Can A Story Have Too Much Magic?

SPOILER ALERT: Details from both the book and the movie The House with a Clock in its Walls below.

When I found out that one of my favorite books ever, The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs, had been made into a movie, I was eager to see it despite my concern that Hollywood would ruin the story. Certainly, they made a bad mistake. They put too much magic in it.

HouseClockWallsPoster
I’m afraid this poster says it all. Magic, magic, everywhere!

I knew from the preview that they weren’t going to tell the same story that’s in the book. I was okay with them making Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) black-haired instead of a redhead and casting Cate Blanchett as Mrs. Zimmerman even though I think they made her too young. I could even live with Lewis being merely a nerd and not a fat kid.

The preview left me excited, but also uneasy. I’ve read the book so many times that I practically have it memorized, so it was hard not to be biased in my reaction to this film. But there’s no question that Hollywood laid on the whiz-bang magic with a trowel.

HCWbook_web
Edward Gorey’s illustrations capture the story perfectly.

What I liked about the book was the mystery. Lewis thinks there’s magic in the house, but it’s a while before he knows for sure, and even then, Jonathan doesn’t cast a lot of spells. Magic is dangerous, not to be played with or taken lightly. It’s Lewis’s lack of respect for the danger involved that nearly brings about the end of the world.

In the movie, Jonathan doesn’t hide his magic at all. He has a stuffed armchair with the personality of a dog and a topiary winged lion that never stands still. He even teaches Lewis magic (instead of forbidding his nephew from looking at any of his books on magic).

UncleJonathan
A moment that’s in the movie and the book: Uncle Jonathan looking for the hidden clock.

While the movie gave some time to Lewis’s difficulty making friends at school, which is what causes him to try to do magic in the first place, it didn’t treat the solution as realistically as the book does. In the movie, Lewis uses his new magic powers to punish those who previously ignored and insulted him — a funny but shallow moment. I prefer the book, which has Lewis moving on to a new friend who shares his interests without having to get even with Tarby first.

I love stories of magic, but I’m afraid Hollywood thinks a movie about magic must have magic in every scene, every moment, in order to be a success. “Magic” implies something special, something rare or at least unusual. Piling on the magic does the exact opposite, making it so commonplace and everyday that it’s boring.

What do you think? When it comes to magic, is less more?

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