Neil Gaiman’s “The Graveyard Book,” Directed by Wrong Howard?

Dear Neil Gaiman,

Speaking as a fellow fantasy novelist, I envy you the experiences you’ve had… seeing your stories brought to life on the big screen with vivid imagination in brilliant adaptations.

I’m a huge fan of the film version of MirrorMask, one of the Henson Company’s most original and daring works. I discover new rewards in that movie every time I watch it.

I’ve also come to love Henry Selick’s version of Coraline very much. But that’s no surprise. Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was a masterpiece of stop-animation and a memorable musical, worth revisiting again and again for the way it made me care for such strange and subversive characters.

So when I heard that your beautiful novel The Graveyard Book was in Henry Selick’s hands, I did cartwheels. I stood on my head and spun around. I did a pole vault without a pole. And this is remarkable, because all of these feats eluded me in gym classes when I was growing up.

Selick’s careful attention to detail, and the labor of love that went into every handcrafted scene of Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas, gave those films a rare glow.

But today I came across more news. And this news didn’t send me into cartwheels and head-stands. It sent me stumbling forward, slamming my head against a wall.

I have seen fantasy films go very wrong. Willow, for example, was an awful George Lucas/Ron Howard collaboration that desperately wanted to be The Hobbit, so much so that it stole shamelessly from other fantasy films. Most fantasy stories borrow ideas from other fantasy stories, but Willow was derivative to the point of embarrassing.

And then there was Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, an adaptation so wrong-headed, so contrary to the spirit of the source material, so gaudy and excessive in every way, that I wish I could go back an un-see it. That was directed by Ron Howard too, a fact that the Academy conveniently forgot when they gave Howard the “Best Director” award for A Beautiful Mind the following year (a dreadful mistake, seeing as his competition was the legendary Robert Altman for the glorious Gosford Park or Peter Jackson for The Fellowship of the Ring, which remains the greatest of those Lord of the Rings films).

Or how about The Da Vinci Code? It was a popular book, but hardly a great work of literature. And the movie was buried in an avalanche of bad reviews when it opened. Somehow, it spawned a sequel, but really, do you know anybody who loves those movies?

Hmm. What do these three disappointing movies have in common?

Ah, right.

So it is with a sick, sick feeling that I am here to ask “Why?”

Why?

Why has The Graveyard Book been taken away from Henry Selick, and why does it appear to be falling into Wrong Howard’s incapable hands?

Yesterday, my enthusiasm about this project was turned up to “11.” Today, it has dropped to a “2.”

And when I shared my distress about this news on Facebook, here are the replies that came in from movie enthusiasts all over the place. I’m not holding back any contrary opinions… these were the first several responses:

“Ditto.”

“Ron Howard has made several very good movies (including a personal favorite, “The Paper”.) None of those very good movies show that he is anywhere close to the type of director that should be handling Gaiman. Hopefully he finds a different shiny object elsewhere.”

“Ugh.”

“I went through a similar emotional change just reading this post. I mean, that could have been an awesome film.”

“It apparently won’t be animated anymore. And for a live-action Graveyard Book to work, I think Del Toro needs to be involved. (He’s kinda busy with deep-sea aliens, though.)”

“I had the same feeling when del Toro was tagged for the Hobbit and then was replaced by Peter Jackson. I think del Toro could’ve have done such an amazing job. “Pan’s Labyrinth”, exhibit A.”

“Ugh. How sad.”

“Ack!”

“Howard is decidedly NOT dark & edgy. …”

” Howard has a thing for directing projects he can’t handle, doesn’t he? I really hope “The Dark Tower” adaptation eventually gets off the ground – with someone other than Howard directing. Also: Selick’s really had bad-luck as of late. Everything he’s been attached to direct has either been tabled or taken away from him. Why?!?”

“Could not agree more!”

“Ditto, Jeff. Me, I’m grateful that Ron Howard’s remake of Haneke’s “Caché” seems to have been shelved.”

“Give it a chance…it could have the whimsy of Willow and the magic of The Grinch….crap.”

“Worst news ever.”

“Wonderful book – wrong director. I am not pleased.”

And that’s just Facebook. The news has been met with cries of alarm on Twitter as well.

The Graveyard Book is a treasure, and it deserves a film that will be a treasure as well. If people love the movie, they’ll be likely to read the book. But if they don’t love the movie…

Perhaps there were good reasons that Selick was taken off of this project. I don’t know. I suspect that he wanted to take more time crafting it than the studio was willing to give. If so, that’s too bad. Great art takes time… especially in the realm of stop-motion animation.

I’ve been surprised before. For example, I’ve been frustrated by the films of director Joe Wright, but I was enthralled with Anna Karenina. It’s entirely possible that this film will become a beloved classic under Howard’s direction. But I think that’s highly, highly unlikely. Howard doesn’t take chances; he plays it safe to please general audiences. You, Mr. Gaiman, are a risk-taker. You’re not afraid to shake us up, to really scare us. And you know that the loving care of an artist can bring a subject to life.

If Howard ends up at the helm of this movie, you don’t have an artist in charge. You have an entertainer.

Please, if you can… do something.

This Hollywood Reporter story even tells us that Howard is overseeing a new script. Good heavens, no. No, no, no. Your words deserve better.

Please help.

Your admiring reader,

Jeffrey Overstreet

 

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About Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet is the author of a “memoir of dangerous moviegoing” called Through a Screen Darkly, and a four-volume series of fantasy novels called The Auralia Thread, which includes Auralia’s Colors, Cyndere’s Midnight, Raven’s Ladder, and The Ale Boy’s Feast. Jeffrey is a contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, and he writes about art, faith, and culture for Image, Filmwell, and his own website, LookingCloser.org. His work has also appeared in Paste, Relevant, Books and Culture, and Christianity Today (where he was a film columnist and critic for almost a decade). He lives in Shoreline, Washington. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/jeffreyoverstreethq.

  • http://www.priebelieving.com Ken Priebe

    And in another blow to hopeful cinema, Del Toro’s Pinocchio has been shelved once again, but at least there is this news: http://www.animationmagazine.net/features/selicks-shadow-king-finds-new-life/

  • http://www.priebelieving.com Ken Priebe

    Sigh…. What a shame. Let’s hope that at least Del Toro’s Pinocchio or the next Laika film (supposedly ‘Goblins’ or ‘Wildwood’) fills the gap, and that Selick finds the ideal project for him.

    Looking at Ron Howard’s filmography, there is only ONE film in the entire list I would have to say is an unforgettable masterwork, which is Apollo 13. I love that film…and also Parenthood had some great moments. But the rest of the list is either stuff I also ignored or forgot.

    On another more inspiring note, I shared your ‘How Then Shall We Tell Stories’ video with our Life Group of creative souls tonight. Went over well and sparked some good discussion. ;)


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