27 October 2006

Questions about the Dark Is Rising Movie

The good news is that Walden Media and 20th Century Fox have made a deal to adapt Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising into a movie, scheduled for release in a year.

The disquieting news is that the director is David L. Cunningham, director of the recent TV miniseries The Path to 9/11, widely criticized for being historically inaccurate, politically slanted, and rather unexciting.

This PDF download quotes Cunningham saying in 1991, at the age of twenty, that he felt a “call to be a missionary to Hollywood. It was a plan to create an independent film company whereby he could both influence the Hollywood film industry and produce major motion pictures which would carry a Biblical, values-based message.” In 2004, Cunningham and fellow alumni of the University of the Nations (an unaccredited institution founded by his father) started a non-profit organization called The Film Institute. It describes itself as

dedicated to a Godly transformation and revolution TO and THROUGH the Film and Television industry. TO it, by serving, living humbly with integrity in what is often a world driven by selfish ambition, power and money – transforming lives from within, and THROUGH it, by creating relevant and evocative content which promotes Godly principles of Truth married with Love.
All well and good, but Cunningham’s highest-profile project showed little concern for “Truth,” at least the historically accurate kind. There were so many distortions in The Path to 9/11 that ABC recut the footage after sending out review copies, added disclaimers, and has now wiped mentions of the movie from abc.com and the pathto911.abc.com subdomain.

Most of the miniseries’s distortions seem to stem from Cyrus Nowrasteh’s screenplay, but at least one was the director’s choice. In one scene the actor playing National Security Advisor Sandy Berger hung up his phone in the middle of a (fictional) CIA operation. The actor improvised that business. Rather than stick to documented “Truth,” Cunningham included that scene in his final cut, which was sent to TV critics and right-wing commentators. After nationwide protests and threats of legal action, ABC edited out the scene.

The first drama from Cunningham’s production company, Pray for Rain Pictures, was the WW2 prison camp drama To End All Wars. Its source in the memoir of a Christian clergyman was no doubt part of its appeal to Cunningham. DVDreport.com reviewer Joel Pearce wrote:
Unfortunately, the lack of subtlety with which these [allegorical] scenes are handled threatens to destroy everything good about To End All Wars. The first few times there are scenes of personal sacrifice, we understand where they are heading. By the fifth time, we are starting to get tired of being hit with it over and over. By the seventh or eighth time, I found myself stunned by the overtness of it all. It also strains believability, which is so important for historical films.
Why does this matter when it comes to The Dark Is Rising? A fantasy novel has no historical record to adhere to, after all. But it’s still quite possible for a director to distort source material by imposing his own world-view on it. I wonder how Cunningham will handle this scene from the book, immediately after the Old Ones have driven off an attack of the Dark:
The rector stood up, his smooth, plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. “Certainly it has gone,” he said, looking slowly round the church. “Whatever--influence it was. The Lord be praised.” He too looked at the Signs on Will’s belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smile of relief and delight. “That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross nonetheless.”

“Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.”

The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply.

The Old Ones looked at him. There was no answer that would not have offended him, so no one tried to give one. Except, after a moment, Will.

“There’s not really any before and after, is there?” he said. “Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there.”

Mr Beaumont turned to him in surprise. “You mean infinity, of course, my boy.”

“Not altogether,” said the Old One that was Will. “I mean the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And,” he added sadly, “the opposite, too.”

“Will,” said the rector, staring at him, “I am not sure whether you should be exorcized or ordained. You and I must have some long talks, very soon.”
Cooper depicts the rector, a well-meaning voice of Christianity, as completely out of his depth in her novel’s war between Light and Dark. He strains “to make sense of the incomprehensible,” and shows “an almost childish smile of relief and delight” when he spots something that lets him explain events through his pre-existing beliefs. Some Christians have been troubled by this aspect of Cooper's novel, and its general use of motifs from pre-Christian Britain.

How will Cunningham, with his professed mission to spread "a Biblical, values-based message" and his track record for straining both accuracy and believability in dramatic films, handle this novel’s challenges to his own beliefs?

[ADDENDA: Further news on this movie:


Tegan said...

Actually, one of the biggest criticisms of the Path propaganda movie from those who watched it was that it was so poorly filmed that it gave everyone who watched it motion sickness. I was unfortunate to see about half a minute of it and nearly got sick at the jerky camera.

I think, more than what this guy will do to the ideas in the books, I'm worried that the guy is simply no good at making movies. And if I were to see a movie based on the Dark Is Rising books, I'd like it to at least be well-made.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting thought. Cunningham has made several documentaries, so maybe he got used to the handheld style and doesn't need as much Dramamine as ordinary viewers.

