I was extremely happy to see, earlier this year, that a film adaptation was being made of one of my favorite novels as a teenager, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. If you’ve never read the book — or the other four books in the series — they’re worth your time, at least if you’re into fantasy based upon British mythology. What characterizes the novels most for me — and what made them stand out to me when I first read them — is their intelligence and their pervasive sense of atmosphere. What I most remember about the novel is the way Cooper describes a small prosaic modern British town choked by snow and darkness — a place that is literally and metaphorically being crushed under the weight of its own history. It’s a quiet novel, and though the heart of it is a deep and desperate struggle between the Light and the Dark, it’s thankfully short of wizard duels and big explosions. The confrontations between 11 year old protagonist Will Staunton, his ally and tutor Merriman Lyon, and the Dark — represented by dark horseman the Rider and insane tramp the Walker — are mostly metaphorical. There’s a lot going on, but it’s all behind the scenes.
And who couldn’t love dialogue like this? (Copied over from Oz and Ends):
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.”
So I was very, very unhappy to see the trailer for David Cunningham’s film, which looks like a pretty blatant attempt to ride on some extremely profitable coattails. (I won’t go into the massive and bizarre changes between book and film; someone’s already done it for me.) There’s also a lot of discussion about Cunningham’s apparent evangelical bent…and it seems odd that they picked screenwriter John Hodge to adapt the novel; though he’s definitely an excellent writer, he’s most known for writing gritty and/or weird Danny Boyle films (Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) than fantasy.
But of course, the path that leads us here is a pretty clear-cut one: novels about boy wizard sell roughly a hundred trillion copies; movie adaptations of said novels do pretty much the same; good old Gandalf and Aslan (who, on screen at least, is a contracted employee of Walden Media, the same faith-based production company that’s making The Dark Is Rising) are worth their weight in gold; suddenly, every producer in Hollywood is hunting the used bookstores for cheap young adult fantasy properties they can option and turn into their very own personal magical mint.
Problem is, the “kids” haven’t read The Dark Is Rising. It came out in 1973. And while you can probably turn any Newbury Award winning book into a movie and guarantee that parents will drop their Potter-besotted children into theater seats, your real audience for this film are the people who read it as children or teens and fell in love with it, and smart kids and teens who’ve never been exposed to it.
Of course, that’s not the billion dollar Harry Potter audience…but The Dark Is Rising is not Harry Potter. It’s not full of expensive CG set pieces. You could probably make a pretty good and faithful adaptation for about $20 million, and earn your money back in the first week. And you’d end up with a great piece of cinema, both profitable and high quality, something to be remembered by.
But I think The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (as the film is clumsily titled; there’s gonna be a sequel, kids!) is going to be at best a by-the-numbers Hollywood fantasy film, and at worst a complete train wreck…this despite the presence of Christopher Eccleston as the Rider, which is a nearly pitch-perfect piece of casting. As much as I like Ian McShane in Sexy Beast and Deadwood (where he actually plays a real-life ancestor of mine), he’s totally wrong to play Merriman Lyon; I think Paul McGann would have been excellent in the role. From interviews I’ve read, it seems apparent that none of the filmmakers and maybe only one or two of the actors were familiar with the books before production. (McShane was quoted as saying “I know they sold a few copies, but I couldn’t read it very well. It’s really dense. It’s from the 70s, you know?”)
So do me this favor: don’t see it. Go buy the (doubtless marketed as a movie tie-in) book and read it instead. Punish these people with your wallet, and reward Susan Cooper for writing such an excellent novel.
And maybe in another twenty-odd years, somebody will revisit this material and do it right.