Author Uncertain About 'Dark' Leap to Big Screen Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series of young-adult books was published more than 30 years ago. A Hollywood version debuts this week. But a recent visit with the author finds that fantasy doesn't always translate easily into film.

Author Uncertain About 'Dark' Leap to Big Screen

Author Uncertain About 'Dark' Leap to Big Screen

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More than 30 years ago, Susan Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising series of books. A movie version is being released this week. Alison MacAdam, NPR hide caption

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Alison MacAdam, NPR

More than 30 years ago, Susan Cooper wrote The Dark Is Rising series of books. A movie version is being released this week.

Alison MacAdam, NPR

Hear the Author Read

On his 11th birthday, Will Stanton is transported to a snowy hilltop where two large doors stand, leading nowhere. He opens them and enters a timeless place — a large hall where two mysterious people, a man and a woman, wait for him. It's in this room that Will learns he is the last of the Old Ones — immortals with magical powers who appear to lead normal lives and are engaged in an endless battle against the Dark.

Hear Susan Cooper Read from The Dark Is Rising

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Alexander Ludwig portrays Will Stanton in The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, the big-screen adaptation of Cooper's series. Twentieth Century Fox/Walden Media hide caption

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Twentieth Century Fox/Walden Media

Alexander Ludwig portrays Will Stanton in The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, the big-screen adaptation of Cooper's series.

Twentieth Century Fox/Walden Media

A Fan's Fears

Alison MacAdam first read The Dark Is Rising many years ago as an 11-year-old. She reflects on why she loves the books — and why she's apprehensive about the film version.

A Note About the Books

Five books by Susan Cooper make up The Dark Is Rising series. In the order they were published, they are: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark Is Rising (Newbery Honor Book 1974), Greenwitch, The Grey King (Newbery Medal winner 1976) and Silver on the Tree.

There is a small group of fantasy-novel series so deeply beloved that they have gained cult status. In the past six years, a number of them — The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter — also have made it to Hollywood.

The films' success means Hollywood is banking on more fantasy franchises.

Enter another, somewhat less famous series of books — that has a no less devoted following.

The five books are best known by the title of the second: The Dark Is Rising. And on Oct. 5, its Hollywood version comes out in theaters.

Written by Susan Cooper more than 30 years ago, it chronicles the journey of a young boy with special powers who must lead a fight against dark forces.

A recent visit with the author finds that fantasy doesn't always translate easily into film.

Light vs. Dark

Susan Cooper's house lies an hour south of Boston, overlooking a marsh with herons and egrets. The open landscape reminds her of her home in England.

Cooper says she always knew she would write: She inherited a Celtic love of the words and melody of song from her Welsh grandmother. But her early childhood, spent in England during World War II, was filled with sirens, bombs and air-raid shelters.

Her mother, Cooper says, told her stories while she was hiding in those shelters, an experience that later had an impact on her writing.

"I think it gave me this sense of the light and the dark ... which has never gone away," Cooper says. "[The Dark Is Rising] books are about the fact that everybody is a mixture of good and evil, and life is a war between the two sides of us. It's the substance of all story — all myth, anyway."

Antidote for Homesickness

In the novel, Will Stanton must search for six powerful signs to empower the light and fight the dark. In the course of four other books, set in the Thames Valley, Cornwall and Wales, Will and a small group of other children battle the dark.

Cooper says the books came right out of her own homesickness. At the age of 27 she uprooted herself, married an American scientist and came to the United States. But the British Isles never left her heart, or her writing.

She kept shelves full of books "about everything that would let me go back in my head to the places that were precious," Cooper says. "And out of that came a very strange day, once when I had an idea about an 11-year-old boy who wakes up one morning and finds out he can do magic. Then I started writing The Dark Is Rising."

The books were published in the 1960s and '70s, and one of them won the Newbery Medal in 1976. Cooper says there were a number of efforts over the years to turn the books into films, but they never went anywhere.

From Book to Big Screen

But now, with very little input from Cooper, a film of The Dark Is Rising arrives in theaters this week.

Early indications are that the film will be very different from the dreamy and timeless novel.

In the film, Will Stanton is 13, not 11, and he is American, not British. Screenwriter John Hodge first looked at The Dark Is Rising many years ago. At that time, it just didn't seem like the right project for the man who wrote the screenplay for Trainspotting, a gritty film about heroin addiction. Hodge didn't like fantasy anyway.

