Since there are already disparaging online reactions regarding the hair color of the actresses in the film version of the paranormal romance Beautiful Creatures (Little, Brown, 2009), eyebrows are bound to be raised over many of the other changes in this tale of dark desires under the elms.
Readers should expect that extraneous characters or subplots will face the chopping block, especially when the source material—the first in the four-book “Caster Chronicles”—is more than 500 pages long. But in terms of the story, a lot has been transformed here, with the blessing of authors Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. The numerous nips and tucks are a departure from the recent efforts by filmmakers to ingratiate loyal readers, sometimes following a book too literally (like a few of the “Harry Potter” films) or faithfully going by a lean-and-mean road map (The Hunger Games). The result here is a draw.
The series, although very popular, doesn’t have the broader readership of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” saga or Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games Trilogy,” which hooked a larger, more adult readership. This film really needs the solid support of its fan base, the narrower young adult demo, if it wants to launch a franchise.
Director/adaptor Richard LaGravenese’s retelling remains true to the spirits (no pun intends) here and there of this first book, especially in capturing the Southern setting of faded Greek Revival mansions, drooping Spanish moss, Bible thumpers, and where everyone is “surgah.” Gatlin, South Carolina, is a town with no Starbucks (if only, some may wish), 12 churches, and one library (which gets a big wet kiss in the film; the local branch is praised as “holy,” a bastion of ideas). Popular guy-next-door Ethan Wate plans to get the heck out of his hick hamlet as soon as he graduates high school. In the meantime, Ethan armchair travels through the books of Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac.
For months, he has dreamed of a dark-haired girl in a flowing dress wandering on a Civil War battlefield—but he’s killed by a bolt of lightning before he embraces her. Lo and behold, her doppelganger arrives as the new student in his English class: Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the niece of the wealthy recluse Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons). Rumor has it he’s a devil worshipper.
Fully aware of all the whispering behind her back, she’s aloof at Ethan’s courtin’ attempts, not believing he really wants to know her, but he stands up for her against the hostile cliques, and eventually makes her smile. However, she really doesn’t fit in—she’s a Caster (technically not a witch) with supernatural powers, and on her 16th birthday, she will endure the Claiming, when her true nature will emerge, either for the light or (gulp) dark, and murky forces are at work to turn her to the dark side, by using Ethan as a heartthrob pawn.
Some of the book’s, ahem, magic is lost: Ethan also has powers to overcome curses, and the teen lovers are telepathic, reading each other’s thoughts whether they are near or far. On screen, Ethan’s purely mortal. The various special abilities of Lena’s family are not very well explained, leading to a few confusing moments.
In one of the book’s best (though not very original) subplots, Lena and Ethan have to reign in their hormones. Otherwise when they kiss, an electric charge zaps the boy. If they go all the way, the kid will fry—nature’s chastity belt. And the script thwarts suspense by revealing early on what mischief Emma Thompson’s Christian crusader is really up to—though by showing her character’s dementedly demonic side early on, Thompson has more opportunities to chow down on the scenery, leaving Jeremy Irons in the dust. Packed with a lot of plot and action, the series would have been a sure thing as a TV series for the YA friendly CW network, like a teen Walking Dead or True Blood.
If the film survives the poxes and put-downs from fans, it will be due, in no small part, to the breezy charms of actor Alden Ehrenreich as Ethan. He has the looks of mid-1950s Tony Curtis and a goofy affability. Ethan likes a good laugh, but the easy-going Ehrenreich never winks to the camera. Leave that to Thompson, who seems as though she could break out in a giggle fit at any moment.
The biggest departure is that the baddies upstage the cursed couple. The bad girls have all the fun—and the best wardrobe, compared to Lena’s baggy long-sleeve blouses. Their glee is infectious, and that’s especially true for Lena’s wayward and vampy cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum), a Southern belle Siren, who can make others think and do anything, especially inexperienced teenage boys. She first appears speeding through the countryside in her red BMW convertible, with her hennaed hair slicked back and Ray Bans on. She later morphs into Rita Hayworth from Gilda. She’s not only Old Hollywood ultra-glam, she makes evil joyous.
Directed by Richard LaGravenese
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