Author Kate DiCamillo is best known for an array of children’s fiction classics. Many of these have been adapted to the screen, including Because of Winn-Dixie (2005), The Tale of Desperaux (2008), and Flora and Ulysses (2021). Now, the author’s 2009 novel, The Magician’s Elephant, comes to Netflix in a new animated adaptation.
I had the opportunity to speak with Kate about the film and the process of having a novel adapted to the screen (but not without first sharing how much I loved reading her books growing up).
Lex Williams: Hi, Kate. I’m very excited to be talking to you today because you were one of the first authors that I actually actively followed in elementary school. I loved Because of Winn-Dixie.
Kate DiCamillo: Oh, can I tell you how thrilling that is to me? So, Winn-Dixie was the first book that you found and then you like, looked for my name on something else?
LW: I did. I was in maybe third grade when I read Winn-Dixie? And I remember every Friday we’d have to go to the library and pick out a new book. And I loved Winn-Dixie so much that I went through, and I looked for your name in our library. So I read The Tale of Desperaux and the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. I loved all of those. So I was so excited when I got this opportunity to talk to you.
KDC: Oh, well, I’m equally thrilled! So, okay! Let’s do it!
LW: So my first question is: what inspired you to tell this story to begin with?
KDC: I was in New York City on a business trip and I was in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet a friend. I always feel strange when I talk about this, because it sounds so weird, but I had this kind of like vision of a magician. It was like I could see him so clearly; kind of like he’d spent his whole career wanting to do real magic and not doing it. I could see he just looked like a desperate character. And I thought, ‘Oh, that would be a good character for a story.’
So I got my notebook out to write down this description of the magician. When I reached into my purse, there was a gift that I was giving to the friend that I was meeting, which was a notebook with an elephant on it. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what this magician is going to do. He’s going to conjure an elephant, by mistake, a real elephant.’ That was the beginning, and then after that it became Peter looking for his sister. And that’s why the elephant was there.
LW: That’s so interesting. As a writer myself, I love hearing about how people come to create stories. But I also know that when you’re a writer, it’s really easy to get attached to your characters and the stories you create and it’s kind of hard to not feel like you’re the only person who could understand these characters on the level that you do. So when you go into a film adaptation, what do you look for in a team that gives you the sense that you can trust them with your story?
KDC: Well, it’s one of those things where every movie that gets made is a different experience and a different team. What happens first is a conversation with me, and I got to talk to Julia Pistor, who produced this movie, early on. Very early on when the book first came out [in 2009]. I knew it was in good hands because she understood the themes of it so well. You know, the power of asking ‘what if’ and the power of the impossible becomes impossible, and that feeling of magic and hope and possibility and community pervades this movie. Even though you know, a movie is always different than the book because it’s a different art form thematically, this is very true to the book.
LW: When you agree to turn your books over for film, how involved in the process are you? Did you have any particular process in this one that kind of differed from some of your other film adaptations?
KDC: It’s been different every time. Like with the first one, which was Because of Winn-Dixie, I actually learned how to write a screenplay, and got to work on the screenplay. I got to go to the set and was pretty involved with the whole thing. That was fascinating and wonderful. With Flora and Ulysses, I got to go to the set and just drop in and do a cameo at the end, which was also, you know, exciting and different.
With Magician’s Elephant, I got to join in during the pandemic. So it really mattered, I got to meet with them on Zoom and see this world that they were creating. It was just kind of a gorgeous dream that somebody was constructing without me having to do any work, you know, just to show up and marvel was my job. So, it’s different every time, and I’ve just learned to be open to whatever gifts happen as it unfolds.
LW: When you were watching this being created, and certainly after it was all done and you finally watched the full film, did it translate on the screen the way that you saw it in your head?
KDC: Oh it’s so funny because this is something that – and you probably know this as a writer too – you start with the first word. This is like something that the novelist Anne Patrick always says: you compromise your beautiful vision from writing the first word of the novel, right? You have this beautiful vision in your head, you try to get it down on paper, and it’s never as beautiful as the thing that was in your head. Then other people read it and and they have different visions in their head. All of which is to say that that thing that’s in my head, as I’m writing, I never quite get there anyway. And then, it becomes this thing where like, Yoko Tanaka did this illustrations for the physical book, and her vision became my vision. Now this gorgeous world that they’ve created for the movie has replaced the vision that was in my head. Does that make sense? So it’s just constantly kind of like the changing vision all the time.
LW: That does make sense, and I love that. I love when someone like you, where your gift is in writing and creating stories through words, someone who can direct or illustrate or animate has the gift of being able to take that same story and tell it through visualization. I just love when art inspires other art, and so that makes total sense of it kind of evolves into this new thing.
KDC: It evolved into a new thing. I watched it the first time with my heart in my throat, right? Because you’re like, ‘is it going to be good? How different is it going to be?’ And then I watched it the second time, and that time, all of that stuff was gone. I just fell into it as a story that had nothing to do with me. And as a world that has nothing to do with me, it was just this beautiful, beautiful place that I got to go to as a kid. It was a wonderful experience.
LW: That’s awesome. I know you kind of touched on this a little bit of how this process was different as opposed to your other film adaptations, but were there any particular differences in approaching this one in the way it was distributed? Like, Winn-Dixie being a live action theatrical release, versus even The Tale of Despereaux being another animated film but having a theatrical release, versus this one being distributed through Netflix?
KDC: It has been touched on before- it’s different each time, and each time different wonders and different ways into the story. It’s like, when I was in conversation with [director] Wendy [Rogers] and [producer] Julia [Pistor] last week doing a couple of press things, it was interesting to hear them talk about, you know, live action versus animation and what they could do with that elephant’s eyes. I don’t know if you noticed this when you were watching, but there’s a wonderful moment when Peter and the elephants kind of recognize each other. Everything kind of pivots. That’s the emotional heart of the thing is just that empathy, and how it would have been really hard, and how it really worked. It just seems like a real gift to have this in the form that it’s in.
LW: And then for my final question, if there’s one thing that audiences were to take away from this story, what would you hope it would be?
KDC: Hope and love and community; it’s such a warm movie. Another favorite moment, and I was saying this to Wendy and Julia, is when Peter is sitting with Gloria and Leo and he eats at their table. He asks what it is that he’s eating, and Gloria says, “it’s stew.” It’s just such a small moment, but she says it, that one word, with so much compassion, like she knows everything that he’s been missing. And, and she wants to be able to give it to him, that the warmth and the food and the community. Yes, that’s what I hope that people leave the movie feeling, too.
LW: I loved the story of compassion that shines through. I will admit, I’ve not read this book-
LW: I had kind of grown up a bit by the time it came out.
KDC: You were probably past me by the time it came out. But let’s go back to where we started, Lex: that child you. That is the best gift that you can give me, that story of you going and looking for my books in the library. Thank you.
LW: Oh, I’m so glad I could share that with you. I just remember asking my grandma to take me to Barnes and Noble so I could buy Edward Tulane because I loved that one so much; I wanted to keep it for myself. So, thank you so much, and it was so lovely chatting with you.
KDC: And it was so wonderful talking with you. Thank you. I appreciate it.
You can read our review of The Magician’s Elephant here.
The film is now available on Netflix.