From Paper to Screen: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Words By Amanda Farbanish
The book is better than the movie.
Most avid readers have uttered this phrase at least once in their life. It’s practically the book-reader maxim. When adapting books, movie producers consciously make significant changes to the story; because of limited runtime and a variety of other budget-centered concerns, subplots are erased and characters are conflated. While fans can mostly reconcile with this reasoning, the fact still remains that a movie, just like a book, is constructing a narrative. So what do these changes mean for the story itself? What happens to plot, character development, and relationships? How do the changes from paper to big screen affect the narrative?
To explore this idea, let’s look at the young adult novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, the first book in a trilogy by Ransom Riggs. In 2016, it was adapted into a movie by director Tim Burton and screenplay writer Jane Goldman. There were many changes made from book to movie. And while fans expect some, there were a lot. Despite Ransom Riggs himself assuring fans that he was okay with them, readers were still disappointed by alterations that didn’t appear to have any meaning.
Grandpa Portman’s Last Words
Before Grandpa Portman dies in the book, he utters some things that seem pretty nonsensical: “Find the bird in the loop…on the other side of the old man’s grave. September 3rd, 1940. Emerson…the letter. Tell them what happened Yako—” Jacob spends the first half of the book trying to piece this cobbling of words together. In the movie, Grandpa Portman’s speech boils down to, “I should have told you years ago. The bird will explain everything.”
The book might have lingered a bit too long on Jacob stitching together clues, but the movie zoomed by with barely a nod at the mystery. Book Jacob was granted more agency as he worked for the secret, finding out about the island and the loop himself. It made the payoff mean something—to both Book Jacob and the reader. By eliminating that mystery from the movie, it hands the plot to the character without him doing anything for it. It lacks the payoff that often bonds people to a character. While the movie might have been trying to give Jacob a nudge the book didn’t provide, it overcompensated and sent him flying.
Emma and Olive
This was the change that made headlines and had fans up in arms—or at least scratching their heads. In the book, Emma’s peculiarity is the ability to create and manipulate fire, and Olive is one of the youngest children in the home at around seventy-five (though she looks seven) and her peculiarity is levitation—she has to wear metal boots so she doesn’t float away. In a bizarre switch, the movie gives Emma the ability to manipulate air and the metal boots, while Olive not only gains the fire peculiarity, but also becomes a teenager.
What did these changes actually do? Not only does Emma now have a completely different power, the nuts-and-bolts of her character are affected as well. With this new peculiarity, she’s had different experiences. It’s mentioned in the book that Emma’s personality matched her peculiarity, with her personal “spark” creating her fire. By giving Movie Emma the levitation power, it puts much more emphasis on her ability; Book Emma’s fire isn’t immediately noticeable if she doesn’t summon it, which she actually doesn’t do too often. It’s a part of her, but it’s not the defining part of her. She uses it to light the way when needed, and at the end, to fight. All of these nuances—about how a character uses their power, the advantages and disadvantages the power provides, and how they deal with it—are important to consider when constructing a character. It feels like Movie Emma was given the metal boots and levitation because it was an easy way to identify her as “other,” rather than focus on her as a complex person.
Physical Age of the Kids
Here’s a chart (their real age is first, while the age they appear is second):
75 1/2, appears 7
83, appears pubescent boy
Unknown, appears 15/16
Unknown, appears 14/15
118, appears 12
86, technically invisible but seems to be around his mid-teens
75, appears 15
83, appears pre-teens/early-teens
Unknown, appears 13/14
Unknown, appears 10/12
118, appears 15
86, technically invisible, but seems to be around his early teens
The only peculiar children whose ages were not touched were Jake, Emma, and Claire, who retained her appearance of 5/6. Everyone else was altered, most to look younger, and while the reason for these changes in age is baffling, not much is technically affected. Though the children’s outer appearances are shifted, their actual age is believed to be the same; they’ve still been alive for the same amount of time. As this was already built into the narrative, the appearance of the characters is less important.
However, there are three characters who are noticeably altered: Enoch, Olive, and Bronwyn. Because their ages are similar in the movie, Enoch and Olive are hinted to have a romantic relationship, which didn’t happen in the books (they looked 12 and 7, respectively). However, since they aren’t main characters, it doesn’t do much to the plot, making the change somewhat arbitrary. If anything, it seems like a purely aesthetic change, as well as a chance to have another romance for the movie. Movie Olive, between this and her swapped peculiarity (mentioned above), is practically a separate character who just happens to share a name with someone in the books.
