Sunday, July 2, 2017

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

When I watched Tim Burton’s film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, I knew not to expect the book.  I’m glad that I didn’t.  I could appreciate the movie for what it was rather than what it wasn’t, while I also pulled out the parallels that did exist between the movie and the book.  As a result, I ended up liking both in their own right.

Ransom Riggs created a mixed-media book series that combined text with vintage photographs that he obtained from various collectors.  He created characters with semi-creepy powers from these semi-creepy photos and fabricated a fascinating nightmarish adventure that killed off characters left and right.  Tim Burton, surprisingly, dials back the dark tones in the books quite a bit in his interpretation.  He more or less follows the plot of the first book, but he wraps up the story with a neat, happy ending instead of a cliffhanger.

Source: Wikipedia
During the movie, I kept my eyes open to appreciate the elements from the book that did come to life, instead of fretting over what didn’t.  In return, I could see the peculiar spirit of the book - that feeling of being different, the eternal pause on childhood, and the shock of the fantastical becoming real and scary.  The first time I saw a hollowgast in the movie, I got the heebie-jeebies.  As much as I did like the book series, I also found the story intense, violent, and creepy compared to my usual fantasy novels.  The movie, meanwhile, treats the story with a quirkier and more lighthearted touch.  Burton added humor to the characters.  I laughed more during the movie than I remember laughing for Riggs’ three books combined.

Just look at the different color schemes between the film poster and book cover to get an idea of what I'm talking about.
Source: Wikipedia
Burton also did two interesting things to the main character Jacob’s love interest.  First, Burton downplayed Emma’s relationship with Jacob’s grandfather, making her current romantic involvement with Jacob way less icky.  Second, he changed Emma’s power from controlling fire to controlling air.  Compared to the book Emma, movie Emma is softer, gentler, less in your grill.  She floats on air instead of spitting fire in everyone’s face - which, to be honest, I missed.  I couldn’t help but wonder if Burton changed her character because she was too “aggressive” as a female character.  If so, he missed the fact that she’s also the most grounded character, believing in Miss Peregrine and in Jacob so steadfastly that she gives the other characters the courage they need to face the horrors around them.  She feels deeply, and even though she is confrontational, she is also vulnerable.  All of those dimensions are skimmed over or ignored in Burton’s movie.  Part of it comes at the price of condensing the story to 100 minutes.  The other part comes from Burton’s different sensibilities.  I liked picking out the differences between the Emma’s, weighing the good and bad in both versions and thinking about what I value most in a female character.  I’ll be honest though, even if I miss the fire, that movie scene where Emma blasts water out of an entire submerged ship with just her lung power was pretty amazing.  Definitely not in the book.

Also gone in the Burton movie is the plot about Miss Peregrine’s brothers being the ones to create the wight and hollowgast problem in their pursuit of immortality.  The oldest brother Caul in particular inspires a peculiar movement, mostly among males, against ymbrynes like Miss Peregrine who keep peculiar children in eternal loops to protect them from the outside world.  His followers claim that the powerful ymbrynes, who are all female, infantilize and oppress peculiar people.  Riggs makes no hesitation to point out that Caul’s behavior stems from jealousy that his sister is stronger and more powerful than he could ever be.  His rhetoric, frankly, reminded me of men’s rights activists.  The subtle conversation about gender dynamics in peculiardom was unexpected, particularly from a male author.  Unfortunately it becomes lost in the hands of a male director.  Granted, I understand why Burton would cut out Caul from the narrative since he stuck to one movie instead of three, but I still feel like he missed an opportunity.

So, how do the book and movie of the peculiar world compare?  The answer to that question doesn’t matter as much as the fact that movie-watching is a lot more fun when you aren’t prepared to criticize it from the onset.  In the case of Miss Peregrine, I wouldn’t call the movie “worse,” but “different.”  In this case, whether you should read the book instead is up what you want.  If you want the peculiar feel of the story without going quite as deep or dark, the movie’s the way to go.  If you want to dive into the nuance and fearsomeness as well as the gender dynamics of Riggs’ world, the books are your way in.  Or maybe you try both because you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.  Like me.

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