Well, I’ve done it. I entered the Riggs-Burton time loop and emerged intact and, on the whole, pleased. For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, you’re clearly not among the Peculiar initiate. Yet. I’m referring, of course, to Tim Burton’s new film adaptation of Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the first book in a wonderfully creepy YA series. I bought it on a whim, drawn to the bizarre photos peppering its pages, knowing full well I was mostly likely falling for a gimmick. But the black-and-white images had the feel of vintage sideshow and circus cabinet cards, and I couldn’t resist.
This is one of those rare times when the gamble paid off. Riggs used those photos to excellent effect in an imaginative, compulsively readable story about a teenage boy who discovers that his grandfather’s wild tales about supernaturally talented children (called “Peculiars”) are actually true—think a grittier Big Fish, with monsters, murder, and a smattering of Nazis. Although set in the present day, Riggs’ clever device of “time loops” allows his characters to travel to particular dates in history, something that becomes more important to later books in the series. Historical horrors interweave with fantastical nightmares, and the result captivates as it unsettles.
When I heard that Tim Burton would be directing the movie version of Miss Peregrine, my feelings were mixed. On the one hand, Burton’s love of the macabre makes him a perfect fit. On the other, I worried that his style might be too pretty and polished for the shadowy menace and violence contained in Riggs’ books. For the most part, I was right, but Burton checked some of his over-the-top tendencies, so a decent balance was struck. Scenes around the Peculiars’ home were appropriately picturesque, and some of the vintage photographs from the book made cameo appearances.
I favor a less-is-more approach to horror, so the use of CGI, particularly for the invisible hollowgasts (monsters), lowered the fright factor considerably. In fact, a prolonged battle between the hollows and Peculiars bordered on comical, but I think that this was due to a deliberate shift in the intended audience. The books are for upper-middle and high school, while this movie is solidly geared for a younger crowd—starting around 4th grade, I’d say. The essence of the story, however, remains the same, as well as the majority of Riggs’ inventive details. A few powers are swapped in the film—Olive now conjures fire, while Emma clomps around in lead boots, on account of being weightless—but these aren’t important tweaks. The biggest change comes towards the movie’s end, which draws in some information revealed in later novels. Oh, and there are a lot more eyeballs. For an interesting look at how Burton created the look of this film, see the New York Times article “‘Miss Peregrine’ and Tim Burton: The Making of a Film Fable.”
It’s taken me a while to learn to divorce books from their movie counterparts—Harry Potter helped me with this immensely—and it’s a skill that lets me enjoy both in their own right. This movie is gorgeous on a big screen and good fun to watch. Though I wish it had been a touch scarier, younger viewers will find it hits that mark squirmingly well.