Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

When Hollywood Loses the Plot – Literally

I’ve been sorely vexed on the last couple of visits to the cinema.  The posters for The Secret of Moonacre are everywhere and they make me decidedly cross.  Now it’s followed me home and the trailers are showing on television as they announce themselves as the latest blockbuster fantasy.  But they are wrong, so, so wrong.  Every time the ad comes on I find myself shouting at the TV or clutching wildly for the remote control and eventually decided that this was something that merited a blog post.

Now before I continue I should probably state a couple of things.  Firstly, this is not crime related (well not legally speaking anyway) so if you’re looking for discussion of the latest murder to pass through the Irish courts the links to the crime stuff are to the right of this piece.

Secondly The Little White Horse was my favourite book as a child.  Yes, I know it was also J.K. Rowling’s favourite book but that’s not coming into this.  This is post is not going to a model of journalistic balance and objectivity.  Again if you want something more along those lines the links are to your right.

So The Little White Horse has always been a special book to me.  I’ve always grown salmon pink geraniums because of a description in the book about a particularly idyllic kitchen; lions were always known as Wrolf after the large mysterious “dog” belonging to Sir Benjamin Merryweather; I used to have a toy cat called Zacariah…I could go on but risk sounding somewhat obsessed.  Let’s suffice to say that that book was one of the first books I ever loved and has a special place because of it.

Not only that but it’s embedded itself so deeply that echoes of it have found their way into my writing.  Maybe not the journalism (that would be a little odd) but when I’m writing fiction those echoes are there, in descriptions of food or clothes mainly I think.  Those echoes have been a source of fascination as I edit the novel.  I’m not talking about derivation here just the literary landscape your brain inhabits after a lifetime of reading.

Anyway, back to the film.  I was delighted when I heard, a couple of years ago, that a film was being made of The Little White Horse.  But wondered at the time how Hollywood was going to deal with a simple little story about not making knee jerk reactions and bothering to find out the truth.  It’s quite an old fashioned book, written in the 1940s, with everyone pairing off at the end leading to a trilogy of weddings.  The fantasy elements are actually quite subtle.  I’d be the first to agree that it could probably do with a bit of delicate pruning for a modern audience but the film company has definitely thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Hollywood in it’s infinite wisdom has decided that this

Little White Horse Book Cover

Little White Horse Book Cover

doesn’t quite cut it.  They’ve gone for this…

Secret of Moonacre Movie Poster

Secret of Moonacre Movie Poster

In the new version there is magic and mystery and major mutilations of the original plot.  No character is safe.  The hero has changed from a constant companion and childhood friend to a slightly dodgy bit of rough who’s had a full family transplant and is now the son of the villain of the piece.  His mother, one half of the next generation of lovers, has become a weird priestess type who is no longer Robin’s mother.  Wrolf is black for god’s sake!  Lions just aren’t black!  The changes are so blatant that even looking at the trailer or the poster shows up dozens of points that have been butchered.  Rather than bothering to make a film of a much loved book the idiots have decided to make a generic sub-Harry Potter fantasy extravaganza that bears little or no relation to the original.

Now I will freely admit that I have not seen The Secret of Moonacre.  I don’t intend to – I don’t like going to films that make me want to throw things at the screen and any that take such an ad hoc approach to a story I know so well are going to fall into that category.  It might work as a stand alone film (or even a franchise apparently) but it’s not what it says on the tin.

I know stories get changed for films.  I’ve had to think rather seriously about that over the past couple of months in relation to my own book and decided that it’s a necessary part of building a narrative.  When I write something I’m writing a book.  It doesn’t necessarily run along the same narrative tracks that a film would need to.  I can take pages to describe something that can be shown in a second on screen but on the other hand I can go places films can’t, not having to worry about budgets and technology, just the limits of my imagination.  The problem with a film like Moonacre though is that they’ve abandoned the original source material.

In a 2008 interview with Empire Magazine, director Gabor Csupo, whose previous credits include the Bridge to Terabitha, that he had decided to ramp up the adventure and magic end of things.  He is quoted as saying “We didn’t want it to be like your typical costume movie…I told each department to just go for it, follow it to your wildest dreams so it looks just a little out of the ordinary.”  Quite why they didn’t just write a completely separate story, change all the character names and go with that is beyond me.

But Little White Horse isn’t the only book that’s ended up this way.  Even books as well known as Peter Pan have suffered from over zealous script writers.  Despite the fact that J.M Barrie himself wrote a script of the story there has never been a film that simply stuck to the story, keeping the darkness of the original, not to mention the fact that it’s actually addressed to the parents rather than the children.  The 2003 version directed by P.J. Hogan felt it necessary to add a snotty aunt to the Darling family entourage with the principal purpose of making Mr Darling a weak, bumbling character at odds with the traditional alter ego of Captain Hook (in theatre tradition the same actor invariably plays both parts).  This spoilt an otherwise faithful translation of the book and the play and added an extra layer of fluff that simply wasn’t necessary.  It’s a story that has never managed to make it onto the big screen without unnecessary changes.  At this stage the film probably closest to the spirit of the book is a biopic of it’s author, Finding Neverland. I’m not even touching last years sorry attempt at Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights.

I know that writing fiction and writing scripts are two entirely different disciplines but the basic narrative rules still apply.   Hollywood has a habit of assuming their audience are popcorn munching imbeciles and, maybe some of them are, but that doesn’t mean you get to insult the rest.  As Hollywood searches for the next blockbuster it’s always going to get a great deal of it’s stories from books.  There will always be cases of sexing up, contracting and simplifying plots and amalgamating characters but it can either be done skilfully, such as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or the recent film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s book Stardust.  These are films that have taken a book and trimmed it enough to keep the story flowing on screen but not sacrificed the original author’s voice.

I would be delighted if one day a major movie studio came looking for something I had written and I’m not big headed enough to think I would have any control whatsoever over what would happen once the contracts had been signed but I hope nothing I’ve written ever gets mutilated the way The Little White Horse has been.

1 Comment

  1. This was my Mum’s favourite book as a child too, and one that I remember her reading aloud to me. I never go to see films of books that I really love, I’d rather keep the memory of the book untainted. But it is upsetting when people mess with your childhood in such a disrespectful fashion. Nice rant.

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