Netflix Instant was kind enough to provide me with the DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie) version of Lemonade Mouth, so I thought I’d do a compare and contrast with the Mark Peter Hughes novel of the same name. Naturally, spoilers to follow for both book (surprisingly good) and movie (predictably twee).
I really enjoy Lemonade Mouth, the novel. It’s an interesting rags-to-riches tale of a group of ragtag high school misfits who wind up in detention and find a musical synergy in a series of random instruments: a drum wall of bongos and other assorted percussion instruments, a trumpet, a ukelele, a classical bass, and a smokey-voiced lead singer who writes songs about her malnourished cat. The characters are working through things: Stella is trying to deal with being the low-IQed member of her genius family; Olivia lives with her grandmother and regularly communicates with her imprisoned father; Mo copes with neither fitting in with the popular crowd as an American nor with her father’s overachieving ideal of an Indian daughter; Charlie constantly compares himself to the dead brother he’s never known; Wen has issues with his father dating a much younger (and very hot) woman. The characters are real and interesting, the bond they form as a band is special. The movie tries hard to achieve that, but always falls short.
I recognize that Disney Channel wants to make money off this movie, and does so through releasing a soundtrack by a bunch of talented youngsters, as they’ve done to success a thousand times before. Of course, this helps negate some plot points. One of the big ones being what the book refers to as “the second Lemonade Mouth miracle,” wherein a series of unfortunate events befalls the band, specific instances that render them unable to play in Catch A RI-Zing Star. (Wen, the trumpeter, injures his lip; Charlie, the drummer, burns his hand; Olivia, the singer, strains her voice in another screwed up plot point I’ll discuss later.) Of course, in the movie, they’ve already established that Stella and Mo can and do sing on their own songs. Hell, prior to the contest, they even have a big, touching group moment where they all sing parts of a song called “More Than a Band”, to prove to one another that they’re more than a band (I didn’t say they were all winners). So unless the contest rules suggest that an entering band has to submit in advance what song they’re going to play (“Determinate” being the obvious choice for Lemonade Mouth, given that in the movie, that is the song that gets radio play on the station running the contest), there’s no reason why they can’t just switch songs and let Stella sing instead. They even showed Olivia playing guitar in a previous song. So when the band fails on stage and the audience chips in and performs their own version to show their support, it’s still a little touching, but the meaning of it, the audience lending their voice when Lemonade Mouth had been giving them all a voice previously, is a bit lost.
Again, it’s a channel for children, so it’s not completely surprising that the movie version is desexualized. Our introduction to Wen of the books is when he accidentally takes the nude self-portraits of his father’s young girlfriend to school in place of his history report, earning himself the unfortunate nickname of ‘Woody the Horndog’. The main conflict between Wen and Olivia, the one where she loses her voice screaming at him, takes place when they argue about Wen’s soon-to-be-stepmother Sydney, after whom he’s been lusting (but never liking) all this time, all the while oblivious to Olivia’s crush on him. She yells at him “[Sydney’s] too old for you!”, loses her voice, and then Wen goes home, stumbles on Sydney in the shower, busts his lip open in his attempt to escape, and then is mothered by her. In the movie, the lust is eliminated altogether, and Olivia chastises Wen for not appreciating what family he has when hers is so screwed up. It provides a neat resolution with Wen learning only the mildest lesson. I suppose you can argue he grows, but it doesn’t feel earned.
Another notable difference is Disney playing its usual Dead Mom card, this time with Olivia. Her father is in prison, of course, and she can’t have two bad parents, so Olivia’s runaway mother instead becomes a tragic death figure. That isn’t unreasonable, in the book-to-TV world, but to top it off, while Olivia from the books has a steady correspondence and more or less healthy relationship with her imprisoned father (even at one point taking the band across state lines to meet him), in the movie, they haven’t spoken in years, for no real reason. Presumably it’s so we can have the healing moment when we realize her narration is actually a letter to her father explaining everything. There’s no real reason for them to substitute a healthy but unconventional relationship for a narrative device, but there you have it.
Lastly, we have Charlie’s downgrade from interesting figure to bland pseudo-love interest. Charlie’s interest in Mo is never reciprocated, instead allowing for her and Scott to get back together and for him to prove his acceptance of her love of music by joining Lemonade Mouth for their inexplicable Madison Square Garden concert. This is actually a nice character upgrade for Scott Pickett, but it means Charlie gets lost in the process. His interesting story about communicating in his head with his twin that died in utero is eliminated entirely, in favor of a story comparing him unfavorably with his perfect older brother, a story we’ve seen a thousand times before. Never does Charlie learn that he doesn’t need his brother’s voice to help him through difficult situations, instead, we just see him get rejected unceremoniously and then turn to a non-speaking Lemonade Mouth groupie for comfort (presumably; they only exchange looks, but future pairing up is implied).
I’ll give Lemonade Mouth the movie credit where it’s due: it wants to sell me albums and “Determinate” is an aggressively catchy song, even if it transforms awkward Wen into a superstar rapper. (Again, another member of the group displaying some kind of vocal ability that could have been useful for the contest.) It’s not easy to turn a book into a movie, especially one that has to submit to some unspoken restraints. But there’s so much what makes the book interesting and different eliminated from the translation that makes me wonder why they even bothered.