It’s hard out there for a bibliophile.
As a lover of books, one of my greatest joys in life is traveling the worlds created by words on a page — actual pages mind you, not the electronic variety. Sometimes, I stumble across a lesser-known gem that is life-changing. Other times, I’m one of the millions reading the book of the moment. Both types of books have equal chance of being stellar. Or a bomb.
Here comes the hard part: A book can become popular enough that movie rights are optioned, like “Gone Girl” or the Harry Potter series. Knowing a favorite book is going to become a film can cause all kinds of excitement — and also fear. We create our own perfect designs for the characters we love, and there’s a part of us that fears the film will never live up to the images we’ve created in our heads.
A few years ago, Ransom Riggs penned a lovely little novel — actually the first of a trilogy — called “Miss Pergrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.” Although a book intended for young adults, the novel was a hit with grownups as well, including me. The books were wildly popular, and it was no shock when Hollywood came calling. The news got even bigger and more awesome when Tim Burton was announced as director. It seemed a perfect fit.
“Miss Peregrine” is an odd story about odd people. Who better to direct an odd story than the oddest director out there? Not to mention, Burton has a certain storytelling and visual style that seemed ideally suited for this novel.
Except, maybe it wasn’t.
It becomes abundantly clear that Burton’s direction and Jane Goldman’s script are at odds. The director has become increasingly obsessed with the idea of the misunderstood monster, the odd outsider, to the point that he now seems unable to see stories from any other vantage point. That’s an issue when you have a screenwriter who imbues her work — “Stardust,” “Kick-Ass” and “X-Men: First Class” — with a sense of awe, playfulness and whimsy.
Goldman’s script begins with a grandfather (Terence Stamp) telling stories to his grandson (played by Nicholas Oteri as a 6-year-old, Aiden Flowers as a 10-year-old, and Asa Butterfield as a teenager). He talks about a children’s home on the island of Cairnholm, off the coast of Wales, populated by children with special abilities, a headmistress who can turn into a bird, and monsters with tentacles. It should have been an endearing opening that made us connect instantly with these characters. It wasn’t though.
After Jake finds a cryptic message from his recently deceased grandfather and receives the blessing of his therapist (Allison Janney), he and his father (Chris O’Dowd) travel to Cairnholm. The teen eventually stumbles onto a mysterious, magical place where Miss Peregrine (Burton alum Eva Green) does, in fact, run a home for peculiar children — kids with special abilities — in 1943. Miss Peregrine is also special, because she can both control time and change into a bird.
Jacob lives in 2016, so there’s all kinds of explaining to do. In fact, there’s so much explaining to do that I’m fairly certain I’ll never manage to do it justice. Basically, the peculiar children live in a time loop that preserves 24 hours of time, replaying it over and over. It’s a system that keeps the peculiar children and their guardians safe from the outside world.
Aside from his relationship with his grandfather, Jacob hasn’t really had happiest life. He’s not only traveling back in time but to a world that holds promise and possibility for him.
Add in the fact that there’s a girl, Emma (Ella Purnell), involved, and the idea of staying with Miss Peregrine and her flock — that’s a bird joke, in case you missed it — and of course there’s danger involved. Peculiars are being hunted and slaughtered by a group led by Mr. Barron (Samuel L. Jackson.)
The film summary makes it sound splendid, and it should have been. I absolutely adored the book. Riggs created such a brilliantly beautiful world in those pages. Being different, or peculiar, was something to be celebrated. I wanted to be one of Miss Peregrine’s charges.
Unfortunately, something didn’t quite translate to film. Green was fabulous, as she always is. She embodied Miss Peregrine perfectly. And the children were something to behold.
There was Emma with her ability to control air. Pixie Davies absolutely delighted as Bronwyn, an exceptionally strong little girl. Olive (Lauren McCrostie) could control fire while Enoch (Finley MacMillan) could control life itself. There was the boy with bees in his belly, the girl who controlled nature and even a little girl with a mouth in the back of her head.
This was supposed to be Tim Burton’s playground. And yet, he couldn’t bring it together.
Maybe I was already going in a little disgruntled because changes had been made from page to screen — a bibliophile’s nightmare. Literary Emma was actually the girl who could control flame while Olive was actually a little girl who was light as a feather. (Of course, it makes for better marketing materials to switch the powers, if the posters and trailers of Emma on a rope that Jacob is holding are any indication.) Olive is also not so little in the film, allowing for some teenage romantic angst. Blech.
But, even knowing changes had been made, I was optimistic. After all, it was Tim Burton and this book. The two were perfectly matched. It would be like Hepburn and Tracy. Peanut butter and jelly. Peas and carrots, as a famous man from Greenbow, Ala., once said. (That’s Forrest Gump, in case you didn’t know.)
Instead, things felt forced. Off, somehow. A noticeable tension between the visuals and words. The pacing also seemed wrong, which is a little ironic in a film about time.
While there were some really fun moments that left zero doubt this was a Burton film, the movie just didn’t have that magical quality I have associated for so long with his filmmaking. When the man who brought us “Edward Scissorhands” and “Big Fish” — two films that appear to be cinematic cousins to this one — can’t pull it off, you know that pop filmmaking isn’t in his blood anymore. Maybe that’s the saddest part about this one, too.
Despite all its flaws, I still kind of liked the film. It wasn’t Burton’s best, and the magic and mythos were lacking, but I still loved seeing Miss Peregrine come to life. But, it could have and should have been so much better.