Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I don't think I've ever got so wound up by the film adaptation of a book that I've found myself struggling to express myself. But from what I've read today about David L Cunningham's adaptation of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising, the second book in the eponymous sequence, well, I'm horrified almost to the point of muteness.
I first read The Dark is Rising sequence when I was about 19 or 20, introduced to them by someone I met at university. They didn't form a major part of my childhood (I was more into Asimov than CS Lewis), but as an adult I loved them. They are a series of books that I take great care not to read too often, because I like to try and forget them in between readings so that I'll experience the thrill of discovery each time. Of course that doesn't entirely work, but I try. And I only ever read them in winter – in an ideal world, I time it so that I'm reading The Dark is Rising in the run up to Christmas so that I can wring as much atmosphere out of it as possible.
Last year, through December and January, Kevin and I read the five books together, reading aloud to each other before bed. He loved them as much as I do, and it was just lovely to watch him experience the key revelations along the way – I'll never forget the moment he realised who Professor Merriman Lyon really is, or who Bran is.
And I'm not the only one who holds these books in high esteem. Cooper won the Newbery Medal in 1976 for The Grey King, and was the only recipient of the Newbery Honor in 1974 for The Dark is Rising. Indeed, Cooper has a quiet but loyal following, and it looks like most of us are utterly dismayed at the reports we're getting of what Cunningham and screenwriter John Hodge have done to these wonderful books.
Now, I'm not going to get into the whole thing about Cunningham's religion or attitude towards the truth, nor am I going to discuss his past films – none of which I have seen. I am going to admit to dismay at the thought that part of the reason why he might have butchered this adaptation is so that it fits in with his own religious beliefs, but that's as far as I'll go. Bellatrys does a good job of examining this over on LiveJournal, and I think she's better placed than I to comment.
I am surprised, though, that John Hodge should be involved in the adaptation of what are definitely children's books – or maybe we could say 'young adult' if you really want to get picky. This is a man better known for his work on edgy, disturbing and gritty films like Shallow Grave or Trainspotting, or the black comedy of A Life Less Ordinary. Hardly classic children's stories, unless you like scaring the bejeesus out of your children. Although I'm sure some would accuse him of being familiar with how to butcher an otherwise good book, The Beach. I've neither read the book nor seen the film, so I couldn't possibly say. Still, an odd choice.
What I find disturbing, from all of the stuff that I've read and the trailers that I've seen, is the total disregard for the source material. I understand very well that you need to change things to translate a book into a film. Books are very good for telling you what someone is thinking and feeling, but films need to show you. So sometimes you need change scenes from 'tell' to 'show' in order to make it work. Or maybe you need to cut out some of the less important scenes and some of the back story in order to keep the film to a reasonable length. All this I understand.
What I do not understand is why you would take a really gripping story, with sympathetic and well-developed characters, and which has some wonderful mythology underpinning it, and strip out all the stuff that makes it good.
If you haven't read The Dark is Rising (book), it's about an 11 year old English boy, Will, who suddenly discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones of the Light, and that he must find the Six Signs to help the Light in their battles against the Dark. (The battles span five books, so this is just a step on the way, not the final confrontation.) Will is helped by the oldest of the Old Ones, Merriman Lyon, and must deal with the Dark Rider, who tries at every turn to stop Will completing his quest. You've got lots of Arthurian stuff in there (including Merriman/Merlin and the Lady – possibly of the Lake, although that's never explicitly stated), lots of local British folklore, such as Herne the Hunter, Wayland Smith, and the idea of 'old ways' – roads as old as time and with magical properties.
Most importantly of all, is Will's character and background. A quiet, reflective boy who seems a lot older than his 11 years, Will is the seventh son of a seventh son. His family is big, but loving. His parents are kind, intelligent, fair-minded and thoughtful, and the family is painted as stable, supporting, and principled, but fun and rumbustious too. Will struggles to grasp the importance of his role, but he loves his family and when they are threatened, he goes all out to save them (oh, and the world).
This is all pretty much removed from the film. Will is a brattish blond American 13 year old, with “emotionally unavailable” parents, siblings who bully him, and a brother, Max, who's been corrupted by the Dark. Indeed, the family has been fucked up beyond all recognition – with Mary, Will's sister, becoming his mother, his older sister Gwen becoming his younger sister, his dad becoming Roger instead of John, and the introduction of a twin (I'm not sure where the twin comes into this – is the twin Max? There are twins in the original, but Will wasn't one of them). And all the Arthurian stuff has gone, along with the folklore, and suddenly the climactic battle is no long one fight in a longer war, but the final banishment of the Dark.
So instead of all the cool mythology, we've now got Will accused of shoplifting, blowing up a car, a big fight with snakes, a karate fight on a cart in a Viking village, a love interest… Oh, and I nearly forgot. There's a giant snow globe. Right, that'll help.
Authorblog has a comprehensive list of changes that have been made, as ascertained from clips, interviews and articles, and links to all the sources. Frankly, by the time I got to the end of the list – which is very long indeed – I had lost the heart to click on all the links.
If I could see any reason why those would improve on the book, I think I'd be ok with it. But they just don't. One otherwise dreadful article about the film says:

A joke among the journalists covering The Dark Is Rising set visit in Bucharest over the last couple of days was that the movie has only changed three things from the Newberry-winning novel on which it’s based: they’ve changed the lead kid’s nationality from English to American, they’ve changed the lead kid’s age from 11 to 14, and they’ve changed everything that happens in the story.

