Guillermo del Toro’s The shape of water was the surprise winner of Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. A surprise because “genre” films tend not to reap critical acclaim of this sort. The shape of water is a fantasy film about a sentient water creature kept in a lab, and Oscar tends to prefer rather more gritty, “worthy” fare for its top gong.
I personally loved the film. It’s a cold war fairytale of loss, friendship, and the fear of those who are different. And as per del Toro’s usual style the whole thing is soaked in the sensuous and the visceral. The art and design on his films is always top notch and The shape of water is no exception – the blues and greens of the sea seep into what seems like the very fabric of the film, in other places they are jarringly absent – the visuals and sounds help tell the story.
Still, I wasn’t expecting too much of the novel of The shape of water. Novels based on films are, and I’m speaking generally here, not usually very good. Good books have often translated to good or great films, but can you say the same of films into books?
Often a movie novelisation is something of a cynical cash-grab… just another way to get money out of fans who can relive the experience of the film. And they have a tendency to be nothing more than fleshed out screenplays that don’t really offer much extra insight into the characters or themes. Even “quality” efforts like Alan Dean Foster’s The force awakens can end up making you feel like you should have just watched the movie instead.
But… The shape of water novel by Daniel Kraus is nothing like that at all. Rather than being a book adaptation of the film, Kraus’s novel was written alongside del Toro’s screenplay. Both writers worked independently on their respective projects but traded notes as the process went along. In fact, it was Kraus who first had the idea for a story about a creature being kept in a lab and from that germ of an idea del Toro’s movie grew. So The shape of water (novel) is a rather unique achievement in that it is a story in its own right – it has its own thematic pivots, lyricism and pacing, but which shares its characters, setting, and plot with del Toro’s film. And the language is as glorious and evocative as del Toro’s visual eye is keen:
There is a dark, underwater twitch, like the leg-jerk of a dozing dog, and a plip of water leaps a foot from the center of the pool. It lands and echoes outward in delicate concentric circles – and then the lab’s soft babbles are overwhelmed by a ripsaw of ratcheting metal. The water is torn into an X-shape as four fifteen-foot chains, each bolted to a corner of the pool, pull tight and shark-fin to the surface, sizzling foam and slobbering water, all of them attached to a single rising shape.
Better still, the novel expands on the film in some really satisfying ways, delving into the backstories of several characters, fully rounding out certain people and themes barely hinted at in the cinematic version. There’s a strong feminist storyline that runs through the book, and the Amazonian origins and capture of The Creature (which are never really discussed in the film) form an important part of the story. It also differs from the plot of the film in some minor ways that don’t really detract at all – any differences make sense in the story that it’s telling.
The shape of water is the best novel version of a film I’ve read since The abyss by (the now rather problematic) Orson Scott Card. Based on James Cameron’s also quite watery film set in a underwater drilling platform, the first chapters of the novel, which described the backstories of three of the main characters, were completed before shooting. The actors playing those characters were given “their” chapter to read to inform their performance so in some small ways the movie influenced the novel that then influenced the movie. It’s all a bit “fiction as Russian nesting dolls” but it seems like it’s exactly this kind of collaboration between novelist and director that makes for the best movie fiction.
All words that have been used to describe Mary Ann Shaffer’s bestselling novel, The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society. The historical WWII novel that Shaffer (a former librarian) wrote when her plans for a biography of Robert Falcon Scott’s widow, Kathleen Scott fell through, “Guernsey” was extremely popular when it was published ten years ago. An epistolary novel (one that is told through letters or other documents), it tells the tale of Guernsey island-life during German occupation and is filled with engaging characters. It’s very much a book for booklovers, capturing, as it does, the transformative magic of reading.
And now it’s a movie. Opening in New Zealand on 25 April, “Guernsey” the movie will be a must-see for fans of the book but also for those wishing Downton Abbey was still a going concern, with no less than four former Abbey-ers in the cast, including lead, Lily James.
If you’d like to read (or re-read) the book as well as see the movie we’ve got the competition for you! For your chance to win one of five double passes to the film and a paperback copy of The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society answer our question about epistolary novels and enter your details in the entry form. Entries close 29 April and are open to Christchurch City Libraries members and winners will be announced on Monday 30 April.
Many thanks to StudioCanal for supplying the prize for this competition.
