Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
When it was announced that Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ highly successful novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, would switch the abilities of two characters, one being a major character whose ability was vital to the plot, many fans of the book were understandably concerned about how Burton could destroy the intricate world Riggs had created.
Burton’s adaptation could potentially kill off the complexity of the characters, painting the story with such a broad strokes that it could be generalised by filmgoers as just another family friendly fantasy film.
Perhaps true to the assumption, Burton’s adaptation of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children appears initially as a somewhat cliched presentation of extraordinary or Peculiar Children whose abilities allow them to do extraordinary things. It’s a dull repetitive storyline which sounds a lot like any superhero film in which an ordinary unsuspecting hero discovers a world and becomes essential to its survival. In this case the hero Jacob ‘Jake’ Portman (Asa Butterfield) is your typical American teenager who discovers that he, just like his grandfather Abraham Portman (Terence Stamp), has the ability to ‘see the monsters’ known as Hollows which threaten the safety of the Peculiar Children.
Burton, known for creating visually interesting onscreen worlds, really shines in his version of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which seems to echo the films Burton is known for; Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and The Corpse Bride, which are darker in nature but work as compelling visuals. Burton introduces viewers to two differing worlds. The story’s main protagonist alternates between them, ultimately having to decide where they truly belong. The old world in which the main protagonist has lived for most of his life is portrayed as dull and uninteresting through the use of desaturated colours, a flattened mundane set of perfectly placed houses and a subdued colour palate of beige, off whites and isolating blues. Viewers are made to feel distant, uninvited and uneasy until the main protagonist discovers their new world in which the colours used appear more vibrant, the characters appear happier and it just feels like everything is right in their new world.
The children’s Peculiar abilities are an impressive showcase of visual effects and 3D used by Burton. Thankfully the visual effects are not overused and play a significant role in telling the story rather than being just visually appealing.
In Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the worlds Jake (Butterfield) has to decide between are modern day Florida – an environment he has known of all his life despite feeling quite ordinary – and a Loop containing the Peculiar Children’s home located on Cairnholm Island specifically on September 3rd 1943, a day which continuously repeats thanks to a time loop which ensures that the children never grow up. Maintaining the Loop and thus caring for the Peculiar Children is Miss Alma Peregrine (Eva Green), a Ymbryne, magical females who can transform into a birds which allow them the ability to manipulate time and create loops for any Peculiars under her care.
Burton’s loop is set in 1943, three years later than that of Riggs’ novel. Since both years fall within the period of World War II (1939 – 1945), this change does not alter the story and Burton manages to maintain the imposing threat of a bomb being dropped on the children’s home threatening their livelihood and the reason time needs to be looped by Miss Peregrine every single day.
Time and memory are used in the film as significant plot devices with Riggs’ photographs used in the book featured in the film’s title sequence. Photographs and clocks are also used to indicate time passing or moments in time with Jacob discovering the abandoned children’s home filled with broken clocks perhaps as a reference to lost time. The Changeover, the moment when the loop resets is set to the tune of ‘Run Rabbit Run’ paying on a vinyl record player a song which playfully pokes fun at the enemy during World War II treating it in an almost childlike manner.
My main concern, shared by many other fans of the book, was that Riggs’ Emma – with her strong fiery ability both in peculiarity and personality – would be switched for a more submissive and seemly weaker character who would float around in the air, carefree and agreeing with whatever the male wanted (i.e. her purpose would be simply to serve Jake as the male lead rather carve her own path independent of him). On the surface, Emma’s appearance in the film, with her big eyes, curly blond hair and blue silk dress, makes her appear as if an angel gracefully dancing above the sky watching over her fellow peculiars. Ella Purnell’s appearance is almost doll-like, looking a bit like Winona Ryder’s character of Kim in Edward Scissorhands. Both are perceived perhaps incorrectly as submissive but on closer inspection, Burton actually develops characters who are graciously strong female leads, providing the male with a refreshing new perspective on seeing the world.