Unknown said...

Now you've got me really worried. I always have a fair amount of anxiety when I hear that a movie is being made of a book I love, because I'm both drawn to see it and afraid to see it. The Dark is Rising is one of my favorite books of all time, and I really don't want to see a bad movie made of it. I especially don't want to see it distorted to spread a "Biblical, values-based message!"

Anonymous said...

The Dark Is Rising is one of my favourite books of all time - and I'm also a Christian. I think I'm right in saying that Susan Cooper is an atheist so I've always accepted the part you quote as what you'd expect her to write. I don't happen to agree, but then I don't agree with everything I read! (Does anyone?) It doesn't happen to spoil the story for me - the main theme of the series as I see it is about making a choice between serving the light or the dark. Outside the book I think the reader sorts out their own feelings about the sources of light and dark in the "real" world, as opposed to the fantasy world of Coopers's books. It's healthy for everyone to have their beliefs challenged from time to time, atheists and Christians alike.

To be honest this scene with the rector would probably be cut anyway, even by a "neutral" director.It's not absolutely essential for the plot unless you, as the director, particularly wanted to make the same point that Cooper is making.

My main worry is that the film would just be a bad one, full stop. A heavy "Biblical, values, based message" chills me as much as the next person and doesn't usually make for a good film, especially when the filmmaker sets out with this intent, but that's true of any case where didacticism rules over story. This is especially the case when the book just doesn't fit the mould (as opposed to Narnia where the message was underlying the story already).

Like Sheila I will be both drawn and afraid to see it if it ever comes out. It'll never be as good as the book though, will it?


Unknown said...

Anonymous/NEM: that was an incredibly well put and diplomatic message. Your concerns echo mine almost exactly, but you put it so much better than I did. You're right that the biggest problem would be with trying to retrofit a Christian message where there isn't meant to be one. I love the Chronicles of Narnia and don't have a problem with the Christian underpinnings of that story because a) it's an integral part of the story, and b) it's not done in such a heavy-handed way that it interferes with enjoyment of the story.

J. L. Bell said...

I agree that it would be easy enough to drop all references to the vicar from a Dark Is Rising script, and that wouldn't have to be motivated by trying to make the story fit into a Christian world-view. Of course, that would still leave it as a (very odd) Christmas story, simply because Christianity long ago took over the winter solstice holidays that the book implies are older and deeper.

I think there's a tendency (by no means confined to Christians, or to people of any faith) to assume and subsume stories into one's own strongly held world-view. The thinking goes something like:
1) I believe in good versus evil.
2) This is a story of good versus evil.
3) Therefore, it reflects my beliefs.

I recall seeing someone write in an online forum about the Christian underpinnings of His Dark Materials just about the time that Philip Pullman began to give interviews on the series's subtext about the dangers of orthodox religion. The poster had apparently never considered that someone could write about good and evil while holding quite different views of religious establishments in this world.

Anonymous said...

I really hope that the movie is good . The Dark is rising is my all time favorite book

agrahamt said...

I wrote an essay arguing with a prof. in college about DIR. I was into eastern philosophy at the time, and my Prof came from a Tennysonian "transcendental railroad" background. I argued that the world view of DIR was very Eastern, subversion of the Will and all that. The Hawkins bit and the aloofness, apartness, detachment of the Old Ones is disturbing, but I love it and consider it a legitimate perspective.

agrahamt said...

I checked out the casting, and it looks great. Us hard-cores will undoubtedly cringe at a PC adaptation of what is fundamentally a pagan book. I've always loved the bit with the Priest in the chapel, but it would anger more people than it pleased. I'm actually stunned that DIR isn't banned more often. The international element will serve it well with todays audiences.
That said - down with Bush!

Anonymous said...

It doesn't look like it's going to be "The Dark is Rising" at all, but some awful Hollywood monstrosity. Read here: http://www.chud.com/index.php?type=news&id=10283

They took all the Arthurian stuff out.

O.o You can't do that and have the same story. It's not possible.

J. L. Bell said...

Quite an interesting story linked above—and by no means from a rabid, change-nothing! fan of the book. Damian Faraci begins:

"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, by the way, is not a bad thing. While flying to Romania I read
The Dark Is Rising, which happens to be the second (but best known) book in The Dark Is Rising Sequence, and found it quite a slog. Susan Cooper’s book is a dramatic nightmare in that it features the most passive protagonist since Terry Schiavo, endless prophesizing of events that take place pages and sometimes paragraphs later, and lots and lots of internal action and almost nothing external. Reading the book I didn’t wonder how on Earth Fox-Walden would make a movie out of it, but rather how they’d ever make an interesting movie out of it."

