“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes”. John LeCarré
It’s such a cliché to say that “the book was better than the movie” that I hesitate to even bring it up. But I did. And there it is. In fact, it’s so common that what’s really worth pointing out are those rare movies that actually improve on their source material. Jaws comes to mind; so does The Godfather. You could make the case that The Shawshank Redemption is just as good as Stephen King’s original story, AND THAT’S IT. Those are the exceptions. (Okay, fine. The Wizard of Oz is a sentimental favourite, as is Mary Poppins, but I’ll allow no others).
So it probably comes as no surprise that The House with a Clock in its Walls movie doesn’t quite live up to the novel. The thing is, the movie gets some of it really really right, (and some of it really, really, really, really, head-scratchingly wrong), and it would have been something I think they could have easily fixed.
Needless to say, spoilers follow: Both for the 1973 novel and the 2018 movie.
The things they got right:
When this project was announced last year, I almost couldn’t believe it. John Bellairs, as many who follow this blog will know, is a sentimental childhood favourite of mine. He’s one of those authors that weaves such a perfect mood with his writing that whenever I am feeling down, I can turn to one of his books even now as an adult, and I am swept up in literary comfort food that warms me as it nourishes my soul. I’m sure you can think of that handful of special authors in your own life that fit this bill. If I had read Lucy Maude Montgomery as a kid, I’m sure she’d be on that list too, but I only got to her in the last couple of years.
The fact that John Bellairs died in 1991 and that his books have almost completely disappeared from bookstores and libraries made the movie announcement even more unexpected. If an adaptation was going to be made from one of his works, why didn’t it happen in the ’80s when he was still writing?
When the creative team and cast was announced, I was even more skeptical. Director Eli Roth was known mostly for his hardcore horror like Hostel and Cabin Fever. I knew he could do gore, but was he able to capture that magic (no pun intended) between Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman and Lewis? Could he re-create the New Zebedee in Capernaum County of my childhood? I am happy to say that he can and he DID.
His success in this area was helped greatly by the cast, obviously. When Jack Black and Cate Blanchett were cast as Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman I thought, “they are too young!” In my head, someone like Brendan Gleason would have been the perfect age and look for Uncle Jonathan, and Mrs. Zimmerman? Maggie Smith would have been ideal, but she already did that wizarding thing in Harry Potter (as did Brendan Gleason, come to think of it), so I guess we have Harry Potter to blame for stealing all the best actors for The House with a Clock in its Walls. There will no doubt be comparisons between this movie and the Harry Potter series anyway. I was worried, but needlessly so. From the first time we meet uncle Jonathan (wearing a kimono as he picks up his nephew Lewis Barnavelt at the bus depot), and Mrs. Zimmerman (wearing PURPLE from head to toe (yes!) and coming out of the secret passage between her home and the titular house (the one with the clock in its walls you guys), I knew these characters were in capable hands. The look was mostly there, but more importantly, the chemistry between the two of them was real and perfect. So they were about a decade (at least) younger than they should have been, I was happy they were close enough in age that it made sense that they were buddies. I could have watched twice as much dialogue between the two of them and not gotten tired of it. Perhaps there are deleted scenes with more Uncle Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman to look forward to? A quick word about Lewis: he was fine. Sure, he didn’t follow novel’s description of being overweight, but the young actor got across the nerdiness and socially awkwardness of the character while giving off a bit of a steam-punk vibe with those Captain Midnight goggles. I’ll allow those goggles, if only because Lewis wears a Sherlock Holmes hat at the beginning of Figure in the Shadows, so his penchant for cosplaying favourite characters is established in canon.
The set design was gorgeous, and the house looked as close to how I thought it looked in my head from the books as it possibly could. Sure, they added some magical flourishes that weren’t in the novel, but I thought they were done in the spirit of the novel so I was fine with them. The shots of the town and of Lewis at school also rang true, and it was so smart for them to set the story in the 1950s. But the best set-piece of all was the Oakridge cemetery, the setting for the pivotal “raising of the dead” scene. Whoever designed the set must have studied the book closely, as well as visited the real Oakridge cemetery on the outskirts of Marshall, Michigan. It even had the great quotation, “The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised” over the archway as you entered the cemetery.
Things they got WRONG.
But oddly enough, it was in this pivotal cemetery scene where the movie took a left turn from which it never really recovered. I know movie-making is a collaborative art, and when something goes wrong it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. In this case, I think we can look to the screenplay as the culprit; which is maddening since the story is really only one part of the Bellairs experience. The books create a mood and atmosphere that I feel the movie successfully captures in the first 2/3rds, only to squander it in the final act.
