As a child, I was deeply, deeply disturbed by “Coraline.” It got under my skin in an existential way that no piece of media that I had been exposed to up to that point had achieved. I read the book and watched the film a multitude of times over the course of my childhood, transfixed by the terrifying tone that both the original and the adaptation were able to achieve. In my mind, memories of the novella and memories of the film mesh together. The adaptation captures the spirit of the original so closely that it’s hard for my mind to pull apart childhood memories of the two pieces of media.
When I am considering an adaptation, my gauge of how good the adaptation is does not coincide with the gauge of how closely the adaptation follows the original. In fact, much is changed in the leap from page to screen in the case of “Coraline,” changes that have proven to be controversial for diehard fans of the original. Coraline as a character is quite different in the film. She’s more spunky and snide in the film, whereas in the book she’s more mature. The character of Wybie doesn’t exist at all in the book, with Coraline having to rely more on herself. Coraline’s encounter with her Other Father is also altered for the screen, allowing for the ambitious garden scene. The book opens with the line “Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house” right off the bat, whereas the film opens with a decidedly creepy doll-making scene that would assuredly become burned into the minds of many unfortunate children.
There are positives and negatives to be argued about the changes made: The film builds suspense by stretching out the beginning rather than dumping a lot of information right from the start (it should be said that a novella is much more capable of doing this than a film); Coraline’s character in the film can be seen as having more development as, over the course of the movie, she gains the wit and cleverness that the book version of her character seems to have from the start; the character in the book can be seen as more independent as she doesn’t have a secondary character like Wybie to rely on; some moments can be perceived as scarier in the book or scarier in the movie; etc. But that’s not really what I care about here. What matters is that the vital elements that make the novella what it is are not only present in the film, but arguably enhanced. And that is the ultimate role that an adaptation should play: it should capture the spirit of what it’s adapting, but it should also evolve into its own piece of art. “Coraline” exemplifies this notion absolutely perfectly.
It’s easy to see the technical merit in the film. Being a stop-motion animated film (the first feature from acclaimed studio Laika), the thought and care that goes into every single detail in each frame is very much tangible. If “Coraline” is meant to convey a sense of childhood adventure that decays into childhood fears, the animation of the film makes it feel like a handmade fantasy playground that decays to reveal the demented horror beneath it. In the same way that every stroke of a hand-drawn fairy tale illustration carries a tactile energy, each element of the stop-motion frames of “Coraline” feel as if they were placed by hand (well, they were), adding a dimension of tangibility that had been missing from the glossy, floaty CG animation of the time. Arguably stop-motion even today holds that power over other animation media, as the real world has to be considered to a greater degree.
A major facet of the film’s tone (and that of the book, which at the end of the day is a children’s novella) is its ability to feel relatively lighthearted in a childlike manner while containing sinister undertones and dipping into darkness when necessary. Side characters like Bobinsky, Spink, Forcible, and the cat can feel largely comedic at the surface — the former three being absurd in such a way that feels both humorous and unnerving — but their existence doesn’t obstruct the film’s ability to scare. This distortion of a child’s view of reality is assuredly present in the novel, but arguably enhanced in the film, which aids in the increased complexity of Coraline’s arc in the film.
The film’s score also adds to this balance. The music throughout the film feels magical and playful, but there is something genuinely eerie about it. The voices of children fill the soundtrack, giving off the impression of children playing with toys, singing to themselves. But the gibberish that these children are singing makes it feel more off-putting and otherworldly. The songs feel disconnected from reality yet fill out the soundscape of the film so perfectly, which makes the film itself feel mythical.
The major thing that both the book and the film achieve is the rare feat of injecting complexity and terror into children’s media. It’s easy to imagine the book circulating around an elementary school, with some students acting tough and pretending that those scared by it are just being babies, and other students hyping up how scary the book is to the point of it not feeling like something real, but rather something out of reach that only leaves behind the afterimage of its horror. The film captures this universality by ostensibly presenting itself as something for children and families to enjoy, and today it’s not uncommon to come across someone of this generation who claims that the film “traumatized” them.
As I mentioned at the start, “Coraline” affected me as a child in a particular way. To some degree I can say that the film is more successful at conveying this specific kind of horror, as it presents children with the challenge of appreciating what they have in life and understanding the nuances of the world that exists outside their own head. The heightened development that the character of Coraline progresses through in the film allows the film to take on a fable-like quality, as Coraline goes from being bratty and ungrateful (which leads to the conflict of the film) to more understanding. As a child, I wondered if I were grateful enough for the life I’ve been given to not fall prey to a trap like that portrayed in the film. The easiest way to try to console a child terrified of the events of “Coraline” is to tell them that only children who don’t value what they have will experience those events. However, children are immature. They aren’t perfect. Every child experiences the desire for more, for a perfect life. To some children, this is a first brush with such a complex idea, as it causes them to wonder how susceptible they are.
Every element of the film comes together to create a world alluring to children, but inarguably off from reality. The ability for the film to capture the nuances of this unsettling tone is ultimately what allows it to be a successful adaptation. The necessity of the decisions made for the plot of the film can be argued about all day, but it’s important to see the success of an adaptation for what it is — capturing the intent and spirit of the original work, or successfully mutating these elements toward an original goal. A great adaptation is unafraid to stray away from the original material, but understands why the original work is what’s being adapted in the first place. With enough reason behind its existence, an adaptation can take many forms and still be successful. The beauty of adaptation is that it’s allowed to be its own piece of art, something that is not always understood by the creators and consumers of such media.