I’m totally fascinated by (some might say obsessed with) adaptation. If you believe, as I do, that nothing is truly original, then pretty much every cultural product is some form of adaptation or interpretation. I think of it as an extremely creative process: how to make unfamiliar the familiar (fairy tale adaptation); how to bring someone else’s original world to life in a new way (film adaptation); how to put your unique spin and gifts to an old story so that the old story is barely recognizable (aka pretty much every piece of art).
How people do this, and what is added by adaptation are questions that I’m forever thinking about. So I thought this feature could be kind of fun–a look at how films and literature interact, and about what the film brings to the story. These aren’t traditional reviews about how “well” the movie portrays the book, instead I’ll be looking at what I think are the meaningful deviations and how those changes impact our view of the stories together and separately. At least, that’s the goal.
First, some of the vital statistics on the book and film: Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (click the link for the film Wikipedia page, which has a plot summary)
*Spoiler warning–it’s not intentional but is a somewhat essential part of the analysis process, though I do not talk about the ending.*
- Written by: Ransom Riggs
- Published: Quirk Books, June 2011
- Intended audience: YA
- Reception: NY Times Best Seller for 70 weeks, made it to #1 slot
- Directed by: Tim Burton
- Released: 20th Century Fox, September 2016
- Principal actors: Eva Green (Miss Peregrine), Asa Butterfield (Jake), Samuel L. Jackson (Barron)
- Reception: nominated for a special effects award from the Visual Effects Society Awards, mixed reviews and reception: Rotten Tomatoes: 64%; Meta critic 57/100= mixed/average reviews
Note: I watched the film before I read the book.
The film and the book have several interesting differences, but first I wanted to comment on the importance that visual media plays in the book. The story was largely inspired by old photographs–photography being the author’s primary interest–and for the most part the characters as well as some minor plot points come from these photographs.
These old pictures, which are in themselves strange and interesting, mean that the book had already been informed largely by visual media. This makes the decision to adapt into film a natural one (beyond the fact that most stories translate well to film and that Hollywood has a long and well-established history of borrowing liberally from literature). It’s even more natural that Tim Burton would be the chosen director, given his predilection for the gothic, slightly dark, but ultimately visually appealing aesthetic that he’s famous for.
The book’s protagonist, Jakob, is much more of a teenager in the text. He is filled with angst, is often sarcastic–he swears–he is much less earnest than his film counterpart. The film makes less of Jakob’s personality than of his character, by which I mean his actions and abilities and his fascination with the other children. This decision ultimately made his transition into their world easier in the film–he still has that sense of wonder and is more childlike (calling to mind characters like Dorothy or Alice), rather than offering more of a contrast to the children in the home. Still, I love the book version, which feels much more authentic to his age.
The old man from the bog. If you haven’t read the book, you probably have no idea what this is, but the old man is a very old and well preserved human sacrifice in the county museum. The museum curator suggests that the man would have been a willing sacrifice, since it meant he would go straight to heaven. The mummy provides an interesting contrast in the book between the children who are preserved in their own time and the preservation that is achieved through death in the bog. This is missing from the film, but the point the film tries to make about the peculiar children is very different from the one the book makes.
In continuation of the above difference, the children in the book often feel quite stuck or trapped in their safe haven, the alternative for most of them (leaving the loop) would mean death. They feel cut off from the world, and often lash out at the villagers. This is only present in a small sense in the film, which is more concerned with making the world of the peculiar children fantastical and immersive, the darkness lurking more in the background.
Differences in characters.
- One of my favorite deviations from the book to the film is the character of Miss Peregrine. In the book, she is a capable matron who cares deeply for her charges, but in the film she has a spark all her own. She’s mysterious and mischievous and looks like the falcon she is. She also seems, possibly because of her reduced age, more of a peer with the children rather than an instantly recognizable authority figure.
- The other fairly big character change is in Emma and Olive’s characters. In both the film and book, Emma entrances and is entranced by Jakob, but in the book her powers and Olive’s are switched. Emma in the book is a fire wielder, while in the film she levitates. This choice has interesting implications. Emma as the fire wielder exerts more control over her surroundings. She is less passive, less at the mercy of the world around her, and so it’s natural that she’s unsatisfied with her safe haven, as her powers are typically associated with destruction and renewal. In the film, there is some work done to give her more agency (she doesn’t simply levitate, she can control the air…), and I think that the switch is done for visual purposes and possibly because her levitation/floating is a more unique than people who can manipulate heat as we’ve seen in other fantasies/comics. It also imparts a softer, less fiery or temperamental quality to Emma.
The eyeball thing. This is largely an aesthetic choice, but it’s too interesting not to comment on. In the book, the wights and hollowgasts kill peculiar children, but they do not feast on people’s eyes in order to get their humanoid form back. This is a rather macabre movie interpretation. Again, I think this decision is largely done for visuals and to give the hollowgasts and wights a firmer and more understandable goal.
The last major change I’ll talk about is the idea of having to repeat certain events in the loops. In the film, there is a sort of daily “chore” schedule that must be completed to keep everyone safe. This gives everyone a sense of responsibility (increasing the children’s agency), but it also makes the world feel different–less safe and more well rounded. In contrast, the book’s loops don’t operate this way. This gives a little more logic to the loops, in my opinion, but it creates the sense that the loops are not really a part of the world, and the safety is a little suffocating and cloying at first.
In summary, there are a lot of things about the book that make it feel more “real,” and slightly more believable. The author is able to make the magical feel mundane. On the other hand, the film is all about creating a new world. It’s supposed to feel fantastical. I enjoyed both the film and the book for different reasons, and I think the film does a good job of condensing the book’s events even though it ends up taking them in a weird direction (probably something that’s talked about in later books, which I have not yet read).
What do you think of movie adaptations in general or this one in particular? Let me know in the comments.