(Editor’s note: Possible spoilers below as per usual.)
Among authors, Neil Gaiman is exceptionally lucky when his writing is filmed, typically because he is closely bound to each version. In 1996 he devised the television serial “Neverwhere” and wrote an accompanying novelization, which is miles above most bland film tie-ins. At the behest of the Jim Henson Company, he later partnered with artist Dave McKean to write the story and screenplay of “MirrorMask,” a film I hold as one of 2005’s best and most frighteningly vivid. (2007’s “Stardust” does differ, but it’s an exception I haven’t seen or read so it’ll have to be kept out of this article.)
So when his children’s horror/fantasy “Coraline” was optioned as a film without his direct involvement there was some trepidation in how it would be handled – trepidation that disappeared on my part when I saw that Henry Selick would be writing the adapted screenplay. The high priest of stop-motion animation, Selick is responsible (along with Tim Burton) for twisting my childhood in the best possible way with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and I held faith he would treat the story right. Thankfully my faith was rewarded – it looks more fantastical than the book, but at its core it’s the same dark inventive tale.
For the uninitiated, “Coraline” is the story of Coraline Jones, a bored young girl who is generally ignored by her workaholic parents. Exploring her old house, she finds a hidden door leading to an “other” world with parents who cater to her every whim, despite their odd quality of having buttons for eyes. The longer she stays in the world, the more she realizes that her “other mother” is not the doting parent she appears, and what seemed a wonderful escape becomes a prison she has to find a way out of.
Visually, the film is much brighter than expected, lacking the somewhat bleak look of the book’s illustrations (which were also done by “MirrorMask’s” McKean) and also the spidery gothic look of “Nightmare.” The other mother lavishes all efforts to sway Coraline, from a giant garden shaped like her features to an elaborate rat circus and dog-managed theater. All the scenes are marvelously well-designed, certainly changed to be more accessible but very cohesive in their bright exaggerated format.
Naturally the look changes the way some of the characters are conceived. Retired actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible go from being quiet and batty to outlandishly theatrical, almost reminiscent of the Darling Mermaid Darlings from the utterly charming show “Pushing Daisies”; while Mr. Bobo’s quiet craziness converts to “Nightmare’s” two-faced mayor with an outlandish Russian quality, enhanced by Ian McShane’s boisterous performance.
The biggest complaint to find with the book is the inclusion of a new character, Wybie (or “why born”), who is introduced as a foil to Coraline and someone for her to bounce dialogue off of. This character does more than any other to break the original story’s flow, showing up on a motorbike in a skull mask and sounding like the geeky support character in some toothless Saturday morning Cartoon Network show. As a whole he breaks from the book’s tone, particularly as it removes the genuine fear and worry when Coraline is left alone with her thoughts.
This isn’t to say the film takes the edge out of the book – like “Nightmare,” it’s a film most would think twice about taking their kids to. The other mother in particular is frighteningly faithful to the book, down to the tapping fingers and crunching of beetles between sharp teeth, and her evolution into a spiderish monstrosity makes full use of the technology. Teri Hatcher deserves high praise as well, putting a frustrated tone into Coraline’s real mother and a silken voice for the other that barely hides a mad possessiveness.
The world Coraline finds herself in is an illusion the other mother created, and as the illusion strips away the world gradually becomes more frightening. Miss Spink and Miss Forcible evolve from an eternal carnival into a hybrid contained in a taffy cocoon, while Mr. Bobo goes from hosting a rat circus to being entirely composed of the creatures. With the exception of the other father – riding a giant praying mantis as opposed to a blob-like monstrosity discarded in the attic – Coraline’s challenges match the book, and her final confrontations with the other mother match the tension Gaiman created.
Reviews of the book “Coraline” ranged from “fascinating and disturbing” to “deliciously scary,” and in that context the film certainly meets expectations. The core change comes in more of an emphasis on the fascinating, as it’s a film that wants to trigger your visual stimulation than down in your emotional core. I’m tempted to call it superficial, but the design is immersive and creative enough that such a word can never stick.
Final adaptation score: 7.5 out of 10. If you can forgive the use of Wybie you’ll find the film mostly faithful to its source material, and a glorious visual experiment that pairs well with Gaiman’s imagination. Just don’t go into it expecting the same bittersweet and frightening feelings the book provides.