The Coraline Grab Bag!

Bobby and I went to see Coraline last week on opening night; I purchased the book a few days earlier (for $13 paperback–ouch!) and read it so that I could go into the movie with my canatic’s cred intact.

I had all intentions of reviewing the movie, being as this blog weble is primarily concerned with fantasy literature and the issues that it raises, particularly for those marginalized by traditional discussions of literature. Besides being a fantasy classic in the making, Coraline concerns a lot of these issues. However, since I can’t pick a focus and have decided that I do not want to, then this is the Coraline Grab Bag, a motley of unrelated musings on the novella and the movie.

I am not going to shy from discussing details and outcomes of the plot when they are relevant to the points I am discussing here. So if you want to go into the book/movie without knowing the details of how it will turn out, get thee to the bookstore or theater and then come back to this post.

First, as far as general impressions of the movie, it is one of the few instances where I feel that a movie adds something significant to the book on which it is based. This is not to say that it is better than the book, but the novella Coraline nearly begs for a visual presentation, and this movie delivers. Oh, does it deliver.

Here is a hundred-word synopsis:

Coraline is an eccentric tween whose parents are workaholic-bordering-on-neglectful. Like many children in such a situation, her imagination becomes her escape. A bricked-over doorway entices her and, one night, she discovers that the door leads into a parallel life where her parents and home embody what she believes to be the ideal. As the story progresses, she realizes that the perfection is a guise for something much darker. And, yes, one of those dark attributes is that everyone in the parallel world sews black buttons into their eyes. Coraline must save herself and others entrapped here from its dark snares.

One thing I’ve heard muttered about this movie is its dark premise. I will start off by saying that I do not think that this is a movie for children. Or, at least, most children. The MPAA has given it a PG rating, which is generally interpreted as being pretty safe. I would personally place it higher, as a PG-13.

It is a dark story. It becomes even darker when ideas that were left to the wilds of ones imagination in the novella–like the buttons-for-eyes concept that the movie exploits for every squirm-inducing ounce of dark joy it’s worth–achieve the added tangibility of presentation on the big screen: like the sharp, shining needle and Coraline’s aghast eyes and the Other Father’s suavely creepy assertion that “It’s extra-sharp so it won’t hurt.” This invites the viewer to contemplate the act of exchanging one’s eyes for black buttons that is more easily avoided in the books.

To offer further anecdotal evidence about the need to take care with children at this movie, when we went last week, we had a small child seated in the row behind us. The opening scene shows a ragdoll being remade in Coraline’s image, and as a pair of scissors tore open the doll’s back, the little girl behind us gasped and cried out. This was the first ten seconds of the movie. The rest of the movie was similarly punctuated by little yelps and shrieks from the row behind us. Despite being a kid person like most cats are dog people, I felt truly sorry for the little tyke, whose parents probably saw “Animation!” and thought “Perfect to pacify little Madysyn for two hours!” Not the case, folks. Give serious consideration to taking any child to Coraline who is, well, younger than Coraline.

So there are mutterings about how Coraline is dark and misplaced as a children’s or “family” movie. Well, to be blunt, no shit. I empathized fully with the outrage directed at Despereaux earlier this year. Not only was the movie G-rated, but the previews gave no indication that it would include such scenes as a young woman being tied up to be eaten alive by rats or a rat (however deserving) being trapped by a murderous cat while we the audience are treated to his offscreen death throes. To me, it seemed perhaps the most egregious example of how “child-friendly” or “family-friendly” has come to mean “without sex or curse words,” ignoring the fact that children remain largely ignorant of the meaning of sex and curse words but understand full well what’s going on when that rat gets trapped in a helm with a hungry cat and the helm starts rattling. I was disturbed by scenes in Despereaux, and I write dark fantasy and horror fiction.

The issue with Despereaux was that these elements were sprung upon an audience that expected something very different. As Emily Bazelon notes in the article linked above, parents have a hard time finding out the extent of dark themes and violence in “children’s movies,” things that might not necessarily be revealed in the preview, reviews, or the source material. I agree. But, sorry, you can’t use that excuse with Coraline. The paperback copy of the novella that I bought identifies it as “One of the most frightening books ever written,” at least according to the New York Times Book Review. The two previews I saw of the movie in theaters–before fantasy movies as different as The Strange Case of Benjamin Button and Inkheart–left no doubt that the movie would be dark. The previews even showed the famous buttons-into-eyes scene. In other words, no one is trying to hide that Coraline is a dark story. So I must admit that my patience wears very thin with those who are grumbling that, despite all this, Coraline is a dark movie.

No shit.

The gender issues in Coraline are impossible to ignore. The question seems to be: What are they saying?

I found Filthy Grandeur’s review of Coraline via Feministe. On the darkly seductive Other Mother, Filthy Grandeur writes:

Also, her whole identity is based on being Coraline’s “other mother.” She provides what Coraline desires, which amounts to what Coraline thinks a mother should provide.