This isn't the end of it though. It seems that hardly any of the cast have bothered to read the original books, nor are they fussed that the books are being trashed. Ian McShane, who plays Merriman Lyon says:

Ian McShane: I don't think they've been very faithful to the book. I don't know how many of you've read the book. I know they sold a few copies, but I couldn't read it very well. It's really dense. It's from the 70s, you know? […]
Where [sic] you familiar with the books before signing on to this?
Ian McShane: No, I never heard of them. I did try to read the book, but they were a little…I think…I don't know how…There's four of them apparently. Or five. Oh, god. That means I might have to do a sequel.

It's hard to tell how much of this is down to McShane being bad at doing interviews, or whether he genuinely couldn't give a rat's arse.
But let's just rewind a little. Ian McShane? No offence, but Merriman Lyon is supposed to be white-haired, hawk-nosed man, the eldest of the Old Ones, he has a timeless, ageless quality to him. He's Will's mentor, old and wise, but still fallible.
Ian McShane is short (5' 9″), black-haired, and about as timeless as a yesterday's Metro. Worse, to many Brits of the right age to be Dark is Rising fans, he's Lovejoy. A cheeky scamp of a dodgy wide-boy antiques dealer whose best mate was an alcoholic called Tinker. But let me be clear. It's not that I don't like McShane – he's great in what little Deadwood I've seen – but he's totally wrong for this part.
On the other hand, the choice of Christopher Eccleston as the Rider is a very good bit of casting. The rest of it, I'm not sure about.
I'm relieved to ay that it's not just me who's pissed off at this. Other fans are just as upset. Ragnell is unhappy:

So, the thoughtful, introverted youngest member of the Old Ones? Our gentle little hero who was loaded with ancient power despite all appearances to the contrary? The guy who was responsible and thoughtful and didn't waste his power in showy displays? Gone! Replaced by a Harry Potter clone!
Oh, but they changed all the surface stuff that would make people mistake him for Harry, but they went ahead and took Will's unique personality and exchanged it for the more popular boy's so they could clone Harry Potter but not be accused of cloning Harry Fucking Potter.
You know, I hate to be one of those fans who gets mad whenever they change any little thing about a book I loved, but seriously, this sounds like mass-produced shit that's trying to capitalized on the Potter popularity. They're killing this book, dammit. Killing it (And yes, you can quote that for your fan entitlement rants, thank you very much.)

Soyo is too:

With everything I'm reading about The Dark is Rising, not much but the barest shreds of the book are left alive. Will is American instead of English, 14 instead of 11 (and not the youngest in his family!), an outcast instead of an alarmingly normal kid, worried about girls instead of… not seeming to notice girls exist. Also, he apparently has an evil twin. There's less emphasis on British folklore, almost no Arthurian elements left, and the magic's flashy instead of subtle. The Stantons don't get along as much as they do in the book, and Robin and Paul sound like Fred and George 2: Electric Boogaloo. There's some glowy teenage girl with eyeliner on the poster. There are also mentions of a scene with evil mall cops. Let me repeat that: EVIL MALL COPS. I just… what? Oh, and it's all modern.
The thing is, I can see changing almost any one of these things, or adding in any of these things that are… additiony… but altogether it gets to be a little much. No, really, just watch!
[…] In conclusion? It's like they were working with a copy of the book that had been mostly eaten by termites. Some of the names are the same, and that's about it. And what bothers me more than that they're changing so many things? It's the way they're taking every Hollywood cliche available and packing it into the spaces left.

The comments on MTV's Movies Blog are universally unhappy, as are many of the threads and comments over on Walden Media's forums, where we are treated to what appears to be a wonderful display of astroturfing (that is, faking grassroots approval). Oh, and here's the official site, which appears to include a name change to “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising”, like that'll do any good.
I can't imagine how on earth Susan Cooper could possibly be happy with what's been done to her creation, but sadly it doesn't matter if she's happy or not. Authors generally don't get to be involved in the process of turning their book into a film, and there's little to nothing one could do if they objected to what was happening.
Ah, there's so much more I could say about this, but I'm going to stop now before I plunge myself into chronic depression. Here's the trailer. Watch it and weep.

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