The nominees for the Academy awards have been announced for this year. For me the most notable inclusions are “genre” films in the Best Picture category. It’s unusual for genre films to get much love from the Academy in this category (Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King is so far the only fantasy film to ever win Best Picture) so it will be interesting to see if either Guillermo Del Toro‘s fairy tale fantasy (The shape of water) or Jordan Peele‘s modern gothic horror (Get out) will take the out the Oscar. They’re both up against more traditionally “Oscar-worthy” films in this category so it seems unlikely, in my opinion ( but if you’re interested in knowing more, may I direct you to this graph showing how the genre preferences of the Academy for Best Picture stack up)
As for the library collection, below are the 2018 Oscar-nominated films available for loan on DVD or with tie-in reading material. See how many you can watch/read ahead of the awards ceremony on Sunday, 4 March (Monday, 5 March here if you’re planning on watching live).
Read the book before you see the film/TV series, or read the source material afterwards for all the added backstories and characters (that you can absorb at your own pace)?
It’s a tricky one and the answer really depends on your own personal tastes and inclinations. Either way, here is the latest crop of works of literature that are getting a makeover for the screen.
If you’re a “read the book first” sort, you’d better get cracking before you miss –
Alias Grace – Canadian 6 part series directed by Sarah Polley, featuring Anna Paquin and a cameo from author Margaret Atwood. Based on the true story of a young housemaid, Grace Marks, who became embroiled in a double-murder, this series is only available on Netflix and is a rivetting watch.
IT – I was terrified by this book in the nineties (and the subsequent mini-series adaptation). The current film splits the tale of a group of kids fighting a malevolent entity that often takes the form of an evil clown into two films – the sequel is due in 2019.
Murder on the Orient Express – The Agatha Christie classic gets another film outing (the 1974 version earned Ingrid Bergman an Oscar) and with a fairly impressive cast including the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, and Michelle Pfeiffer, with Kenneth Brannagh (who also directs) as the moustachioed Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The original novel was published in 1934, so avoiding spoilers might prove difficult.
The Mountain Between Us – Kate Winslet and Idris Elba’s charter plane crashes into a mountain and that’s not the end of the drama. Based on the novel by Charles Martin.
The Lost City of Z – Author David Grann’s hunt for famed explorer Percy Fawcett’s expedition in the Amazon has Charlie Hunnam as the missing Fawcett, with Sienna Miller as his wife and Robert Pattinson as another member of the expedition.
Thank You for your Service – Biographical war drama based on the book by Washington Post journalist David Finkel. The film follows several soldiers after their return from deployment in Iraq and their struggles with PTSD and the psychological trauma of war.
Red Sparrow – The movie of the adventure spy novel by Jason Matthews has Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role as elite Russian agent Dominika Egorova (think Marvel’s Black Widow).
Chaos walking: The Knife of Never Letting Go – Another young adult sci-fi series adaptation, this time of Patrick Ness’s widely acclaimed dystopian novel. Daisy Ridley and Tom Holland are set to star.
Dune – Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi saga gets another go-around (after the 1984 film directed by David Lynch, and two miniseries’ in the early 2000s) this time with Arrival director Denis Villeneuve at the helm.
Break My Heart 1,000 Times – Bella Thorne will star in this “supernatural romantic thriller” based on Daniel Water’s young adult novel set in world where people can see ghosts.
Guernsey (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society) – Mary Ann Shaffer’s 2008 bestseller set on the island of Guernsey during WWII was filmed earlier this year, with Downton Abbey stars Lily James and Jessica Brown Findlay in the cast and Mike Newell directing.
Ready Player One – Ernest Cline’s dystopian future/Virtual Reality/geek nostalgia-fest novel follows Wade Watts as he attempts to find an ‘easter egg’ that will bestow on him a fortune. Directed by Steven Spielberg, expect to see this everywhere in March 2018.
Peter Rabbit – A new animated version of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of an adventurous bunny is due in early 2018, with voices provided by the likes of Rose Byrne, James Corden and Sam Neill.
On the radar
With the end of the Game of Thrones TV series on the distant horizon, Patrick Rothfuss is being mentioned as the next George R. R. Martin. Probably because they both have beards and neither have actually finished writing all the books in their respective series’. Lin-Manuel Miranda of super-musical, Hamilton, is producing the series for Showtime based on the first 2 novels of the as yet unfinished Kingkiller Chronicles fantasy trilogy.
The film adaptation of The Changeover premiered in Christchurch a few weeks ago, and is now screening in cinemas across the country. If you haven’t yet encountered this melting pot of red-zone Christchurch, subtle romance and sinister magic, I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the novel it was loosely based on.
It’s a measure of how well-loved the book is within the libraries that there have been several reviews written by different staff members over the last few years.
