Cressida Cowell Talks How to Train Your Dragon

Author Cressida Cowell talks about turning her How to Train Your Dragon book into the popular animated movie

While renowned children's book author Cressida Cowell did grow up in London, she had a very unique childhood experience that eventually lead to tales of Hiccup and his dragon companion. She spent her summers on a tiny remote island, with no electricity to speak of. So, to entertain herself, she would write these tales about dragons, based on tall tales her father used to tell her. The experience surely paid off as, later in life, she wrote the book series How to Train Your Dragon, which was adapted into the successful DreamWorks Animation movie which just hit the shelves on DVD, two-disc DVD and Blu-ray today, October 15. I recently had the chance to speak with Cressida Cowell over the phone, and here's what she had to say:

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I read about the island you spent so much time on when you were a child and I was really intrigued by that. Can you talk a bit more about that experience and how the stories your father told you led into writing How to Train Your Dragon?

Cressida Cowell: Well, it really inspired the books because it was a very unusual experience, to have as a child. The island was completely uninhabited. We would be dropped off on the island by fishermen and picked up two weeks later. It was so small that when you stood on top of it, you could only see sea, all around you, maybe a mile across. We didn't have a boat or a way of contacting the outside world at all. At that age, we were camping, cooking on an open fire outside. It was a very unusual experience for a child. As I got older, my dad had a house built on the island, so we then spent the whole summer out there. I grew up mostly in London, so to spend the summer in this wilderness... we had the house but there was no electriticy and no television. So we were there all summer and we got a boat at that stage because you obviously can't take a large amount of food out there for six weeks. So we went out on the boat and caught our own food. I suppose we were living how people had lived for thousands of years, like the Vikings themselves. Indeed they did live on that west coast of Scotland, because when the islands were invaded by Vikings, that was the first place they came to. There were ruined houses all over the island and we were living like those people lived. It was a very direct inspiration and, of course, if you're out on an island without any television for six weeks, you make up your own stories. I read a lot and I made up my own stories about Vikings and about dragons. I didn't put the two together though. I would love to say that I wrote these particular books when I was a child, but I didn't do that until I was an adult. But it was very much that experience that was the inspiration for the books. Children often write to me and say, 'Your family is completely crazy!' But they're strangely believable and I think that's partly because they're based on something that really happened to me. When Hiccup goes out in a storm or is lost, I know how it feels to be out in a boat, in a storm, with a father driving the boat who really doesn't know what he was doing. It's terrifying but it was those real experiences that come through in the book and that this rather wild fantasy is believable.

Can you talk a bit about how the book was discovered for an adaptation and who first approached you about making the book into a feature?

Cressida Cowell: DreamWorks Animation approached my agent and it was very much out of the blue and a surprise. The book was published in America but it was a British book so I was very interested that they approached my agent. I had a bit of movie and television interest, which I had turned down, but, particularly if you're writing something, and if it's based on something that's very close to your heart like these books were, it isn't completely easy to have it optioned. It needed to be something rather special to make it worth the risk and I thought they were very interesting, so I took that risk.

I read that once the adapting process started, you were comfortable with the changes that needed to be made into a movie. Were you consulted on the writing process at all? Can you talk a bit more about that process of turning this into a movie?

Cressida Cowell: I wouldn't have had it optioned at all if I hadn't gone into it feeling that film was a very different medium and this was going to be there thing. They kept in touch with me all along, but I needed to feel that this was going to be their thing, otherwise it would've been too difficult for me. That was the spirit with which I went into it. Do you know a book called The Fantastic Mr. Fox?

Oh, yes.

