I'd heard that this was a stinker, but as a family fantasy film, it's okay. It's watchable. It looks pretty and it's worth watching for Eccleston. Just don't expect Susan Cooper's original novel.
The warning sign of course was "20th Century Fox" in the opening credits. I think I swore. I'd been braced for something nasty, but I hadn't realised it was Tim Rothman-era Fox. Count yourself lucky if you haven't heard the nightmare stories of what Fox did to, say, Ridley Scott with Kingdom of Heaven (2005) or to Gavin Hood with X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). Even under normal circumstances, you'd expect this film to be bastardised, but 2007 was of course bang in the middle of Harry Potter mania, with Warner Bros making billions from the British boy wizard. The film industry tried to jump on the bandwagon. Disney came nearest to succeeding with C.S. Lewis and The Chronicles of Narnia, while New Line Cinema tried Philip Pullman and Fox did Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising.
I love Susan Cooper's novels, but they were clearly never going to be the next Harry Potter. They're all about Celtic mythology, King Arthur and places like Wales and Cornwall. Will Stanton's adventures feel dangerous and mind-expanding, while the Drew siblings are more traditional child protagonists. The Famous Five Get Lost In Norse Mythology, if you like.
The miracle is that we got a relatively watchable film out of 20th Century Fox bludgeoning Cooper into a Rowling-shaped hole, while trying not to look as if they're doing it.
Let's look at the scriptwriter's comments. It's John Hodge, by the way, the once-hot writer of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, A Life Less Ordinary and The Beach. Hodge, Hodge, how did you fall so far? Here he admitted to not having read the other four books in the series and in any case wasn't a fantasy fan anyway. Frankly, to me his interviews stink of a writer who's been hired to adapt a book he doesn't much like. Let's read some quotes from the guy. "A lot of it would have to go because it was written in this quite lyrical, poetic, kaleidoscopic fashion," he said, while Will "doesn't really do very much." His changes include:
(a) Will and his family are now American. This is of course because Will would be more "understandable" if he was experiencing things as an outsider, as an American living in Britain. It couldn't possibly be because Fox refused to have the lead character talking funny in their prospective cash cow, no, no.
(b) Will's family is now irritating, with two older twins who'll make you chew off your leg in hatred. I get that they're meant to be annoying. However when I want to murder the scriptwriter, I think "annoying" has gone too far. In fairness, though, his little sister Gwen is adorable. In addition, Will's father is no longer a jeweller (which is important to the book's plot) but instead a physics teacher. This is so that Will can talk about Cooper's mysticism in real-world terms and say things like "it's physics; my dad teaches this stuff." He also tries to Google "light" and "dark".
(c) Will is now fourteen instead of eleven, letting him get teased about girls, fancy one of them and have his brain temporarily removed so that he nearly gives her the sodding Signs. This change was supposedly made because an 11-year-old English boy who can use magic would have been too much like Harry Potter. (The 2007 Harry Potter film was The Order of the Phoenix, in which Harry is 15 and Daniel Radcliffe was 17.)
Susan Cooper specifically objected to this change in particular, by the way. She chose Will's age because, "It is just before puberty, when we are not quite overtaken by all the difficulties of figuring out our sexual identity, and we are still trying to find out who we are, inside our heads. And in him, this is complicated horribly by the fact that he finds out he is not mortal."
(d) The film's Will isn't an immortal either.
(e) The Celtic mythology and King Arthur are almost entirely excised. Instead the film depicts a simpler battle of good vs. evil.
(f) Merriman's metaphorically a Dad Who Has Trouble Talking To His Teenage Son.
(g) The tragedy of the Walker's betrayal of Merriman and the loss of his soul has been cut out. No Walker. Unbelievable. Instead, almost everything that happens involves one of Will's siblings because, you know, They're His Family. Remember Will's dead brother? Here he's a twin who didn't die, but instead (gasp) disappeared. Yes, Will has an Evil Twin. My notes at that point read, "Oh God, they're going to do something with the brother, aren't they?" Ironically, though, they don't. They wimp out. They throw him in as a token bit of unearned emotion at the end, instead of actually doing something with the notion of another Will who's in thrall to the Dark, just as the real Will serves the Light.
Oh, and the director never read the books either. Eccleston did, though. "I read the book for this and enjoyed it very much. And obviously it's close to me because it's couched in Celtic mysticism and it's a very, very intensely British book."
That's a terrifying list of changes, but the good news is that it's resulted in a film that's okay. Just don't think about the book. I quite enjoyed it, despite being distracted and irritated by the Americanisation. The film's biggest flaws by its own lights are subjective and relatively subtle. It's too often visibly a slave to Hollywood formula, the mysticism seems trite and boring and the time travel has no atmosphere. Others might disagree with me there, perhaps.
What's more, in one area (Christopher Eccleston) it even improves on the book. In my memory, Susan Cooper's Rider barely exists as a man. He's Darkness. He's mythology on two legs, a door to other realms. He's awesome and scary, but I don't really see him as a character and I don't think we're meant to. That's fine. It works. I like it. Here, though, Eccleston embodies all that while at the same time being the film's most grounded character. He's absolutely real. There's nothing airy-fairy about him, which paradoxically makes him the best fit here for Cooper's brand of unsettling, sinister fantasy. He keeps his Northern accent, except when the character's play-acting as a doctor. (Yes, that's right.) He's hard, mean and superb in a role that could have been just another Hollywood villain who threatens the juvenile hero every so often.
The rest of the cast is fine. Alexander Ludwig is convincing in the journey the film gives him. He's a personality-free zone in the early scenes, but he's meant to be. Ian McShane is hardly standing out, but he's funny when trying to be a good listener. Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is bland as the Lady, but that's another film vs. book difference and she's doing what the script's telling her to. Finally Emma Lockhart (Batman Begins) is a cute as a button as Will's little sister.
I'm not sure the director's up to much, though. Here and there, I wouldn't be sure what was going on, so for instance I couldn't tell what I was supposed to be looking at in the finale and it took me a while in the beginning to work out that this Will was American but in England. It also seemed weird that Will sees swirly magic in a stained glass window and then never mentions this to anyone later when they're looking for the Sign. It's only the scriptwriter who knows that they're not meant to be checking that window for clues or anything.
Oh, and its producer (Marc Platt) isn't the Marc Platt who wrote Ghost Light, obviously.
It's neither brilliant nor horrible. It has faintly tiresome bits, such as Will being a brat having a tantrum with his magic powers and all the Hollywood family bollocks. The physics discussion is annoying too. The self-consciously modern bits are also capable of being eye-rolling (e.g. the mobile phones at the beginning), but I was amused by Will seeming to think that "powers" meant superheroes. Also, in fairness, Hodge is right in that the original book is a sprawling quest that's about ancient myth and atmosphere, not plot. I'd love to see it adapted properly one day, but we were never getting that from Fox. It simply wasn't an option. Complaining that this film isn't like the book is like buying an ice cream and complaining that it's not a six-course French meal.
It's as British as the Statue of Liberty, of course. Full of Americans and shot in Romania. I'd only give it a faint recommendation and that's entirely for Eccleston. However I wouldn't warn children away from it either. Maybe it'll make some of them read the books?