Last week’s release of the trailer for Stephen King’s The Dark Tower movie just about broke the internet, with fevered and passionate discussion about just how right or wrong the director had got things. Widely recognised as the most important of King’s works, The Dark Tower series is a ridiculously huge tale, with nearly 4300 words in eight novels, written over the course of 30 years. Simply put, it’s the story of Roland, the last gunslinger, who is working his way to the Dark Tower to take down the Crimson King. He is pursued by the man in black.
As a longtime Constant Reader, I have spent much of my grown-up life reading and rereading Stephen King novels. My bookshelves are full of scary clowns, weird alien invasions, alcoholic hotel caretakers and needful things. I own all the books, have seen all the movies, and have definite thoughts on best and worst novels. I’ve downloaded the reading maps, sought out the editorials, and even fallen in love with the works of his son Joe.
Every reader who has a favourite author can feel nervous when books are turned into movies. And it must be said that King’s movie adaptations can vary wildly in success, from the heady heights of The Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me, through the disturbing Misery, to the adorable but kind of dorky 1408, and the downright embarrassing Langoliers.
So you will understand when I say that I am not alone right now in feeling VERY nervous about the upcoming release of two of King’s most well-loved works. The trailer for It was released a few weeks ago, and in less than 3 minutes managed to scare the pants off most of the western world. I have yet to watch it without covering my eyes every few seconds. And the Dark Tower trailer is mesmerising for different reasons. How can one movie even begin to show us a world that is described not only in the eight Tower books, but also appears in countless other of his tales, from The Talisman, to Insomnia, to Black House, The Stand and The Shining and more.
There’s totally no time to go back and reread the whole series before the movie is out, and King has already told us that this particular story is not one of the original ones from the novels, but another of Roland’s journeys. So all I have to do now is sit, and wait, and like countless other Constant Readers, hope that this movie is at least good, and hopefully great, that Roland Deschain is a true gunslinger and that the man in black is every bit as dreadful and mesmerising as he is in the books.
And try to figure out if I will EVER be brave enough to watch IT.
Margaret Mahy’s young adult novel, The Changeover was already several years old when I first picked up a worn copy in my high school library at the age of 15.
I was so taken with it that even before I had finished reading it I was re-imagining it in my head as a movie.
In that peculiarly obsessive way that teenage girls sometimes are about their favourite things my mania lead me to imagined locations and camera angles, and I had a very long list of songs to be included in the soundtrack. Most of which, upon reflection, were terrible.
When Margaret Mahy died in 2012, I felt moved to write a heartfelt blog post about how important her writing, and this book in particular, had been to me.
A couple of years later at a WORD Christchurch panel discussion on The Changeover, I learned that a film of the book was in development and felt conflicted in that way that book fans often do. Because how could that film ever live up to the book, or indeed my own imaginary movie of it?
Stuart McKenzie is, with his wife Miranda Harcourt, co-director of that film which recently finished shooting here in Christchurch.
Perhaps not fully understanding the degree of my fangirl obsession, he agreed to answer some questions about what their version of Mahy’s story will look like.
Margaret Mahy wrote a number of terrific books for young adults – what made you want to film The Changeover particularly?
We felt The Changeover was really cinematic. It’s a supernatural thriller about a troubled teenager who’s got to change over and become a witch in order to save her little brother from an evil spirit. So, it’s got a great central conflict! And its genre is very clear — yet at the same time it puts this compelling twist on it by feeling very naturalistic.
Its themes of love, loss, sacrifice and change are primal. Laura Chant feels like a real person — she struggles with herself and her kind of dispossessed place in the world, but she’s got big dreams. In other words, she’s a complex and powerful heroine who our audience can really identify with!
Another thing that made the book feel so cinematic for us was Christchurch. We updated Margaret’s story to contemporary, post-earthquake Christchurch. For us, the brokenness and reconstruction of Christchurch is like a visual metaphor for Laura’s own damage and subsequent transformation.
The book (and Margaret Mahy herself) are very beloved, by me and many others. Does that place extra pressure on you to do a good job with the film?
All along we’ve wanted to make something Margaret would love: raw and lyrical, tender and tough and true. We wanted to keep the story feeling very contemporary, as the book itself was when it was first published in 1984. Like Margaret, we wanted to find the magic in the real world, not drift away into fantasy.
We were lucky to have Margaret’s blessing from the start. Before she died, she read and loved an early draft of the screenplay. So that was a great feeling to carry through the development of the project and into the shoot itself. She really encouraged us to find the spirit of the story and not be bound by the literal form of the book. We had this quote in mind by the great French film director Jean Renoir, “What interests me in adaptation isn’t the possibility of revealing the original in a film version, but the reaction of the film maker to the original work.”
