I swear I tried, while watching the unspeakable travesty that is The Dark is Rising film, to put aside the knowledge that it had been made from a very, very good book. Was it possible, I wondered, that moviegoers who didn’t know that Susan Cooper’s 1973 gem was being butchered before their eyes might think this was a not-bad movie? No, that simply wasn’t possible, I decided, either from honest judgment or seething fury (and I no longer cared which), not unless this putative viewer was as cynical, as intellectually obtuse and as aesthetically crippled as the filmmakers themselves. Even on its own terms, The Dark is Rising is a very, very bad film.
Consider just one of a kaleidoscope of inanities: the great and powerful Dark (as personified by Christopher Eccleston) knows the seventh son of a seventh son is fated to do him in. Naturally, being the great and powerful Dark, he’s kept a sharp lookout for the reproductive successes of the world’s seventh sons (how many can there be?). Learning of the birth of twin boys to the wife of one such—who already has five sons—the Dark sets out to kidnap No. 7. Strangely, however, he doesn’t know which kid is which, and mistakenly grabs No. 6 (whom he keeps safe, sound and dressed in contemporary fashion, in a snow globe for 14 years). The viewer can only conclude that two babies must have been too heavy to carry off, or perhaps too expensive to clothe all those years.
Forget the film’s failure as a film; what those of us who love the novel—and I’d put both it and The Grey King, the even better fourth volume in Cooper’s series, in the all-time Top 10 of children’s fantasies—want to know is: How dare they? There are always necessary changes as books become films. What the reader knows by dwelling inside characters’ heads, the viewer has to find out by seeing or hearing in dialogue; meandering subplots have to be sacrificed to cinema’s abbreviated length. Sometimes unimportant things seem to change on a whim—novelistic Harry Potter has a close encounter with a Brazilian boa constrictor, cinematic Harry meets a Burmese python. Who knows, or cares, why?
But that’s not the scale of adaptation in this movie. The joke among reporters on the set in Bucharest was that the film had only changed three things from the novel: the lead child character from English to American; his age from 11 to 14; and everything that happens in the story. Cooper’s novel about young English farm boy Will Stanton is both gentle and genuinely frightening, a subtle, age-appropriate depiction of the battle between Light and Dark within every human as well as on a cosmic scale. It’s also a superb novel of place—Cooper wrote it with two detailed ordinance maps of Buckinghamshire pinned to wall above her desk—about the layers of history behind Will’s world.
Now it’s become just another generic an-American-saves-the-benighted-locals action piece. Perhaps the filmmakers had the same problem as their main star, Ian McShane (Merriman). Tongue in cheek—I fervently hope (I like Ian McShane)—the actor told reporters, “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? There’s four of them apparently. Or five. Oh, god. That means I might have to do a sequel.” (As for why he took the job, “The cheque. As always. Basically. It certainly wasn’t Romania.”)
Even Susan Cooper who, crisply professional at 72 , told me she didn’t want to “dis” the project, couldn’t keep quiet for long. I reached her before I saw the movie, but just hours after she had. “You say your children yelled at the trailer? Wait until they see the movie, they’ll yell even louder. I thought it safe with [film studio] Walden, which has a good book-to-film reputation, but it didn’t turn out that way. Why, why did they have to make it so violent?”
British-born, and a U.S. resident since 1963, Cooper, as it turns out, considers herself something of an “honorary Canadian.” In part that’s because she was married, from 1996 to his death in 2003, to Canadian actor Hume Cronyn. And partly because many of her original papers are here, in the Toronto Public Library’s Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books. “Years ago, I gave a talk there and was very impressed. So when the director was driving me back to the airport I asked if she’d like to have my papers,” recalls a laughing Cooper. “She gave me the greatest compliment I ever had as a writer. She ran into the curb.” Do those manuscripts include The Dark is Rising? “Yes,” Cooper replies, “they do, the real Dark is Rising.”