You know those rare moments in life when you loved the movie far more than you even liked the book? Well, that’s How to Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell. This doesn’t happen very often for me, but ultimately I find some movies really take the source material and change it for the better. Often, unfortunately, that happens when the source material either isn’t great, has problems, or just plain missed out on an opportunity for emotional attachment. In the case of Cowell’s novel, it’s not that her story is bad but rather that the film’s story is better, infinitely so, especially when it comes to emotionality.
Let’s get one thing straight here to start with.
Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon is nothing like its movie counterpart. If you suggested that the film is loosely based on this book, you’d be correct. Near everything is different. I could probably count the similarities on one hand. Barring Hiccup’s personality (but only moderately), the names, the setting, and pieces of the ending…there’s very little similar about them. Instead of a world of Vikings who are terrified of and fight dragons, we live literally in a world where they are raised to capture and train them. The entire central conflict of the film, that of Stoick wanting his son to kill dragons and Hiccup refusing, does not exist in the book.
Also, much to the annoyance of one of my students, there is no Astrid in the books.
As much as I hate to admit it, the changes made to the story really do affect the likability. I can guarantee you all that I would not have an emotional attachment to How to Train Your Dragon without the things that they changed in the process of adapting it. Most likely, if I’d even read the book, I would have thought it was decent for young readers–it is generally a pretty good book–but I never would have cared much more than that. As it stands, I really have no interest whatsoever in reading the rest of the books in this series.
Let’s talk about why.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: book Toothless is awful. He’s whiny and annoying and in no way endearing. I don’t care about him at all in the books whereas in the movie I fall in love with him. This was perhaps my biggest gripe about the differences between the books. I couldn’t stand one of the most important characters. Also, Toothless talks which, while not inherently bad, it did make it harder to connect with the characters in general. Again, there’s that emotionality aspect; Toothless was kind of a jerk, something you wouldn’t have felt as much had he not been able to talk.
The stakes are higher in the film. First of all, you care more about the characters. You love Hiccup, you adore Toothless, and you’re incredibly invested in their relationship and wellbeing. The books were more about a bullied kid of a leader who couldn’t figure out how to train his bratty pet. The movie, however, had many deeper messages. Moments of tension like when Hiccup had to decide between being the fearsome dragon killer his father wants him to be and when he tried to convince his people that dragons weren’t dangerous had you on the edge of your seat. You care about Stoick, but you hate him for what he does to Toothless.
The movie shows you that adults can be wrong sometimes and learn, too.
You don’t really get that in the book.
Honestly, at times the victory at the end of the novel doesn’t even feel earned. Things just happened to turn out. The lazy dragon who refused to anything just happened to get up and do something. If I recall correctly, he complained the entire time he was doing it. Everyone had dragons, so Toothless–baring his reluctant heroics–wasn’t really special in any way other than that he allowed Hiccup to get bullied more.
And I’m not saying that the book was bad. The world-building is amazing, the characters are fun and relatable, and the story is pretty decent. But I never would have loved it on its own. And, yeah, when compared to the movie it doesn’t even really stand a chance.