Nothing like the magic of reading the book

(the review I wrote, published today in Manila Bulletin, Students and Campuses section)

The film adaptation of Cornelia Funke’s fantasy bestseller Inkheart hits the big screen this weekend, after almost two years of giddy anticipation for the book’s fans.

Produced by New Line Cinema, the outfit that brought to life J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and packing an all-star cast led by Brendan Fraser (Mortimer “Mo” Folchart), Paul Bettany (Dustfinger), Helen Mirren (Elinor Loredan), Andy Serkis (Capricorn), Jim Broadbent (Fenoglio), Sienna Guillory (Resa), and newcomer Eliza Bennett (Meggie Folchart), the theatrical release of Inkheart promised to be a feast for fantasy lovers.

A book about a book
Inkheart is the first book in the Ink Trilogy, a series of fantasy novels by the famous children’s book writer, Cornelia Funke, often tagged as Germany’s answer to J.K. Rowling. Funke has written well-loved fantasy stories such as Dragon Rider (1996), which was on the New York Times bestseller list for 78 weeks, and the Dickensian The Thief Lord (2000), which immediately cornered the #2 spot on the New York Times bestseller list for 19 weeks.

First published in Funke’s native German (originally entitled Tintenherz), Inkheart was published in 2003 by Scholastic (translated by Anthea Bell), and went on to gain worldwide readership, critical accolades, and bestseller status, with the sequels Inkspell (2005) and Inkdeath (2008) following suit.

Inkheart revolves around an obscure book, also entitled “Inkheart,” a medieval tale that becomes entwined with the lives of the Folchart family.

Meggie Folchart is a bookbinder’s daughter, and has spent all twelve years of her life surrounded by books. One thing puzzles, her however: as much as her father shared her love for books and reading, he has never read her a story. One fateful night, a mysterious stranger named Dustfinger and his horned marten Gwin show up at their house, and Mo’s secrets begin to unravel.

Nine years ago, Mo read the book “Inkheart” to his wife Teresa and three-year old Meggie, and suddenly, the characters from the book turn up in front of them: the black-hearted Capricorn and his henchman Basta, with the fire-eater Dustfinger in tow. Mo discovers he has an unusual talent: he can read things in and out of books. Unfortunately, this talent came at a price – as the “Inkheart” characters jumped out from the pages of the book, Teresa disappeared into them.

Mo manages to ward off the villains and saves Dustfinger’s life, but he cannot read Teresa out of the book. Capricorn, however, needs Mo to carry out his dastardly plans, so Mo leads a nomadic lifestyle to escape from his clutches.

Soon after Dustfinger returns into the Folcharts’ lives, Capricorn soon catches up with them and keeps Meggie captive to get Mo to cooperate. The fate of the Folcharts lies with Meggie, and it’s up to her to defeat Capricorn.

Inkheart is a book lover’s fantasy, drawing on the power of the written word and teeming with a love for books and reading.

The chapters are marked by passages from well-loved books, including Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends; R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island; J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone; Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13; Roald Dahl’s The BFG; J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are; William Golding’s The Princess Bride; C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; and many more.

Tall order
As much as the movie tried to capture the magic of Inkheart, hardcore fans of the book will be disappointed as it leaves out the richness of details that made the book an enchanting page-turner. The film does not sufficiently establish the infectious, and almost-fanatic celebration of the written word that was the cornerstone of the series, failing to bring it to a level beyond the run-of-the mill adventure flick.

Certain liberties were also taken in the screenplay that are glaringly different from the book, particularly in the final action and the resolution, which also makes it harder to reconcile the film with the next book in the series.

It is interesting to note that the character of Mo Folchart was modeled after Brendan Fraser. The Inkheart movie producers wanted a bigger star for the role, but Funke had her heart set on Fraser, as she always imagined him as Mo. Funke even dedicated Inkspell to him and sent him a signed copy. Fraser soon found himself bringing Mo to life in the trilogy’s audiobooks, and finally, in the film adaptation.

The hitch, however, is that Fraser fails to deliver. He sticks out like a sore thumb in the film, especially since his American accent is starkly different from his onscreen daughter’s (and the rest of the cast’s) crisp British tones.

Characterization was also lacking, as Fraser did not look bookish enough in playing a man who loves books. Neither did he embody the reverence of a book binder stroking the pages of old tomes in need of new dress, nor the hunger of a bereaved husband who has spent the past nine years in search of a copy of the obscure “Inkheart” in the hopes of reuniting his family. Fraser is too commercial, calling on the trademark treatment he has given roles in a long list of action-adventure starrers, unable to give the sensitivity required for Mo’s character.

Eliza Bennett makes a dismal Meggie — not bad, but not memorable either; and Andy Serkis is a tad too sleek and sinister for Capricorn, who is supposed to be a one-dimensional book villain that is wicked simply for the pleasure of being evil.

Saving the film are the stellar performances of the support cast, in particular Helen Mirren as the book-mad Elinor, perfectly capturing the batty but lovable old aunt; Jim Broadbent as Fenoglio, the author of Inkheart who is fascinated at seeing his characters brought to life; and Paul Bettany as the distraught Dustfinger, the fire breather who wishes to return to his world and change his fate.

Ultimately, perhaps making a movie about the magic of reading books is an impossible task, as the principle is contradictory in itself. Nothing beats the experience of getting lost in book, oblivious to one’s surroundings, turning the pages one after the other as the adventure takes place in one’s imagination, enjoyed for the moment but remembered long after.


Reread Inkheart for the review, Book #17 for 2009.

While my favorite Cornelia Funke book is The Thief Lord, I’ve always found Inkheart fascinating. The book may be long-winded for a lot of readers — yep, much of the book is spent going in and out of Capricorn’s village — but the escapist in me relished it for the adventure it offered, the wonderful scenery, and the high it gave me every time books were being described :)

My rating: the book 4/5 stars; the movie 2/5 stars

My copy: hardcover mooched from the US