I guess you could think of the book and the film as two reflecting worlds — much in the same way that Laura herself discovers the connectedness between two powerful realities — magic and the everyday — and finding in fact that they’re really one and the same.
Margaret was always clear that Laura’s changeover into a witch is a metaphor for her becoming a young woman, an active journey to embrace her own creative power. And Laura’s story itself is a metaphor for the challenges we all face in our lives and the changeovers we all have to go on in order to grow.
Oh yeah, back to the question about doing a good job… Yes, we really feel that! And we’ve still got a lot of work to do in post-production. Helps to have great people to work with, which we have.
On the one hand The Changeover, if you’re familiar with Christchurch, is very recognisably placed here, on the other hand it’s also very vague about where it’s set. The name of the city is never mentioned. The suburbs and street names in it are all made up. Christchurch is certainly its spiritual home, but you could make a very good argument that it’s not a story that needs to be specifically told here, and yet you are telling it here. What made you want to shoot here rather than in Auckland or “Wellywood”?
As you say, Christchurch is the “spiritual home” of The Changeover and we always wanted to make it here. I was born and bred in Christchurch and spent my early teenage years in Bishopdale which Margaret calls Gardendale in the book.
The Changeover was welcomed to Christchurch by Ngai Tahu in a moving whakatau — as a production we felt hugely embraced by Christchurch, the people, the Council, the environment itself.
Miranda and I were determined to film in Christchurch because its flat vistas give the film a unique look. Cinematographer Andrew Stroud and Production Designer Iain Aitken helped us reflect the everyday and often unexpected beauty of the place.
Christchurch also allowed us to explore the division between social worlds which is a key feature of The Changeover. Laura comes from a solo-parent family struggling to make ends meet. By contrast, Sorensen Carlisle lives in an architect-designed home with fine art on the walls and a sense of history and sophistication. The developing romance between Laura and Sorensen means first differentiating and then bridging these two worlds.
Mahy herself described The Changeover as having a lot of folk tale elements – there are “evil” step-parents and an enchanted brother, for instance – but also that “the city is simultaneously a mythological forest”. Will your film retain those suggestions of a modern day fairy tale?
Yes it does and that is in the very DNA of the story. At heart The Changeover is an emotionally powerful female rite-of-passage keyed into a primal fairy tale tradition. It’s true that those fairy tale elements are more overt in Margaret’s novel.
We wanted the film to feel very contemporary and naturalistic so in our story the fairy tale nature is felt rather than seen. We often thought about Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking study on fairy tale called The Uses of Enchantment. He says, “This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence — but that if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.” That is something we experience through Laura in The Changeover.
In terms of characters, it strikes me that Sorensen Carlisle, at least how he’s written in the book, is something of a contradictory figure – dangerous yet vulnerable, jovial yet dark, aloof yet intense – that must present some challenges when it comes to casting. How difficult was it to find someone who can be all those things in a convincing way?
We had great casting agents in NZ and in the UK. We looked long and hard to cast this film. When we auditioned young UK actor Nick Galitzine we knew we had found our mysterious and compelling Sorensen Carlisle. And Nick and Erana James who plays Laura Chant have a powerful chemistry together. We have always said that this intensity is our special effect!
Reading the book as a teenager it was incredibly important to me that Laura was of mixed racial heritage both in a personal sense, as it was quite unusual to read about someone like me as the heroine of a novel, but also in that it marks her as being different and something of an outsider, which I think adds to her story. I’m really pleased that you’ve cast a part-Māori actress in the role. Was that always the plan?
This was totally important to us too. We love how in the book Laura is part-Maori but Margaret Mahy doesn’t make a big thing about that, it’s simply part of the unique world of the story which in fact helps make it feel universal. It’s true that Laura being part-Maori means that by her very nature she finds herself between two worlds. That’s the journey Laura is on — to open herself to new worlds, new experience.
We looked for many years for our Laura Chant — and we kept coming back to Erana James who we had met early on in our process. Of course, financiers want to cast someone in a central role like this who already has a profile. Erana hadn’t acted in a film before so she was unknown in NZ let alone internationally. But with the support of the NZ Film Commission we made a “tone reel” last year with Erana playing Laura. She was fantastic in it — and the international people involved in the project — like our sales agent and even Tim Spall or Melanie Lynskey — could immediately see that this young woman had something special.
Could you hope for a better villain than Timothy Spall?
You are so right! But what drew us to Tim in the first place is that he could reveal the humanity in Carmody Braque. It’s this which makes him such a powerful adversary for Laura — because there is something of Braque in Laura herself. A desire to live more fully and expand her horizons.