Generally speaking, film adaptations aren’t always met with the most welcoming of attitudes by those who have read the original source material. Burton along with scriptwriter Jane Goldman’s rumoured changes to Riggs’ story were met earlier in this year with bitter disagreement and weary unease with a few comments remarking that they would boycott the film in response to the changes. The significant change about which many fans of the book were concerned was Burton swapping Emma Bloom’s (Ella Purnell) power to control fire with that of Olive (Lauren McCrostie), a minor character in the story who levitates. As a significant character in the novel serving as both Jake’s love interest and the ability to manipulate fire a power used to drive the story’s plot, Emma now having taken on peculiarities of Olive in Burton’s adaptation were rumoured to be seen as submissive and destroying the strong female lead of which Riggs has created perhaps as an inspiration for female readers.
Burton’s Emma having the peculiarity of air and literally being tied down by Jacob (Butterfield) and held so that she does not float away may be interpreted by viewers as directionless and lost, needing the male to direct and control her. It could have been perceived as submissive and offensive to many strong female characters developed by Riggs in some sense, with an understandable uproar of disappointment as a result of the changes. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, despite the changes still manages to maintain the strength and drive of the its well-established female characters, particularly that of Emma Bloom, her strength being her personality, rather than just her power. She leads Jacob, finds him and guides him to the peculiar home, and her motivation is self-directed rather than dependent on the Jacob’s desires.
Goldman’s script alters the plot to strengthen the significance of Emma’s air manipulation powers including visually impressive underwater sequences and an almost weightless appearance of swimming underwater. As Jacob and Emma swim the density of their underwater environment causes them to appear as if swimming in slow motion evoking an almost dreamlike appearance which helps to romanticise their relationship as young lovers.
Burton and Goldman’s adaptation also introduces a completely new character, a Wight named Mr Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) as the antagonist for Jake to defeat. Coupled with uptempo music and shots of children hurling colourful bits of candy, the battles between the two magical parties (Peculiars and Wights) are portrayed in an almost hilarious way, with the final battle resembling that of a food fight rather than a serious life-and-death battle that threatens the existence of the Peculiars. This makes the film more family friendly and enjoyable, especially for younger audiences. The colourful and almost comic-like visuals help to destroy any fear established by the presence of monsters intended to scare young viewers with the ridiculous scenes providing children with control and eliminating any fear they may have previously held.
Much of the dark and ethically blurred undertones set by Riggs in his novel are lifted by Burton, perhaps to cater for a more family-friendly market. It simplifies the storyline, and much of the emotionally significant aspects of the story are skimmed over with Burton choosing to focus more on the children’s Peculiar abilities rather than Jacob’s grief over this grandfather’s loss or the moral dilemma of being in a relationship with his grandfather’s ex-lover.
Hinted at, but not really of significant focus, is Emma Bloom’s past romantic relationship with Abe Portman – Jake’s Grandfather when he lived as a young man in the peculiar world. Both the film and the book make reference to Jake’s feelings of inadequacy and being forced to grow up and take on the roles held by those before him. In some sense the film is a coming-of-age story despite the moral dilemma of being in a relationship with your grandfather’s ex-lover.
Burton and Goldman’s script incorporates parts of the story from Ransom’s second novel Hollow City, which includes loop jumping and the introduction of the Twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell); two boys who wear creepy matching cream coloured outfits and masks. The integration of two stories helps to further the plot and removes a few unfortunate circumstances on which the story is based, so that the film ends on a much happier note. There is no conflict or uncertainty at the end of the film that the book presents, and Burton’s adaptation of Riggs’ novel has an ending which eaves you somewhat satisfied.
In addressing the changes to the original source material, my favourite line of the film highlights how Burton has kept the integrity and strength of the female characters developed by Riggs. Emma remarks to Jake after he is called to protect the Peculiar Children, ‘We don’t need you to feel safe Jake, cause you made us feel brave and that’s even better’. For me this is key to the point Burton is trying to make in his adaptation. Jacob Portman’s character is not the sole hero of the film despite being the narrator and the story being told primarily from his perspective. None of the Peculiar Children needed him before he arrived (he wasn’t even born), instead Jacob’s character provides the Peculiar Children’s mundane and repetitive world with a new perspective, which is simply refreshing.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children opens this week.
Review by Addy Fong.