Once upon a time, in a Kingdom far, far away, across a mighty ocean, there lived a woman whom everyone called Jo.
One day, Jo was taking the train from Manchester to London when an idea—a big, glorious, billion-dollar, global franchise idea—popped into her head. It was the story of a orphaned boy wizard. Jo wrote the idea down, and when she got home, she kept writing. She wrote for the next five years, stopping only to move to Portugal, get married, and have a child. She named the girl Jessica, and the boy wizard Harry Potter.
To Jo’s surprise, children all over the world liked Harry Potter. So she wrote more books. Children even found their parents reading Harry Potter, too. Jo sold so many books, she became richer than the Queen of the Kingdom.
Far to the west, the nobles of another state heard about Harry Potter and Jo’s money. Being nobles, they wanted some of the money for themselves. So they flew Jo over and asked her if they could leverage her original properties across multiple platforms, finding synergies between their media conglomerate and transnational corporations for merchandising tie-ins, yada, yada, yada. J K Rowling said yes, and the nobles jumped with joy, giggled with greed and lived happily ever after.
The five Harry Potter movies (with three more to come) have amassed about US$5 billion, making it one of the most lucrative film franchises ever. That kind of cash inspires the sincerest form of flattery. Thus was adapted J R R Tolkien’s Middle Earth trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, which harvested another billion. And C S Lewis’s classic children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia, whose third installment is now about to begin filming. And Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. And now, Cornelia Funke’s Inkworld trilogy comes to the silver screen, starting with Inkheart.
Funke’s three fantasy novels—Inkheart, Inkspell and Inkdeath—and soon, their film counterparts, suffer from being in the right place at the wrong time. Which is to say, these perfectly enjoyable stories, originally written in German, have the bad luck to be turned into films at the tail end of a decade stuffed with adaptations of children’s fantasy literature. Inkheart, the film, while not boring, feels old before it’s begun.
Our protagonist is a young girl, Meggie (like Ofelia from Guillermo del Toro’s exquisite 2006 fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth) who loves to read (like Ofelia and also Harry Potter) and has lost a parent (like Ofelia, Harry Potter and Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings). An everyday object—a book—transports her to a fantastical new world (like Ofelia (an insect), Harry (a letter), Frodo (a ring) and the Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia (a wardrobe)!). In the name of all that is tragic and magic, how many European-dwelling young bookworm orphans is too many?
The central conceit of Inkheart is the permeability of the printed page—losing yourself in a good book, in Funke’s world, can be a permanent displacement. But Inkheart’s imaginary world is not rendered imaginatively—both the CGI (computer-generated imagery) cloud that is the villainous Shadow and the wooden clunk that is Brendan Fraser feel like outtakes from The Mummy.
As Meggie’s aunt says, “I prefer a story that has the good sense to stay on the page, where it belongs.” The film’s producers should have taken that line of ink to heart.