Maccewill Yip recalls a magical night in the presence of Neil Gaiman for his new re-view not only of the film Coraline but also the Gaiman book from which it’s adapted.
This story doesn’t start ten years ago with the release of the film, but several years earlier when I was in high school and became a big fan of Neil Gaiman, starting with my discovery of the novel Neverwhere. Afterwards, I would try to find everything written by him: Stardust, Smoke and Mirrors, Books of Magic, The Sandman, etc. It was an exciting time because I started getting into Gaiman in time to attend the release and book tours for both American Gods and Coraline. The latter was extra special because he did a reading from the book. I had only seen a tour date and location, so I initially thought he would just go over a chapter or two, but nope, he ended up sitting down and reading the entire book to us in one magical night! It was at that moment that I found out he is not just a great writer, but an amazing narrator as well.
It was at the Coraline reading when Gaiman mentioned that the book had already been optioned to be turned into a movie by The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick, although at that time it was rumored to be it be live action with Michelle Pfeiffer playing the Mother/Other Mother, the role which later went to Teri Hatcher. So for years, I had known that there was at least an idea of a movie, but didn’t know if it was still in production or if it had been dropped until finally seeing some trailers and behind-the-scenes videos that started coming out.
Before I continue, I’ll have to make a confession: Coraline is not really one of my favorite works of Neil Gaiman. I’m not saying I hated the book; it’s very creative and does create a nice mood. But with Coraline, it was the presentation of the work that I enjoyed a lot more rather than the story itself, like the live reading and the film. Parts of it are great, but the overall story just didn’t engage me emotionally as some of his other works. It just felt like it was missing a certain something to really bring it together satisfactorily for me. I kind of feel bad, because there are definitely fans that love the book, the film, or both. So this review is my revisit to not only the film, but also the original book to see if there were any changes in my views after all these years.
The answer is no.
Sometimes people’s opinion on a piece of work changes, but that’s not the case here. Again, it’s the presentation of the story I like, and I love the use of stop-motion in this film. It’s simply gorgeous and, understanding the process, I am in awe of some of the visuals pulled off. Also knowing some of the behind-the-scenes work of the film enhances that, such as how a lot of the clothes were knitted by hand, some with knitting needles as thin as human hair!
What I like most are the small little details added that just enhance the film. In particular, I love the entire sequence of the final encounter of the Other Mother, with her cracked porcelain face, the glitching insect furniture, and the floor dropping to form a web to trap Coraline. I like the small little mention Coraline’s real mother makes that she doesn’t really do the cooking, which charms and entices Coraline later when the Other Mother prepares the wonderful feast. Other elements I love includes the button shadow eclipsing the moon to show Coraline is running out of time, the visual echo inside of the well to that eclipsing moon as well as the tunnel between worlds, the look of the other world at its edges or when it loses colorful aspects of itself after Coraline finds the children’s “eyes,” and the playful-turned-terrifying moments when the piano and the mantis tractor controls the Other Father. The home release’s special features, including the commentary by Henry Selick, show how much love and care went to everything designed in the movie. Selick in particular is very gracious and makes sure everyone received credit to the work they put in.
The most interesting revelations from Selick’s commentary track are the explanations as to why some changes were made, and you can see that he had thought hard about those changes and how he still tried to stay true to the book. One is the magical garden, which was not in the book, but created from one line about Coraline wanting to go out and dig around in the rain. This both creates another environment as well as expanded the role of the Other Father. Another change was moving the story’s location, since Selick felt he would be more familiar culturally with America than Britain. When I saw the movie again, I was wondering about what seemed to be the random Shakespeare Festival with some people play-acting where Coraline went with her parents into town. It wasn’t until the commentary when I discovered that the new setting is actually Ashland, Oregon, where they hold the months-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The reason it was set there was to explain Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, who were actors when they were younger in both the book and the film. [Editor’s Note: Additionally, the film’s animation studio, Laika, is based in Portland, Oregon.]
