July 9, 2015

Who’s going to see the Goosebumps movie with me?


Yesterday, the New York Stock Exchange, The Wall Street Journal, and United Airlines all went on the fritz at roughly the same time. But there was an even more important breaking news story. I’m talking, obviously, about the trailer for the upcoming Goosebumps movie, which is coming out this Halloween.

This is big news for me, because I didn’t know they were making a Goosebumps movie! And I memorize upcoming movie release date schedules with an ardor that long ago approached insane and is now firmly insane. But my own blind spots aside, this movie looks pretty good—but also pretty weird.

The concept seems to be that R.L. Stine is a real person (like in real life) but in the movie (which is fake life) he is played by Jack Black (an actor) doing an affected accent and wearing glasses (hip ones).

Screen Shot 2015-07-08 at 12.50.14 PM

He lives in a house that he never allows his daughter to leave, maybe because she is a vampire or he’s just a horrible father?

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A boy, played by one of the many dead actors from Scandal, and his mother move to town and the boy decides, along with his weird sidekick, to break into R.L. Stine’s house, because this is what teens do. They liberate Stine’s daughter but then they are confronted with all of Stine’s original Goosebumps manuscripts—which all have locks on them, because those aren’t regular books. They actually contain REAL MONSTERS!

this is what magic words look like when they are magicking

this is what magic words look like when they are magicking, it is gross

Sure enough, those monsters break free Jumanji-style, and then everything starts to go crazy. BuzzFeed featured a handy breakdown of the trailer’s most GIF-able moments. Clearly, great attention was paid by the screenwriters and director to doing heavy fan service, as the monsters featured on the books’ instantly recognizable covers have come to full, color-graded CGI life. Though I don’t see my favorite monster (the giant shark from Deep Trouble), because this movie is set on land, and audiences don’t want to see a shark, even a giant scary one, just floppin’ around on the sidewalk and gasping and then slowly dying, moments after being brought into being by a teen burglar. That would be grim.

The question with “adaptations” (used in quotes for reasons that will become clear) like this is always: who is the target audience? Arguably the self-aware tone of the trailer is targeted at people who read the books when they were children and have now grown up steeped in an environment of relentless irony (i.e. yours truly.), which means that any self-aware adaptation is bound to catch their attention. But because this is a big CGI spectacle, that means that it needs to be the kind of movie that attracts younger viewers, whose reading options are much more diverse and diluted than those of the children of the early 1990s, and therefore are much less likely to have capital-F Feelings about Goosebumps, and who can enjoy this as standalone entertainment (and then go give Scholastic their money).

In conclusion, the demographic is: children and everyone else between 18-45 who wants to trip on nostalgia, park the kids in a darkened theatre, and/or get high and see a movie on Halloween respectively. But what’s curious to me is the filmmakers’ decision to turn Stine himself into a main character, versus writing some made-up Jack Black-worthy character.

Giving Stine supernatural powers then firmly puts this movie into one of my favorite risky categories: the Superpowered Writer. Depictions of the Superpowered Writer, who isn’t just a schlub in a chair with a keyboard but is ACTUALLY A MAGICIAN WHOSE WORDS BECOME REAL can range from the poignant (Stranger Than Fiction) to the perfectly self-aware (Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Galaxy Quest) to the queasy (Lady In The Water, where M. Night Shyamalan casts himself as a writer who ends up saving the world).

When the Superpowered Writer is written as an actual nonfictional writer like Stine or, in Craven’s case, plays himself, it always runs the risk of navel gazing. Can an adaptation of Goosebumps, which is of such totemic significance to a certain sector of early reader, be separated from its author? Should it? Pulling off a successful self-aware adaptation (see: 21 and 22 Jump Street) doesn’t necessarily require that you set it in the “real world”, in which the source material exists within its own universe as a Pop Culture Thing. Ernest Cline’s latest book recently caught flak for doing just this. But if you’re looking to make fans feel special, you need to scratch the fourth wall, if not necessarily break it.

Embracing wink-wink self awareness and irreverence as a marketing tool is only as effective as the intention. If the decision to incorporate it into Goosebumps is a play at recapturing a particular type of childhood-reading wonder, then it’s meant to push the emotional buttons of people who read the books as kids and wished they were real, as well as resonate with the ache felt by so many readers of horror and fantasy and sci-fi, young and old, who wish to escape humdrum reality. It’s of a piece with the impulse that led Sons of Anarchy to bring in Stephen King play a creepy body-disposal expert named Bachman and why Chuck Palahniuk will appear as a character in Fight Club 2: it plays off the audience’s outsized idea of the “author” to add some extra narrative momentum to the story.

That balance is key to adaptations and long-gestating sequels; if you do it right, you end up with Toy Story 3; if you do it wrong, you end up with Dumb and Dumber To. There’s no point speculating now if the writers of Goosebumps, who have written good movies and boat-payment movies in equal measure, have pulled it off. But the seven-year-old version of me who got thrilled when he saw a copy of The Haunted Mask 2 at his local book fair sure hopes so.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.