And so Harry Potter is finished, cast his final spell, and in a conjoining of time better suited to the pages of a novel, so too is Susan Cooper’s Newberry-winning The Dark Is Rising series. Thirty years since its last word was penned, the movie trailer for an also beloved, also epic tale of good and evil has just been released, and if the invective of fans is anything to go by, the series is finished as surely as the Titanic in the North Atlantic.
During filming in Bucharest, Romania there was a joke on The Dark is Rising set that only three things have been changed from the original 1973 novel: the nationality of lead character Will Stanton, changed from English to American; his age changed from 11 to 13; and everything else that happens in the story. A solo quest by an 11-year-old is no longer solo; family values have been deemed out of date — the happy, loving Stanton family rewritten dysfunctional; a series of five books bereft of a single love interest has been re-imagined with the lead character chasing the fairer sex, pleading in the trailer “I can't save the world! I don't even know how to talk to a girl!” Angered, disgusted fans are reporting little interest in their hero’s new, most ordinary of plights.
Indeed, for the many who claim the deepened, mythic sense of the world in The Dark is Rising actually changed their livers, something less poetic is on the rise — bile. Sickened at the sight of the trailer, one fan reported that they were a whole minute in before they realised what movie it was. Complained another, “My daughter was all like ‘that looks great!’ and I was pounding my head into my husband’s shoulder. It looks awful.” One heart-broken reader of the original books reported that upon watching the trailer, a part of them died.
More contentious than Will Stanton’s womanising ways, the film has changed the very source of the magic in a most magical of series — all traces of Cooper’s beguiling, haunting blend of English, Arthurian, and Celtic mythology removed, recast as hip hop and Humvees. Bemoaned one reader, aggrieved at the trailer’s depiction of a modern day Merlin wielding a mace, this most fascist of adaptations is tantamount to Peter Jackson taking the hobbits out of Middle Earth and getting rid of the elves. A series that the author said almost wrote itself, arose mist-like out of the English landscape of her birth without conscious imagination or invention, appears to have been rewritten completely without imagination, rewritten as just another action and love story. This tale of coming of age could now only be from a more present, soulless Age.
By all accounts this is the same slash and burn, cross it out and write it again treatment that Steven Spielberg wanted to give to the Harry Potter films, but although critically acclaimed, author Susan Cooper in no way wields the power of J.K. Rowling to set terms of adaptation to owners Walden Media. For the sake of her original books, much is the pity.
Whom to blame for this English pudding half-baked into American apple pie? Surely not the screenwriter, Oscar nominated Glaswegian John Hodge, whose writing credentials to date include two of the most acclaimed British films of the nineties, Trainspotting (1996) and Shallow Grave (1994)? Or has the sight of the dollar rising on this, Hodge’s first Hollywood film, prompted him to sell his soul?
The Dark is Rising screenwriter has never met Susan Cooper. He freely admits as much, saying that as far as he was concerned he had her blessing to do whatever was needed. To give Hodge some credit the screenwriter is reportedly the only member of the production team aside from English born Amelia Warner (contrived love interest Maggie Barnes) who has actually read the book. But judging from the scale of the rewrite, that would have been the last time he strayed between its pages.
Maybe we can blame director David Cunningham, whose directing pedigree to date, The Path to 9/11 (2006) and Little House on the Prairie Mini-Series (2005), reveals a path straight to television, and whose only feature, After (2006), went almost directly to DVD. Cunningham is a child of the early 1970s, the perfect age to have grown up reading Susan Cooper’s award winning series, but indications are he spent his formative years reading comics rather than novels, or watching Bruce Lee — he was nicknamed on set “Captain Chaos” for his cool hand in directing karate fight scenes. Yes, in the adaptation of a book where brooding evil and malevolence never come to outright blows, the climatic scene has been re-envisioned as what one actor described as a kung-fu fight atop a vegetable cart. One can only assume Walden Media spent all their money on securing the rights to the books, and got their writer and director cheap.
And what of Golden Globe-winning, Royal Academy-trained lead Ian McShane, sole, flickering hope of quality to fans very much fearing the worst, an actor whom would only need a fraction of the Shakespearean presence displayed in the acclaimed Deadwood series to succeed as character Merriman, a modern-day Merlin? Surely he has read Cooper’s books? Sadly the answer is no — in fact he had never even heard of them.
“I don't think they've been very faithful to the book.” McShane admitted when interviewed, lack of enthusiasm obvious. “I don't know how many of you've read the book. 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?” Signs hardly encouraging from the man playing the greatest wizard of all time.
So why are all involved making this film, if not to honour the author’s original art, furthermore give shape, breathe life into the imaginings of millions? Are cast and crew the slightest bit interested in recreating just a small amount of magic in the most magical of mediums — film? If the man playing Merriman is typical, the aim in The Dark is Rising was slightly lower than magical. Asked what about the project specifically interested him, Ian McShane replied with refreshing, although hardly endearing honesty: “The cheque. As it always is.”
It seems not creativity, imagination or even pride in their craft, but money has spoken loudest in the making of The Dark is Rising. As it almost always does.
In October The Dark is Rising will be released as a film. Judging by not just the trailer alone, it will sink without a trace.