Me, I'm just delighted that a really neat author lady I know has had a movie, a game, and prizes in cereal boxes based on her books. mneme and I are hoping that this may lead to a movie of Tithe. I'm hoping that will lead to a movie of Valiant, which is currently my favorite of that trilogy (so far), though I really need to reread all three of those books.
From the moment I saw the trailer, I was sure this would be a good movie. I was right.
Like a number of good movies based on books -- or good comic books -- Spiderwick is true to the spirit of the source material, though not necessarily to the letter.
The five books are each sections of a larger story, but each is a complete tale. That is, the second book doesn't make much sense without the third, but each book ends with a resolution of the immediate situation.
But there is really only enough material for one movie, not five. So, time and space are condensed, and a lot of incidents are dropped or simplified. The basic situation is the same: The Grace children must deal with the world of faeries revealed by the Field Guide penned by their long lost relative, Arthur Spiderwick. The protagonist, Jared, also has to deal with his anger issues and his parents' divorce.
In the books, it takes a while for the reader to learn that Jared has anger issues and that the incidents at his old school involved him beating up other kids. Most of the time, when there's bullying going on in fantasy, particularly YA fantasy, the protagonist is the one being bullied, not the bellicose party. The slow reveal works. By the time the reader knows that Jared started fights at some point offstage, before the story began, she's been inside Jared's head and invested enough in him that the author isn't risking too much alienation from the protagonist. It also helps that Jared comes to a temporary resolution by understanding that the angry, but not evil, boggart is not so different from himself.
In the movie, the viewer knows from the beginning that Jared is a sullen angry kid. What keeps him from being utterly unsympathetic is his loyalty to his family, especially his twin brother. This is shown with one line -- no, with half a line. We've just seen him be sullen at his mother, and aggressive with his sister, who, to be fair, is being nasty to him. And he makes fun of his crazy old aunt as he stands in front of her portrait. His aunt, he knows, was put in an asylum after claiming that her father was abducted by faeries. This, he says, is not going to happen to him. "Or to you," he tells his brother, half a beat later. And that nails it. That really does.
Oh yes, Jared's sister. Mallory is gorgeous. And she fences. I want some of that -- I want to be like that. She is totally kick-butt effective, and when she is knocked aside by the big bad, there is no sense that she is being punished for being effective earlier or that "real" fighting is for folks with a Y-chromosome. No, the big bad is just Big.
In the books, Jared never tries to destroy the Field Guide, wisely recognizing that this is his only source of knowledge of the faeries. You don't just read a book like that once and know everything.
But, in fiction, it is permissible to pretend that you do, and I felt an odd satisfaction in seeing that the Grace children did seriously consider the option and did try to destroy the book. Part of this is because the movie identifies the ogre Mulgrath as the villain very early on, and says that if he gets the Guide, it's all over for everyone else, faerie and human alike. There has never been a book like the Guide, which contains knowledge of all kinds of faeries, or at least, all the ones in the local area. The book, however, cannot be destroyed. And, this is one of those movies where it is perfectly reasonable to explain that with "It's magic."
This means that we're inevitably talking a siege at the house, and that raises the question of why the faeries don't just storm in and take it. Well, they don't storm in because there's a magical circle protecting the house. But, later in the movie, pages are ripped out of the guide, and one of those tells Mulgrath how to break the circle. The physicality of the guide is much more noticeable in the movie.
Hm... one thing that sorta bugs me is that the brownie swaps books so that the Guide can't be destroyed, even though he wants it to be. But, I can deal -- he's following the last order Arthur Spiderwick gave him, which was to keep the book safe.
I do think there's one overly indulgent line, even though I cheered when I heard it. When the mother finally understands that her kids aren't making up dumb stories about faeries to try to get her to take them back to New York, Jared hands her a couple of very large kitchen knives. "Steel," he says. "They cut and burn."
"It's a good thing we're from New York," says Mrs. Grace.
Yes, I laughed. But, it's a dumb line.
It's about the only dumb line in there. I loved just about everything else.
Then, there's the headset.
In Holly Black's novel, Ironside, she introduces a set of Checkhov's Handcuffs. It's really neat. Our protagonist acquires them in a perfectly reasonable, if utterly bizarre fashion, and this reader, at least, thought no more about them. Later on, those handcuffs are important to the plot.
In the Spiderwick movie, we have a Checkhov's iPod.
At the beginning of the movie, Jared is sitting sullenly in the car, listening to his music, and utterly refusing to interact with his mother. She sighs and goes inside. His sister Mallory yanks the headphones off, and he jumps out of the car at her, which was what she intended. And they fight, and on to the next scene, and by then, one may have forgotten all about the iPod.
You must not forget the iPod, oh Best Beloved.
In the book, Arthur Spiderwick is being held captive by elves, who are yet another faction that wants the Field Guide. In the movie, the elves are replaced by sprites. The important thing about sprites is that they are thumbnail sized blossom-like things that don't seem to talk. This means that the movie doesn't have to spend a lot of time with them, just establish what they are, what they want, and why they are dangerous.
They are dangerous because they change one's perception of time. Thus, Arthur Spiderwick has been standing still for eighty years, convinced he just left his six-year-old daughter a moment ago, or perhaps yesterday. As Jared gets Arthur's attention, his siblings are gradually ensorcelled by the music of the sprites and stand frozen in time.