Not Harry Potter

And even when he approached the book 10 years later, Hodge found many problems. First of all, he thought, even though the book was written more than 30 years ago, the premise of an 11-year-old English boy who finds out he can do magic seemed too familiar.

"One of the things I didn't want it to be confused with was Harry Potter, because I just think the world doesn't need another English boy involved with fantasy adventures," he says.

Hodge felt that Will would be more understandable if he was experiencing things as an outsider, as an American living in Britain.

Screenplays 'Do Violence' to Books

As for Cooper's story, Hodge says that "a lot of it would have to go because it was written in this quite lyrical, poetic, kaleidoscopic fashion." He also says the novel, as written, proved difficult in other respects: The action doesn't take place in fixed locations and, he says, Will "doesn't really do very much."

Cooper has written many screenplays herself, and she hastens to say she hasn't seen the film yet. She has only seen the trailer and read the screenplay.

"You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay — the two mediums are so different," Cooper says. "But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different."

Will is 11 and not 13 for a reason, she says.

"It is just before puberty, when we are not quite overtaken by all the difficulties of figuring out our sexual identity, and we are still trying to find out who we are, inside our heads," Cooper says. "And in him, this is complicated horribly by the fact that he finds out he is not mortal."

And Cooper says that's what fantasy does best: Whether it's Beowolf or Harry Potter, it is a metaphor that helps you deal with things that are difficult in the world around you — and that helps you grow up.

Cooper is waiting for the movie, but with a certain sadness. She says she sent a letter requesting changes to the film's script, but she's not sure any alterations were made.

Web Resources

Excerpt: 'The Dark Is Rising'

The Dark Is Rising recently has been reissued with a movie tie-in cover — and an augmented title. hide caption

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The Dark Is Rising recently has been reissued with a movie tie-in cover — and an augmented title.

Where this excerpt begins, 11-year-old Will Stanton has just discovered that he is the last of the Old Ones. His quest is to gather six magical signs that will help the Dark defeat the Light. And he has learned that he has powers, such as creating a fire just by wishing it. Will returns from a Christmas shopping trip and decides to walk home along a deserted path called through Tramps' Alley — where his curiosity about those powers gets the best of him. He comes across the local tramp, the Walker, who turns out to be much more than he seems.

The walk down Tramps' Alley began soon to be less fun than he had expected. Will's ankles ached from the strain of kicking a way through the snow. The parcels were awkward to carry. The red-golden glow from the sun died away into a dull greyness. He was hungry, and he was cold.

Trees loomed high on his right: mostly elms, with an occasional beech. At the other side of the track was a stretch of wasteland, transformed by the snow from a messy array of rank weeds and scrub into a moon-landscape of white sweeping slopes and shaded hollows. All around him on the snow-covered track twigs and small branches lay scattered, brought down from the trees by the weight of the snow; just ahead, Will saw a huge branch lying right across his path. He glanced apprehensively upward, wondering how many other dead arms of the great elms were waiting for wind or snow-weight to bring them crashing down. A good time for collecting firewood, he thought, and had a sudden tantalising image of the leaping fire that had blazed in the fireplace of the great hall: the fire that had changed his world, by vanishing at the word of his command and then obediently blazing into his life again.

As he stumbled along in the cold snow, a sudden wild cheerful idea sprang up in his mind out of he thought of that fire, and he paused, grinning to himself. You gonna fix it? Well, no, friend, I probably can't get you a warm Christmas day really, but I could warm things up a bit here, now. He looked confidently at the dead branch lying before him, he said to it softly, mischievously, "Burn!"

And there on the snow, the fallen arm of the tree burst into flame. Every inch of it, from the thick rotted base to the smallest twig, blazed with licking yellow fire. There was a hissing sound, and a tall shaft of brilliance rose from the fire like a pillar. No smoke came from the burning, and the flames were steady; twigs that should have blazed and crackled briefly and then fallen into ash burned continuously, as if fed by another fuel within. Standing there alone, Will felt suddenly small and alarmed; this was no ordinary fire, and not to be controlled by ordinary means. It was not behaving at all in the same way as the fire in the hearth had done. He did not know what to do with it. In panic, he focused his mind on it again and told it to go out, but it burned on, steady as before. He knew that he had done something foolish, improper, dangerous perhaps. Looking up through the pillar of quivering light, he saw high in the grey sky four rooks flapping slowly in a circle.

Oh Merriman, he thought unhappily, where are you?

