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Author Uncertain About 'Dark' Leap to Big Screen

There is a small group of fantasy-novel series so deeply beloved that they have gained cult status. In the past six years, a number of them — The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter — also have made it to Hollywood.

The films' success means Hollywood is banking on more fantasy franchises.

Enter another, somewhat less famous series of books — that has a no less devoted following.

The five books are best known by the title of the second: The Dark Is Rising. And on Oct. 5, its Hollywood version comes out in theaters.

Written by Susan Cooper more than 30 years ago, it chronicles the journey of a young boy with special powers who must lead a fight against dark forces.

A recent visit with the author finds that fantasy doesn't always translate easily into film.

Light vs. Dark

Susan Cooper's house lies an hour south of Boston, overlooking a marsh with herons and egrets. The open landscape reminds her of her home in England.

Cooper says she always knew she would write: She inherited a Celtic love of the words and melody of song from her Welsh grandmother. But her early childhood, spent in England during World War II, was filled with sirens, bombs and air-raid shelters.

Her mother, Cooper says, told her stories while she was hiding in those shelters, an experience that later had an impact on her writing.

"I think it gave me this sense of the light and the dark ... which has never gone away," Cooper says. "[The Dark Is Rising] books are about the fact that everybody is a mixture of good and evil, and life is a war between the two sides of us. It's the substance of all story — all myth, anyway."

Antidote for Homesickness

In the novel, Will Stanton must search for six powerful signs to empower the light and fight the dark. In the course of four other books, set in the Thames Valley, Cornwall and Wales, Will and a small group of other children battle the dark.

Cooper says the books came right out of her own homesickness. At the age of 27 she uprooted herself, married an American scientist and came to the United States. But the British Isles never left her heart, or her writing.

She kept shelves full of books "about everything that would let me go back in my head to the places that were precious," Cooper says. "And out of that came a very strange day, once when I had an idea about an 11-year-old boy who wakes up one morning and finds out he can do magic. Then I started writing The Dark Is Rising."

The books were published in the 1960s and '70s, and one of them won the Newbery Medal in 1976. Cooper says there were a number of efforts over the years to turn the books into films, but they never went anywhere.

From Book to Big Screen

But now, with very little input from Cooper, a film of The Dark Is Rising arrives in theaters this week.

Early indications are that the film will be very different from the dreamy and timeless novel.

In the film, Will Stanton is 13, not 11, and he is American, not British. Screenwriter John Hodge first looked at The Dark Is Rising many years ago. At that time, it just didn't seem like the right project for the man who wrote the screenplay for Trainspotting, a gritty film about heroin addiction. Hodge didn't like fantasy anyway.

Not Harry Potter

And even when he approached the book 10 years later, Hodge found many problems. First of all, he thought, even though the book was written more than 30 years ago, the premise of an 11-year-old English boy who finds out he can do magic seemed too familiar.

"One of the things I didn't want it to be confused with was Harry Potter, because I just think the world doesn't need another English boy involved with fantasy adventures," he says.

Hodge felt that Will would be more understandable if he was experiencing things as an outsider, as an American living in Britain.

Screenplays 'Do Violence' to Books

As for Cooper's story, Hodge says that "a lot of it would have to go because it was written in this quite lyrical, poetic, kaleidoscopic fashion." He also says the novel, as written, proved difficult in other respects: The action doesn't take place in fixed locations and, he says, Will "doesn't really do very much."

Cooper has written many screenplays herself, and she hastens to say she hasn't seen the film yet. She has only seen the trailer and read the screenplay.

"You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay — the two mediums are so different," Cooper says. "But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different."

Will is 11 and not 13 for a reason, she says.

"It is just before puberty, when we are not quite overtaken by all the difficulties of figuring out our sexual identity, and we are still trying to find out who we are, inside our heads," Cooper says. "And in him, this is complicated horribly by the fact that he finds out he is not mortal."

And Cooper says that's what fantasy does best: Whether it's Beowolf or Harry Potter, it is a metaphor that helps you deal with things that are difficult in the world around you — and that helps you grow up.

Cooper is waiting for the movie, but with a certain sadness. She says she sent a letter requesting changes to the film's script, but she's not sure any alterations were made.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Margot Adler died on July 28, 2014 at her home in New York City. She was 68 and had been battling cancer. Listen to NPR Correspondent David Folkenflik's retrospective on her life and career