Wybourn Lovat: not a superfluous character.

the movie > the book

Possibly the most successful screen adaptation since Fight Club

Quite a few years ago, I read the first chapter of Coraline, but became distracted by something else and I shelved it. After being so impressed by the film, I went back to the novel. Coraline is one example of why, “film adaptations are not as good as their books” is a cliché, not a rule. Henry Selick’s screenplay left a much bigger impression on me.1

I couldn’t help bringing my expectations from the movie into my reading of the novel though and it’s probably a fair bet that I would have appreciated the book more if I hadn’t already seen the movie. Most adaptations compress and cut from their source. Coraline does largely the opposite: the plot feels more fleshed out and spacious. There are numerous alterations and chronological reorganizations, but I’ll address a few of the major differences:

In the book, all it takes is a single visit to the Other world before Coraline’s parents disappear. In the movie, her acclimation to the Other world takes place over the course of several well-paced trips and unconscious transitions (falling asleep in the Other world and waking in the real). The slower pacing and involuntary transitions allow her gradual progression of feelings about the Other world to become more believably motivated. In particular, she comes off as truly responsible for her (and her parent’s) predicament, talking openly to her parents about the Other world and growing more frustrated with the real one. Coraline’s decision to abandon the real world culminates from her resentment, directly following the scene where she declines to go grocery shopping with her mother and visibly hurts her mother’s feelings with her biting comments.

With no picture of friends from back home and no neighbor of her age (Wybie), the Coraline of the novel has no dramatic real-world contrast to her solitary ennui. The character of Wybie (and the Other Wybie) serve many important functions in the story. To begin with, his appearance provides an exuse for the film’s expository, then he provides her the Coraline doll (a device absent from the novel). The backstory to the doll involving Wybie’s grandmother gives the house, the Other world and the ghost kids a fuller historical context, while simultaneously explaining how the Other mother becomes aware of Coraline.

Wybie serves as a foil for several facets of Coraline’s character that don’t emerge in the book. For example, when he has her take photos of the banana slugs, she can’t help but laugh and reveal a more sociable side of her personality (again reflected in her wistfulness for her Michigan pals). When the Other mother has “fixed” the Other Wybie’s mouth shut as a consequence of Coraline’s frustration with his (as well as her parents’) failure to listen to her, Coraline’s mixed reaction is one of the story’s most effective expressions of the balance between her selfish introversion and her sympathy for others.

Later, the Other Wybie rescues Coraline from the time-out mirror (an action that ensures his destruction) and aids her escape through the passage back to the real world (whereupon she discovers her parents have been taken). In the novel, Coraline’s Other mother allowed her to return home via the passage and Coraline found her parents missing—all well before her imprisonment in the mirror.

One consequence of this chronological reorganization is that the Coraline of the film is much more acutely homesick and frantic upon tumbling back into the real world, sans her parents. The walk around the Other world with the cat also has a more solid justification in the movie, when she’s simply trying to find herself a way out. After returning with the intention to retrieve her parents, the Coraline of the novel falls asleep twice: once in her Other bedroom at her Other mother’s suggestion, the second time in the mirror prison. These instances (combined with her trek around the world) dilute the story’s momentum and her character’s sense of determination.

In the novel, when her parents are missing, Coraline calls the police to explain that her parents have been stolen. The cop dismisses her as an imaginative kid with a nightmare, of course. But to Wybie, a peer, Coraline’s story comes off as a wholly unbenign expression of insanity. It’s much funnier than the cop conversation to see Coraline chase Wybie out of the house throwing her boots at him, in part because the comic relief underscores her desperation.

Rather than merely finding the first of the ghost kid’s soul in a toy box, as in the book, the film adapts the cellar scene with the Other father to the fantastic garden, allowing the Other father’s good nature to prevail over his subservience to the Other mother’s will, an action that also results in his destruction (as it did for Wybie).

In the book, when the magic passage’s door is climatically closed on the Other mother, “Something dropped from Coraline’s head height to the floor.” In the film, there can’t be any ambiguity that it’s the Other mother’s hand2 and it’s for the best that we don’t need Coraline to gradually become aware of its presence and hatch a protracted anticlimactic scheme that results in the tea-party booby trap.

Finally, the film would lose much of its suspense if Coraline (and we) had already deduced where her parents were trapped earlier on, as is the case for the book. On repeat viewings of Coraline however, hints and foreshadowing of this location become apparent.

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