But Jared has an iPod with a headset! Go Jared! Go writers!
This, incidentally, is the second headset scene I've encountered that I really love. The first was in an episode of the television show Northern Exposure.
In the Yom Kippur episode of Northern Exposure, the series protagonist, Joel, is visited by the ghosts of Yom Kippur Past, Present, and Future, all of which look like his rabbi. This is, of course, a nod to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
The ghost of Christmas Present is accompanied by two children, a boy and a girl, one deaf and one blind. These children represent the people who screen out those in need. I didn't know about this part of the story until I finally read it, as the adaptations I'd seen cut out that part.
The Yom Kippur episode did not. The ghost of Yom Kippur Present was accompanied by a boy and a girl. One was playing with a handheld video game. The other was listening to a Sony Walkman, wearing headphones. Gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.
The meeting with Arthur does not, as I recall, occur in the book. But, it is very well done in the movie, reinforcing the theme of the importance of family.
All human characters, except perhaps the mother, have a scene where they get to be cool. Jared's the main character, so he gets lots of scenes. Simon gets to soothe a gryffin. Mallory gets to whack goblins with her sword. Arthur gets to distract the sprites to let the kids escape, and he gets to give Jared confidence by saying that, since Jared knows everything that's in the Field Guide, Jared effectively is the book, and that if he was resourceful enough to find Arthur, he's smart enough to deal with Mulgrath. Lucinda gets to throw salt at a troll, which hurts it a lot.
One thing I regret is the change in one of the climactic scenes. It's quite right that the movie does it differently, given the set up. And, given that the movie has to do it differently, the change is the correct change. As with much else in the movie, it is faithful to the spirit, not the letter, of the original.
In both book and movie, Mulgrath takes the shape of Mr. Grace, and Jared understands that something is wrong. In the book, clearly some time has passed and Jared is aware of his father's faults. While he wants very much to believe that his father wants to be part of the family again, he knows that it simply isn't true. He says:
I want Dad to be less of a jerk, and Mom to be less sad. I want my dad to stop talking about himself and his movies and his life all the time and remember that I'm the loser who almost got kicked out of school and Simon is the one who likes animals and Mallory is the fencer. But that's not going to happen and you're not him.
It's the combination of plot and character, of cleverness, wisdom, and bitter, bitter pain that makes this scene shine for me.
The movie cannot have this speech because the set up is very different. At the beginning of the movie, Jared expects his father to pick him up any day, and he blames his mother for the divorce. What he does not know until about two thirds or three quarters of the way through is that his father is living with another woman and does not intend to come and pick him up.
It's a beautiful brutal scene when he learns this. Mallory tells him, not to hurt him, but because she understands that he needs to know. His mother did not tell him because she wanted to let his father tell him. This scene gives emotional punch to the scene with Arthur, because in him Jared recognizes another father who, albeit unwittingly, left his child. Also, as he tells a self-pitying Arthur, "I know things that I wish I didn't know, too!"
But, it does mean the movie cannot have Jared's speech from the book. Instead, when Jared knows that something is wrong, he tells his "father" that, the last time they spoke, his father said that there was something he wanted to tell Jared. And, Jared wants his father just to look him in the eyes and say it. Mulgrath, making the logical, but wrong, guess, says, "I love you."
Very different, but this is true to the spirit of the book. In both cases, Mulgrath does not know the truth the situation with Mr. Grace. However, he is well aware of the Power of Love. He's not a Voldemort or a Flinduvian. He knows just what these humans want to hear, and he says it.
And, in both cases, Jared desperately wants to hear what his "father" says and believe that it is true. And, in both cases, he rejects the comforting lie he wants for the bitter truth.
I did find the aftermath in the movie disturbing. In the book, Jared's words led immediately to Mulgrath revealing himself while he had a great tactical advantage. In the movie, Jared stabs his "father".
I found this disturbing at least partly because I did not think it was intended to be disturbing. I reminded Josh of an episode of Angel where Wesley told the woman he loved that, even though when he thought he was killing his own father to protect her, he was actually just killing a robot who looked like his father, the important thing was that in his own mind he was killing his own father for her.
mnemex thinks that the writers were well aware of what they were doing and that the scene is intended to be disturbing. I am not convinced, but perhaps it is just me. mnemex said that when Jared stabbed his father, even though he'd read the books, even though the set up was perfect -- we see Mulgrath taking the shape of a harmless old man earlier in the movie and we see him taking a picture of the Grace family -- for a few beats, mnemex was thinking, "What if he was wrong?" And then, he saw the ichor on Jared's knife and relaxed.
All in all, Spiderwick is a good, solid movie that has the courage to be no longer than it needs to be. I think it isn't quite as good as Enchanted in the areas where Enchanted is strongest, but then again, it's doing something different.
On a sidenote, I was thinking that in my gaming world, the Spiderwick books are probably more accurate than Tithe and sequels, even though lordess has established that at least the latter exist. I told mnemex that the movie probably showed a typical day for a shaman in that world, or at least for one particular shaman, and we riffed on that on our way home, with a lot of giggling. ("Don't panic! Everything's under control. Really! Just don't go outside!")