Anonymous said...

after anon's post re: the chud link: I'm out. Best of luck to them. I skipped Narnia for the same reason. I read TDIR every Christmas (take that fellow Christians!) and am uninterested in where these people can take this. Maybe my kids will enjoy it (as I can't get them to read the book). Godspeed,

Anonymous said...

whether christian or not, i think the book series is great and i wonder about a movie. After seeing how they murdered the Eragon and Harry Potter books and skipped the first Narnia book (they are also skipping the next one right to the 4th book for the next movie) i'm worried. will this be another movie series that sucks? can it even be a series if you skip introducing the Drews in the 1st book? i don't care what that critic from chud.com says, i loved the series as a child and i want my kids to enjoy it. but will i get a bad taste in my mouth everytime i read it after a sucky movie?

Anonymous said...

Having seen the trailer, I have to say that changing Will's age to 14 means quite a bit of a change. He is shown caring about how to talk to girls, for example, something I was angry about, since it never enters the books, any of them.
I was also angry about the American accent. Why couldn't he have a British accent? Harry Potter has, and that fact hasn't stopped the films in that series from attracting North American viewers.
Hearing about the Christian director really cinches things for me. I will not be seeing this film. The book is one of my all time favorites, partly because of its paganism, and I am not going to want my feelings for it spoiled by seeing a bad movie version.

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, Susan Cooper based much of this book on stories and myths of Buckinghamshire (i.e. Herne the Hunter, Wayland Smith) What I remember as one of my favorite parts of the book was the rural feeling evoked by the setting being a farm, the feeling of being isolated during the snow storm (how Mary describes the snow trying to get in the house). I saw the trailer, and thatrural atmospheric feeling is totally lost--they are in shopping malls, modern homes, ugh. I have a bad feeling about this.......

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, the rural Buckinghamshire landscape is very important in The Dark Is Rising. Indeed, when I reread the book a couple of years ago, I found that the images of snowbound lanes and woods had stuck with me more strongly than the more "magical" images in the book.

Will's family is tied to the farming community, though his father is a jeweler. In the movie, the family is visiting from America, and the father is, I believe, a professor.

Those changes are no doubt intended to increase the movie's commercial appeal, as in The Indian in the Cupboard a few years back.

One question to ponder: Had Buckinghamshire and life in southern England changed so much that any story set in contemporary times there would have to include malls and modern houses? We are, after all, talking about a book over 30 years old. (I recall a Christmas shopping expedition in town in the book as well.)

Sarah Stevenson said...

I agree with the last two commenters--I got this overwhelming feeling of "Americanness" when I saw the trailer, and was almost convinced it was actually taking place in America. It seems as though the director has taken a lot of liberties with elements I have always felt were integral to this series. I hate to say that I'm not looking forward to it, after seeing the preview. It was one of my favorite series growing up.

Anonymous said...

after seeing that abomination of a trailer at Harry Potter I am quite upset to say the least. (tearing my hair out)how dare they completely change the story just to get an audience. when other girls were reading the saddle club and judy bloom, i enjoyed this series because it was old fashioned and interesting. the lady is supposed to be old but powerful in her own way, Will is too young to care about girls, and what it lacked in action it made up for in story. the english countryside is what made it so enchanting to me. i'm thoroughly disappinted.

scott said...

Let's face it....This movie is NOT an attempt at a faithful adaptation of "TDIR" like "Lord Of The Rings" or "Lion, Witch, Wardrode"!!! It is one very (very very) loosely based upon that novel. So if you see it, DO NOT expect any resemblence at all. Unfortunately, this means the odds of ever actually making a movie based upon the book for real are now severely diminished. I, too, upon hearing the name "Will Stanton" in the theater before the Harry Potter movie could not believe my ears. Then, sadly, I couldn't believe my eyes, as the trailer proved to be a sham of a mockery of anything decent. Had NOONE involved read the book at all? There was a South Park episode where a commentator follows Stan around and turns his life into a stupid movie trailer. This "The Seeker" trailer was just like that episode, only pathetically it was real. "Will Stanton thought he was an ordinary boy. But he's gonnna find, being the Seeker, isn't what he thought!" DUUUUUUUUHH.

Anonymous said...

