Casting the Spell of Love, Quite Literally
There are parts of the latest Young Adult southern gothic novel adapted for the screen, Beautiful Creatures, which tend to break the mold of its predecessors of the same genre. There is an emphasis on classic literature from Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” and subsequent identification with its marginalized characters. Ambition flows in the thematic rivers of free will and fate, Christian sacrifice, and of course, in love.
But, that ambition to break free of its genre shackles oftentimes clouds and confuses a story told many times before it. Continuing to modernize the Montague and Capulet family incompatibility, director Richard LaGravenese, adapting the first book in a trilogy by Kami Garcia, instead pits humans against Casters (as in spell casters, who don’t prefer the term witch). More specifically, we center on Ethan (a dynamic Alden Ehrenreich), the mortal, and Lena (Alice Englert), a caster who has just enrolled in his high school. Their on-screen chemistry builds quickly as does their character’s relationship. On her 16th birthday her destiny will be decided, and her soul will dictate whether she becomes a dark/evil or a light/good caster. It’s the basis for a lot of anxious buildup and metaphorical pre-pubescent choices.
Lena’s fate actually becomes tied to a much greater cause, but her current preoccupations, as typical outsiders have, relate to her acceptance in the classroom, and further disassociation outside it. This is a town filtering its unacceptable racial rhetoric and channeling its discrimination towards Lena and her supernatural family who happens to live in a rustic, tangled mansion only these kinds of families do. The fictional town of Gatlin, South Carolina lives backward, stuck in its past, keeping it alive with annual Civil War reenactments. Ethan, who colors the film’s perspective with his thoughts, desires to be Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, to be unstuck in time.
Preppy girls cast their own insults and religious vernacular towards Lena. Ethan, by simply being a normal, courteous human being, appears to be the only decent fellow in school, and the only one willing to give Lena a chance. They share an affinity for literature, she reads Bukowski, and romance sparks between two figures that claim to have seen the other in visions and dreams. At some point, Ethan probably realizes his Shakespearean dilemma, star-crossed lovers separated by their distinct worlds.
Some of these factoring family members include Jeremy Irons, who plays Lena’s strict Uncle Macon and Emma Thompson, who plays a dual role as a righteous Christian mother to Ethan’s friend Link, and also the body inhabited by Lena’s evil spiritual mother Sarafina. Emmy Rossum is delightfully, viciously seductive as Lena’s chosen-for-dark older cousin, and Viola Davis brings some gravity as Ethan’s guardian, and as a mysterious librarian. Unusual roles for actors of this esteem, but each looks to be enjoying themselves, perhaps knowing full aware the emotional limits of a film like this.
Uncle Macon, who presides over the prickly exterior, vogue inside mansion, does his best to swarm away Ethan’s love for Lena, which as we later find out could turn her dark thanks to a curse enabled during the same wartime battle the town replays each year. Can pure love overcome the prophecy? YA novels sometimes suffer in this regard, aiming to be grown up, but also censoring their darker and graphically dangerous content with these supernatural substitutes. It becomes a constant struggle then, for any director, to navigate the arc of a story: highly melodramatic, like the now complete Twilight series, or more levelheaded and rationally sound?
LaGravenese, who both directs and adapts, tries a dash of both, but the fusion is mediated by careful explication, dialogue and details the audience can already figure out by a look or cue. Such is the trouble for staying true to a book’s words, or that quintessential page-turning quote. Knowing you have meaning before something’s even said often plagues an adaptation. When Ethan begins citing Vonnegut, there is potential to break free from the YA novel sappy clichés his hardheaded classmates are presumable fixated with. The script has the chance to be infused with powerful meaningful words, invocated from the esteemed authors both he and Lena read. Instead, these rhetorical tools and their marginalized characters are props for heavy metaphors. These books are banned from school. So is their love.
But underneath this love story is a curiously strong Christian ideology that permeates through a still bigoted town that Ethan needs to break free from. In fact, it’s been his life long dream. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain, who surely Ethan must have internalized and witnessed in his homogenously trapped town. Which, as you will see, makes the ending of Beautiful Creatures less about the love realized and the sacrifice sermonized about, and more about jealousy actualized.