Here’s a significant departure from the norm because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a film, it is a novel.
Various members of my family will no doubt consider this a minor step forward in the book verses film debate that reignites between us at some point every Christmas but in fact I have not wandered that far from my normal remit because I what aim to talk about is my perception of Neil Gaiman as a filmic writer.
He certainly is not a filmic writer in the same way as Michael Crichton was, that would be doing his craft a disservice. I don’t wish to devalue Michael Crichton, he knew how to write a good page turner but his books read like treatments for movies. You could tell he was thinking about how his stories would look on screen as he put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard). Neil Gaiman certainly doesn’t do this but just because he isn’t constantly imagining how the imagery he creates would work in a visual medium, that doesn’t mean that those of us who are filmically minded are not doing just that as we read. The fact is that The Ocean at the End of the Lane could make a spectacular film.
Let me quantify what I mean by filmically minded. Clearly cinema is my favourite medium but I also love good literature. I am not a big big reader but I do have a good English Lit degree which has to count for something in this respect. Generally I would always say see the film first (if you love the book you are likely be disappointed by the movie but it is rarely the same the other way around) but I do think there are some stories that are such significant pieces of literature they should be enjoyed first in their original medium. Works on that list include Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and The Time Traveller’s Wife.
The fact is though that a book has never frightened me or made me cry which clearly isn’t the case with cinema. (Having said that I did throw One Day by David Nicholls across the room when that big thing that happens happened and it left me in a bad mood for the rest of the day.) I was told the Woman In Black by Susan Hill was a very scary book but I didn’t find it so. The film on the other hand unsettled me so much that at one point I yelled out loud (which is embarrassing when you consider that I was watching it on my iPad on the train). I certainly don’t think every book I enjoy should be turned into a film, that would be sacrilegious but I like to see stories played out on the screen and when I read a book I often imagine it playing out on the screen in my head.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an incredible fantasy novel about mystical beings crossing between our world and theirs, some of them benevolent and some of them most certainly not. It isn’t a book about fairies or witches because the creatures that spring from Gaiman’s imagination cannot be defined in such conventional terms. The protagonist of the story is a seven year old boy and is written convincingly as such but this is not a children’s book.
Initially it is a nostalgic parable to youth in a simpler time. It reminded me of Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World in the way it romanticised a simple rustic upbringing, all freshly laid eggs and tin baths. Soon though it is running in an increasingly dark Alice in Wonderland direction, only without the lines between fantasy and reality being so comfortably distinct. The hero of the story doesn’t so much end up inside the rabbit hole as the rabbit hole ends up inside him. The book is also reminiscent of Let the Right One In where old souls in young bodies, children who have been children for a very long time, befriend preadolescents who normally struggle to connect with others of their own age.
As The Ocean at the End of the Lane progresses it plays on that idea, so terrifying to children, that your parents could be displaced by monsters. A similar theme was explored in Gaiman’s book Coraline and its brilliant stop motion animation film adaptation but in this case it recognises that in real life such events are never really forgotten, no matter the immediate resolution.
The (sometimes nightmarish) imagery in the book is extraordinary in every sense. It is vividly described and is equally arresting whether it is exploring the horrors of real surroundings or those of fantasy. The world created here is perfect for the page and makes the absolute best of the medium but by my mind is also crying out to make the leap to cinema. With my celluloid sensibility I found myself once again adapting it in my head as I read, yearning to see it realised it on the screen. No doubt some visionary film maker, with the means as well as the desire , will one day do the same.
Gaiman’s words have obviously become screenplays before. He wrote the script for Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf but lets gloss over that. He also wrote the English language version of Princess Mononoke and the excellent Stardust and on the small screen he authored the second best episode of Doctor Who. It is the aforementioned Coraline though that most perfectly captures his cloth and sticks, mud and bugs, nature unleashed aesthetic.
The quirky but brilliant animation from Henry Selick, the actual director of Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, is so appropriate to the story of childhood, bewitched dolls, alternate realities, grotesque neighbours and buttons. In some respects The Ocean at the End of the Lane could also be well served by this style of film making but I actually think I’d like to see it as some kind of mix of stop motion, CGI and live action. It should not be produced as a children’s movie though, it needs to be made with the death and the sex and the nudity intact.
Pan’s Labyrinth was a genius vision of childhood in a brutal, uncompromising adult world and it stands as a good model here. Gaiman has created an enchanting but untrustworthy world where the magic is unexplained and where the most frightening monsters are sometimes those seen in human form. Now I want someone else with the right sized budget to show me what it looks like. It could frighten me, it might make me cry but done right it would be breathtaking.