The Dark Is Rising: Innocent children's book brutally slaughtered by film-makers

by Suw on

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.
Fuckers.
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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Anonymous July 31, 2007 at

Suw, I'm sad to see the Sequence butchered like this.
I read the books when I was 11 and I enjoyed them immensely. When I heard that they were being made into movie, I promptedly bought the Sequence book and I'm slowly fingering my way through it. It's been a suitable break from the story, and I'm reliving it all over again.
It's sad to hear that the very hallmarks of the story are being sacrificed at the altar of financial gain. The producers are obviously eyeing the success of Tolkien and Lewis adaptations with glee, looking to monetise one of the last bastion's of British youth fiction. I guess we will always have the books, it's just sad to see a homogenised interpretation of the tale make it to celluloid, when it could have more compelling.

Anonymous July 31, 2007 at

Hi,
thanks for your great article. The world needs to know what is going on here. I just happened to stumble over this page by looking for reactions to the film. I'm from Germany and deeply in love with the books since I was 12, and I am just another fan who finds all that he reads/sees about this movie utterly depressing.
Thanks again, and to all people who read this and don't know anything about “The Dark Is Rising”: Please READ THE BOOKS instead of watching the film. They are lovely.

Anonymous July 31, 2007 at

arrgghhhhhhhhhh. That's all i have to say. Pretty sure I won't be watching this
Rachel

Anonymous August 1, 2007 at

Hi, I am reading the books for the first time – I'm half way through the final book (I'm in my thirties, so no childlike reminisces). I am borrowing them from someone who loves them from childhood (as many people seem to) and she was delighted when I told her I had seen a film of the second book was coming out.
The Dark Is Rising is her favourite of the books, and the film comes out in the UK almost exactly on her birthday…
Thanks for sharing these views about the film – I am hopefully able to warn my friend not to expect anything other than cramming Harry Potter into a Will Stanton shaped hole. Shame really as HP is ok, but it would have been nice to see an English adaptation of the books leaving the Arthurian content and such as is.
I was also unsure about McShane as Gummery – I McShane is ace, but as you said, he's hardly an “image” of Merriman.
If it was my choice I would wait to see this as a rental, but I guess I shall be seeing it on t'big screen, and I only hope it is alright if you forget it's anything to do with any book you ever read already.

Anonymous August 2, 2007 at

I had a conversation with a friend where I was saying the whole 'changes will be required to take it from page to screen' and 'John Hodge has scripted some good films'. She wasn't having any of it, preferring to instead just shut off sight and sound of the whole thing. I did not, feeling I could objectively judge the film on its own merits and not simply as an adaptation.
Then I saw the trailer.
Okay, perhaps it's not representative of the whole, but a trailer is supposed to sell the film. Forgetting the whole Hollywood adapted abortion of a literary classic syndrome, taking away that weight of responsibility and looking on it simply as a film with no weight of fan scrutiny or name recognition… it looks shit. The film looks shit. It's a terrible adaptation, no question, but they didn't even change everything into something different that happened to be good.
Still, there's that age-old question – why bother adapting a property and changing everything when you could just make a standalone film? The fans are going to crucify the end result, so you're not guaranteeing they're going to buy a ticket and for those unfamiliar with the property you have to do the same work in marketing the film as you would if it was original. Sure, you can say it's based on a classic, but that's not going to count for much when it comes out that it's nothing like that award-winning book with which it shares a name.
Incompetent filmmaking is one thing, but when it's backed up by a wilfully inept business sense, what can you do?

Anonymous August 3, 2007 at

NO NO NO!! The first book of this sequence that I read was Over Sea, Under Stone when I was around 9 or 10. I still have that actual copy. I then voraciously devoured the entire series. Will, Barney, Simon and Jane are like my childhood friends.
I am outraged that they would strip this series of it's valuable and rich British/Cornish roots, and turn such treasured material into absolute mind-numbing rubbish.
And that interview?!? If he can't get through the book then he has absolutely no business playing the part. (Not to mention what it says about his ability to read – we aren't talking about War and Peace here, jeez)!
This is just too, too sad, because Susan Cooper's books definitely deserve some more publicity. I think there are many kids out there who would absolutely adore them. But after watching this sludge, what parent would bother going out to buy the novels?!?

