29 December 2011

Piling on The Seeker

Salon asked some children’s writers about movie adaptations, and a couple had interesting things to say about an uninteresting film, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising. I read that piece just a couple of hours after watching the movie for the first time (I had a bunch of envelopes to stuff, all right?). M. T. Anderson is right on the mark about it:
The original novel, published in the ’70s, established a lot of the common tropes of kids’ fantasy novels – for example, the odd penchant of Forces of Light in general for engaging underage teens to save the world. (Really? Is that a wise choice? Are those the only resumes they receive?)

The qualities of the original that make it a classic of the genre also make it a tough thing to adapt into a movie. It’s richly atmospheric and moody, even dreamy, evoking a Celtic Christmas that is ancient and half-pagan – but the confrontations between Light and Dark are subtle. The action is almost ritualistic.

For the movie, they threw the whole Celtic thing out the window and focused on action. By sapping the story of everything that made it particular (its mood and its focus on a seductive blend of British mythologies) they left behind only the elements that have been imitated so many times in the 30 years since the book’s publication that they’ve become cliché. So the filmmakers managed to create something that fans of the book hated – because it gutted the original material – while at the same time boring the hell out of everyone who didn’t know the book, because all that was left was insipidly generic.
Charitably, Anderson says, “Some of the bustling family scenes, scripted by the talented John Hodge (‘Trainspotting’) have verve.” Family was also a major theme in Susan Cooper’s novel as well, starting from the first line, but used in a completely different way. Though one Stanton brother is exasperated by the number of siblings (which the movie doesn’t try to replicate fully), for Will his family is safe and sturdy. In contrast, the movie family is full of nasty teasing, sexual rivalry, and hidden shame.

I was struck by how desperate the moviemakers were to establish that The Seeker was set in the present, not the (gasp!) 1970s. Our first sight of Will is him putting in earbuds. Shortly afterward comes a shot of a line of teens all flicking open their cell phones. (Remember when phones flicked open?) Will’s brothers have a huge screen for their videogames, an older brother Skypes in from Hawaii for Christmas, and Will researches the ancient battle of light and dark through Google.

That technology theme fades away, however, and cell phones and computers aren’t allowed to affect the plot any more than in the Harry Potter stories. The conflict plays out in a series of very familiar special-effects shots. Giant snakes! Water bursting through archways! Glass breaking! Smoke billowing!

Diane Duane concurred on how much was lost:
…probably the adaptation I’ve seen that stands out as most completely screwed-up would be “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising.” The basic concept was eviscerated and left staggering around like a zombie-ized shell of itself, and all the good character business was either dumbed down, ripped out or rendered meaningless. It infuriated me, because that book was the anchor of one of the great mid-’70s YA fantasy series, a nuanced piece of work.
I know mood is hard to translate from page to screen. But The Dark Is Rising offers one of the finest lines in children’s literature—“Tonight will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond all imagining”—and The Seeker managed to screw up even that.

I have no compunction about spoiling what’s supposed to be one of the movie’s big reveals: that Will’s twin brother was kidnapped in infancy, and—despite his growing up in a family with two guilt-stricken parents and five older brothers who love to torment him—no one ever told him. This allows for a sight of the lead actor in an awful wig alongside his regular self in trick shots at the end of the film. Hell, I’ll even give away the ending! The brother returns to the family after fourteen years of captivity in a snow globe as if nothing has happened.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I plan a reread of The Dark Is Rising series. I was a little curious about the movie. Too bad it sucks. I remember so little of the actual plots of the novels, but I remember the fact of them. Over Sea, Under Stone was my favorite. I read it twice, so I almost sort of remember something about it.

J. L. Bell said...

The Dark Is Rising series is like the Oz books in that Cooper didn't originally plan on a series. Over Sea, Under Stone has a different tone from the rest since it's about three ordinary kids dipping their toes into some magic. As I recall, Cooper was surprised to find herself bringing back a figure from that book in the more deeply magical The Dark Is Rising a few years later, and only then did she knit the adventures together and start thinking about further titles. The first book didn’t even have the same publisher as the rest for quite a while.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

I remember the different publisher business; publisher & author are separable parts? Plus the design was different. More Oz parallels!