With the way Hollywood churns through material these days, we thought it was worth taking a look at the various sources they’re pulling from and discussing what they might make from these books, games, TV shows, or whatever else they use. For today’s column, we’re looking forward to 2013, when Tim Burton may be directing Jane Goldman’s adaptation of “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children.”
This book by Ransom Riggs falls under the preposterously broad umbrella of “young adult fiction,” but trying to shoehorn this into the same genre as “Twilight” or “The Hunger Games” seems ridiculous. This book was built around some real photos that Riggs collected over the years, a narrative that built upon these images, and which plays as a sort of melancholy fantasy about a young man who is launched into a creepy investigation upon the death of his beloved and eccentric grandfather.
When Jacob goes to the Welsh island where his grandfather once lived, trying to figure out how much of what he was told by the old man was invention and how much was true, he comes across the remains of an old house that apparently was an orphanage of sorts before a bomb destroyed it in WWII.
He eventually learns that his grandfather’s fanciful stories were all true and that they are “peculiar,” just like the other children from that orphanage who are now all hiding in a bubble in time. Jacob’s arrival puts them in harm’s way, but it also sets in motion an extraordinary adventure for these kids, forcing them to finally join the world again.
Riggs is a solid writer, and there’s an air of sadness to this entire book that I think marks it as something closer to the Lemony Snicket series than something like “Twilight.” The prologue deals with Jacob’s relationship to his grandfather, and the discovery of the photos that he claims show the “peculiar children” that he lived with. He doesn’t believe his grandfather’s story, believing that it’s his way of coping with the horrors of the war. Then in chapter one, Jacob’s grandfather is killed, and Jacob sees one of the monsters that he always believed his grandfather made up. It changes his opinion of the world, and for a while, he sees a psychiatrist.
Eventually, Dr. Golan suggests that Jacob should go to Cairnholm Island, to a place where his grandfather claimed to have lived under the care of Miss Peregrine, a shadowy figure who sent him some mail that Jacob finds. His father agrees to join him, and they head for Cairnholm, off the coast of Wales. At first, Jacob finds nothing but dead ends and history long since ossified, and when he and his father talk about his grandfather, it’s clear that his dad harbors some deep resentments for the way Grandpa Portman acted and the times he would disappear.
A local historian tells him about how the orphanage was destroyed by a bombing run on September 3, 1940. He also confirms that Jacob’s grandfather was there and survived that bombing. When Jacob wakes one morning and finds a peregrine falcon in his room, he can’t help but feel that he’s drawn the wrong kind of attention from someone. He goes back to the children’s home ruins and finds a trunk full of the sorts of photographs that his grandfather had, and while he’s looking at them, one of the kids from one of the photos approaches him, and he chases her back through a hole in time, back to September 3, 1940, the day where they’ve been hiding for the 70 years since the bomb fell.
Certainly, there’s potential for this to feel like a sort of “X-Men” knockoff, but these kids aren’t particularly superheroic. They’re just strange, and it’s only by accident that they ever use these powers to do something heroic. Miss Peregrine is revealed to be a Ymbryne, a sort of shape-shifting creature with control over time in very small pockets, and the things they’re hiding from, monsters like the one that killed Jacob’s grandfather, are revealed to be Wights. One of the girls, Emma, was in love with Abraham all those years ago, and she’s still this young woman, waiting for him to return, while he aged past her in the outside world.
Ultimately, “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” reads like part one of a larger story, and for that reason, it’s a bit unsatisfying as a narrative. But Riggs has a nice sense of the weird, and he doesn’t play any of this as a joke. He treats it very seriously and there is a sense of real danger to things. It’s an interesting mythology he plays with, the use of the photographs is very striking in places, and I give him credit for building an interesting world around these characters. I just wish there was more of a sense of momentum to this particular story.
POTENTIAL AND PITFALLS
Jane Goldman’s attached as screenwriter, so I’d say the potential is fairly strong for this to be something special in execution, but she’ s got her work cut out for her. The book takes a long time to really explain itself, and by the time this hits theaters, the studio will have worked hard to explain the premise as much as possible, meaning the film needs to be far more streamlined and get the characters together sooner. Miss Peregrine could be a big star, but with Tim Burton directing, chances are strong it’ll end up being Helena Bonham Carter. Aside from that role, almost everyone in the film is young, so you’ll be dealing with a cast of either unknowns or rising names, meaning the characters have to really pop. The peculiar children are all going to require some extensive effects work at times, but that’s the easy part.
The hard part is figuring out exactly what story this first film is, and at its most successful, “Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children” is about a young man figuring out who his grandfather really was, and it’s also a love story. The horror elements are part of it, but since there’s no real resolution in this story, why not focus on the things that already work? It definitely seems like it could be tailored to Burton’s sensibilities, and I’m curious to see what happens when he works with Goldman, who is able to work under enormous pressure with a surprising amount of grace. She’s been given more time to work on this than she has on some of her films (it’s a miracle “X-Men: First Class” even made sense based on how little time they had to write and shoot it), and I’m hoping this is the beginning of more people realizing what an asset she is. What I think she brings to a project like this is a lack of sentimentality, and that’s good. This could easily be a big bowl of mush in the wrong hands, and Goldman’s very good at celebrating the weird without making it campy or without undermining the reality she’s writing.
When it goes dark, it goes very dark, and that’s going to also be tricky. This isn’t an R-rated property, and a lot of that is going to come down to how the monsters are designed and how rough Burton plays the encounters with the Wights. If this is going to avoid the fate of things like “Eragon” and “The Dark Is Rising” and “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” then they need to make sure this is a completely satisfying experience and not a trailer for films we’re never going to see.
Despite Burton’s success with his latest films, he’s never really been a good franchise guy. The biggest series he ever had a hand in, the “Batman” films, he quickly took to a dark and freaky place that upset Warner Bros. He also has such a strong and particular voice that it might be tough to make a distinctly Burton film for the first in a series if they’re going to ask other directors to step in later.
Still, there’s a chance to do something lovely and odd here, and certainly the talent is in place to make it happen. We’ll see soon enough.
“Source Material” appears here every Tuesday.