We are so lucky to have Timothy Spall in The Changeover. He is mesmerising. I think Margaret Mahy would have been thrilled!
It’s clear from his answers that Stuart McKenzie is as much a fan of The Changeover as I am, so I feel much more relaxed about the movie adaptation now.
In addition to the film coming out late next year, McKenzie says there will also be a movie tie-in reprint of the (currently out of print) book. So roll on 2017!
A bestselling story for young adults that appeals to a wide audience, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is based on a fantastical collection of sepia photographs, of children with strange abilities.
Following clues left from his Grandfather’s violent death, Jake becomes linked with the fate of the original and colourful characters that fill a slip of time, hidden on an island. The reader becomes drawn in too, unable to stop reading late into the night. That’s always the sign of a great book.
Leaving room for a couple of sequels in the series, which is up to book 3: The Library of Souls, this first story begins an epic journey of self-discovery and adventure for Jacob and his new friends as they try to escape those who would expose them.
Are ghosts a photograph of time? What is really behind the spooky photographs that are sprinkled through the pages? The really scary thing about this book is that images in the antique pictures seem REAL.
The very exciting news is that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is making the transition to the big screen! It will be in cinemas this week, with a star studded lineup which includes Dame Judi Dench as Miss Avocet.
Before you see it, I urge you to read the book.
If anyone can do this book justice, Tim Burton can? I have high hopes…
The most lauded Australian drama of the last year, this bold, superbly acted debut from acclaimed theatre director Simon Stone reimagines Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in a contemporary small town.
Based on Welsh novelist Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith, this outrageous and lusciously erotic thriller from the director of Oldboy transposes a Victorian tale of sex, duplicity and madness to 1930s Japanese-occupied Korea.
A plane crash, government corruption and nuclear warheads are just some of the ingredients for this taut Danish docu-drama, set in the aftermath of the Cold War. Based on a book by the award-winning journalist Poul Brink.
This incredibly moving and fascinating doco takes us into the interior life of autistic Owen Suskind, and explores how his love of Disney animated features gave him the tools as a child to communicate with the world. Based on the book by Ron Suskind.
Not your conventional biopic, this enthralling dramatic exploration of the legacy of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda conjures up a fiction in which he is pursued into political exile by an incompetent detective played by Gael García Bernal.
Vanessa Gould’s fond and fascinating documentary introduces us to the unseen women and men responsible for crafting the obituaries of the New York Times.
A Quiet Passion
Cynthia Nixon, Jennifer Ehle and Keith Carradine star in Terence Davies’ lively, witty and ultimately intensely moving dramatisation of the sheltered life of 19th-century New England poet Emily Dickinson.
In Alison Maclean’s vibrant screen adaptation of Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, a first-year acting student (James Rolleston) channels the real-life experience of his girlfriend’s family into art and sets off a moral minefield.
“Terence Davies’s Sunset Song is a movie with a catch or sob in its singing voice: a beautifully made and deeply felt adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel of rural Scotland.” — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
So how was the movie, and how does it differ from the book?
I found Hunt for the Wilderpeople a delight from beginning to end. It’s a distinctly Kiwi film that features a raft of idiosyncratic characters but which centres on the relationship between an irascible older man and a Māori boy. It’s not so much a film in the vein of “a man alone” as “a man not quite as alone as he’d like to be”.
Needless to say “hijinks ensue”. There are chases, gunplay and eventually grudging respect. If you can imagine a cop “buddy” movie but set in the Ureweras instead of downtown Los Angeles, you’ll start to get an idea of the dynamic and humour. There are also some notable and hilarious cameos.
In Hunt for the Wilderpeople we slowly get under the skin of taciturn bushman, Uncle Hec (played by the always excellent Sam Neill), and gangsta-wannabe Ricky Baker (played with charm and humour by newcomer Julian Dennison) and we find, despite their obvious differences, that there’s a whole lot of heart and genuine warmth there.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople is probably in my top five movies of the last couple of years and I’m even considering a rewatch (in a cinema – waiting for it to come out on DVD is just too long).
But is it a good adaptation of the novel? Well, it differs a lot from the book and Waititi has gone on record as saying that he wanted to create a film that was “in the spirit” of the novel rather than being a straight adaption.
Updating the novel for a modern audience has meant certain changes – cellphones and selfies were certainly not a thing in the eighties when Crump was writing it. In addition the ending of the movie is a tad more upbeat than that of the source novel, and there’s less of a focus on bushcraft and more of a focus on comedy, all of which makes the movie a more enjoyable experience for me than if it had stuck to the straight and narrow.