The author of more than 25 novels for young readers, many of which have been adapted for the screen, and the winner of not one, but two Newbery Medals, Kate DiCamillo is no stranger to the book and film industries. Her fourth film adaptation, based on her 2001 novel The Tiger Rising, is set to hit theaters on January 21, and will be released digitally on February 8.
The film is written and directed by Ray Giarratana, and produced by Deborah Giarratana and Ryan Donnell Smith, with Queen Latifah serving as an executive producer. It stars Christian Convery (from the Netflix fantasy series Sweet Tooth) who plays the main character, Rob Horton Jr., a boy who finds a tiger caged in the woods near his home, and Madalen Mills (Jingle Jangle) as Rob’s confidant and classmate Sistine Bailey. In addition, movie watchers may recognize some familiar faces in the cast. Katharine McPhee (Karen in Smash and an American Idol runner-up) and Sam Trammell (Sam in True Blood) play Rob’s parents Caroline and Robert Horton; Dennis Quaid (American Underdog) appears as Beauchamp, the motel and tiger owner; Queen Latifah (Joyful Noise) takes on the role of Willie May, a housekeeper at the motel; and Douglas M. Griffin (Charlie on Hap and Leonard) is Mr. Phelmer.
The project has been a long time in the making. Giarratana had first started writing the screenplay 10 years ago, after coming across the book when his wife advised him to talk to their friend, literary agent, Jason Dravis. “I remember he walked over to his bookshelf, pulled off the book, and handed it to me,” Giarratana recounted. “And I asked, ‘You think I can do something with this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I just got a feeling.’ ”
It took a few rewrites, but when DiCamillo eventually received the screenplay from Giarratana’s team, she told PW, she was impressed at how true it stayed to her book. “There’s not a moment where I thought, ‘Oh I wish they had done this’ ” Even before visiting the set, she received a letter from a resident of the town where the film was being shot, containing a picture of the sign for the Kentucky Star Motel, a prominent location in the book. “It was so much like what I had in my head and that’s the way the whole movie feels. It’s really incredible.”
But trying to create the film was an uphill battle. The script was initially sent to Micheal Flaherty, co-founder and former president of Walden Media, who has since left the company. “For the next several years it was [a matter of] trying to find people that could ‘get it’ ,” Giarratana said. “[At the time], the movie industry was changing. It’s hard to get a movie made without a superhero in it.” Covid also played a part in delays, the project having wrapped photography in December 2019 with an expected release date of September 2020.
The script, on the other hand, came together so seamlessly that DiCamillo and Giarratana momentarily forgot who had written what. “After [filming scenes] we went out to dinner and I remember [DiCamillo] said something to me like, ‘I love that one scene you shot today,’ and I told her ‘Oh Kate, come on. That’s your book; I just put a camera there.’ And then she said, ‘No I don’t think that’s in the book,’ and I said, ‘I think you wrote that.’ And neither one of us honestly remembers who wrote it.”
The actors’ talents were no exception to the abundance of talent. “It is a dream cast,” DiCamillo said. “Madalen, who plays Sistine, blows it out of the park.” Giarratana was just as impressed with the actors’ ability to connect deeply with the characters, bringing up when he sent the script to Latifah. “She is a tremendously powerful woman, and I’m sending her a script to play a maid. She’s going to laugh the whole thing away!” But Latifah found a personal connection with Rob Jr.’s character, prompting her interest in the project. Giarratana praised her performance, saying she brings “every bit of heart and soul” to her character. “You don’t get in the way of really good artists,” he said. “Ever.”
DiCamillo said she was brought to tears after viewing an early screening. “There are two “me”s watching it. One is the person who wrote the book and the other is a kid that is totally [engrossed] in that story—I cried.”
Karen Lotz, president and publisher of Candlewick Press, which publishes DiCamillo, and group managing director of Walker Books Group, is just as thrilled with the film’s release. “With its stellar cast and champions, this new life that it has found on the screen is incredibly exciting,” she told PW. “The original story has such a visual pull to it, so a movie is a dream come true. Who does not want to look into the eyes of that tiger?”
Fans of DiCamillo will be pleased to know that she is currently working on a new novel. “I just finished calling up a friend [asking], ‘Would you be able to read a few pages for me?’ And that’s all I can share,” she teased.
Giarratana hopes the film is a reminder that sometimes we don’t realize who is there to help us get out of a difficult situation. But “if we can each give each other a little bit of grace, we can get through this,” he said. DiCamillo wishes for audiences to connect with the story’s message of acknowledging the sorrows we carry. “I hope everybody who sees it walks away feeling comforted and seen. It’s a beautiful enough movie that it can do that.”