I would imagine it is a challenge as a creator to be tasked with taking a book and translating it into a feature film. As a book lover, I will be the first to tell you that my knee jerk reaction, at least in the past, to watching a movie based on a book that I enjoyed is making obvious comparisons from one to the other. It’s natural. The success of a book usually lends itself to the production of its film counterpart so the comparisons aren’t surprising. What I’ve learned, though, is that with adaptations there should be a fair amount of grace by the viewer towards the film. After all, books and movies are different storytelling devices. Books are written with an audience’s imagination in mind. Movies can be the realization of that person’s imagination and because of that, there can be a little or a lot of creative liberty that is taken, depending on who is retelling that story.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is one of these films that manages to satisfy the reader and viewer in me, and does so by adding to the story, changing significant traits of characters, and altering the end of what should be a continuation of a fantastic book trilogy.
First, let me just say that this is a very niche book series as far as audience popularity. It doesn’t have nearly the widespread love of say The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter saga, or even less popular series like Divergent and The Maze Runner (all of which sit proudly on my bookshelf as well). Knowing this, it didn’t surprise me to hear mixed reactions from others after leaving the theater saying things like, “well that was weird,” or “I thought it was going to be more like….” The subject matter is pretty off the wall. If you are familiar with the book, you know that it is not your typical teen fiction tale, at least not one that we’ve become accustomed to. So already, Miss P is at a theatrical disadvantage.
Second, as mentioned before, this book is the first in a book trilogy (the subsequent books being Hollow City and The Library of Souls). All three are fantastic in my opinion, and each one, while pushing the overall narrative forward, do so with individualized adventures within each. What I got from the first, I got something unexpected from the second, and subsequently the third, which made my whole reading experience of the series a lot different (read: enjoyable) from those in the past. So when I watched as the ending of this film deviated quite a bit from the ending of the first book, I was disappointed. But then I realized that, because this is the first of a niche series, one that doesn’t have the insane popularity of the worlds of Harry and Katniss, there’s a risk as a creative to follow that continuation knowing that there may or may not be a second movie. I think that Burton and company did a great job at being able to tie up the story they were telling and at the same time leave room for the possibility of future adventures that exist in the subsequent books.
Third, creative liberty can be great, or it can be disastrous. In the case of the Percy Jackson series, for example, I felt cheated. I didn’t mind so much that there were additional characters created for the movie. I didn’t mind that events were somewhat out of order. What I minded was the fact that what made the books great, a modern take physically and personality wise on greek gods, was completely replaced with a more traditional one. This changed the whole tone of the film for me and left me severely frustrated.
My fear, seeing the trailers depict Emma and Olive’s peculiarities reversed AND giving Emma yet another peculiarity that didn’t exist in the book at all, was that Burton and company were going to go off the deep end with this creative liberty. What I found was something both unexpected and pretty fantastic. The addition of Emma’s new peculiarity (the ability to control air) set up a wonderful scene with her and Jacob under water on the old sunken cruise ship that, while it not depicted just like in the book, still maintained the tone of both the characters and the scene. But what validated this for me was the fact that Burton uses this newly created ability to push the story. It wasn’t created arbitrarily. It had purpose, and that purpose helped get to the climax of the film.
That climax, a battle between the old dead skeletons of the cruise ship and the Hollowgasts (a scene not in the book) could have landed flat, but instead felt like the next logical step in this story being told.
Speaking of Hollowgasts, I’m going to go ahead and say that I was incredibly impressed with how these guys were depicted. At times they were downright scary, and the way Burton used them was great! The combination of these “Slender Man” looking creatures and the white eyed performance of Sam Jackson made the creep factor go sky high.
Of course, there were some things that I didn’t care for. The biggest was Jacob’s grandfather, played by Terrance Stamp, being able to live again through crazy time travel logic. For me, this didn’t need to happen. The loss of Jacob’s grandfather in the books had a significant impact on the overall story and Jacob’s growth. He wrestled with his death and the grieving process throughout and it made his character more rounded. Had this element not been in the movie, Jacob could have chosen to go with Emma and the other kids (as he does in the book) because his life in his time was meaningless (at least at this point). I would have bought into that. I didn’t need grandpa to be alive.
Asa Butterfield’s performance was great at times and not so great at others. This may be just how he is as an actor. I really liked his performance in Ender’s Game, but as was pointed out to me, it was pretty much the same kind of performance, so it could be that it worked in EG but not in this one.
Connecting Point: As we do on the show, I’ll finish up my review with what I consider my connecting point. For me, it was the scene involving Enoch, Jacob and Victor. Up ‘til then I felt like the movie was trying to find its footing. I was a bit distracted by Butterfield’s performance and the scenes felt a little mashed together. But the moment that Enoch puts a heart into Victor’s chest, followed by a long pause, and then Victor (still dead) sitting up suddenly with his empty eyes staring straight ahead, put me in a place where, for whatever reason, I felt like the adventure took off. The pacing picked up. There was more darkness to the movie (similar to the book) and the overall movie experience became more enjoyable. At that point, I was in.
The challenge with being a fan of a book and seeing it realized on screen is the automatic expectations that come from a viewer. We have an idea of what something should look like, what someone should sound like or how they should behave because that’s what our imaginations have defined for us based on paragraphs of text, and that’s what I LOVE about reading books. The limitation is connected to the individual’s imagination and nothing else. It becomes a subjective expression inside the mind of the reader. Movies are more defined. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the audience because the story being told has already been imagined (or reimagined) by the creative team and we are seeing the result of that. Overall, I think Burton and company did a great job at capturing the tone and spirit of the book, and did so with a few challenges to overcome even before filming.
I can also get behind any movie whose author is completely onboard with the vision of the director. Check out this quote from Ransom Riggs.
“… I totally trust Tim’s vision. There’s no filmmaker in the world better suited to adapt this book. All will be well!”