One of the things that makes the book so creepy is that Lewis tries to raise someone from the dead to impress the popular, athletic kid at school. Lewis uses some of the charms he finds in his uncle’s library and he does something in the cemetery, but it takes a few chapters until the reader is fully aware of the effects. There’s a wonderfully eerie scene in the novel where Uncle Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman and Lewis are out for a drive in the country, only to have Uncle Jonathan pull the car over when he thinks he hears another car behind them. After razzing him, “You know they DO allow other cars to drive on these roads,” Mrs. Zimmerman shares in Uncle Jonathan’s discomfort and the three of them drive frantically back to town, taking short cuts and detours with the two lights of a following car’s headlights always in their rear view. It’s only when they cross an iron bridge over the river (evil spirits can’t cross running water) that they stop the car and look back. The other car, with whoever or whatever inside, turns around and drives away. It’s one of the most visual scenes in the entire book, tailor-made for the movie, and yet it is curiously missing from the movie. In the novel, we eventually learn that Lewis unwittingly brought Selina Izard back to life. She is the wife of the evil wizard, Isaac Izard, who owned the house before Uncle Jonathan. He was working on a doomsday clock when he was killed. (His wife died mysteriously before him). In the last half of the book, Selina Izard tries to complete her husband’s evil plan, and while the evil wizard is talked about and anticipated, his eventual arrival is thwarted by Lewis destroying the clock (spoiler!) in the climax. The last chapter involves a lot of chocolate chip cookie eating around a bonfire, where exposition and explanations are made, and we are left feeling safe and secure.
Where the movie goes wrong is that it has Lewis raising Isaac Izard himself, not Selina. Clive Barker once said that the horror not seen is much scarier than any seen horror, and this applies in this case too. By showing us the raised Izard, it removes any menace from his potential return. All we get is Kyle McLachlan in prosthetics and makeup. You can say what you want about JK Rowling, but she was smart in not giving us the “full Voldemort” at first. Old “You Know Who”s delayed entrance into the series gave his eventual debut the suspense and menace it deserved.
And while Selina Kyle is a shadowy enough figure in the novel, (one could say she was a Figure in the Shadows, #deepcut), in the movie they explain that Selina never really died in the first place, and was living under a magical disguise across the street from the Barnavelts. While this reveal was a genuine surprise in the movie, it didn’t make any sense to me why they complicated the plot in this way. I wanted to like Renée Elise Goldsbury as Selina, but I found her interpretation cartoony and obvious and not scary at all. Another dumb complication/connection the screenplay makes is the reveal that Uncle Jonathan and Isaac Izard used to be friends and co-magicians before Izard turned evil. YAWN. I mean, come ON. How many times does this old trope have to be brought out? The original novel made no such connection, and it was better for it. Also, I didn’t like the back story they gave Mrs. Zimmerman. They hint that she was a survivor of the holocaust and that experience left her with unreliable magic powers. In the novel, Mrs. Zimmerman is just a kick-ass awesomely powerful witch. Sure, a later novel, The Letter, The Witch and The Ring, involves Mrs. Zimmerman falling ill and losing her powers, but why the heck introduce that subplot now? And okay, I know this is nickpicky, but WHY introduce Rose Rita Pottinger and NOT have her wear a beanie with buttons all over it? It’s such an iconic part of her look and supposedly everyone involved in the movie read the novels, so there’s no excuse why this small detail was left out. [Editor’s Note: A fan online pointed out that in the novels Rose Rita HATES her school uniform and takes it off (and puts her beanie on) as soon as she gets home, so the fact that we only see her at school COULD mean that we can still get a beanied Rose Rita in the sequel.]
And before I stop bashing this movie, I have to talk a little bit about the ending. In the novel, everything is implied and suggested, which again, makes the story so much stronger. Lewis, Mrs. Zimmerman and Uncle Jonathan eventually DO find the clock after following a series of Lewis’s nonsense made up charms. It would have been way better to leave Lewis’s real introduction to magic (not counting the raising the dead bit) happen at this point, rather than have an earlier scene where Lewis asks “Can I learn magic?” and Uncle Jonathan says, “No, it’s too dangerous.” And Lewis says, “Please?” and Uncle Jonathan says, “K, fine” or some nonsense. In the novel, Selina follows the three down to the cellar, holding a hand of glory which freezes Mrs. Z and Uncle J to the spot. Lewis, however, sees Selina’s reflection in the clockface, and he knows from his reading what a hand of glory is, so he doesn’t turn around and is not affected by the magical artifact. Lewis then smashes the clock (which surprisingly looks just like a regular wind up clock), destroying the doomsday spell, killing Selina (again) and preventing the return of Isaac Izard, who only at this point in the novel is about to appear.
