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Review: The House With a Clock in Its Walls (Book & Movie).

I have to admit, I had never heard of John Bellairs’ books before seeing the strange movie trailer play on the big screen prior to yet another Disney experience with the kids. The title was enough to convince me that it must’ve been based on a novel; a good one I suspected! Before the “please turn off your cell phones now” notice played I quickly googled the title. And there it was…a haunting cover with classic mystery text. I clicked a couple of links and just like that, it was on its way for me to read.

I had forgotten about it by the time the courier package arrived. I opened it and curiously flicked to the copyright page. It was first published by The Dial Press in 1973 and again in 1993 by Puffin Books. Retreating back a page I found the list of books in this the ‘Lewis Barnavelt Series.’ ‘The House With a Clock in Is Walls’ was only the first of 12! I knew I had missed out.

Lewis Barnavelt was orphaned at 10 years of age. A classic dramatic heartbreak to begin this story set in 1948. Lewis is portrayed as a quiet, awkward boy… a little chubbier in the book than on screen. He is sent on a bus to New Zebedee, a small American town, to live with his Uncle Jonathon.

Uncle Jonathon had my admiration from our first encounter with him. A warm, funny bear of a man mirrored perfectly from the book pages to the big screen in the form of Jack Black.

It is not kept under wraps long that Uncle Jonathon is a wizard, and so too is his best friend and neighbour Mrs Zimmermann. The relationship between these two best friends is the shining star of the story. Both characters are quirky and playful, not missing any chances to insult each other in a brutal yet hilarious manner. Mrs Zimmermann – played in the film by the incredibly talented Kate Blanchett, is a very powerful Witch who on several occasions finds herself managing Uncle Jonathans wacky behaviour.

Lewis quickly discovers the true abilities of his new companions as there is little attempt made to hide their wizarding powers from him. But, he does start to doubt his Uncles sanity when night after night he hears him rummaging around the house opening and closing doors, tapping on walls and creeping down the long passageways of their mansion-like old estate.

Relationships are the key to an engaging story and a new one emerges when Lewis starts school and meets a boy called Tarby. Tarby is the popular athlete who is side-lined after breaking his arm. Lewis gravitates towards him, desperate to make a friend. The book and the movie portray Tarby in a consistent way. He is the ‘cool kid’ who is looking for a short-term companion while he is left out of his usual sporting clique. He is kind in the beginning but you quickly see his using ways and you are left wondering what his story really is. Lewis doesn’t care about Tarby’s inconsistent attitude towards him though; he will do anything to prove his own coolness. Lewis’ attempt to prove himself as “cool” is when all the trouble begins!

The Barnavelt mansion is described magically in the novel; stained glass windows come alive, unused rooms holding mysterious items and clocks ticking from wall to wall…drowning out the one hidden “tick tock” that drives Uncle Jonathon mad at night. There is a clock in the walls, the heartbeat of the house. But, it is not a friendly magic…it is counting down to something devastating and Uncle Jonathon knows it!

The film (directed by Eli Roth) goes the extra mile to bring the house to life. In the front yard there is an animated Lion made out of hedging that roars to life. Inside there is an old armchair with a life of its own. I liked these additions a lot. They exaggerated the houses ability to come alive and guided your imagination through the changes that needed to be made to make this novel into a well scripted movie.

Lewis’ involvement in magic is moved up a gear in the movie. He is encouraged to learn magic himself and spends a lot of his time reading books in the grand library. Although Uncle Jonathon and Mrs Zimmermann become increasingly concerned about the clock in the walls, they choose to keep their fears from Lewis. But, this does not last for long after Lewis does something unknowingly disastrous that opens up an opportunity for evil to take over….

In Lewis’ attempt to become cool in Tarby’s eyes he uses a magic spell from one of the wizarding books to bring someone back to life in the New Zebedee cemetery. What he did not know was that it was the former owner of the mansion…the one that planted the clock in its walls! Now, this is where the movie and book take different paths. The book takes a simpler approach to the drama that unfolds. Mrs Izard is the resurrected evil and she breaks into the house to access the clock in the walls and ultimately ‘end time’ and obliterate humankind. Of course, the Author John Bellairs does not allow this to happen and Lewis saves the day with his newly acquired magic powers!

The movie script is written quite differently and I am not mad! The writers have followed the same general story line but have switched things up to create a more dramatic end game. Mrs Izard was not resurrected from the grave – her evil husband was, all while she waited patiently disguised as the neighbour across the street from the ticking mansion. From here we see the modern CGI we expect in motion films – the lion hedge roaring in defence of the house and jack lanterns attacking the feet of ground intruders and spewing their slimy orange insides everywhere!

After magic and spell fights fill up the climax of the film we arrive at the ending sequences. Now I have to be honest, there was one small part here that I could’ve done without. In the fighting chaos Uncle Jonathon is turned back into a baby – a nice play on ‘time’. But, the decision was made to make his body into baby form but not his head! Yes, funny but it did not sit well with the surroundings. I would’ve preferred the comedy to be a little less ridiculous…a moustache for example would have ensured the giggles. In my eyes, the only fault.

I was rooting for Lewis to be the saviour, the reserved innocent boy standing up to the bullies. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Here are my final thoughts: The strong elements of dark magic in this story were beautifully softened by Lewis’ childish curiosity and his soft soul. I am relieved that the movie held on to this and didn’t lose the tender relationships in the chaos that unfolded. The relationship between Uncle Jonathon and Mrs Zimmermann was undoubtedly the beating heart of both the book and the film. Lewis’ character blended beautifully into the unlikely family and brought something into the house that was totally relatable…heartbreak and loss, loneliness, and a longing to be loved and accepted. The book covered issues of bullying, self-acceptance and overcoming fears. I am happy to say that these were carried through into the film. Important lessons for our younger generations to learn.

Overall, a wonderfully written novel by John Bellairs and a successful adaptation into film!

© C. V. Aramakutu   New Zealand

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