Out of the three, Bronwyn’s age shift has the greatest impact. Book Bronwyn is a mother figure to the younger kids. Decreasing her age and removing her role in the group will significantly alter the dynamic between the peculiar children in later movies. And once again, this reduces a character to their peculiarity. A similar phenomenon happened to Emma, though to a lesser extent, because her main character status guaranteed her more opportunities to show personality—Bronwyn, as a side character, had a major chunk of her purpose removed, reducing her to a silent strong girl.
It’s a classic example of an old piece of writing advice: side characters are people too. Each character should feel like they think they are the main character in their own story. The label of “side character” shouldn’t diminish their development or relegate them to one-trick-pony status. If a change significantly flattens a character or only allows them one defining trait, it’s a sign that maybe the change isn’t in the story’s—or character’s—best interest.
Grandpa’s Living-or-Dead Status
In the book, Grandpa Portman is dead. Period. In the movie, not so much. Jacob is able to talk to his grandpa on the phone in the 1940s and then later on, because there is a time loop in 2016, Jacob is able to interact with his grandpa in that time loop as well. In essence, Grandpa Portman is still alive.
Grandpa Portman’s death is a huge motivating factor for Jacob. He compares himself to his grandfather throughout the series—doubting himself, wondering if he can live up to his grandpa. As Jacob possesses the same peculiarity of being able to see Hollowgasts, he constantly fears he won’t be able to protect his friends and family the way he perceives Grandpa Portman did. And to further pile on the emotional weight, Jacob also deals with guilt surrounding Grandpa Portman’s death. By magically bringing Grandpa Portman back to life, the movie eliminates a major part of what shapes Jacob as a character. As a result, Grandpa Portman’s death loses a large part of its impact and meaning to both Jacob and the audience.
Franklin Portman (Jacob’s dad)
In the book, Jacob and his father have a well-established bond. Jacob actually tries to say goodbye at the end, showing his dad his peculiar friends and leaving a letter explaining his absence. In comparison, the movie doesn’t do much to characterize their relationship at all, going into little detail beyond explaining that Jacob’s dad doesn’t believe in monsters and peculiars. Rather than discuss things about the children’s home together, Franklin tells Jacob to call his psychiatrist and overall seems disinterested.
Woefully absent or woefully disinterested parents pepper the YA genre like an abundance of dead flies caught between a window and a screen. Parents aren’t often portrayed in the best light, if there are even parents at all, and in this case, it’s damaging to the father-son relationship and a disservice to the character. While Book Dad is nowhere near perfect—just like Movie Dad, he has a tendency to drink in the pub when his bird watching doesn’t go as planned—Jacob and his dad still bond over learning about what happened to the children’s home that Grandpa Portman stayed in. Book Jacob’s return to his dad to explain where he’s going and why at the end is an important moment for their relationship. It also serves to explain that Grandpa Portman hadn’t been abandoning his family to go off and have affairs; he’d been fighting monsters and saving people. This not only affects Franklin’s relationship with his son, but also his relationship with his dead father, hitting on a multitude of complicated emotions that simmer within Franklin throughout the story. Movie Dad, in comparison, is much more one-dimensional, an adult who is there simply because underage Jacob needs an adult to travel.
Final Fight Scene/Aftermath
With enough changes to fill an article by itself, the changes in the movie version of the final fight scene alter the tone of the story and disrupt an incredibly important plot point for the next movie (if there will be another movie). The ending battle in the books is much more personal, with Jacob wrestling outer demons—the Hollowgast and wight—as well as his own insecurities and fears. The movie erases that nuance, choosing a huge battle in 2016 that shows off the peculiar children’s powers, but removing most of the emotional investment of the scene. Important backstory is altered and much of the narrative-driving background lore is erased.
The ending was also a shock for the very simple reason that Movie Miss Peregrine in human form at the end obliterates most of the second book’s plot. (SPOILER ALERT: The reason she is not shown in human form at the end of book one is because she’s being impersonated by her brother, who the movie also never mentions.) The movie opted for an explosive, peculiar-filled battle on a boardwalk over a psychological, dark and misty lighthouse with guns and U-boats. Overall, these changes make the movie narrative’s final moments lose much of its depth and emotional impact.
Narratives are complex structures in which many interweaving parts need to work together in order to create a balanced and satisfying story, or for a character to feel real. While the differences between these two versions of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children might seem inconsequential, closer inspection reveals deeper emotional and tonal alterations to both characters and the story as a whole.