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Spoiler alert: “The Spiderwick Chronicles”

February 13, 2008 | 10:00 pm

Warning: This posting discusses the ending of both the "Spiderwick" book series and the movie. If you’re planning on seeing the movie, read this post and don’t bother. If you’re planning on reading the series with your kids, read this post anyways and don’t worry—there are many more surprises to this series thanSpider  the one discussed here.

(For an excellent review of the movie, see the piece by Times staff writer Carina Chocano.)

“Based upon” is a nebulous term. So nebulous that I can imagine Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, creators of “The Spiderwick Chronicles” series for young readers, must be troubled — at least a little — by what moviemakers have done to their 5-book series.

I’m talking mainly about the ending, which isn’t allowed to unfold as it does in the books. Somebody must have decided that Black and DiTerlizzi’s original climax wasn’t good enough for celluloid. So a dark, violent twist has been added that, while it may impress the adults and high schoolers in the audience, is a cruel swipe at the 9-12 age group for whom the series was meant.

“Spiderwick” gives young readers a wonderful introduction into a corner of lore and mythology. The books follow the wanderings of Mallory Grace and her twin brothers Jared and Simon around their great-great uncle’s abandoned estate. Children need to dream, they need to be nudged to turn off the video games and hunt for treasures outside in the tall grass. The series does this. It possesses imaginatively rich material: There’s a magical book about the fairy world, a mystery surrounding the uncle’s strange disappearance long ago, and stones with holes that — when worn like eyeglasses — allow you to see creatures in the woods, including an ogre who wants the magical book so that he can rule over all the creatures. All of this is conveyed in a narrative that moves nimbly, is at times funny and is handsomely complemented by DiTerlizzi’s lovely black and white etchings.

Now, to the ending.

In both cases — books and movie — the villainous ogre, named Mulgarath, is confronted by the children. And in both cases, the wily shapechanger tries to fool the children by taking the form of their father. It doesn’t work. In the books, Jared suspects that "Dad" is a phony and tells him so, causing the ogre to give up his ruse and resume his monstrous shape, tree-limbs and all. A showdown ensues in the ogre's shabby palace.

In the movie? Quite a different climax.

Here, we get a heavy undercurrent of family unhappiness, of marital collapse; the mother is a wreck and the father’s absence is painfully felt. When the father (played by Andrew McCarthy) finally does appear at the movie’s end, he gets asked a question by Jared as he walks through the mansion’s front door. Jared’s question is extremely general: He wants to know what message his father promised to give him when he arrived at the estate for a visit. Of course, it’s a test to confirm his father’s identity.

With a puzzled look on his face, Mr. Pretty in Pink says plainly: “I love you.”

There is no menace, no sarcasm nor any irony, nothing to cue us that lurking behind his aging boyish face might be a yellow-eyed creature of nightmares. He sounds like any beleaguered parent facing a child unhappy that his parents have split up.

What is Jared’s response?

“Wrong answer!” he declares, and then — the horror of it — he stabs his father in the chest with a kitchen knife. The father gasps in disbelief, and then, he hunches over and begins a transformation that makes his skin bubble and stretch as the true villain is revealed.

What’s going on here?

Why turn Jared's defiant challenge into a stabbing? Kids are savvy, I agree, but why force such an ugly scene on them?

Irony rules the day in Hollywood. I’m sure that Jared’s stabbing of “his father” was explained in some concept meeting as being a powerful expression of how much pain he feels because of his father’s desertion.

On the screen, though, it only makes Jared seem vicious, especially because it comes in response to being told he is loved. Jared’s brilliant ability to detect elfin fakery is never established, and Mulgarath’s shapechanging early in the movie is so minimal that it’s easy to forget. This change to the story loses sight of the bright tones and adventurous spirit in the series. The filmmakers evidently forgot something important: This is a story for children, not adults. Save the parricides for your R movies. Oedipus doesn’t play well with kids, ok?

Fairy lore, like much of the world’s mythology, is full of violence. There’s nothing quite so chilling, for instance, as the being known as a changeling. Maybe the filmmakers thought they were tapping into such creepiness with Mulgarath’s cunning transformation and Jared’s bloody response. The filmmakers have their reasons, and I have mine for complaining. It all boils down to what my son said to me when the lights in the theater went on.

“Dad,” he said, “I wish we had never seen this dumb movie.”

I agree. The movie's not worth it.

But by all means, do read the books.

Nick Owchar

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