Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

I just re-read Coraline today, inspired by the movie. I'd originally read it for the SFBC, back before it was published -- so sometime in late 2001 or early 2002. (I probably was the editor who bought it for the club; I don't remember definitively, now.)

It's a very short book -- it won the Hugo as a novella, and it is one, by length -- but it has the shape and feel of a novel, and it's long enough to keep the bookcovers from slamming together, which is all one can ask.

I don't intend to do anything like a full "review" of it here, seven years after it was published -- it's a Hugo-winner, one of the better books of a top-rank fantasist, and the subject of a million book reports and blog posts already. But comparing it to the movie is an interesting exercise, so I might do a bit of that.

Everything is quieter in the book Coraline -- she's less demonstrative herself, her real parents are less dismissive and more distracted, the secondary characters are smaller and less present, the set-pieces are smaller or nonexistent. The mouse circus never actually appears in the book, and Miss Spink and Miss Forcible's show is much less impressive. Whybe isn't in the book, either, and both the Other Father and the nameless cat seem to speak less. It's focused more tightly on Coraline and her Other Mother -- but even the Other Mother is secondary; it's Coraline's story. The dangers are there, but less emphasized -- Coraline is on top of events much more in the book than the movie, and there's less tension as a result. In most ways, the movie Coraline is a retuned and tauter version of the story: hitting the same emotional and plot beats, but doing nearly all of them more strongly and clearly. (The confrontation with the Other Father, though, is much creepier in the book -- if filmed in line with the rest of the book, it would have launched a million nightmares.) The movie also definitely makes things more difficult for Coraline; instead of one gun-on-the-mantelpiece snow globe, there are dozens, and the Other Mother fights back more strongly. (Though, on the other hand, that's the most "Hollywood" and least original part of the movie, in its choice of imagery and action-movie events.)

Now I need to see the movie again, to do a reverse comparison -- though I think I'm missing my window to see it again in 3D. (And I expect to read the comics adaptation by P. Craig Russell soon as well, to add yet a third layer.)

And I'll end by quoting a long passage, from pages 118-120 of the hardcover:
It was a bedroom, and the other crazy old man upstairs sat at the far end of the room, in the near darkness, bundled up in his coat and hat. As Coraline entered he began to talk. "Nothing's changed, little girl," he said, his voice sounding like the noise dry leaves make as they rustle across a pavement. "And what if you do everything you swore you would? What then? Nothing's changed. You'll go home. You'll be bored. You'll be ignored. No one will listen to you, not really listen to you. You're too clever and too quiet for them to understand. They don't even get your name right.

"Stay here with us," said the voice from the figure at the end of the room. "We will listen to you and play with you and laugh with you. Your other mother will build whole worlds for you to explore, and tear them down every night when you are done. Every day will be better and brighter than the one that went before. Remember the toy box? How much better would a world be built just like that, and all for you?"

"And will there be gray, wet days where I just don't know what to do and there's nothing to read or to watch and nowhere to go and he day drags on forever?" asked Coraline.

From the shadows, the man said, "Never."

"And will there be awful meals, with food made from recipes, with garlic and tarragon and broad beans in?" asked Coraline.

"Every meal will be a thing of joy," whispered the voice from under the old man's hat. "Nothing will pass your lips that does not entirely delight you."

"And could I have Day-Glo green gloves to wear, and yellow Wellington boots in the shape of frogs?" asked Coraline.

"Frogs, ducks, rhinos, octopuses -- whatever you desire. The world will be built new for you every morning. If you stay here, you can have whatever you want."

Coraline sighed. "You really don't understand, do you?" she said. "I don't want whatever I want. Nobody does. Not really. What kind of fun would it be if I just got everything I ever wanted? Just like that, and it didn't mean anything? What then?"
If Coraline has a lesson, that's it: "I don't want whatever I want." Do any of us?


madscientistnz said...

Would you recommend reading the book before watching the movie or after?

Andrew Wheeler said...

I don't think it makes much difference -- the plot is essentially the same, so they "spoil" each other equally much. (Whatever that means to your individual taste.)

If you're interested in it, I'd try the version you generally like better first -- with the caveat that the 3D version of the movie is only in theaters through tomorrow, so watch that immediately if you have any interest at all.

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