Monday, 20 March 2017

A Rant about the 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' Film

When I first read Ransom Riggs's Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, I was completely blown away. I hadn't felt that in love with a book for a long, long time. It had both mystery and action, the magic helped to fuel the fantasy whilst the photographs added to it's wider narrative as a historical puzzle. It is a world in which the matriarchy is celebrated through the ymbrynes. They are mothers in their role as guardians for the children, keeping them in the womb-like spaces of the time loops. Yet they express a degree of agency over their spaces, and the women are both the protectors and the hunters; leading as well as nurturing.

So when I finally decided to watch Tim Burton's 2016 film adaptation of the book, I was genuinely disgusted to find that what I was watching was a rewrite of the original story that strips most of the female characters of their power and strength, and puts men in the role of protector and savior. Because apparently that's what we need more of. Throw some casual racism in there too and what you're left with is an enormously problematic film which reflects the complete state of the mainstream film industry in all it's horrendous elitism. I did a video reaction to the trailer once it was released which you can watch here, but the following is my full diagnosis after watching the movie in it's entirety.

One major difference from Riggs's novel is the decision to swap the powers of Emma and Olive. In the books Emma is able to radiate heat from her hands, whilst Olive (who is considerably younger) is lighter than air, and needs to be weighted by lead shoes at all times lest she float like a balloon into the sky. What Emma's peculiarity gave her was the ability to be both feminized through her relationship with Jake, but also masculine in her combat abilities in the use of her body parts as deadly weapons. Emma here does not compromise on either but the two exist in harmony. She is able to exist as a powerful and dangerous women capable of romantic expression at the same time. The dynamics of her romance with Jake aren't based on him "saving" her, but rather on the two fighting side-by-side on equal terms. In the film, Emma is now the one who floats meaning that Jake quite literally pulls her along on a string whilst she is helpless to follow. Their relationship is further thrown off balance through Jake's new reliance on weaponry to kill the hollows rather than knowing Emma is powerful enough to kill them on her own, forcing him to constantly have to "save" her through points in the film because her new power is quite honestly bloody useless.

To expand on this, her peculiarity doesn't even quite make sense to me in this adaptation. Olive's original peculiarity was simply that she floated like a balloon, however at one point in the film Emma claims that her peculiarity is to "control air". I don't know if this was a decision made by the filmmakers to try and make Emma more 'exciting', but if she could control air then why does she float rather than fly? Doesn't really make sense, does it? Because then she wouldn't need to wear those huge steel shoes that keep her on the ground. Instead, the points in the film where she really 'controls' air occur when she is either trying to save both Jake and herself, or when she's involved in a romantic scene with Jake. It figures, doesn't it?

I'd like to draw your attention to the image above in which Jake pulls his new girlfriend along on a rope and point out that she is in fact wearing a dress. This begs me to ask that if you're aware at any point you were liable to begin floating into the sky, why would you wear a dress? Whilst I am aware of a woman's freedom to wear a dress whenever she chooses, the issue here is of practicality. The answer for why is simple - the filmmakers must exaggerate Emma's femininity in order for it to be seized and consumed by the men that surround her (because that's totally the reason all us girls wear dresses). Not only is she romantically involved with Jake, but also with his grandfather, and with Enoch. It seems that every girl over a certain age needs to be paired off with a male in order for them to have a happy ending, and apparently Emma needs three!

Enoch (spoilers) ends up with Olive at the end of the film whose age has been raised specifically for the purpose of their romantic involvement. Whilst I liked some of what they did with Enoch's character, I really disliked the awkwardness of the romance between he, Emma and Olive. Firstly, Enoch in the books was very anti-social and very morbid, and this was the defining feature of his character. The film version upped his age which I didn't really mind, because it gave him the kind of moody teenager edge which I think suited his personality and peculiarity. But the film centered his 'moodiness' on the fact that Emma preferred Jake over him, setting him up as a semi-villain to Jake because they are both in competition for the same girl. And nowhere does Emma seem to have a say on the matter, by the way, just kind of doesn't even notice that there are two guys attempting to emasculate each other to they can win her affections. Of course, one assumes that Emma would be happy which ever guy came out on top, because god forbid she voice her opinion on whether she even wants to date in the first place.

Enoch only ceases to be bitter once he realises that all along he didn't actually love Emma, but he loved Olive who had silently followed him around for the entire film without once standing up to him or having the power to match him emotionally. The film can't end on a happy note until the guy is tamed by the innocent, over-feminized character that has been overlooked for the entire story, and decides to pick her as his second best seems he can't have Emma anymore. And Olive is just completely fine with that, doesn't say a word against it. She is so painfully passive through the entirety of the film that I couldn't even start to convince myself it was for a good reason.

You might be thinking that at least Olive has some redeeming qualities in the fact that she now has some super cool heat hands which she can blast fire balls from, right? Wrong! The one time that Olive gets to use her power to harm someone, I kid you not, she walks up behind them and says "sorry to interrupt" before placing her hand gently on them and proceeding to burn them. Apparently, women in this universe aren't allowed to do anything against a male without first apologising for their actions, even though the male has literally killed and eaten thousands of children. Olive then subsequently becomes symbolically dominated by the wight as her heat cannot penetrate their ice-cold aura. So in her end, her peculiarity has been completely useless against them all along, so what was literally the point of even giving her one in the first place. When she lies almost frozen to death, the thing that wakes her is Enoch's small kiss on her cheek, because apparently the heat from her blush is enough to melt the ice but the red hot flame coming from her hands isn't.

I also need to take a paragraph to address the racism in this film, which Burton has been called out upon before and who has openly admitted that he doesn't like having black characters in his films, because they don't 'fit'. If that doesn't make you ill already, then you'll love to hear that the only black character in the film is the villain who is, in the end, killed by his own kind. There's always that argument that people have that because it's set in the 1940s there "logically wouldn't have been any black people around in that time period". No, shut up. Stop erasing people of colour from history. The remaining characters are all so overwhelmingly white through the use of pale cinematography that I wondered if they were ill.

There were a few redeeming qualities. I loved the casting of Fiona and Hugh, and Fiona at one point genuinely strangled a grown male just using plants which was the highlight of the film, to be honest. The first half an hour was also good, which is the part of the plot where the mystery of the photographs and the missing children is set into place. Although this was done better in the novel, the film made some attempt at preserving this sense of mystery and it gave me a small feeling of nostalgia for the book.

I'd say that if you loved this novel, you might have similar problems with the film that I had. Then again, everybody seems to love this book for different reasons and so the film might be your cup of tea. I'd go into it with an open mind though, and encourage you to problematise the gender and racial dynamics present through-out the film. It's not okay to let this kind of stuff slide for the purposes of entertainment, and the more we call it out the closer we get to the reputation that people of colour and females deserve in the film industry.

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