Anonymous August 3, 2007 at

More proof that the typical Hollywood denizen isn't capable of discernible brain activity. What did that actor say?? He couldn't get through the book because it was too difficult?? What a drooling nitwit.I read those Cooper books first when I was about 10 years old. Scared the pants off me. I've loved 'em ever since. They're up there with Tolkien and Lewis and Lloyd Alexander in my book.
From what I've seen in the trailer, that movie is not going to encourage any book-reading.
#*&@ers… That's one movie I'm not going to see.

Anonymous August 6, 2007 at

Along with misleading audiences about the details of Cooper's work, the studio is also perpetuating this travesty: http://www.walden.com/fanlib/entryform.php

Anonymous August 6, 2007 at

Oh dear me. I know what, I'll write a story and I'll call it… erm… let me think now, has to be completely original… Greenwitch! I'll set it in Cornwall and Will will meet a family of three siblings and together they will retrieve and translate a silver grail that will be hiding a great secret but they'll have to fight the powers of the Dar… oh, wait, hang on… didn't someone already do that?
I note in the T&Cs: “Sponsor reserves the right to disqualify and remove any Story Entries deemed inappropriate, offensive, defamatory, obscene, profane, harassing, that may infringe upon or violate another partyÔø?s rights, or for any legal reason, in its sole discretion.”
Damn, so no slash then.
I love the fact that they say entrants “may reference the novel” when writing their entry. Wankers.

Anonymous August 6, 2007 at

I have to say thank you all so much for commenting. I'm really glad to see that I'm not the only one pissed off by all this. I just hope this film bombs hideously. It's the only hope I have left to cling to.

Anonymous August 16, 2007 at

I've just had the misfortune to see the 'trailer'. Unspeakable is all I can come up with.
I've been a fan of the Dark is Rising Sequence for over twenty years and have periodically wondered about a film adaptation, but this looks absolutely dreadful.
How can it simply be removed to America? The whole notion of the sequence is its timeliness and the sense of history. Are Hollywood going to reinvent that as well?
I'll stick with the books.

Anonymous August 20, 2007 at

I just watched the trailer without the sound, and I must say it looks like 'Home Alone' (remember Macaulay Culkin before he was creepy?) cross-pollinated with Bad Lord of the Rings Take-Off. Shudders.

Anonymous August 21, 2007 at

OH MY GOOD GOD!! I hadn't heard that a film version of this beautiful book was being made… I was introduced to The Dark Is Rising when I was 11, and have loved the entire sequence for many years – so much so that I named my son Will (jointly for Will Stanton and Will Parry from His Dark Materials – another book adaptation I am dreading).
I just stumbled across the trailer and I swear, my blood ran cold when 'Gravelly American Trailer Man' started his synopsis… What on earth have they done? And who the hell let them?? Where was Susan Cooper? Let's hope the word gets out that this is NOT The Dark Is Rising… and that it dies on its arse at the box office so they won't 'adapt' (ha!) any more of the sequence.

Anonymous August 26, 2007 at

Ouch.
I'm 46. Never even heard of this series of books until about 3 weeks ago. So far I've read about 2 chapters of 'the Dark…' and I am hooked. I lived in Slough (around where The Dark is Rising is set) until I was 11 (spooky), then my family moved to Australia, where I had to wait 35 years for an Aussie to introduce me. Sad, I know…should be ashamed of myself, but not as ashamed, however, as the total wankers who made this film! THIS is sad! As I said, i've only read a couple of chapters so far, but that's enough to know that this trailer is all I want to see. I like McShane, I sort of like Eccleston, but this is crap. Why does hollywood (small 'h' on purpose) always have to mutate stories into an American context. Are Americans so lacking in imagination that they can only grasp things this way? I don't really think so. Film-makers neeed to wake up. Why can't they make a good story into a good film? Seems like a no-brainer to me. Where is Peter Jackson when you need him? Another good book goes the way of 'Eragon', although even that wasn't as bad as this bucket of shite.

