.Lo the hero.

home trailerAlong the same lines, by taking away the more nuanced book theme, the movie also erased much of the book’s diversity. The True Meaning of Smekday was about the perils of colonialism, so it made sure to show the true diversity and multiculturalism of the world that was being destroyed. Tip, in the book, meets people of all races in her travels, and discovers that the parents being kidnapped by the Boov are chosen because they’re bilingual and can teach the Boov more than one Earth language. The fathers of the Latino boys that Tip runs into were stolen because they spoke Portuguese and Spanish, respectively; Tip’s own (white) mother speaks Italian. The movie erases Tip’s biracial heritage, and the Tip of the movie doesn’t meet any other humans during her travels. Her mother is Black and they’re immigrants from Barbados, undoubtedly a nod to Tip’s voice actress Rihanna’s heritage. Tip does talk about her heritage in the movie, which is always good, and there are faces of color in the background of most scenes. That’s pretty cool, and sadly, is not the norm for most movies, but when compared to the multifaceted diversity of the book, it doesn’t match up.

Even the aliens in The True Meaning of Smekday are more diverse than the ones in Home. J.Lo talks about the Boovish way of writing, which is a bubble-based system and which Tip unsuccessfully tries to learn; he shares information about how the Boov think of gender (they have seven), and he eats things humans consider unpalatable, to say the least. Home did at least keep the eating (throughout the movie, J.Lo drinks motor oil and eats a candy wrapper), but other parts, not so much. The Boov in the book are fairly good at fighting and strategy, and when the Gorg come, the two races fight. The Boov in the movie are known for running away and for being cowards, and J.Lo considers this course of action to be the most sensible. He has to learn from Tip that humans don’t run away, and sometimes not running works for the best. Tip is set up as the movie’s moral compass, and she has to teach him about the true meaning of love and feelings (seriously). So all of the movie’s meager attempts to engage with colonialism end up co-opted by J.Lo’s struggle—the movie never focuses on the humans’ feelings about being conquered, aside from some scenes with people jeering at Boov. J.Lo has to overcome his “character flaw” of making mistakes and running away by learning the humans’ ways and then saving Earth with those ways (ie by being brave), setting him up as an odd alien example of the Mighty Whitey trope. In the end, J.Lo gets to confront Captain Smek, become the new Boov leader, and save the Boov and the Earth from the Gorg, while Tip gets to stay in the car and later distract the Gorg leader.

Things always get lost when something is adapted to another medium, and on some level, saying that the original is always the best isn’t always the right way to go. But when an adaptation actively makes the source material worse, it deserves some critique. In the larger picture of things, when we put Home up next to the vast majority of movies made today, we can see that it turned a story about colonialism with a biracial protagonist into a story about a white-coded, male-coded alien schlub who saves the Earth (oh, and he has a Black sidekick). That’s not progressive or interesting, and it’s not the movie I want to see.

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2 thoughts on “Home Is Not Where the Heart Is: Dreamworks’s Adaptation Fails Its Source Material

  1. False, despite opening up on Oh, in truth it is Tip who is the protagonist while Oh is the supporting protagonist. They are two parts of the same force and it is because they manage to work as a team that the Earth is saved. Oh, with Tip’s help, undoes the gravest mistake the Boov (well, mainly Smek), have ever made. There is no Mighty Whitey trope involved because the Boov make a lot of mistakes despite their advanced technology. Don’t believe me? Look on the main page and the character page: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WesternAnimation/Home Heck, there’s nothing white about Oh besides his voice actor.

  2. Pingback: Throwback Thursdays: A Series of Unfortunate Events | Lady Geek Girl and Friends

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