I’m not quite sure what brought me to another supernatural, teen romance (especially after giving up on the Twilight books after only halfway through the second) but I guess I wanted to see if they were truly as similar as they seem. One of the things I noticed right away (especially since I was listening to the audiobook) was that this time around the narrator is the boy character, Ethan Wate. That was a bit unexpected, since these kinds of books are typically geared towards girl readers (usually going to great lengths to describe the beauty and attractiveness of the supernatural boy who is her predestined soul mate). I personally found it much easier to identify with a male narrator, but I presume that most of the female readers did not. Set in modern-day South Carolina (yet in a town that feels trapped in the past), this story has a bit of that languid, Deep South feel to it: where country gentlemen and prim ladies exchange pleasantries. Of course, stereotypes abound: intolerant, white Christians; earthy, mystical black servants; kids trying to break free from the small town; parents who misguidedly insulate their children from the “dangers” of a modern world. In a way, it’s like the movie Footloose (minus the music, but with a dash of magic). The magic is (as you’d expect) what drives the love story between Ethan and new, strange girl-witch (though they prefer to be called “casters”) Lena Duchannes.
Even without the aid of symbolic dreams, or the convenience of being telepathically linked, Ethan cannot help falling in love with this outcast girl who is a refreshing change from his tired and stifling surroundings. Their love story develops over a significant time (especially following the teenage calendar) and is amped up significantly by other supernatural elements. There is a locket which they touch to invoke flashback visions of a couple of their ancestors who had a doomed love story of their own. There is also a family curse passed on to Lena where she must choose to become “light” or “dark” on her impending 16th birthday. In the book, I much more enjoyed the world of the casters created by Garcia and Stohl, over the melodrama of the teen romance. The overwrought emotions, the rebelling against parental figures all seemed a bit cliche and distracting. In the book I also got tired of the community drama and how people were almost mindlessly persecuting Lena for being different. (Later we learn that some of the bigotry got a supernatural nudge, but a significant amount of that was still attributed to simple prejudice.) When the magical story builds to a climax, it’s fun, supernatural stuff that I wish more of the book had focused on. I kept thinking that that was the part that I wanted to see on screen (little did I expect my reaction would be the exact opposite) and not the sappy teen stuff. I wanted more about the history of the casters; the different kinds of casters; parts of the caster world; and what it meant to be light or dark. Perhaps those elements are explored further in subsequent novels (though I’m not sure I’ll get around to them if there are no more movies to watch alongside).
Garcia and Stohl’s writing is serviceable enough (and again, I’m grateful for the male perspective rather than the female), but the prose and dialogue were still a little be too flowery and trying too hard to be descriptive. It was much easier to understand what a character looked like rather than how they acted or felt. Many of their motivations seemed unclear or overly simple (especially when it came to the idea of dark and light — which the book did not completely equate to evil and good). In contrast, the movie (while staying true to the overall story) took almost the reverse angle at many of the themes and areas of emphasis from the book. When the script (written by the movie’s director Richard LaGravenese) hit those scenes which were meant to be simple conversations between two people (especially Ethan and Lena), the dialogue was pretty good — natural, with generous light touches of humour. Alden Ehrenreich (I’ve never heard of him either) was very believable as Ethan, trading matinee idol looks for a very normal, charming appeal. Alice Englert (another unknown), who played Lena, also had very average, real-world beauty that made her down-to-earth as well. When she and Ethan were together, talking, flirting, they seemed completely natural and genuine. Unfortunately, the supernatural stuff worked out a bit more poorly.
As I mentioned, I had expected that Hollywood effects and love of spectacle would have made the many supernatural scenes sensational to look at but instead I found the costume and set design stylized but ill-fitting (as if a Lady Gaga video was being filmed in the 70s). This really didn’t fit with the two young actors who seemed to have been dropped out of the first movie into this other one. Also, the visual effects were weird and kind of decrepit looking. It might have been too heavy-handed to depict evil magic as oily tendrils or vines coming out of a caster’s hands and body. And one scene where Lena and her cousin Ripley are having a magical fight in the dining room was almost laughable as they caused the whole room to spin like a playground ride. Thankfully, Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson were able to really chew the scenery as Macon Ravenwood (Lena’s uncle and town recluse) and Mrs. Lincoln (Bible-thumping harridan and mother to Ethan’s best friend) respectively. Add to that the under-utilized Viola Davis as Ethan’s housekeeper Amma and their more mature (yet hardly-understated) performances kept the script from going too far off the rails.
While I can understand that some compromises had to be made to fit the novel’s main plot points into the movie’s 2 hours, but I regret that they eliminated the influence of Ethan’s mother (who died before the story begins) on Ethan and the plot. There were some pretty emotional scenes in the novel as Ethan learned more about his mother’s past, and especially when he confronted his father (who became a shut in after his wife’s death). Ethan’s father played a major role in the climax of the novel, but he did not even make an appearance in the movie. As a Christian myself, I also wish the movie had not cranked the nob on the religiousness of all the intolerant characters in town. I get that the stereotype links conservative Christians with bigotry, but I hated seeing such broad caricatures on screen, especially when they weren’t so much that way in the novel. The movie was better at drawing things to a conclusion, both by changing the climax (I don’t want to give anything away), and the epilogue. However, I also think it took a big misstep in making light vs dark the same as good vs evil. The movie never explained that Lena had a choice between light and dark (only that she would end up one way or other on her birthday), so it made little sense for the evil characters to try to manipulate Lena into doing evil acts. That’s one of the bigger examples of how the movie altered something thematic to serve a more compact story.
In the end, I don’t know if I prefer the book or the movie, but I can’t imagine being satisfied with the movie if I hadn’t read the novel. The movie felt a bit rushed and flimsy, whereas the book had a lot more time to build up its world and to fill out the relationships. Both were enjoyable enough, but I am not sure I will be interested in the second instalment of either. Novel (3.5 out of 5); Movie (3 out of 5)