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The Walden Media film adaptation of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising”, ultimately renamed “The Seeker”, has seemingly flopped with critics and is doing badly at the box-office. While I would like to claim that the reason is due to their decision to remove all pre-Christian references from the work, the most likely culprit is the fact that they didn’t respect the original story.

“‘The Seeker’ is based on the young adult novels written in the 1960s and ’70s by Susan Cooper. Lyrical, magical and steeped in Celtic mythology, Cooper’s beloved series seems like ripe material for audiences hungry for magic and epochal battles between good and evil. But screenwriter John Hodge strips Cooper’s story of its details and charm, reducing it to a kind of characterless, elemental video game – an apocalyptic scavenger hunt punctuated by sonorous pronouncements instead of dialogue: “You and all your kind will be destroyed,” intones The Rider (Christopher Eccleston), the leader of The Dark.”

While author Susan Cooper admits that you “do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay”*, it is usually the films that adhere closely to the spirit of their source material that succeed. This is doubly-true for any film that relies on a “cult” fan-base or fond memories of the original work. It is why Harry Potter films continue to do well, while the horrid remake of “The Wicker Man” did so poorly. In any event, fans of “The Dark is Rising” will most likely not have to worry about a sequel considering the film had “one of the poorest starts for a fantasy on record”, one hopes that the message has been firmly telegraphed: stay true to the story.

* Check out my exclusive interview with Herne the Hunter on why he ultimately decided to drop out of filming “The Seeker”.

Yesterday on NPR, Margot Adler interviewed Susan Cooper about the upcoming movie adaptation of her classic Newbery Medal-winning book “The Dark is Rising”. As you listen to the audio, some portions are almost heartbreaking as you hear Cooper talk about the extreme changes that have been made to the book.

“Cooper has written many screenplays herself, and she hastens to say she hasn’t seen the film yet. She has only seen the trailer and read the screenplay. “You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay – the two mediums are so different,” Cooper says. “But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different.” … Cooper is waiting for the movie, but with a certain sadness. She says she sent a letter requesting changes to the film’s script, but she’s not sure any alterations were made.”

In a separate essay posted to NPR, Alison MacAdam, a producer with “All Things Considered”, fears that the movie is so different that it won’t encourage children to read the source material.

“Sure, I hope the movie will lead new readers to Cooper’s books. But I fear an opposite scenario: that it will be so unrecognizable from the original story that it won’t drive kids to Cooper’s novels; it will replace the novels. As if to confirm my fears, I got word one week – one week! – before the film’s release on Oct. 5 that its name had been changed. Not that the strangely-punctuated The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising had struck me as a winner, but now the filmmakers have erased The Dark Is Rising altogether: The film will hit theaters as simply The Seeker.”

Also worrisome is the fact that the movie hasn’t been screened for critics yet, even though the film opens in three days. Usually when a smaller film like “The Seeker” cancels advance screenings, it is to avoid bad reviews on opening weekend. Perhaps Walden Media is hoping their core audience of parents and children will trust they are getting a good, safe, family film and will care little about how true to the books the film is.

At this point I hold out little hope that the original spirit of the work has been preserved. It is obvious that anything that was too “difficult”, or embraced themes that weren’t Christian, have been sanitized from the film. So even though “The Dark is Rising” is one of my favorite young-adult novels, I can’t in good conscience recommend seeing it. I suppose that is the end-result when you have a conservative-Christian director and a conservative-Christian owned movie studio get together to film a book chock-full of mythic and pre-Christian themes.

Has Walden Media edited out all the paganism from the film adaptation (currently in post-production) of Susan Cooper’s classic young-adult novel “The Dark is Rising”? Fears about alterations have been brought up since the film was first announced, mostly due to the fact that Walden Media has a “family friendly” mandate from its conservative Christian billionaire owner Philip Anschutz, and that director David L. Cunningham is a conservative evangelical Christian.

Christopher Eccleston as “The Rider”

Two recent interviews with Cunningham and screenwriter John Hodge (who also adapted “Trainspotting”) seem to validate some of the fears of those worried that the film will be sanitized for Christian audiences. Hodge, when asked about the pagan and pre-Christian elements of the film, said this to

“I think some of that sort of, the pre-Christian element or the Arthurian stuff isn’t really in the script.”

Also worrying is Cunningham’s comments on Susan Cooper’s reaction to the film.

“I think that she’s – I don’t want to speak on her behalf, but I think it’s mixed feelings. She’s thrilled that it’s being introduced to a new audience, but of course she would love it to be truer to the book and in many ways we would, but at the same time we needed to translate it.”

Herne the Hunter and Will Stanton
Illustration by Alan E. Cober from the 1973 edition of the book.

One can only imagine what a Christianized version of “The Dark is Rising” would look like. Will the amazing sequence with Herne the Hunter be removed? Will all non-Christian passages from the book be sanitized or removed entirely? I would hardly think that Cunningham and Walden would allow dialog from the book like this:

“Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.” The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply … “There’s not really any before and after, is there?” he said. “Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there.” Mr Beaumont turned to him in surprise. “You mean infinity, of course, my boy.” “Not altogether,” said the Old One that was Will. “I mean the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And,” he added sadly, “the opposite, too.”

I only hope I’m wrong, and that the greater spirit of the book shines through despite the meddling of men who would “translate” a classic to make it appeal to their “family friendly” demographic. “The Dark is Rising” is set to open in October.