In 1999, two very different adaptations of The King And I battled it out at the box office and one of them won… by a small margin. The life of Anna Leonowens and her time as governess to the children of King Mongkut in the former Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) have been an inspiration for many fictional stories. Her memoirs inspired the loosely biographical novel Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon, which in turn was adapted into a 1946 film of the same name and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musical The King And I in 1951.
A film adaptation of the musical starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner (Westworld) followed in 1956 and went on to win five Oscars – three more than the 1946 version. Despite their success, the various adaptations of The King And I have had a contentious relationship with the country of their setting. In fact, all versions of The King And I have been banned in Thailand by censors on the grounds of being historically and culturally inaccurate and offensive to the Thai royal family. That includes the two adaptations of The King And I that arrived in 1999, but unlike their predecessors, they weren’t a hit with Western critics either.
The first adaptation released in 1999 came in March with Warner Bros’ The King And I – an animated version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical helmed by The Fox And The Hound co-director Richard Rich. It was, however, an adaptation in the loosest sense and dumbed down for a young audience, with the addition of dragons and cutesy animal sidekicks. Consequently, The King And I was a box office flop, grossing just $12 million domestically – not even half of its $25 million budget. Even worse, it was so bad the estates of Rodgers and Hammerstein forbade any future animated adaptations of its musicals and Ted Chapin – president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization – called the animation his "biggest mistake in terms of granting or denying permission."
Nine months after The King And I’s release, Anna And The King hit screens, which was an adaptation of Margaret Landon’s novel rather than the musical. Equipped with a bigger budget and stars like Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-fat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger) and Bai Ling, Anna And The King emerged as the superior of the two films. Critics agreed its cinematography and costume design were stunning – it was even nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design at the Oscars – but also thought it was tedious and overlong. It fared better at the box office, grossing $114 million against its $92 million production budget, but considering movies usually need to make at least twice their budget to be considered profitable, Anna And The King’s box office performance wasn’t that impressive.
To call either the animation or the Jodie Foster fronted version good adaptations would be a lie but if one emerged the victor in the 1999 battle of The King And I adaptations it was definitely Anna And The King – but only by a whisker