Anonymous September 11, 2007 at

My heart broke, piece by piece, as i read your article. That series (which i read, desperately, each one as it was published beginning at age 9) remains at the top of my “best of” list, whenever my kids ask. No comparison. It made me the reading addict I am today, and I will not allow my kids to see the movie. What a heartbreak. (Leah, female, 40, Houston TX)

Anonymous September 11, 2007 at

Hee. I read them when I was 8 or 9. And that scene where Will is lying in bed, freaking out, and the window on the ceiling falls open, dumping snow on top of him? I jumped when I read that scene. And word on the “drooling nitwit”–I was 8! And English wasn't even my first language! And I had no problem reading the book.

Anonymous September 13, 2007 at

I Agree in every particular. I first read these when I was 9 or 10 (young enough to hope against hope for a miracle on my eleventh birthday). They've come with me ever since. I've bought new copies because my originals are so battered I daren't read them any more. Christmas isn't about trees, presents, family or religion; it's about the sense of burgeoning mythology and mystery in The Dark is Rising; about half-hearing Will's music on the ice-sharp wind. I saw the trailer for the fim about a month ago and I hope I don't see it again. It attempted to ruin memory after memory and I'd rather have those memories than an over-hyped, ill-considered, carelessly-executed piece of Hollywood trash.

Anonymous September 23, 2007 at

Thanks for this article, this is the only one so far that has comprehensively expressed what I feel and why about this awful, corrupt film.
But I think that you don't go far enough. I think that this film was sought after by or put into the hands of Cunningham IN ORDER that it be stripped of it's paganism and PreChristianity and converted into a puppet movie for right-wing Christians.
As an Irish reader who encountered these books during my own Celtic childhood in the 1970's, it repulses me that a text so rich and lyrical should be co-opted and destroyed by some conservative activist. I have lost all hope for His Dark Materials. Walden is a shallow, right-wing, corporatist company and it's films are shiny, hollow drek.
This is not a question of poor film-making or ignorance; this is vandalism and censorship.

Anonymous September 23, 2007 at

One more thing that I feel I have to say. I would like to draw attention to the fact that in this film, the creation of a Christian fundamentalist activist film-maker with an outspoken mission to bring Christ to Hollywood, the story of a large warm LOVING family (the Stantons (who are quite like the Weasleys in Harry Potter; loud, loving chaotic and loyal) have been replaced by the NEW archetypal family; the American WASP suburbanite family; cold, isolated, competitive, materialistic and angry. The family from Home Alone and countless other US films; neurotic, wealthy and hateful. Mall-denizens. Suburbanites.
I find it very ironic that the standard bearers of 'family values' have again advertised the very worst values; greed, cruelty and loneliness, that modern society can offer.
I'm sorry; white Americans have the worst family values in the industrialized world and they insist on exporting these horrible mores around the globe as if they were something to be emulated.

Anonymous September 24, 2007 at

I just read your post about The Dark is Rising, after seeing the trailer online. I, too, am so disappointed. I read the books when I was a child (still have them) and love them. (I also re-read them every few years, always around Christmas time. I am an American and cannot for the life of me understand why they set the movie in the states. I agree on the same things you mention in your post about what is best from the book: Will and his family, Engish mythology, etc. I have always fantasized about making this book into a movie, and what would it involve. I guess I hope that this bombs and someone makes a remake in years to come.

