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WARNING: Spoilers ahead for How to Train Your Dragon.

It's almost become a proverbial saying in our culture that 'the book is always better than the movie.' And so often, this maxim proves true. Why?

While our experience with a book is limited only by the number of pages and the bounds of individual imagination, movies have a more concrete set of parameters. Common complaints include too little time to cover the material, deletion of important details, and the re-writing of certain scenes altogether. The result? Unhappy bookworms.

On rare occasions, however, we encounter a film that goes way beyond the appeal of its literary forebears. How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell, along with its film adaptation, is one such story.

Spoiler Alert

[Credit: Cressida Cowell]
[Credit: Cressida Cowell]

The middle grade novel How to Train Your Dragon was released in 2003. The film by the same name hit theaters in 2010. The film was nothing short of spectacular, and its sequel - as well as the upcoming third in the trilogy, expected in 2019 - have yet to disappoint. As a fan of the film, I was eager to read the book as well. What did I find?

If you pick up the paperback, you'll recognize a lot of names - Hiccup, Stoick the Vast, Snotlout, Fishlegs, even Toothless. However, you might not recognize much else.

In case you haven't read the book, consider this a spoiler: Vikings use small dragons to hunt, and every young viking must climb to the dragons' cave and capture a dragon to train. It's a rite of passage, and any who fail are outcasts from the tribe. As the chief's son, Hiccup is expected to do well, but he grabs a small, brown, common dragon that doesn't even have any teeth - but it has a big attitude, and tells him so (yes, the dragons can talk). Hiccup finally coerces Toothless into obeying, sometimes, but only to get back at Snotlout's monstrous nightmare - which, by the way, he's not supposed to have, because they are reserved for the family of the chief. In the end, a purple death rises from the ocean, intent on eating the village, but Hiccup and Toothless just barely manage to defeat it.

Considering the above, certain plot points add up - Hiccup is a bit of an outcast, never quite able to live up to his father's expectations. Snotlout is a jerk. There is some dragon training involved, and the defeat of a giant dragon at the end. Yet, I just didn't love the book like I did the movie. What variations make the movie so appealing?

The Author Speaks

Author Cressida Cowell herself explains why some elements of the book worked so well on film. For instance, she says, "The island is actually very close to my vision in the book... it’s very similar in the wildness of that."

The characters were also well-developed. Said Cowell:

"Particularly Hiccup I just think is a deeply satisfying performance, both acting and animation wise. There used to be a distancing with cartoons in a way, they used to be drawn characters, but he [Hiccup] feels to me like a real little boy, so you can really identify with him and that just gives the story so much emotional power with him and Stoick, and that beautiful father-son relationship that they have where they have those conversations where they can’t quite communicate with one another but they still love each other… So, those are the bits I love in the film. I think it’s an amazing film. I can’t thank the directors enough."

Although Toothless was portrayed much differently in the film, there were design elements that were the same as in the book, such as basing Toothless's behavior and biology on the common house cat. Cowell explains:

"The Toothless in the books is a small, disobedient Common-or-Garden dragon, who speaks to Hiccup in Dragonese (with a stammer). In the films, Toothless is a large, frightening Night Fury, who cannot talk. Both Toothlesses have a sweeter, gentler side to them than is at first apparent. And both Toothlesses were indeed, inspired by cats, in both look and in character... The look of the Toothless in the film is a mixture of cat and bat."

Even with the changes, Cowell has been very happy with the film adaptation of her book. She said, "I love the movies, and so the whole experience has been very enjoyable for me. It is a little mind-blowing to think that a story that began in my head is now giving pleasure to so many people across the world."

The book series now contains 12 volumes, so although different, it seems to have its own merit as well.

What Makes Greatness?

So, what is it about How to Train Your Dragon - the film - that gives it universal appeal? Is it the sweeping, detailed landscapes and accompanying orchestral arrangements? Is it the relationships - the father-son divide and reunion, the peer pressure, or the romance? Is it the underdog aspect, the every-man finally holding his own in the world? Is it the gentle manner in which physical disabilities are addressed? Is it simply the story of a boy and his dog?

Undeniably, the characters of How to Train Your Dragon are so diverse that there's some one there, some situation, that almost anyone could relate to. That, combined with a relatively long run time (an hour and 38 minutes) that prevents the story from being rushed, and the beauty of both artwork and music combine to form an animated powerhouse.

Said reviewer The_Fifth_Echo, "I watched How to Train Your Dragon about 5 times now, and it never gets boring. It actually keeps on getting better and better with with more and more views." My sentiments exactly, whatever that ephemeral quality may be.


Cara Siera is a freelance writer, world traveler, and dedicated bookworm.

Are there any films that you feel are better than their respective books? Tell us about them in the comments section below!

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