I’m not the sort of fan who feels so passionately about something that I could come up with the infamous remark from the Star Wars fan who, on coming out of The Phantom Menace, said, ‘George Lucas raped my childhood’ (apocryphal though it may be). It’s only fiction, after all, but people do get rather attached to the things they grow up with, developing almost unhealthy obsessions with these ephemera, be it films, comic book superheroes, fantasy trilogies or science fiction television shows …
Perhaps because I was trained as a scientist, or because I tend towards the rational rather than having the ability to allow myself to become completely involved with entertainments, but I don’t get THAT obsessed (apart from writing a blog about my genre enjoyments, possibly). However, I did get an inclination of the sensation when I watched the film The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, and (nearly, but not actually) wept at watching a film totally missing the point of the book I loved that they were adapting.
Susan Cooper’s cycle of five books, called The Dark Is Rising, is a sequence of books that my parents were suggested to buy for me by an English teacher, perhaps exasperated at somebody who liked English but wasn’t connecting with it. He thought that these books of contemporary fantasy, written in 1960s and 1970s, would be more palatable to my sensibilities AND give me an entry point into the world of literature. And he was right.
I was about 13 at the time – I devoured them and still have those original copies to this day. My teacher had recognised that I preferred genre, and these books reignited my passion for reading (for which I am eternally grateful). The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, set the tone for a modern tale based on Arthurian legend and British folklore, which carries through the remaining books. It also has a slightly Enid Blyton feel to it, as does the third book, Greenwitch; the fourth and fifth books, The Grey King and The Silver On The Tree, are more connected to magic and Celtic legend. But it is the second book, The Dark Is Rising, that really captures the imagination of a teenage boy reading them for the first time (they are children’s books) and is to my mind the best book; in it, a young boy discovers he is an Old One, the last in a line of magical beings who protect the Earth from the forces of darkness. The story is a wonderful journey of discovery and it really captures the mood and atmosphere of the particularly British folklore, connecting the Arthurian legends with specifics such as Herne the Hunter.
When I discovered the book was being made into a film (and it is the most cinematic of the sequence to start with), I was surprised but happy. However, when I saw the film, the emotion turned to bemusement and disappointment. Because the film completely misses what the book is actually about, and it does this because they didn’t want people to think it was a copy of Harry Potter.
Both books have a young boy discover he has magic powers on his eleventh birthday, discover a world he doesn’t know, gain an old man as a mentor figure, and save the day at the end. Therefore, the film goes out of its way to change the story to distinguish it and, in doing so, eradicate all that made the book so magical (if you’ll pardon the expression). What’s worse is that the screenwriter is John Hodge, the man behind Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. He knows a thing or two about constructing a script but his differentiating The Dark Is Rising from Harry Potter has gutted the heart of the story and removes the aspects that set it apart (and made it so popular in the first place).
In the film, the hero, Will, is now 13 years old and he and his family are Americans living in England, in a contemporary setting (rather than the 1960s and 1970s of the book). His father, a jeweller in the book, is now a former physicist who was studying dark matter, which is linked to The Dark, the bad guys. The Walker, an important character in the book, is gone completely. There are more action sequences to keep things interesting for the kids. They even give Will physical powers (he knocks two of his older brothers across the room), which just seems a bit sad. For me, the worst change is turning the death of his twin brother when he was young (which he didn’t know about, and didn’t realise he was the seventh son of a seventh son) and switching it to an abduction – the abduction is now the result of The Dark, and so Will’s victory in the end is to save his twin brother from The Dark. This is just awful, awful, awful. It’s such a Disney turn of events, with their obsession with family and glorifying the family unit, and it’s not even a Disney movie.
I want to eviscerate the film itself, but it’s just very ordinary (which is sad for something that is supposed to be magical). The director comes from TV and, although he handles the camera and CGI okay, it is uninspired and flat. The people who come out worst are the actors. Ian McShane and Frances Conroy don’t come out well, but not as badly as poor Christopher Eccleston as The Rider, the personification of The Dark in this book – an actor of repute in serious pieces, as well as bringing Doctor Who back to life and enjoying himself in Heroes, he seems to come off really bad in US films (he was so painfully out of place in Gone In 60 Seconds) and this is no difference. Pity poor Eccleston. He’s not as bad as the child actor playing Will, who makes you realise that Daniel Radcliffe is rather good, but you don’t expect anything from him. But they are not at fault – the people responsible are the screenwriter and the executives who agreed with the decision to adapt the book so incorrectly. I wish they had done a better job so that people would have realised what they’d been missing. Now they’ll never know. And I have to ignore the actors when I read the books, and try to remember the faces I first saw when I read them and loved them over twenty years ago …