Laika and Henry Selick’s adaptation of Coraline might be my favourite film. I know I said The Secret of Kells was my favourite but now I’m not so sure. Ever since I saw both films for the first time on the same day they have jostled in my mind for that status and I’ve never truly settled on a decision. When I think hard about it Coraline tends to come out on top. As beautiful and hypnotic as The Secret of Kells is it doesn’t offer the same level of character or intensity and it’s not quite as personal as Coraline, a story I find myself identifying with very strongly. Even so I have little doubt that next time I watch The Secret of Kells it will set me thinking again.
But there is far more to Coraline than just the film. Neil Gaiman’s book was published in 2002 and became the first title ever to win both the Carnegie Medal and the Greenaway Medal and it’s not hard to see why. The book is every bit as twisted and eerie as the film and manages at times to be just as unsettling. It’s telling that many of the more memorable lines of dialogue from the film are lifted directly from the book and the core plot, aside from a few details and the addition of Wybie went largely unaltered in its transition to the screen. Approaching this book as someone who knows and loves the film comes with a tinge of regret that I’ll never know what it would have been like to experience them the other way around and I’ve always felt guilty comparing a source novel to the film it inspired but perhaps I should be thankful that the film turned me on to the book because it is something of a tour de force.
Coraline is a young girl with the instincts of an explorer. She and her parents have just moved to a new house, or rather to one of four flats an old house has been converted into. In her flat there is a room with a small door that opens on to a brick wall. Except one time it doesn’t. Instead Coraline opens it to find that it leads to another flat, one just like hers. Living in this other flat is her other mother and other father who seem to be wonderful in all the ways her real parents are not. Except for one thing. They have buttons where their eyes should be.
Coraline is a story about the most terrifying thing a child can face, having their parents taken away and replaced with something else, something similar to their parents but most definitely not their parents. It draws quite overtly on themes of the macabre, the uncanny and the ‘other’ and its power lies entirely in the fact that it is a story about a child written for children. That Coraline is alone is a massive factor and one the film played down by inventing Wybie. She has no siblings and no friends to share her story with and the only people in the story other than her parents are a crazy old man and a pair of batty old thespians who occupy two of the house’s other flats. The only other character with a voice is a black cat that in the other world can talk to Coraline but even with him to confide in there’s a powerful sense of Coraline facing her troubling situation alone and that makes it so much darker than it might have been.
But that is not to say the story is oppressive to read and it easily could have been if not for the deft writing. The other world is described in wondrous terms and Coraline’s discovery of its mysteries play out like a ghoulish update of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Everything is coated in a layer of mist, and nothing about its eeriness is ever explained. It is a ghost story and its fantasy needs no justification. Moreover Coraline, who comes across in the book as somewhat younger than the film, largely takes losing her parents and finding herself trapped in other world in her stride. Whatever fear or desperation the character feels is not overemphasised in the narrative and her resourcefulness and childish acceptance of the magical spookiness of the other world helps to temper the very real peril she faces.
Everything is described and explained in very simple literal terms and the narrative voice seems rooted in the innocent logic of childhood. It is not strange to Coraline that she found another world through a door in her flat but that doesn’t lessen the power of the threats she faces at all. Her ‘other mother’ is a subtly drawn creation that reveals her menace – and her true intentions – gradually and everything about the way she is described from her spidery appearance to the way she twistedly speaks in motherly language is unsettling. There’s also something very significant in the way it is the other mother rather than the other father or both together that forms the crux of antagonism in the story. The same goes for the way in which Coraline’s real mother seems slightly flawed.
The book lacks some of the advantages afforded to film that elevated the adaptation, namely the frightening images, spooky soundtrack and unsettling voice work. But where the film is able to use its resources to build to a powerful and overt crescendo the book remains subtler in its scares right to the conclusion. It hits all the right marks to achieve its ends; the dreamlike quality of the writing and the self-contained world of the story; the sense of sadness and regret left behind by the other mother’s various abominations; the way the end is not quite the end. It all awakens the kind of childhood feelings that makes nightmares all the more disturbing; the fear that they might come true.
Coraline is an extraordinary reading experience; one that draws on some of the most basic fears associated with childhood and exploits them to tremendous effect. Packed with subtlety and mystery, the story of a little girl’s struggle to escape from an alluring nightmare is one of the most potent children’s stories ever written.