It’s no exaggeration to say that Elf is one of the most successful films of the 2000s, and one of very few attempts at a modern Christmas classic that’s actually taken hold. Quotations like “Smiling’s my favorite” and “Son of a nutcracker!” are all but common vernacular. I would be lying if I said Elf wasn’t one of my favorite movies, too, but one of the biggest reasons why doesn’t get quite as much fanfare.
Picture this: a movie that accurately represents children’s book publishing while still poking affectionate fun at it.
Previously I had discussed the book publishing truths of You’ve Got Mail, and it got me to thinking about all the movies and television shows I’ve watched that in some way involved writing, publishing, bookstores, or libraries. The accuracy of these portrayals varies, and I so enjoyed blogging about You’ve Got Mail that I thought I might start a mini-series of blog posts exploring book business in the movies. I have a few in my queue to discuss, but if you have any recommendations, let me know!
In the meantime I thought, why not start with one of my favorite representations of book publishing, and my beloved children’s book publishing to boot?
Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell), who as a baby in an orphanage sneaked into Santa’s bag and went back to the North Pole with him, learns thirty years later that he’s a human adopted and raised by elves. He travels to New York to meet his real father Walter Hobbs (James Caan), a grumpy book publishing professional who’s wound up on the naughty list. It’s up to Buddy to bring back his father’s Christmas spirit…and save Santa, too!
As delightful as I find Buddy’s exuberant love of Christmas, one of my favorite parts of the movie doesn’t involve him at all. Walter, an upper-level publishing professional (most likely the Editorial Director or Editor-in-Chief), finds his job on the line when the children’s publisher he works for sees its numbers dropping. Elf recognizes his role as part of the business side (tangentially involved in the creative side), which is rarely the part of publishing that gets screen time. Naturally, Walter’s focus on business (and the irony of working in kidlit when he’s a big ol’ Grinch) are played for humor, but at the film’s conclusion, he also strikes out to start his own independent publisher with his sons, something he’s able to accomplish through his publishing business sense.
As much as the movie sets up Walter as a heartless Scrooge, his comment at the beginning of the movie that reprinting a book could cost upwards of $30,000 is true. Before books ship, publishers receive galleys, mock-ups of what the final product will look like, in advance (Walter’s signature is later seen on these pre-print copies, proving negligence on his part), and if an error occurred between proof and print, reprint costs would be negotiated with the printers.
Walter also has his go-to team: his personal assistant Deb and pinch hitter writers Morris and Eugene. Children’s publishing has expanded in the last few decades, true, but it’s still a close-knit branch of the industry. Editors and writers have a rapport, and in a pinch, it’s not
unusual for editors to approach authors with whom they’ve worked previously to see if they’ve got anything to work with or are open to a new project pitch. Morris and Eugene, of course, suggest that Walter hires Miles Finch (Peter Dinklage, pre-Tyrion), a prolific ghostwriter; this is also not uncommon in kidlit. The most iconic example, going strong since the fifties, is Carolyn Keene; at least a dozen authors have taken up her mantle to pen Nancy Drew’s mysteries. A ghostwriter who’s “written more classics than Dr. Seuss” may be less of an exaggeration than you think.
The older I get, the funnier I find the scene where Miles comes in to brainstorm with Walter and his team. Morris and Eugene pitch ideas about vegetables struggling with social issues like bullying and self-consciousness, and Miles shoots them down because vegetables are too vulnerable (“Kids, they’re already vulnerable”) and those books wouldn‘t stand out because “everyone is pushing small-town rural.” If you have even thirty seconds of experience in kidlit, you’ll be on the floor laughing at the sheer accuracy of the landscape of modern picture books.
The movie pokes fun at the absurdity, but the proof is in the publishing industry: there are innumerable picture books that teach (or rather, “preach”) life lessons through animal characters and sentient foods. Even better, Peter Dinklage’s stone-faced argument that the market is oversaturated with vulnerable veggies who don’t live in the big city couldn’t be more correct. The ideas he rejects aren’t so different from backlist flops you can (or maybe can’t, anymore) find on bookstore shelves.
Also, has any on-screen portrayal captured the experience of coming up with a new book idea as perfectly as Elf?
Every writer should be psyched out of their mind about whatever they’re working on.
A few times, to avoid having to describe Miles’ exciting idea, Elf cuts off the plot explanation by starting with some variation of “I’ll start with the cover.” It’s a clever technique for the script to sidestep addressing the actual pitch, therefore allowing viewers to imagine a truly great future hit, but it’s also legitimately how a picture book pitch might start. Illustration and presentation are as much a part of picture books as the narrative, and the cover and title are the top selling points to the target audience of young children. Often authors have no say in cover or layout design, something managed by the art department, but a prominent author who sells well or works consistently with a publisher would have more creative input. Miles Finch’s opening with his vision for the cover says that this writer is a big deal and he knows it, which the script explains anyway, but it’s a nice nod to the industry.
The abstract ideas of the creative process clashing with the numbers-oriented business side create great humor for Elf but also represent the publishing industry with more accuracy than most films. Every great idea generated in-house for kidlit started with a brainstorm session that was as much of a train wreck as Walter’s team’s meeting with Miles Finch. I guarantee it. In the end, good came of it, but every writer’s experience starts with a little chaos. If we can’t laugh at ourselves, what can we laugh at?
I like to think that when Walter founded his own publisher, he took Deb, Morris, and Eugene with him. Imagine the brainstorming sessions those guys had with Buddy leading up to the publication of Elf. I am in agreement with Will Ferrell, who turned down a big paycheck to star in Elf 2 because he felt that a sequel wouldn’t be good (Side note: Respect.), but, gosh, I would be totally cool with a mockumentary following the workplace shenanigans of Hobbs and Sons Publishers.