Anonymous September 28, 2007 at

I was a huge childhood fan of the Dark is Rising, but I hadn't thought of them in years, until I was horrified to see the first television trailers for the upcoming movie. I went online to check out the theatrical trailer, and wasn't quite sure what to think: some of it felt right, more of it felt very wrong, but I harbored some hope that maybe it'd be right in spirit and the broad story, even if all the details are changed. Then I started reading the interviews, including the howler “oh god, I might have to do a sequel,” and the claims that all the mythology has been removed (what exactly is left?). And then I started seeing more trailers, and hearing more about it. The last straw was when “The Dark is Rising” was recently taken off the title altogether, leaving me to think Susan Cooper saw an early screening, and, like Stephen King and the Lawnmower Man fiasco, she demanded a last-minute name change. I'll wait, hoping against hope that it gets great reviews (Bridge to Terebethia had some awful trailers, but it turned out okay), but the closer it gets to release, the more it looks like an impending train wreck.

Anonymous September 30, 2007 at

hey suw, I'm 15 and an avid reader. Thanks for pointing this out to me. Looking for a copy right now.

Anonymous October 1, 2007 at

Hadn't read the Dark is Rising in a quite a while, but I was planning on doing some illustrations from some scenes from my favorite fantasy books (ironically enough according to imdb there's a Elf stones of Shannara movie in the works) and decided to google around for some quotes on the dark is rising until I could get my hands on a copy (the local public library and my university library don't have a copy -.-;; ). And I ran into this horrific trailer. It's good to her there are people that are as disgusted as I am, most of the time I've run into the typical “bah you're just overreacting as a fan” bs. There was even a guy who compared me to the transformers fan during the time when that movie was coming out. And good lord, Mcshane must be dense. Even with the crumbling state of US education the dark is rising is commonly read as a part of the summer reading selection by fourth graders. What the hell does he mean by '70s' stuff mean even?
If they screw up the Shannara series (or God knows what other classic they get their claws on) too I'm gonna stop watching movies and hide under a rock.

Anonymous October 1, 2007 at

I have to say that I'm really heartened to read all these comments from people who feel just like I do. I'm glad I'm not alone in my disappointment, and that I'm not just overreacting (that whole “oh, you fans!” reaction really gets on my nerves!). Keep the comments coming – maybe if anyone from Walden reads this, they'll realise that I'm not alone in my disgust with them.

Anonymous October 1, 2007 at

That's ridiculous. The dysfunctional family is a common plot device in every single form of storytelling media out there, from every single country out there. In fact, some of the earliest examples of it are in European theater.
It makes next to no sense to pin this on some kind moral or idealistic of hypocrisy on the director's part. If he did it for any reason he did it because he thought it would sell, which it generally does. It's highly doubtful he did it to export white American family values to the rest of the world.
Additionally, where are you coming up with this rhetoric of “horrible white family values?” There may be some truth to it, but then again there's always a degree of truth to STEREOTYPES.

Anonymous October 1, 2007 at

I bought the Dark Is Rising series for my brother-in-law just a few years ago. He just turned 14 and I am going to beg him NOT to see this movie until he finishes the entire series of books. I'll pay him if I have to! I don't want his reading corrupted by this latest hollywood hogwash.

Anonymous October 1, 2007 at

Suw,
Thanks for your article. I saw this trailer when I went to see Harry Potter and I think my husband thought I had gone mad when I started to whisper furiously that this couldn't be the same Dark is Rising books that I have known and loved for many years. They have absoloutely killed the spirit of the books and possibly ruined them for any future readers. I am torn as to whether to watch the film, I would like to just because it is an adaptation of a story that I love but I know that I will just spend the whole film being angry at what they have changed!

Anonymous October 25, 2007 at

Just terrible, heard about the movie five minutes ago, was excited to see a brilliant book that I grew up reading being translated into movie from, but now I refuse to go watch it. Fuck the Hollyborg ca$h machine, they've mangled it into complete crap.

Anonymous October 28, 2007 at

Uh…not to ruin the movie for anyone…but.
“The Walker” is listed as a character of the film, with an actor to play him and everything?
…I dunno about you all, but I certainly never saw The Walker in the film! Please dont say this means there are MORE of these horrid adaptations coming?
– Kat
Although I must say…it was LOVELY to see Eccleston again after his run in Doctor Who!

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