The young-adult books of John Bellairs were, above all else, a way for the late author to indulge in his fondness for gothic mystery. Through nearly all of his 15 YA novels, the author installed regal cemeteries, ornate mansions, ancient tomes, and unnatural mist, all in service of eerie supernatural goings-on. These mystical scenarios were then to be investigated and solved by a plucky young boy, usually aided by a substitute parental figure or two. They were stories that implied far more than they revealed, leaving the business of conjuring up specific nightmares as much to the imagination of the reader as to his effective but often reserved prose.
Of course, he had some help in that department. Bellairs’ collaborator on The House With A Clock In Its Walls—his first novel for kids and the source material of Eli Roth’s new film adaptation—was illustrator Edward Gorey, who continued to illustrate his books until the author’s death in 1991. Like all of Gorey’s work, the illustrations are master classes in mood and suggestion, emphasizing a sinister tone while rarely coming right out and depicting the source of menace. Most people who fondly remember the books will cite those drawings as a key source of the appeal. It’s why they fit the novels so well—and also why the film adaptation chose a very different route. Though containing many of the same narrative beats and overall structure, the movie The House With A Clock In Its Walls ultimately dumps much of the gothic vibe of Bellairs’ tale in favor of a different sort of retro style: that of the Amblin movies of the ’80s, which did right by children’s entertainment through a refusal to sugarcoat their scares or talk down to the intended audience. The result is a film that deviates in numerous ways from the book, but most of the changes can not only be defended, but praised.
Both novel and film run through the same fundamental narrative, but get to their destinations in quite different manner. It’s 1948, and socially isolated 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) is sent away following the death of his parents to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the town of New Zebedee, Michigan. Arriving at the old and sprawling mansion Jonathan calls home, Lewis is initially befuddled by the sheer volume of clocks arranged throughout the house, though it’s not long before he discovers the truth: A deceased warlock, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), used to live there, and hid a magical clock somewhere within its walls—a clock eventually revealed to have the power to turn back time and bring about the end of the world.
Unfortunately, Izard and his wife, Selenna, weren’t about to let a little thing like death get in the way of their malevolent plans. Soon, it’s up to Lewis, his uncle Jonathan (a talented warlock in his own right), and their endearingly sassy next-door neighbor and powerful witch, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), to find the clock and stop the Izards before they can carry out their apocalyptic vision.
Anyone who comes to the movie looking for a faithful page-for-page translation of the book’s elegantly simple story and hushed mood may leave disappointed. There’s a quietly funereal unease that saturates the novel, one that emphasizes the unseen over the seen, the unknown over the known, and the minute over the grandiose. The overall tone is one of foreboding, not adventure, and even the dire consequences of Izard’s plan are more alluded to than explained, the better to leave curious young readers the work of filling in the blanks by conjuring fearful imagery and ideas of their choosing. As TV Editor Erik Adams put it upon revisiting Bellairs’ work for the first time in two decades, “much of the sense that anything can happen in The House With A Clock In Its Walls comes from the minimal explanation given to the magical powers possessed by Jonathan, kindly witch-next-door Florence Zimmermann, and the wicked sorceress Lewis accidentally raises from the dead, Selenna Izard. Magic is a fact of life in New Zebedee—not one Bellairs ever takes for granted (there’s always a sense of wonder about the tricks and spells Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman pull), but also not one he wastes any time weighing down in mythology.”
Happily, the movie maintains fidelity to the spirit of the book, if not its sense of restrained moodiness. Indeed, Roth’s decision to nail down a recognizably superior cinematic style, rather than a literary one, is what makes the adaptation soar where so many kid-lit translations sink. The director’s superb control of tone lands it squarely in an engaging middle ground halfway between the whimsical fantasy of early Robert Zemeckis and the madcap sense of wicked fun found in Joe Dante’s work. It pays homage to Bellairs not by trying to ape the gothic minimalism of the prose, but by re-situating it into a more expressive, colorful, and energetic world. The tale of a confused and isolated young boy out of his depth but finding comfort in a makeshift family not only survives the translation to another medium, but finds new life in its sense of wonder at the magical universe depicted.
The biggest change made to the story is the house itself. Bellairs’ book features numerous unexplained mysteries at 100 High Street, such as stained-glass windows that change images from day to day, secret passageways, and a hat rack in the front hall with a mirror that can show scenes from other times and places, but has an unfortunate tendency to pick up local radio transmissions. In the film, not only are far more supernatural elements added within its walls, such as a moving easy chair and organ that plays on its own, but entirely new sections of the house, walled off and unknown to Jonathan at the film’s start, are included.
For only the second time in his career, Roth is directing from another person’s script, and screenwriter Eric Kripke, the creator of Supernatural (who calls Bellairs’ book his childhood favorite), transforms the magically moving nature of the house into a literal character: He makes it alive. “The house likes you,” Jonathan tells Lewis at one point, as lights grow in illuminated agreement and the chair follows them from room to room like an eager puppy. It arguably renders the mysterious explicable, but not really; is the chair its own entity, or part of the house? The decision simply adds another layer of unknown mysticism to the proceedings, while also allowing for a more understandable transition when Izard returns from the dead, the house resuming the bidding of its evil master. It lends some cinematic personality to what could easily feel too abstract as a lifeless repository of warlock-heavy machinations.