There are other changes that Selick made that he was able to reasonably explain, but there is one that I still debate over: the inclusion of the character Wyborn “Wybie” Lovat, and by extension, his grandmother. In parts, I understand why he was added. We needed someone she can bounce ideas off of or provide exposition. In the book, we mainly get information from Coraline’s thought process, but it’s a little harder to do that in a movie. Also, there are a couple of times his actions help move the film along to the next point, whereas in a book you can take the extra time to get there. However, I thought that this could have been the perfect opportunity to expand a role of another character that was already in the book: the cat. For one thing, it would have added another layer of playfulness to Coraline having the one-sided conversation with the cat, and then later make more of an impact when we find out it can speak in the other world. As for Wybie’s grandmother, although it’s interesting how Selick weaved her into the narrative by having her twin sister be one of the victims of the Other Mother, it just doesn’t seem strong enough to include her as a character, especially since we don’t see her until the very end.
The other problem I have with Wybie is related to a similar issue I have had with another adaptation of a children’s novel, The Golden Compass. In the book versions of both works, the main protagonist is a girl who has more agency and able to figure a lot of stuff on her own and actively acts upon her choices. However, in the film version of Coraline, a few of those ideas and actions are shifted to Wybie. In The Golden Compass film adaptation, it was worst for Lyra Belacqua, the main protagonist. Although there was no new character, it seemed that Lyra was a lot more passive in the film than she was in the book. Rarely did we see her being cunning, actively figuring out and acting on her own accord. It seemed like she was pushed and pulled by other characters around her. Again, I know it can be harder to portray self-reflective planning and guile in a movie, but I just wished a little more effort was made to emphasize the independence of these characters.
There is a particular change that I noticed is a trend with just about all adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s works: the ending. Gaiman is a great writer; however, although the endings to most of his works are nice in prose, they are not particularly cinematic. They’re usually a little more subdued and anti-climactic, and so we usually see film versions amp it up. It happened in Stardust, I’m sure it will happen in American Gods, and it happens here on Coraline. However, just like with most changes in Coraline, Selick stays somewhat true to the original ending. In the book, Coraline had a lot more time to plan and lure the Other Mother’s hand with the magical key to the door to the other world, creating a trap over a well. To speed the story, Selick has Coraline run to get rid of the key in the well, while the hand secretly follows and a scuffle between it, Coraline, and Wybie ensues. By the end, Coraline and Wybie toss both the shattered hand of the Other Mother and the key into the well.
Overall, it is a very close adaptation, so fans of the books should and have been happy for the most part. Neil Gaiman himself said this was his favorite movie based on his work. However, one of my favorite Gaiman adaptations have been American Gods, which for a lot of parts stayed close to the book, but has many parts that had gone in different directions. Instead of being mad at those changes, though, I find that the they actually take the material into interesting new paths, and especially broaden a couple of characters that weren’t as well-rounded in the book. This is great because if you stay too true to original source and not add something new or interesting, it becomes a useless endeavor where people might as well just read the book and enjoy what made it great in the first place (ahem, Watchmen). For me, Selick made enough changes to Coraline to make the adaptation incredibly interesting visually, but I had hoped that he would have also added a little more emotional resonance that the book had lacked for me.
– Although Michelle Pfeiffer didn’t get to play the Mother/Other Mother, she did eventually play a villain in a film adaptation of another Gaiman work: Stardust.
– Ian McShane, who voiced Mr. Bobinsky, ended up playing Mr. Wednesday in another Gaiman adaptation: American Gods.
– Since Keith David voiced the cat, would that put him under the magical negro trope?
– There are another couple of changes that, although intriguing in the movie, seem to complicate the story. One is the snowglobe, which had no analog in her real world, thus Coraline is able to figure out that that is where her parents are trapped. The second is the Coraline doll, which I liked at first, but then had questions, like how the Other Mother knows what Coraline looks like, at what point and how did Wybie’s grandmother acquire it, etc.
– My love for Neil Gaiman’s work is strong enough that my first tattoo is a half-sleeve from the pages of his graphic novel, The Sandman: Brief Lives.
– When I found out that Neil Gaiman also narrated the Coraline audiobook, I immediately grabbed the CD. Unfortunately, there is something different in his tone and pacing on the audiobook compared to when he read it live. It’s not terrible, but if you get a chance, definitely go to one of his live readings, or check out some YouTube videos. The closest studio recording to capture the magic is The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, only because he had to match the pacing of the string quartet, FourPlay, that was also touring with him at the time.
– Coraline has been compared to Alice in Wonderland, but if you really want to go down the rabbit hole, go on YouTube and check out the analyses and theories of Theorizer in twelve videos, or The Fangirl at thirty-three!
— Maccewill Yip