Imagine the ethereal Cate Blanchett as an enormous, wizened crone with a penchant for cheap cigars. Difficult, yes, but undoubtedly cinematic gold, and something the talented actress would have embraced – and, without doubt, pulled off. However, it wasn’t to be, since director Eli Roth and the creative team behind the screen adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 childrens’ novel, The House with a Clock in its Walls, wanted a different aesthetic to the one described in the book.
Instead, they preferred to recreate the illustrations of Edward Gorey, whose pictures adorned the pages of Bellairs’ story set in a magical world of witches and warlocks. That meant bypassing any of Bellairs’ contradictory physical descriptions of characters in favour of Gorey’s interpretation. Which in turn meant that instead of fulfilling Blanchett’s wish to play completely against physical type, Roth and co. opted for a look arguably more befitting of one of Hollywood’s most beautiful people.
“[Mrs Zimmerman] is long and thin and purple in [Gorey’s] illustrations but in the actual book she’s kind of a 90-year-old, big, cheroot-smoking witch,” explains Blanchett. “And I thought, ‘Oh, god — that’d be great to play!’ And they said, ‘No, no — we’re going to go more towards the Edward Gorey illustrations’. So that’s a physical difference [depicted in the film].”
Nailing the Tone
It perhaps isn’t surprising that Roth chose to borrow from Gorey’s vision. He admits to being a big fan of the artist, suggesting that Gorey’s unsettling illustrations helped set the tone of the book –which reminds him of some of the films he loves.
“Tonally, [our film] is very similar to the book. It had illustrations by Edward Gorey, who I love — I have Gorey illustrations all over my house,” says Roth. “It’s a funny book and it’s a weird book and it’s scary, but it’s a kids’ book in the way that Time Bandits is a kids’ movie. And I really, really love Monty Python and Terry Gilliam and old Tim Burton – Beetlejuice… Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Gremlins, those Amblin movies. And the book, the tone of the book, really fits in with that world.”
The Film’s Biggest Change
Roth’s most major change to the book was to the main villain.
“In the book, Selenna [Renée Elise Goldsberry] is the bad guy,” he explains. “She is the wife of Isaac Izard [Kyle MacLachlan] and we love Isaac Izard as a character, so we really make Isaac the main bad guy. Selena, of course, is a part of it but one of the main things [we changed] is really it’s a confrontation between [young main protagonist] Lewis and Isaac at the end of the book. That’s probably the biggest change for me.”
He also says they brought a lot themselves creatively to the adaptation to make it work for the screen and add visual flair.
“We had to enhance a lot,” says Roth. “I mean, the book is great, but they don’t really go into a lot of detail so we got to take certain ideas from the book like the [enchanted] chair and really run with it, and the topiary griffin.”
Labour of Love
Young Owen Vaccaro, meanwhile, who plays Lewis Barnavelt around whom the story revolves, was impressed at how they nailed one particular thing: “The house is just like it was in the book.”
Star Jack Black, who plays Lewis’s warlock uncle Jonathan Barnavelt in the film, revealed that, otherwise, the film was pretty close to the book – partly because it was a labour of love for one member of the team.
“I think that, for the most part, it stayed true to the source material,” he says. “The screenwriter that adapted it, Eric Kripke, he loved the book so much as a kid so it was his dream to bring this to the silver screen and he did an amazing job.”
The House with a Clock in its Walls hits screens in the US and UK on September 20 and Australia on September 21.