How to Train Your Dragon is the first in Cressida Cowell’s series of books about Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, a young Viking destined to be a great hero – the greatest Viking hero that ever lived – not that you can tell from his inauspicious beginnings.
It’s also a film by Dreamworks that bears a slight resemblance to the book in some respects. This review will cover both – so SPOILER WARNING. Normally when I review books I try not to give away their plots, but I’m going to do some comparisons between the two versions that are going to require more spoilers than usual.
So if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, and don’t want to read any spoilers, stop reading this now, and go borrow the book from the library and rent the DVD – both are well worth the effort.
You back now? Read the book? Seen the DVD? Good. Let’s get started.
In the book, Hiccup is the son of Stoick the Vast, chief of the Vikings of the island of Berk. He’s the least imposing and Viking-like of all of the youngsters, with the possible exception of his weedy friend Fishlegs. The Vikings of Berk have a close relationship with dragons. Each Viking must capture and train a young dragon that becomes friend, familiar, and ally throughout his life. If you don’t have a dragon, you’re not a Viking – if you fail to train your dragon, you have no choice but to go into exile.
It’s a classic rite-of-passage story, told with relentless humour and illustrated with fantastic school-jotter style drawings and excerpts from Viking documents, like the eponymous Viking dragon-taming tome (first and only rule: YELL AT IT).
Hiccup does manage to acquire a dragon, a small, weedy, cowardly dragon he calls Toothless because, well, he doesn’t have any teeth. Certainly not a dragon fit for the son of the chief. Hiccup does have one advantage over the other Vikings – he can speak Dragonese – but things go horribly wrong when Toothless gets in a fight with another dragon and Hiccup is sentenced to exile.
Fortunately for Hiccup, a giant dragon – a huge Sea Dragon, many, many times the size of the tiny hunting dragons the Vikings use – is washed up on the beach and threatens the village. Together with the other Viking trainees and their dragons, Hiccup and Toothless hatch a plan to defeat the Sea Dragon – and eventually succeed. Hiccup and Toothless are hailed as heroes.
The book is by turns funny and exciting, sometimes both at the same time. Toothless is an engaging character – infuriating and cowardly, with a fondness for jokes and gluttony, who manages to overcome his selfish dragon nature to come to Hiccup’s aid when it’s needed most. Hiccup is an unlikely hero of the best kind, a thinker amongst fighters.
The second book in the series, How to be a Pirate, continues his adventures in the same vein, and is just as funny and exciting. The rest of the series – to total 12 volumes when the final book is published – will find their way to my to-read pile soon enough.
But in this version, the Vikings of Berk are in a constant war with dragons – they attack the village constantly, burning down their buildings and stealing their livestock. A Viking’s main aim in life is to kill dragons, and Hiccup wants more than anything to do just that. His father doesn’t think he’s up to the job, though, and doesn’t let him join in the hunts or dragon training.
When one of Hiccup’s inventions brings down a dragon – the fast, stealthy, unstoppable Night Fury – he sees it as his opportunity to kill a dragon and prove himself. He can’t bring himself to do it, though – his empathy with the hobbled beast stays his hand.
In time he learns to train the dragon he calls Toothless – although unlike the book version, he’s not toothless at all, but can just retract his sharp fangs. He builds a saddle and a replacement prosthetic tail-fin that allow him to ride the dragon through the air.
The Hollywoodised version of the story has a much “cooler” Toothless. He’s a stealth jet fighter amongst flying lizards, fast and powerful and sleek, not the tiny cowardly beast of the book. I’d unhesitatingly state my preference for the book dragon, if it weren’t for the animation – they did a tremendous job of imbuing Toothless with character even though he never speaks. He’s part cat, part salamander, part racehorse.
The film also introduces a love interest – Astrid, the best of all the dragon-fighting trainees, is nowhere to be found in the book. (The boy Vikings have deliberately uncool names like Hiccup and Snotlout and Fishlegs, but the girl gets “Astrid” – some double standards going on here.)
Like the book, the main enemy is a giant dragon, and Hiccup leads the other trainees with their dragons to save the day, but the details of the final battle are completely different – for a start, Hiccup has to show the other trainees how to train their dragons, and ride them into battle.
The structure of the book is completely changed in the film, too. The screenwriters have gone on record as being fans of screenwriting guru Blake Snyder, whose Save the Cat beat sheet is quite popular in Hollywood these days. Sometimes it’s pretty blatant – Blake Snyder prescribes an “all is lost” moment followed by the “dark night of the soul” where the protagonist hits rock bottom and wallows before having the “crazy idea” moment that launches into the third act. When Hiccup has lost Toothless, been disowned by his father, been demoted from being a Viking, and the Viking fleet has set off to kill all the dragons, Hiccup watches the fleet leave and Astrid comes up to him and says “Well, you’ve pretty much lost everything now.”
The film is a far more generic, mass-market, family-friendly, box-ticking effort than the book, but you know what? It’s actually very effective as a film, too. Some of the best elements of the source material shine through the Hollywood varnish, and while I’d still have to say I prefer Toothless in the book, I’m happy to have seen his cool alter-ego in the film, too.