Spangler’s From Sentence to Screen: Jumanji

Jumanji is a 1995 fantasy adventure film directed by Joe Johnston and stars Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst, Bonnie Hunt, and Bradley Pierce. It is loosely based on the 1981 children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also co-wrote the film. The film is the first installment of the Jumanji franchise, which includes two sequels and a spin-off, Zathura, which was also adapted from a Van Allsburg book. The movie starts in 1969 and follows a boy named Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) who finds a game, Jumanji, after hearing tribal drums in a construction site; the game was buried 100 years before by two brothers. After arguing with his father, he takes it home, and Alan takes out the game to play. Before he can start, his friend Sarah (Laura Bell Bundy) comes to visit him and the two start playing the game together, but on Alan’s turn, he is sucked into the game, and Sarah is chased away by bats. The story then fades to 26 years later, 1995, when siblings Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Bradley Pierce) move into Alan’s abandoned house with their aunt. The two discover Jumanji in the attic after hearing the tribal drums and decide to play it, releasing giant mosquitoes and monkeys on their first two turns. Since Peter rolls a 5, the game releases a now-adult Alan (Robin Williams) as well as a tiger. Alan realizes that the siblings have been playing his original game instead of a new one, and the three find the now grown-up Sarah (Bonnie Hunt). Together the four of them attempt to finish the game, but with every roll, it becomes harder and more dangerous to win. In this blog post, I will look at how the two characters from the book translated into the adaptation and how the story was expanded to make a children’s book long enough for a feature film. 

In the children’s book, there are only Judy and Peter playing the game, and really they are the only two characters in Jumanji. The two find Jumanji outside, leaning against a tree, and decide to take it home to play. First, looking at the oldest, Judy, her character remains mostly the same between the book and its adaptation. In the book, she is rebellious, deliberately making a mess with her toys after her parents told her not to. The film’s Judy is struggling with her parents’ deaths and often lies to people about how they died. She often makes snarky comments under her breath, and at the beginning of the movie often doesn’t listen to grown-ups when they tell her to do something. Judy’s actions in the film seem like a natural progression of the book’s character if she lost her parents. In both versions of the story, Judy is also the dominant sibling in the relationship. She generally takes the lead in situations, always trying to motivate Peter and taking care of him, even if sometimes she comes off as mean. For example, in both versions, Judy convinces Peter to play the game and constantly reminds him of Jumanji’s rules. In the book, that translates into making him continue playing the game, while in the movie, she is often the one reminding Peter when it is his turn to roll. In the film, Judy’s hair is in two braids when she starts playing Jumanji and throughout the whole game, like the book’s character’s hair. This seems like a very intentional decision by the filmmakers, which included Van Allsburg, to keep as much detail from his book as possible even though they had to considerably expand the story to make it long enough for a feature-length film. 

Now looking at Peter’s character, there are considerably more changes made to his character that are a clear byproduct of making the story longer. Appearance-wise, Peter from the book looks more like young Alan Parrish; they wear similar clothes and have the same glasses. In the movie, when Alan comes out of Jumanji after 26 years, he asks Judy if she is his sister. People familiar with how the characters are drawn in Van Allsburg’s book will recognize the reference to the fact that Alan is meant to represent Peter. In the movie, Peter’s actual character is still Judy’s brother, and he has a similar relationship with her as in the book, like I mentioned earlier. Overall though, he presents a much more timid personality often needing to be reassured by Alan, Sarah, and Judy. He tends to want to make everyone around him happy, which leads to a few situations, like when he tries to cheat to win the game and gets turned into a monkey-human hybrid. Book Peter seems to have the same tendency to want to make people happy just to a lesser extent, instead following what his sister says and being easily convinced to do things, like play the game, even when he doesn’t really want to. One thing that stays the same in Peter’s character between the two mediums is how unfiltered and honest he is about things, even maybe when he shouldn’t be. An example of this from the book is when his parents come home, he tells them all about what happened, though they just take this as a child’s imagination. In the movie, he just tends to tell the truth without filtering it, making Peter seem younger and more naive than he is shown to be.                 

Plotwise, there are some interesting changes made that fleshed out the story, making it more than just a children’s quick adventure in their own home. The biggest addition is Alan Parrish and everything that happens around him. First, the brief backstory on his relationship with his parents and getting bullied, then his friendship and eventual romance with Sarah— a completely new character made for the movie. With Alan and Sarah playing the game before Judy and Peter, it gives the audience context for how the game works and the consequences it can have if not finished. Whereas in the book, the siblings play the game all the way through even when something bad happens. Like when Peter falls asleep after being bitten by a fly, but he was okay again immediately after Judy rolls and they can continue playing like nothing happened. In the movie, if something happens, like Peter turning into a monkey or Alan and Sarah get stuck on the floor, that is the way things stay until the game ends. This makes Jumanji seem more like a game of life and death instead of a jungle adventure game that just happens to include real animals and rain inside a house. Another change that makes the movie’s version seem more dangerous comes from including the murderous hunter Van Pelt (Jonathan Hyde), who was created instead of using the baffled tour guide in Van Allsburg’s original version. Throughout the book, the tour guide mostly just sits in the living room acting lost, with no real purpose in the story, and is just an extra element made into the game like monkeys, which just cause havoc. On the other hand, Van Pelt seems to have a grudge against Alan that formed from his time locked in the game, and the hunter is intent on killing him and the other players if necessary.       

The last change made to the story is the design of the game, which just seemed like an aesthetic change to make the game seem more ominous to viewers. Jumanji in the book was presented like a jungle version of Candyland, as it was in a colorful cardboard box, had little movers shaped like chess pawns, its board folded out, and was simply designed with each space on the board having an action and event on it. The film made the game look handcrafted and very old, with the movers and dice linked to the game; so whatever happened, the movers would never fall off, and the game always knew the number of spaces to move the pieces across the board; it didn’t even need the players to do that part. There is also a black half orb in the middle of the board that gives out the events. Given that the book is made for fairly young children and the movie speaks to a broader audience, this change makes sense. If the filmmakers designed the game like in the book, it wouldn’t have had the initial effect intended for the audience, which is also why the extra detail of tribal drums being heard when the game is near was added. 

Given that I was born after the release of this movie, I literally grew up watching it. Even before I became aware of the book in grade school, I was a preschooler watching Jumanji on DVD. It is one of those movies for children growing up in the late nineties and early 2000s that was always just there. It could be easily referenced and, as that age group has grown older, has become a piece of nostalgia that the generation is so well known for. It has even spawned two sequels that are even less like the children’s novel than the original was. Though I like the new Jumanji movies, I will always be partial to the 1995 original with Robin Williams’s amazing acting and charisma. For my next blog, I will be looking at the 1990 Stephen King novel adaption, Misery, directed by Rob Reiner.

— Jo Spangler, Film blogger.

Jo’s bio:

Jo Spangler
Jo Spangler

Jo Spangler is a junior at Lewis University, majoring in English Literature and Language with a minor in Creative Writing. She is a writing tutor in the Lewis Writing Center and a Youth Enrichment Aide for the YMCA. In her free time, Jo enjoys reading, writing, listening to music, and watching movies. She has been to 10 countries outside the United States, including England, Italy, Turkey, and Austria. One of Jo’s favorite book series is The All Souls Trilogy, by Deborah Harkness, because of how she mixes the supernatural with history and the focus on character development. In the future, she hopes to go into the publishing industry to help find new and exciting books for people to read.

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