Thursday, April 16, 2009

"The Spiderwick Chronicles": does "the Field Guide" represent "the knowledge of good and evil"?


As I noted, John Sayles told an audience in Minneapolis in 2002 about a bug kid’s project that he was working on, and I thought that this had to be “The Spidewick Chronicles” (Paramount / Nickelodeon, dir. Mark Walters, screenplay by Karey Kirkpatrick, David Berebaum as well as John Sayles, books by Tony DeTerlizzi and Holly Black, PG, 97 min), which came out in early 2008.

But the chronicles are really based on a series of four children’s books published in 2003. At the outset, the movie doesn’t seem to be another “Harry Potter” as the concept seemed to me more fanciful and yet a bit more modest. But perhaps it is also a bit existential, and that could have attracted Sayles to write for it.

That is to say, how important is knowledge for its own sake? It’s all in a “Field Guide” written by the deceased (but arisen) New England patriarch Arthur, played by (“Good Luck”) David Strathairn. The guide has pictures and writeups of all the faeries and goblins that can be unleashed in “this old house” (as well as how to contain them – most important!) that Mrs. Grace (Mary-Louise Parker) moves in to with her kids, including twin brothers Jared and Simon, both played by a tween Freddie Highmore. The house has been left to the family viatically by ailing Aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright).

The book is, oh, so durable. It doesn’t burn (there is a “Fahrenheit 451” scene), and there seems to be an extra copy (the whole story falls apart once we’re in a digital world – and one wonders – why not have it published so that there are more copies?) Destroying the book – that is, the knowledge of good and evil – becomes a theme to drive the story.

Director Mike Walters gives and entertaining introduction on the DVD, talking about the salt rings, the honey and crackers, the tomato sauce, as well as some of the characters, especially the dutiful secret gnome housekeeper called a “brownie.” In 1949, our kindergarten teacher divided the class into “brownies and elves” – an idea that might have become offensive in later years – except that I’m sure that the teacher was thinking of characters from children’s literature. The book appears; one can turn the pages digitally, and go to the appropriate scenes in the movie to see the character. If you did that with my book (DADT) and put it on a kindle with the possibility of going to video clips or pictures from keywords, I suppose you would provide an interesting experience.

Walter also insists that the story is "true" and the real family's name has been changed to protect the innocent.

The music score is by James Horner ("Titanic") and it contains a lot of impressionistic, Ravel-like effects.

I went to a Sunset Scripts screenwriting seminar in 2006 in Washington, and Nickelodeon was present, and discussed then the hiring of writers.

Picture: Occoquan, VA (mine).

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