Then he gasped, as someone grabbed him from behind, blocked his kicking feet in a scuffle of snow, and twisted his arms by the wrists behind his back. The parcels scattered in the snow. Will yelled with the pain in his arms. The grip on his wrists slackened at once, as if the attacker were reluctant to do him any real harm; but he was still firmly held.

"Put out the fire!" said a hoarse voice in his ear, urgently.

The man cursed and mumbled strangely, and instantly Will knew who it was. His terror fell away, like a released weight. "Walker," he said, "let me go. You don't have to hold me like that."

The grip tightened again at once. "Oh no you don't boy, I know your tricks. You're the one all right, I know now, you're an Old One, but I don't trust your kind any more than I trust the Dark. You're new awake, you are, and let me tell you something you don't know — while you're new awake, you can't do nothing to anyone unless you can see him with your eyes. So you aren't going to see me, that I know."

Will said, "I don't want to do anything to you. There really are some people who can be trusted, you know."

"Precious few," the Walker said bitterly.

"I could shut my eyes, if you'd let me go."

"Pah!!" the old man said.

Will said, "You carry the second Sign. Give it to me."

There was a silence. He felt the man's hands fall away from his own arms, but he stood where he was and did not turn round. "I have the first sign already, Walker," he said. "You know I do. Look, I'm undoing my jacket, and I'll pull it back and you can see the first circle on my belt."

He pulled aside his coat, still without moving his head, and was aware of the Walker's hunched form slipping round at his side. The man's breath hissed out through his teeth in a long sigh as he looked, and he turned his head up to Will without caution. In the yellow light from the steadily burning branch Will saw a face contorted with battling emotions: hope and fear and relief wound tightly together by anguished uncertainty.

When the man spoke, his voice was broken and simple as that of a small child.

"It's so heavy," he said plaintively. "And I've been carrying it so long. I don't even remember why. Always frightened, always having to run away. If only I could get rid of it, if only I could rest. Oh, if only it was gone. But I daren't risk giving it to the wrong one, I daren't. The things that would happen to me if I did, they're too terrible, they can't be put into words. The old ones can be cruel, cruel ... I think you're the right one, boy. I've been looking for you a long time, a long time, to give the Sign to you. But how can I really be sure? How can I be sure you aren't a trick of the Dark?"

He's been frightened for so long, Will thought, that he's forgotten how to stop. How awful, to be so absolutely lonely. He doesn't know how to trust me; it's so long since he trusted anyone, he's forgotten how ... "Look," he said gently. You must know I'm not part of the Dark. Think. You saw the Rider try to strike me down."

But the old man shook his head miserably, and Will remembered how he had fled shrieking from the clearing the moment the Rider had appeared.

"Well, if that doesn't help, doesn't the fire tell you?"

"The fire almost," the Walker said. He looked at it hopefully; then his face twisted in recalled alarm. "But the fire, it'll bring them, boy, you know that. The rooks will already be guiding them. And how do I know whether you lit the fire because you're a new-awake Old One playing games, or as a signal to bring them after me?" He moaned to himself in anguish, and clutched his arms through his shoulders. He was a wretched thing, Will thought pityingly. But somehow he had to be made to understand.

Will looked up. There were more rooks circling lazily overhead now, and he could hear them calling harshly to one another. Was the old man right, were the dark birds messengers of the Dark? "Walker, for goodness' sake," he said impatiently. "You must trust me — if you don't trust someone just once, for long enough to give him the Sign, you'll be carrying it for ever. Is that what you want?"

The old tramp wailed and muttered, staring at him from mad little eyes; he seemed caught in his centuries of suspicion like a fly in a web. But the fly still has wings that can break the web; give him the strength to flap them, just once ... Driven by some unfamiliar part of his mind, without quite knowing what he was doing, Will gripped the iron circle on his belt and he stood up as straight and tall as he could and pointed at the Walker, and called out, "The last of the Old Ones has come, Walker, and it is time. The moment for giving the Sign is now, now or never. Think only of that — no other chance will come. Now, Walker. Unless you would carry it for ever, obey the Old Ones now. Now!"

It was as if the word released a spring. In an instant, all the fear and suspicion in the twisted old face relaxed into childish obedience. With a smile of almost foolish eagerness the Walker fumbled with a broad leather strap that he wore diagonally across his chest, and he pulled from it a quartered circle identical to the one that Will wore on his belt, but gleaming with the dull brown-gold sheen of bronze. He put it into Will's hands, and gave a high cackling little laugh of astonished glee.

The yellow-flaming branch on the snow before them blazed suddenly brighter, and went out.

Reprinted with permission of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing.