Kevin Andrew Murphy December 31st, 2008
I have just watched The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, a year after it came out (DVR is your friend, except maybe in this case) and I’m gasping in horror at how bad it was, and for no good reason. You’ve got all the elements that would seem to make a great movie: Beloved children’s classic as source material? Check. Lavish sets? Check. Gorgeous costuming? Check. Actors ranging from competent to excellent? Check. Impressive and appropriate special effects? Check. Script by a competent screenwriter? Um, well, I understand they got the guy who did the adaptation for Trainspotting, which I understand was a decent movie, but….
First off, let me make one thing clear: Departure from the source material is fine. The Wizard of Oz dumped the scene in the Dainty China Country from the movie adaptation because it was boring, extraneous, and painfully lame. Glomming the Good Witch of the North and Glinda the Sorceress of the South together makes sense from a dramatic perspective, though making her a bubbly airhead was a bit much (although the MGM version does have her fans). Having the Wicked Witch of the West be responsible for the poppies is fine for purposes of drama, and having them be foiled by snow as opposed to field mice is likewise fine for purposes of staging. Mary Norton’s The Magic Bedknob and Bonfires and Broomsticks do not contain Nazis, musical numbers, a young Miss Price, or magical football matches with talking animals–though all of these things are very fun in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, a movie I adored as a child and had to thank for introducing me to the equally good (if significantly different) book. And Alfonso Cuaron’s version of A Little Princess took numerous liberties with the original novel, including but not limited to moving the setting from London to New York, making Becky black instead of Cockney, and most significantly, having Sarah’s dad not be dead of bad investments in India but instead poisoned by mustard gas and MIA in WWI.
The difference here is that The Wizard of Oz, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Cuaron’s A Little Princess are all great movies. The reason The Seeker isn’t is not because elements were changed, but because elements were changed for the wrong reasons and the wrong way.
The biggest, and wrongest, change was making Will Stanton, and his entire immediate family, American. This was inane. The filmmakers had some waffle about how this was done to emphasize Will as being an outsider and yadayadayada and various nonsense to cover up the fact that some executive thinks American theatre-going children only want to see films about American kids.
This is rubbish. It’s not that it can’t be done–the boy in Roald Dahl’s The Witches is made American rather than British, and Mr. Darling is made an American computer game designer rather than a British economist for the live-action 101 Dalmations–but in this case it doesn’t work for the simple fact that, unlike the two counterexamples, it cuts the heart of the character. Will Stanton is not an American child discovering the magical and mystical Britain (or at least the ability to blow up cars with his mind) but a British child with a stable and supportive family discovering magic and danger waiting for him right there in his home village.
Making Will fourteen rather than eleven? Another problem, and a significant one. Apart from all “Who buys popcorn?” charts nonsense, and concerns with dealing with child actors, eleven is an age for exploration and independence without having to really bother with hormones or even the societal pressure that one needs to deal with hormones. The “love interest” plot pasted into The Seeker? Completely extraneous and stupid. Making Miss Price younger and prettier in Bedknobs and Broomsticks is fine because the heart of the character is the same: She’s an independent woman living on her own and studying witchcraft who suddenly has her secret discovered by a trio of children. Whether she’s late thirties or late fifties is immaterial, and her romance with Mr. Brown–either version–is a matter of slowly growing affection, not something she’s actively looking for.
This goes double for all the manufactured family drama that wasn’t present in Susan Cooper’s original book. Your protagonist has enough trouble dealing with the Dark without also having to deal with his eldest brother angsting about dropping out of college.
Changing the time period of the story from the late 60s to the current day is not an issue except in the way that it’s dealt with. There is a problem with a movie when one of the more interesting and magical scenes takes place in a mall. But whatever you do, don’t make a big fuss over giving your character a digital watch. Digital watches weren’t even cool in the eighties, let alone the present day. And for god’s sake don’t have him travel back in time and trade it to a Viking.
And changing “The Sign of Fire” into “The Power of the Human Soul”? One supposes the script writer was not familiar with “What sort of lame power is Heart anyway?”
The sad thing is, there would be any number of ways to kick up the action of the book to make it more dramatic onscreen without having your protagonist blow up cars (even more troubling given that the Sign of Fire was edited out, despite the fact that giving actual powers to the Signs wouldn’t have damaged the original storyline and would have indeed made it more dramatic).
Of course there are any number of sad things about The Seeker, the main one being that it will now be a number of years before anyone can get together enough money to do a proper adaptation.