What I want to know is, if deciding to attempt a dramatization of Susan Cooper, why begin with the second book in the series? Although TDIR is a fabulous book, "Over Sea, Under Stone" sets up the entire background between the Dark and Light, as well as introducing Merriman Lyon. Not to mention great action sequences and a rush-against-time feeling. They have effectively made it impossible to follow up to TDIR-would the movie makers skip straight to "The Grey King"? And how does one finish the ultimate battle at all without the Drew children, without whom the Grail could never be found and the events for "Silver on the Tree" set in motion? If TDIR remains true to the book AT ALL, the final battle cannot be fought in it, because "when the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back, three from the Circle, three from the Track..."
which means do to the books any justice they will have to set up for a sequal (and let's face it, what company isn't greedy enough to do this today)......
besides, turning the main character into an obnoxious mall-going American teenager completely detracts from the inherent Britishness of the stories and effectively chages the whole tambre
Guess I'll be renting this one

J. L. Bell said...

If The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (to give the movie its new title) is a hit, the studio can always go back to make Over Sea, Under Stone before moving on to the last three.

Then again, given the changes made in the passage from page to screen, the filmmakers could simply make up a whole new story.

Anonymous said...

You know what I really want to do? Stand outside the cinema opening day and hand out copies of the books to everyone in line.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the movie trailer in the theater, and was appalled. Now reading about the director, I understand why the story has been massacared.
The series is my all time favourite, and a standard fiction loved by children all across the UK - and a basis for many of those I know finding their way further into the pagan beliefs. That series triggered my own research into the path I now follow.
The entire series is based around the merlin/arthur/avalon legends, and many of the beliefs/legends of pre-christian britain. I personally cannot understand why susan cooper has permitted such a damaging adaptation by someone who admits being a "christian reformer". I have nothing against christians, as long as they dont try and trash other peoples beliefs. This film, by a sympathetic or neutral producer could be entertaining & haunting, show some of the beauty of the english countryside and richness of our legends, and be capable of reaching a fantastic box office sale without major rewriting

J. L. Bell said...

In this post I analyzed the evidence from interviews and concluded that the director was not responsible for how the movie seems so different in tone from the book.

That change seems to have started before Cunningham was brought onto the project, by producers and a screenwriter that don't seem to share his religious background.

Anonymous said...

I must agree with much I am reading here. I am a Christian that has quite enjoyed these books. I don't expect everyone who writes about good vs. evil, light vs. dark, to share my views. I find value in a great many kinds of stories and have found wonderful value in the DIS sequence. As far as the film goes, I could not be any more disappointed in what I have seen in the previews. The film adaptation seems already to have lost any sense of magic and wonder so beautifully written in the book. It pains me, as an American, that there seems to be a thought that this story should be "Americanized" in order to succeed. Quite to the contrary, I think it will murder this movie. I didn't know of the director's mission until reading some of these posts. I appreciate that he may find his world view in the story (even if I don't so much), but to force it into the film would be dishonest and harmful to what Cooper has written. I may not agree with Cooper's world view, but I have enough respect for her to take her story "as is" and enjoy it. I am still torn as to whether I will see the movie. Probably not. That makes me sad.

Anonymous said...

I'm from Australia, and this was one of my favourite books of childhood. Having seen the trailer, I dont think I'll be going to see this movie. yes, sure, let the US industry make an adaptation of this movie, but let a GOOD screenwriter and a GOOD director(Alfonso Cuaron & Steve Kloves did a good job with HP3) do it. Me, well I'll be waiting until BBC TV Childrens Drama makes a faithful series adaptation of the whole sequence, like they did with Narnia in the 90's

Elizabeth P. said...

I am a Christian and I enjoyed the books, but I wouldn't let my children read them yet. I also wouldn't take them to see the movie. I would rather my kids not read TDIR until they're old enough to understand about reading through the text and not taking it all at face value. Maybe when they're in high school or so I will recommend them and discuss some of the implications with them.
By the way, I do encourage my kids to read Harry Potter. I'm not a literature prude! But the secular humanist theme in TDIR is blatant, especially at the end of the 3rd book. I can't find anything in HP which is overtly contrary to the values I am trying to instill in my children.

Concerning the Narnia movies, someone commented above, "they are also skipping the next one right to the 4th book for the next movie." This is not accurate. Recent releases of the Narnia series have reordered them chronologically, but they were not originally written this way, and were never published in this way in Lewis's lifetime. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was written first. The Magician's Nephew is book #6, and The Horse and His Boy is #5.