For most children’s writers, there are few sentences more welcome than “I’ve sold the film rights”. Paper books earn mere pennies in royalties, but rights – especially film rights – are the key to real money. That’s why I was delighted a couple of weeks ago to hear that a film of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines is to be produced by Peter Jackson. Not only does Jackson seem a good match for Reeve’s spectacular novel, but it will put well-deserved cash in Mr Reeve’s bank account (and Mr Reeve is a very nice man).
Still, there must always be some ambivalence, or at least apprehension, involved in giving up control over one’s creation to another person, let alone to a corporation. Filmgoers are more numerous than novel-readers, after all, and if the film is successful it’s likely to be the route by which most people get to know your book. Even if they eventually read it, it will be through the filter of the film’s setting, script and cast.
Sometimes it works out well. The film of The Hunger Games, for example, was a faithful (though not slavish) rendition of Suzannne Collins’s book – which might have been written with film adaptation in mind, and perhaps was. J. K. Rowling was able to maintain an enviable degree of control over the Harry Potter movies, beginning with the important condition that Hogwarts not be transplanted to the United States, which had reportedly been the studio’s original intention.
But few authors have Rowling’s clout or close personal involvement. Film rights, once sold, become commodities like any other. Susan Cooper may have believed that in selling the film rights to her 1973 fantasy classic, The Dark is Rising, to Jim Henson of Muppet fame she was leaving them in safe hands, but after Henson’s death the rights were bought by Walden Media, which went on to repackage and replot Cooper’s novel as a Harry Potter knock-off, The Seeker (2007). The resulting film discarded the book’s careful evocation of rural Buckinghamshire (being mostly shot in Romania), made its protagonist Will Stanton an American teen rather than an English 11-year-old, and largely dispensed with Cooper’s deeply knowledgeable use of local, Celtic and English myth in favour of flashbangs and second-hand horcruxes. The result irritated Cooper’s long-term fans while winning few new ones, and was a deserved flop – but it does mean that the real film of The Dark is Rising will need to wait another generation.
Meanwhile, I understand that Peter Rabbit is also due to hit the big screen soon. Should I be worried? On reflection, it lends itself disturbingly easily to a suite of Hollywood clichés. It’s all too easy to imagine the trailer…
Peter [standing on a sandy bank by a tree trunk, surrounded by his womenfolk]:
I am Peter! Son of a murdered father and a widowed mother! And I want revenge!Gravelly Voiceover:
They put his father in a pie. Now, one young rabbit will risk everything to put it right. Whatever the cost.Flopsy:
Don't go, Peter! It's too dangerous!Peter:
It's all right, sis. You go fetch those blackberries. I'll be back... for supper.“Rocky”-style training montage. Peter shimmies under gooseberry nets, limbos under garden gates, splashes in and out of watering cans. Music rises to a crescendo - then silence, and a sudden close up of Mr McGregor's grinning, bearded mouth, wet with spittle.
One leetle rabbit! Heh, heh, heh.We see a scarecrow with a Tam-o-Shanter and little blue jacket framed cruciform against the westering sky.
LETTUCES WILL NEVER BE SOPORIFIC AGAIN