Cressida Cowell:Roald Dahl. I'm very keen on that book and they made it into a Wes Anderson movie. The relationship between the two... it's not an adaptation that's very close to the book, but I liked them both very much. I think the book worked - it was one of my favorite childhood books - and I loved the movie as well in different ways. I'm the kind of person that when I'm going to watch movies, I don't need them to be exactly the same as the book, in order to enjoy them. Other people disagree with me on that. I knew an author that could only enjoy a film if it was very much the same as the book. I wouldn't have been able to go into the process. My real desire and hope for the movie was that it was going to be a wonderful movie. That's what I really wanted out of it. To me, that was the key thing. I wanted it to work as a wonderful movie and that was the really important thing, not how close it was to the book. I'm not a rules kind of person. I don't think that there's a certain way that you have to adapt a book into a movie. Some books can be adapted into movies very, very closely and they can be made into wonderful movies. Some wonderful books have been made into movies where they tried to keep very close to the book and it didn't work. I don't think there's necessarily a rule for these things and that's the spirit I went into it with. That's why I was ultimately comfortable with the changes that were made and I don't think it was necessary for the movie to be exactly the same. I just wanted it to be a good movie. I don't think I would've been comfortable with the changes if I thought it was a terrible movie (Laughs), but I thought it was a wonderful movie. I thought it was very touching and very inspiring. I loved the movie, so that's what made me comfortable.

I imagine when you're writing, you think about what these characters would sound like. I was curious when you first heard about the casting and heard their voices, how closely did they match up with how you first thought these characters might sound like, in your head?

Cressida Cowell: I think that they don't, because they never can. My books have been read on tape, absolutely brilliantly, by David Tennant and he reads a lot of the characters in Scottish because it's based on a Scottish island. I do hear them in my head as Scottish. However, it's just a single-voice interpretation of my books and he makes decisions that I wouldn't have made. One of my characters is called Kamikaze and he makes him speak with a Welsh accent. I never heard Kamikaze in my head with a Welsh accent, but he does absolutely wonderful with that. I would never say that he had to read it the way I heard it in my head, because he wouldn't be able to bring his own enjoyment and creativity into the work. I didn't want it to be exactly the way I heard it in my head. That was my own personal way of going into it, but there are others that feel differently about that. I suppose I did hear them in my head as Scottish, but that doesn't entirely make sense in books that are about Scandinavia. I wanted it to be wonderful and to work as a movie, other than how I exactly saw it in my head. The books are there and the books are my vision of it. For instance, there's a wonderful book called War Horse, written by Michael Morpurgo. That made a fantastic and wonderful stage show, which is different from the book but amazing in itself. Steven Spielberg is now filming a film version, which I'm sure will be different from the book and the stage show, but hopefully it will be wonderful and powerful itself.

The How to Train Your Dragon sequel is currently in development. Have you been involved in any talks with that and will they go straight into one of the other books in the series or are they going in a different direction?

Cressida Cowell: I think they haven't decided yet. It's obviously early days, since it's not 2013. I think (co-director) Dean DeBlois is working on what the next movie will be. It's the same team of people, which I'm very excited about, who made the first movie. What was lovely about the movie was I always got the feeling from DreamWorks that they really enjoyed working on the movie. They have all the same people. Dean DeBlois is working on it and I think (co-director) Chris Sanders is working on his own movie, The Croods, as well. I'm hoping he will again be working on the sequel, so it's very much the same team and I'm really looking forward to the next one because I loved the first one.

Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who hasn't seen How to Train Your Dragon in theaters about why they should pick up the DVD?

Cressida Cowell: Oh, because it's an absolutely fabulous movie. Obviously, I'm biased, but I think the flying scenes are better than Avatar. The flying scenes are breathtaking and it's not only a really great adventure - I mean, who wouldn't want to fly a dragon - but I thought it was really touching. It's a really, genuinely moving film and everybody I've taken to see it, from teenagers to my grandma who's 82, absolutely loved it.

That's about all I have for you. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with anything else you might have coming up.

Cressida Cowell: Oh, thank you. I am currently writing book nine in the series, which will be a 10-book series. I'll be very sad when I finish. They're great characters to write about, but when I finish this series I'll need something new to write about, which will be quite strange.

We'll definitely be looking forward to the new books. Thanks so much.

Cressida Cowell: Thank you very much indeed.

You can pick up the popular adaptation of Cressida Cowell's novel How to Train Your Dragon on DVD, two-disc DVD and Blu-ray everywhere starting today, October 15.