Okay, I expected a little “jazzing up” of the ending for Hollywood, but what we get is a total travesty. Isaac Izard and his wife Selina are already down by the clock, no hand of glory in sight, and then the whole thing turns into a weird Indiana Jones style set-piece where the floor gives way and the whole cellar turns into a series of cogs and wheels. (Like a giant clock, which is dumb). And then they try to explain that the clock will turn back time to the point before humans existed, so you get this really awful CGI of Jack Black with the head of an adult and the body of a baby which I guess is supposed to be funny, but no-one in the theatre was laughing, and those of us who knew the novel just sat there, appalled. It was all so stupid, and I didn’t think in the spirit of the books, which always followed the “less is more” philosophy. Previous to this scene, we saw a visually arresting but creatively pointless battle scene between the three heroes and a bunch of animated jack-o-lanterns. It was fine, but seemed unneccessary. I would have much rather have seen the scene with the car chase over the iron bridge then a bunch of CGI pumpkins, but at least those pumpkins were in the creepy spirit of the novel, and it gave Mrs. Zimmerman a chance to kick ass, which was awesome.
The final kick in the nuts that summarizes how I feel about the movie happens during the end credits. Edward Gorey illustrated almost all of John Bellairs’ books. For most of them, he just did the covers and a frontispiece, but for The House With a Clock In Its Walls he did the cover, frontispiece, and several illustrations throughout. Gorey’s distinctive style informed Bellairs’ writing and I can’t really imagine one without the other. In fact, I wore a homemade button to opening night with an Edward Gorey drawing of Uncle Jonathan, and my wife consented to an Edward Gorey Mrs. Zimmerman button affixed to her purse strap. Despite the interconnectedness of Gorey/Bellairs in the minds of their fans, the estate of Edward Gorey did not allow any of his art to be used in the film, so over the end credit we get little pencil drawings of the characters doing various things in an obvious pastiche of Gorey’s style. While some people might be charmed by this “clever” homage, I was just left with the feeling that slowly crept into me during the movie’s entire running time. Close, but no cigar. (Literally. I don’t think I saw Uncle Jonathan smoke a pipe once in the movie).
So that’s really all I have to say about the movie. (I guess after 2000 words I’d better wrap this up). The TLDR takeaway is that I liked but not LOVED the movie for all the reasons mentioned above.
But I’ll tell you this: I’ve been a member of the “John Bellairs Wrote the Best Books” group on Facebook for the past few years. Most of the time, it’s people posting pics of their collections, or the minor buying and selling of hardcover editions (the ones with the coveted Edward Gorey art). Leading up to the movie, however, the group has been excited posting pics of behind-the-scenes set visits, early reviews, posters, interviews, late night talk show appearances, you name it. This quiet sleepy community has been mobilized, and in fact a group of us decided to meet in John Bellairs’ hometown, Marshall, Michigan for the premiere this past weekend. Included among our number is Brad Strickland, a professor of english and writer in his own right who was hired by the Bellairs’ estate to finish off a couple of his novels that were left behind after he died. They were so successful that Strickland wrote a number of original adventures using John Bellairs’ characters, carrying on and expanding the mythology. While some of us, myself included, don’t think these extended series books are the same quality and style as the originals, Brad Strickland seems like a decent dude who is the living surrogate for all us fans. Strickland made the trek up to Marshall too, and was signing books in the local bookstore, meeting with fans, and attending the premiere there. By all accounts, no matter what we thought of the movie itself, this gathering of writers and fans was a weekend to remember. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to go, but it brought back great memories of my own pilgrimmage to Marshall ten years ago. This gathering would never have happened if it wasn’t for this movie. Also, John Bellairs books are back in the pop culture landscape for the moment. The House With A Clock In Its Walls was number #6 on the Amazon bestseller list over the weekend, and our library here has bought a bunch of new copies. There are waiting lists for them. The movie was the number one box office draw this past weekend, and if people keep seeing it, it might mean a SEQUEL. Would I go to a sequel? Absolutely, if only to see if they kept the stuff that worked from the first one and steered away from the stuff that didn’t. So, despite all of its problems, the movie has brought John Bellairs to a new generation of readers who are eagerly asking their parents and school librarians, “Are there more in the series?”, and that, my friends, is the best magic spell this movie could ever weave.