The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
Reviewed by Hannah Strom-Martin
23 October 2007
To read Susan Cooper’s epic fantasy series The Dark is Rising Sequence is to enter a world out of time. Influenced by the folklore of her native Britain, Cooper envisioned a mythos in which modern-day reality exists in tandem with an ancient struggle between the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness. On his eleventh birthday (and long before the literary conception of a certain Boy Who Lived), young Will Stanton discovers his cozy family existence is at the center of this struggle. He is no mere boy, but an "Old One," a servant of the Light whose birth completes a fateful circle of mystical protectors. Overnight, the simple Christmas holiday he has been anticipating is no longer a countdown to celebration, but to a decisive battle between the forces of good and evil, for in the Yuletide, the darkest part of the year, the Dark comes rising...
On the surface, Cooper’s tale could be mistaken for just another magical coming of age story, but her deep love of Celtic mythology infects each page, rendering details that would be, in the hands of a lesser author, mere set dressing, into potent symbols. In the book, Will is not the seventh son of a seventh son because it sounds prophetic, but because he has to be in order for his story to work. Will’s seventh-son status gives him his mystical power because that’s how it works in the mythological world. The animals which threaten or aide him in his fight against the Dark are straight from the Malbingonen: a white horse assists the good characters, a black horse and some threatening rooks the bad. Cooper paints in stark black and white for a reason: because she is invoking the powerful symbols of ancient myth. The weapons with which her cast of wizards and mystics fight are likewise primal, their magic stemming from their ability to command natural sources: stone, metal, wood, the four elements, and animals. Time after time we read stories in which wizards conjure fire or employ help from a passing bird. Seldom do we ask ourselves why. Cooper understood, however, that the oldest magics are the most potent.
Director David Cunnigham’s movie version of the second book in Cooper's sequence (the first novel concerns a completely different set of characters who meet up with Will in book three of the five part series), The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, begins with a montage of high-school kids using cell phones to text message each-other Christmas greetings as they file out of school and onto a bus. Our hero, Will, has been "updated" to be a 14-year-old American student who has moved to England with his family for reasons that are never explained. The sparsely populated Huntercombe Village of the novel, with its isolated farmstead and quirky villagers, has been replaced with a posh modern hamlet (we see the name of Huntercombe briefly advertised on the side of another bus) and the lurking feeling of expectation and dread Cooper invokes in the novel’s opening pages is replaced by a series of family-oriented "holiday" scenes that could have cribbed from Home Alone. The family itself has been given a severe attitude adjustment. Instead of the cheery, genuinely loving family of the page— their love Will’s primary motive for shouldering his heavy, heroic burden— this new incarnation is a sad collection of overused clichés: the distant father, morose college-age brother, and irritatingly cocky twins (hello, pale shades of Weasley!). They are all the more infuriating because they are given far bigger roles in this version of the story than their much-more-pleasant literary counterparts ever had in the book.
Fifteen minutes into the film, it is apparent that Cunningham, the shameless raconteur behind The Path to 9/11, has no interest in staying true to Cooper’s work, if, in fact he has even read it. This is especially apparent in his treatment of Cooper’s characters. Merriman Lyon (Ian McShane), Will’s wizard mentor, is no longer a vital sage, but a stuffy and repressed butler capable of uttering archaic wisdom but stymied when it comes to understanding puberty. Cooper’s fearsome archetype of evil, The Rider (Christopher Eccelston) is a stereotypical villain whose scariest aspect is the black "Michael Jackson" surgical mask he wears in his bad-guy drag— and do not look for the mystical Lady of Light or the doomed "Walker" here. The later is listed in the credits, but I have no idea which pale, under-developed stand-in was supposed to bear his name; while the remaining mystical characters have been dumbed down to doddering, ineffectual stock characters who mumble clichés like: "The Power is within you, Will!" It’s akin to Peter Jackson’s (mercifully abandoned) idea of turning Arwen Evenstar into a sword-wielding warrior-babe. Or as if Victor Fleming decided the Scarecrow wasn’t an important part of The Wizard of Oz.
When an adaptation is as shoddy and disrespectful as The Seeker, a review can quickly become a list of comparisons between beloved source material and flawed film. As Cunningham can’t even get the color of The Rider’s horse right (for some reason, this ultimate Servant of the Dark rides a white horse where Cooper specified a decidedly metaphoric black) fans must quickly jettison all hopes of seeing an honorable adaptation and try and decide if the film succeeds on its own terms. Apparently, Cunningham desires a quick, dirty fantasy flick to cash in on the craze begun by Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter franchise, but his alliance with screenwriter John Hodge mistakes cliché for beloved fantasy tropes. Cooper’s elemental magic fights are replaced with snakes and mall security guards who, in a scene straight from The Matrix interrogate the hero in a detention cell before turning into monsters. An attempt to introduce a romantic sub-plot is pure Hollywood invention, as is the cheesy revelation of Will’s lost twin— a development which never occurred in the novel and adds nothing to the increasingly convoluted plotline of the movie. Will jumps through time, searching for six signs that, once collected, will vanquish the Dark— and offers his digital watch to the awe-struck barbarians he meets on his way. Meanwhile, Hodge’s stilted dialogue rattles off every inspirational cliché in the book and leaves the actors with little to work with.
The great Ian McShane, so powerful as Deadwood’s iconic Al Swearengen, turns in a bizarre and disconnected performance as Merriman Lyon, not even deigning to mouth the words of a carol in a scene featuring a group sing-along. McShane has been quoted as saying he only did the film for the money and who can blame him when the screenplay makes him recite the line: "You are the seventh son of a seventh son," no less than three times in under an hour? Christopher Eccelston gives The Rider a better go, but has little more to do than wheel his horse (the white one) around in the snow and glare threateningly. In 28 Days Later, Eccelston delivered a performance of chilling fanaticism as a rogue general at the end of his rope— but then, he had some juicy philosophical dialogue to utter. Like Ewan McGregor in Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, Eccelston of The Seeker reminds us that even great actors can look talentless when beset with bad direction and writing. One worries for Hodge. There’s no trace of the innovative and witty mind behind his brilliant Trainspotting here.
One actor manages to escape unscathed. As Will, Alexander Ludwig shows range and enthusiasm. Even when the screenplay reduces his demonstrations of magic to hormonal outbursts, one has to respect that he gives himself over to the moment with all his might. Hopefully, his energy and natural screen presence will net him some worthier gigs down the road.
By the time the credits roll for The Seeker, one can only grieve at a wasted opportunity. Had Cunningham trusted Cooper’s award-winning material, he needn’t have feared (as rumored) coming off as a Harry Potter retread. Ironically, the complexity and heaviness he avoids in his film are the very things which might have granted his monetary ambitions at the box-office. After all, no one seems to have minded the grimness of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. But Cunningham is no Jackson. His ham-fisted adaptation is the reason frazzled librarians beg people to avoid the film and read the book instead. When it comes to The Seeker, Cunningham is completely in the dark.