Note: This piece was originally intended to be included in the appendix to Eleanor Cameron: Dimensions of Amazement, but was cut for space considerations.
The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet's perennial good sales and highly visual nature led Hollywood to come calling in the late 1960s. In a 1967 letter to Eleanor, actor/writer/producer Leonard Freeman began discussing the possibility of him of acquiring television and film options for the novel. Freeman was fairly successful at the time, having started as an actor in the early 1950s, but quickly moving on to writing and producing, most notably on Route 66, The Untouchables, and Hawaii 5-0. The book had been brought to his attention by his children, who were big Mushroom Planet fans. After securing the rights, he optioned a screenplay from Meyer Dolinsky, a television writer who had episodes of had episodes of Bonanza, The Outer Limits, Mission: Impossible, and Star Trek on his resume
But Eleanor hated Dolinsky’s take on the story. “I wrote Freeman and told him I hoped it was never filmed. He had the boys being rude and smarty to Mr. Bass, and the astronomy in the script expressed such ignorance that knowledgeable children in the audience would have laughed. Above all, David was characterized as carrying an asthma inhaler and Chuck as smoking.”
In addition to the elements Eleanor listed, Dolinsky’s screenplay also gave David a kid sister, Chloe, who stows away on the flight. The boys call the spaceship the “Astro Jalopy” and David is consistently rude and condescending toward Chuck. Eleanor’s concerns, the box office failure of the Doctor Doolittle film (thus dampening the ardor for children's book adaptations), and the success of Hawaii 5-0 led Freeman to move on from the project, much to Eleanor’s relief.
Concurrently, Nippon Hoso Kyokai, the Japanese Broadcasting Company, reached a deal with Little, Brown to produce two 20 minute television adaptations of Wonderful Flight, with the agreement they would only air twice as to not interfere with domestic film rights. The adaptations reportedly aired on February 28, 1967 and again on March 1, 1967. It never aired again, and there is precious little information about the program. It’s not even known if it was animated or live action.*
In 1970, Hal Belfer at Premore Studios (oddly, a subsidiary of the Dixie Solo Cup company) picked up the option to Wonderful Flight, intending to make the book into a TV series. Eleanor was not a fan of television, and that along with the Freeman experience led her to be skeptical. The idea is “a hopeless one as far as I'm concerned” she wrote to her friend Rita Lipkis. Eleanor admitted the money was tempting, but insisted she would not undermine her own creations just for cash: “If the [show] is to be a horrible, pointless, vulgar mess of a thing, and I can at all see that it's going to be, then I couldn't go into it.” Either for that reason or another, the show never materialized. Around this time, another writer proposed the story as a stage musical. Eleanor and Ian humored him with an exploratory conversation over dinner, but couldn't see his visions of a dancing chorus of Basidiumites as anything but ridiculous.
Interested parties kept trying to adapt the book throughout the 1980s, to no avail. Early in the decade, Rita’s son Larry, a musician, wrote a proposal for a National Endowment for the Arts grant to create a Wonderful Flight ballet. The proposal was rejected. Dave Gower, a filmmaker from Canada, wanted to change Chuck into Cheryl and bring NASA into the story. Eleanor reported that he felt “everything had to be scientific and extrapolated from fact.” She told him that would leave no place for the fantasy that was such an integral part of the story. In 1984, a writer tangentially connected with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial had the idea of combining Wonderful Flight and Stowaway into one film, but his script went nowhere. In 1986 Joseph Finder, then a professor at Harvard, wrote Eleanor asking for a permission to go forward with a Wonderful Flight screenplay. She gave the go-ahead, but Finder's script never gained traction. Around this time, the sub rights director at Little, Brown, Whit Watterbury, told Eleanor that he didn't think a Wonderful Flight film had a chance, as he couldn't even get anyone in Hollywood interested in Richard and Florence Atwater’s evergreen Mr. Popper's Penguins (a film version of that book starring Jim Carrey was eventually released in 2011).
Many came forward with proposals to create an animated film, but Eleanor was resistant to this idea, mostly because of her disappointment with the animated Charlotte's Web (1973): “The storyline was followed with none of the subtlety and beauty of White's book,” she complained. Even so, in 1989 she allowed a Canadian filmmaker named Mark Freedman to try his his hand at developing an animated version of the novel. He finished a screenplay, and Eleanor advised him on several aspects, asking that there be “no swelling to a heart-breaking moment – any catering pulling on the heart-strings sort of thing” (she wasn't a fan of Disney movies) and sharing strong opinions about the design of the characters. However, Freedman became busy with other projects, and a deal was never reached.
In 1993, Eleanor responded to another fan request about the film option: “Some company has already taken an option on the book and will have to pay $50,000 if the option results in a producer having enough money to pay the price and make the picture. It would be a fairly expensive picture to make and if you did write a screenplay, Hollywood is such a closed, hard-nosed world that you would have difficulty finding a producer. Apparently the company that has an option on the book feels optimistic about getting a producer, so possibly they will actually make a picture — after all these years of my turning down one offer after another. The reason I gave my consent this time was because they want to make the picture live and not in animation, which I would dislike intensely.”
The closest Wonderful Flight may ever get to a film adaptation is the 1985 movie
Explorers. Directed by Joe Dante, the story centers on three boys (played by Ethan
Hawke, River Phoenix, and Bobby Fite) who receive a mysterious message directing
them to build their own spaceship from found materials. Screenwriter Eric Luke, whose
father was a computer programmer for NASA, had read the Mushroom Planet books as
a child and found them to very similar to his own imagined space adventures. He says
he called on those flights of fancy to write the film. Besides sharing a similar premise,
the book and film also have a combination of hard science and science fantasy, a
strong sense of wonder, and a belief in dreams as a method of communication.
However, in nearly every specific detail, the book and film are very different.
To date, the only fully-realized adaptation of Wonderful Flight is a stage musical
created by Jeffrey Beer and Dr. Penny Prince. Beer had been a fan of the Mushroom
Planet books as a child and rediscovered Wonderful Flight in the '80s. He optioned the book and tried to drum up interest in a film or play, but didn't have much success. He moved on to other projects until meeting Prince, who was doing some musical theater work in Beer's daughter's school. Over dinner he suggested a musical of Wonderful Flight, and the creative process flowed from there. Beer put on the production in a small theater in upstate New York around 2005 and then several times since. Dr. Prince has put on the show as a project for her musical theater class at Lehman College in New York.
The idea of a film version of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet still floats out there tantalizingly. One can't help but fantasize about what a studio like Pixar might do with the story, capturing the sense of wonder of the book, locating the emotional core, and remaining faithful to the source material without feeling the need to add unnecessary action or conflict beyond what’s already in the book.
*If anyone has any additional information on this, please get in touch!