There are a couple movies hoping to ride the success of “Harry Potter,” “Lord of the Rings,” and “Chronicles of Narnia” coming out this fall: “The Seeker” (formerly “The Dark Is Rising: The Seeker”) and “The Golden Compass.” I read both those series and have seen neither movie, but they offer interesting contrasts in how to bring a fantasy book to the screen.
“The Dark Is Rising” is the name of the book and the series by Susan Cooper, one of my favorites of all time. Will Stanton, born as the last of a magical race known as the Old Ones, is fated to fulfill a quest that will help the Light defeat the Dark in the upcoming battle that will determine the course of the world. “The Golden Compass,” by Philip Pullman, is a more recent book, the first (and best) in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. In it, young Lyra Belacqua must travel to the far north to unravel the mystery of Dust, a magical substance much studied and coveted by the people in the college where she grew up–including her mother and father.
In both books, a young protagonist undertakes an adventure (Will is eleven, Lyra thirteen). Neither kid has a particular talent, although Lyra is able to read the alethiometer, a kind of fortune-telling machine that gives the first volume its (U.S. edition) title, and Will has the powers common to all the Old Ones. Their quests are more a product of their situation than of any particular skill. I think this is a big part of the appeal of the books, because it allows the reader to place himself or herself into the role of hero of the quest. If I’d been born into the Old Ones … if I’d grown up around Jordan College in Oxford… (Harry Potter and the Narnia books also have this “everykid” protagonist.)
The trailers for “The Golden Compass” do center on Lyra, but they are much more about the world and the setting and the adventure. She is portrayed as arrayed against a fearsome set of obstacles, with fantastical creatures and machines and people. It looks great.
The trailers for “The Seeker” mainly focused on Will, and showed it as an adventure about what a special kid he was. There were fantastical elements, but the trailer made it clear that the movie was all about this sassy, American kid. It drew interest, but of the wrong sort, and eventually the studio removed the “Dark is Rising” appellation from the movie title. It was already released (did you know that?) and was gone from theaters in weeks.
I don’t know if there’s a lesson to be drawn from that or not. I just think that if you’re going to adapt a book, you should make sure that the elements of that book that really appealed to its readership are preserved in the movie. Will is a great character, and he does go through some issues in “The Dark Is Rising” (growing up and being accepted in his family), but the adventure of the book and the setting are the main draw. The movie replaced the English setting with America and decided to give Will a strong, overpowering personality.
How about this as a trailer, focusing on the adventure and the quest:
MERRIMAN: Throughout history, the Light and the Dark have fought for men’s souls.
CUT SCENES: Howling noises, flaring blue candles, the Walker’s twisted face.
MERRIMAN: All of these battles are but prelude to the final conflict.
CUT SCENES: The Lady fighting back the Dark, light flaring, the Rider.
MERRIMAN: For the Light to prevail, we Old Ones must have the Six Signs. That is your task. As your birth completed the Circle of the Light, so you must complete the Circle of Signs.
First view of Will
MERRIMAN: Wood. Bronze. Iron. Water. Fire. Stone.
SCENES OF EACH SIGN AS HE NAMES THEM, SOME WITH WILL FINDING THEM.
MERRIMAN: They were fashioned for the Light throughout history, and we need them, Will. Some have been lost, some hidden. They must be found and reunited.
WILL: But I’m just a kid.
MERRIMAN: You are that, and more. You will have help, Will.
SCENES OF MERRIMAN, MISS GREYTHORNE, THE LADY, JOHN SMITH, FARMER DAWSON.
MERRIMAN: You will need them. For the Dark will try to stop you, however they can.
SCENES OF THE RIDER, WILL STRUGGLING WITH THE WALKER.
MERRIMAN: But in the end, you must prevail.
WILL LOOKING UNHAPPY.
MERRIMAN (smiling): Happy Birthday, Will.
Hey, that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure Hollywood could do better.