"The book was better" is a phrase heard often in conversations about book-to-film adaptations. "Don't judge a book by its movie" is another common jab. While we've all uttered some version of this sentiment at one point or another, there have been those rare occasions when the opposite is true. As a lifelong bookworm and cinephile, I've discovered that whether I read the book before or after seeing the movie can have a profound influence on my enjoyment of the story across both mediums. In this column, I’ll be checking out old and new adaptations to further explore both sides of that experience. In the process, I hope to unveil how these two vastly different mediums work together to tell the same story, from cover to credits.
“When you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.”
- Neil Gaiman, Coraline
Neil Gaiman has never been one to shy away from telling scary stories. In fact, he’s mastered the art of writing disturbing tales for younger, more impressionable audiences. What’s significant about his brand of scary directed toward kids, particularly in a story like Coraline, is that he doesn’t sugarcoat the dark side or talk down to his intended audience. Instead, he shines a spotlight on a young girl’s bravery and her determination to prevail against the evil in her world, proving that everyone, no matter what their age, has what it takes to be the hero. In the end, Gaiman’s scary stories aren’t only intended to terrify, but to teach children a valuable lesson about facing their fears and, more importantly, that they’re capable of conquering them. In his strange and unusual worlds, all one needs is a little courage to make those things that go bump in the night a little less frightening.
Gaiman’s vivid characters and enchanting narratives are often so alive on the page that his prose has translated seamlessly to the silver screen on several occasions. Interestingly, some adaptations of his work have become as beloved as the books they’re based on. From Stardust and MirrorMask to American Gods and the upcoming Good Omens (co-written with Terry Pratchett), the visual interpretations inspired by the mind of one of our greatest storytellers continue to push the boundaries of imagination beyond the limitations of words on a page. Because it’s one thing to read that a character has buttons for eyes, and quite another to actually see the needle and thread that puts them there.
It’s been ten years since Henry Selick and Laika Studios gifted us their extraordinary vision of Gaiman’s Hugo Award-winning novella, Coraline. Working from Selick’s screenplay, which was originally intended to be a live-action feature, the team of more than five hundred artists, animators, puppeteers, and costume designers created the now iconic look (a Halloween gift that keeps on giving) for the willful and adventurous eleven-year-old. Combining stop-motion animation with thousands of 3D printed faces and handmade sets and objects as far as the eye can see, Laika’s phenomenal talents determined the stylistic look and feel of an eccentric cast of characters and the spooky old house they inhabit. Their meticulous eye for detail only heightened the horror of Gaiman’s story, conveying the darkness and melancholy of Coraline’s predicament in a way I’d wager even the author himself had never imagined.
The feature sticks closely to the plot of the book, following Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) into an idealized version of her life on the other side of a mysterious doorway. Enticed by the extravagance of this Other existence, Coraline’s adventure quickly becomes a harrowing nightmare when her Other Mother’s (Teri Hatcher) sinister intentions are revealed, forcing her to save herself and her loved ones from a dark fate. Selick’s biggest departure from the source material is the character of Wyborne “Wybie” Lovat (Robert Bailey, Jr.), who was created as a sounding board for Coraline and to offer some backstory on her new surroundings. Although some moments don’t have quite the same impact they do in the book, such as the ghost children Coraline must rescue to defeat the Other Mother, nothing altered detracts from the wondrous qualities of the tale. On the contrary, every detail from the talking cat (Keith David) to the transformative color palettes representing each world work to enhance the tone and imagery of the book. Overall the film is a stellar example of what can be accomplished when a team of inventive minds approach an adaptation of Gaiman’s work armed with a penchant for the bizarre and, perhaps, just a few magic tricks up their sleeve.
It’s true, not everyone likes to be scared, but audiences of all ages enjoyed the thrills and chills of Coraline. During promotion for the film, Gaiman noted, “I’m glad I wrote a book that has scary things in it and things that are worth being scared of and tells you that you should be brave, that you can persist, and you can triumph.” Sure, not all kids may be ready for Gaiman’s brand of scary stories. There are some adults who aren’t ready, either! But I agree with Gaiman that it’s important to expose children to scary things, if only to teach them that it’s possible to overcome fear and triumph against the evils of the world. Coraline shows them that they can be the hero. She doesn’t back down, even when she’s scared. That’s bravery. And with a little courage, even the scariest stories find their happy end.