And “machinations” should be taken at face value in this case. One of Kripke’s innovations is a room full of old puppets, mannequins, and movable dolls, some hand-crank marvels of early-20th-century inventiveness, others mere anthropoid shapes. They eventually come alive, for a scene in which Izard tasks them with grabbing our protagonists and throwing them out of the house.
But even more so than its contents, the house itself is ultimately revealed to contain the machine in the ghost. Upon the discovery of a secret passageway beneath the furnace that leads to the titular clock (changed from a “coal bin” in the book), Lewis and Jonathan head down to find Isaac and his wife, Selenna, turning the key that begins the clock’s final countdown to reverse time. At that moment, that floor falls away, revealing the true clock beneath the very ground on which 100 High Street stands. Massive churning gears that could grind Lewis to pulp certainly make for a more visually engaging image than the book’s ultimate showdown, in which a hidden passageway in the basement hides a simple clock—and one that Lewis destroys by simply picking it up and smashing it on the ground, defeating Selenna before she has a chance to even bring Isaac back into corporeal existence.
And that shift points to the other big change from page to screen: In the novel, it’s Selenna whom Lewis accidentally brings back to life, in his quest to impress skeptical school chum Tarby, the popular boy who befriends Lewis after breaking his arm but who begins to drift away from his odd new playmate once it heals. Desperate to keep his only friend, Lewis steals a book on resurrection (in the film, this plot point becomes much bigger, as Jonathan’s only rule in the house is not to open the chest containing the book), and they abscond to the cemetery at midnight, Lewis reading the spell and raising Selenna from the dead. Unbeknownst to Lewis or his magical mentors, she takes up residence in a house across the street, under the pseudonym of Mrs. O’Meagher. She’s the one Lewis later confronts, only to be saved via the witchy powers of Mrs. Zimmerman. And Selenna/Mrs. O’Meagher’s the one who orchestrates the discovery of the clock in order to bring about the end and raise the spirit of her husband from beyond the grave.
The simplest (and best) explanation for the change to Isaac as the resurrected nemesis would be something like: If you’ve got Kyle MacLachlan in your movie, you give him as much screen time as possible. The real answer probably has more to do with Kripke’s bowing to standard cinematic conventions of Hollywood screenplays. He creates predictable backstories linking everyone together and adding dramatic stakes for each character. In the retelling, Jonathan and Isaac were partners in a magic show, before the latter went off to fight in World War II and, sick with the horrors of what he’d seen, strikes a deal with the demon Azazel to end humanity by rewinding time itself. Selenna, by contrast, has been alive the whole time, using magic to pose as a harmless neighbor and invading Lewis’ dreams in the guise of his dead mother (played by Lorenza Izzo) to get him to free the book of dark magic from its secure resting place and bring her husband back.
Similarly, Mrs. Zimmerman is now grieving for her own lost family (the implication for any adults watching is that they were killed in the war) and unable to do magic, until Isaac’s return pushes her to realize she has a new family of sorts, and her powers spring back into action to protect them. It creates an arc for her character not found in the book, probably because the only person who gets any sort of narrative journey is Lewis, functioning as our narrator. (Jonathan also gets a semi-developed storyline about coming to terms with his fears about assuming the role of a parent.) And whereas book Lewis is a timid and weak-willed type, quick to burst into tears (he does so roughly a half-dozen times or more throughout the novel), film Lewis is more of an intentional odd duck, wearing aviator goggles and obsessed with lexicography. If the movie has a stronger overall message about embracing your individuality, it also has a more stereotypical act breakdown, turning the book’s passive and reactive moments into kinetic and eye-catching spectacles of CGI. (Credit, again, to Roth: These visuals aren’t the eyesores of latter-day Tim Burton. A violent attack by sentient jack-o’-lanterns is a goopy and delightful splatter-fest.)
Not everything in the movie’s more contemporary bids to connect with its youthful audience are winners. A few of Black’s exclamations are awfully anachronistic for 1948, and a running gag involving a sentient topiary griffin with a penchant for shitting out mulched leaves in a windy blast is lame toilet humor, albeit the G-rated type. But the film is mostly a great success, an adaptation that delivers winning sentiment and minor-key scares without losing sight of the fundamental appeal of Bellairs’ book. It may lack the sinister minimalism of a Gorey-illustrated YA tale, but it does it one better by changing registers to that rare beast, a kids’ movie that rarely feels patronizing or overly simplistic.
Start with: The book. It’s a breezy marvel you can finish in an afternoon, appealingly old-school in its intentions, and downright prim in its pulp. It also offers a nice backdrop to the movie, which has plenty of delights to offer those unfamiliar with Bellairs, but provides a kick of kooky insight to the more mainstream chills put on screen from the gothic source material. Roth and Kripke, based on their obvious love for it, probably feel the same.