17 July 2007

The Church Scene in The Dark Is Rising Movie

Back when I first read about Fox Walden's plans to make of a movie of Susan Cooper's novel The Dark Is Rising this year, I queried how director David L. Cunningham's evangelical Christian background would affect the book's picture of older, deeper power in pagan form.

Having raised that question (and seen that blog entry become a locus for people to express concerns about this adaptation), I feel obligated to follow up on it. Articles on the making of the movie which I quoted here reveal that (a) the church scene has changed drastically, and (b) this probably had nothing to do with Cunningham or his faith.

First, the change. In the book, the Dark howls outside the church, Will and the Old Ones form a circle to drive away the Dark, and Will spots the Sign of Stone glowing in the plaster of the church. This leads to a discussion with the vicar of what religious traditions are oldest and most powerful, as I quoted. Though that scene is full of menace, it's not full of action--certainly not Hollywood-style action.

The equivalent scene in the movie will deliver such action. Will still finds the Sign of Stone in the village church, but he and Merriman have to go down into the church crypt to retrieve it. And there they find snakes. Lots and lots of snakes. The imitation of Raiders of the Lost Ark couldn't be clearer, even to the image of a snake slithering out of someone's mouth.

Now for Cunningham's role. He came into the project after John Hodge had written the screenplay to the producers' and studio's satisfaction. As director he had some influence over the final script revisions, but very little time to make changes: the movie was on a tight schedule, and major scenes had to be planned right away. That means the big changes from book to movie came from Hodge, working with the producing team.

Might the changes reflect the producers' bias instead of the director's? After all, Cunningham was hired for The Dark Is Rising by producer Marc E. Platt; they had filled the same roles on The Path to 9/11, which was widely criticized for presenting a distorted, politically conservative view of recent history.

That, too, seems unlikely. Critics of the 9/11 miniseries searched the background of Platt and other producers for political bias. And they found some--but in a surprising direction. Platt's political contributions from 1982 to 2002, dug up by Newsmeat, all went to Democrats, mostly centrists. The other producers seem to have had similar records. Most of the miniseries's historical distortions came from screenwriter Cyrus Nowrasteh.

Hodge is clear about his reason for changing the church scene:

In the novel, there's an atmosphere of threat. He sees light shining out through the wall, and he finds the sign. That's fine, but that doesn't provide quite enough action for this type of film. And so we basically increase the scale of the battle quite a bit.
And nothing says "increase the scale of the battle" more than lots and lots of snakes.

A cerebral, symbolic scene on the page will be turned into a visceral, active scene on the screen. That's what movies do, of course. In the transition, Cooper's interpretation of her supernatural system through Will's conversation with the vicar is almost certainly going away. It wasn't cinematic, not at the level of an effects-driven action movie. It might have produced resentment among some Christian moviegoers; it would probably have produced boredom among many more in the audience, who just want more snakes. In any event, Cunningham is not responsible for the new shape of that scene.


Sherry said...

I read The Dark Is RIsing when I was about 12 years old, and I don't remember much of the plot or the characters. But I clearly remember thinking at the time, as a Christian young person, that the worldview/religious philosophy in the books was dualistic rather than Christian.

If anyone is trying to make the movie based on the books compatible with Christianity, they're doing both Christianity and the books themselves a disservice.

J. L. Bell said...

I think some people who consider themselves Christian have a highly dualistic view of the world, so I don't see those schools of thought as necessarily exclusive.

Indeed, I think that Christians (or other people) with a dualistic approach can easily interpret any story of good versus evil, or Light versus Dark as in The Dark Is Rising, as reinforcing their world-view or values.

Fantasy in particular lends itself to such readings because those stories often discuss good versus evil, and because it's easier to interpret unrealistic elements.

I recall seeing a reader make such a claim about Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass before the author's opposition to religious orthodoxies became well known, and before the The Amber Spyglass went all Gnostic.