Thelma Adams for Women on Film says of Coraline’s real mother:

Yet the disturbing part is the depiction of a self-involved, self-obsessed mother who can’t bother to see to her own daughter’s needs because she’s so worried about getting clean copy to her publisher. She’s a garden writer who can’t grow her own garden — or tend her own plant (Coraline).

Yet, with all due respect to these reviewers, I think they’re only halfway there. Yes, Coraline’s mother is the stereotyped image of the harried, snappish “working mother” whose priority is her career and not her child. The Other Mother is the stereotyped domestic goddess, both in her traditionally feminine interests and in the center-of-my-world treatment that she lavishes on her child. The contrast and conflict between these dual expectations is part of what drives the story. In the novella, there is a particularly revealing scene that was left out of the movie. Coraline’s Other Mother, in an effort to convince Coraline that her missed parents are alive and very well, shows her a scene of them returning from holiday:

In the mirror it was daytime already. Coraline was looking at the hallway, all the way down to her front door. The door opened from the outside and Coraline’s mother and father walked inside. They carried suitcases.

“That was a fine holiday,” said Coraline’s father.

“How nice it is, not to have Coraline any more,” said her mother with a happy smile. “Now we can do all the things we always wanted to do, like go abroad, but were prevented from doing by having a little daughter.”

Filthy Grandeur notes that it is “sort of strange that the child was trying to enforce this gender role,” but I’m don’t find it particularly strange at all. Traditional gender roles are still so prevalent and, most importantly, so subtle in mainstream Western culture and media that I don’t see how a child like Coraline could not absorb the expectation that her mother should be making her child more of a priority than she is. Overcoming these expectations take a conscious effort and a level of thought and analysis that eludes many adults. In a way, Coraline is about Coraline’s growing awareness of how such unreal expectations placed on the shoulders of women tend to play out in actuality.

The important point, for me, is what is revealed in the end of the story. Domestic bliss is an illusion literally created by the Other Mother who, amusingly, in the words of the black cat, describes the Other Mother’s motives as,

“She wants something to love, I think,” said the cat. “Something that isn’t her. She might want something to eat as well. It’s hard to tell with creatures like that.”

The ancient, devouring mother; the stage mom or soccer mom screeching at her mortified and inadequate offspring; the mother who invests herself so strongly in her children that her identity becomes lost and conflated with theirs, who figuratively consumes them in pursuit of her own self-worth: this is the dark side of the domestic bliss in Coraline’s parallel reality. It is a cautionary tale not about women who focus too strongly on something other than their children but about the opposite, about confining a woman’s worth and identity within the home (note that the parallel reality, as an explicit creation of the Other Mother, does not extend much beyond the home) and her children.

In the end, I think that the movie makes its statement about gender roles in Coraline’s choice: Left to choose between domestic bliss with the Other Mother and her imperfect life with her real mother, she chooses the latter. And a glimpse of the price of perfection is enough to change her views of her own mother and family. Especially in the movie version, Coraline’s family at the end seems much better than her family at the start. Have they changed? Or has she? Here, Gaiman and Selick play a subtle game with point-of-view and invite the audience to consider whether Coraline’s life was really so awful to start. Or was a young girl with a vivid imagination simply engaging in fantasy based on what she had absorbed of gender-role “ideals”?

As for Gaiman canatics, the movie sticks relatively close to the book, right down to borrowing lines from the book (like the black cat’s words about the Other Mother’s motives, quoted above). One of the biggest changes is the addition of the character Wybie, an idiosyncratic black boy who becomes acquainted with Coraline at the movie’s outset. Filthy Grandeur also notes the race issues brought up by Coraline with his addition, notably the concept of the silencing of the black male, literally, by the Other Mother, an act that Coraline at first expresses her support for as part of the typical pre-adolescent drive to find and exploit every negative thing about a new kid, a sort of sandlot version of survival of the fittest. Like the progression of her views on domestic bliss, though, I think that Coraline’s views on Wybie come to change radically, and she and Wybie together defeat the Other Mother at the end, and their acquaintance solidifies from one of competition into friendship.

The movie dwells far longer on the blissful scenes whereas the book focuses on Coraline’s quest to save her parents and the souls of other children that the Other Mother has taken. I suspect this is to show off some of the dazzling and innovative scenes and concepts: a garden in the shape of Coraline’s face, a lawnmower built like a giant mantis, the jumping mouse show, a chandelier that doubles as a milkshake dispenser, and so on. I think the shift here was mostly advantageous: Getting to share in Coraline’s discoveries and wonder was a real treat. However, the game of souls at the end felt a bit rushed to me because I was accustomed to the book version and the loving detail put into the full horror of it. Here, the movie scimped a bit, though as dark as the movie was already, I can understand that it may have been a necessary action to keep the movie from tilting into PG-13 territory by MPAA standards. Likewise, Coraline’s prophetic dream meeting with the three stolen children was much more lavishly treated in the book, a scene that I had looked forward to and missed somewhat in the movie, although the unreal sense of time essential to this scene in the book may have presented insurmountable challenges on the screen.

Whether you like to debate and analyze what books and movies are trying to say or whether you just like to be glued to your seat in suspense and wonder, both the novella and movie versions of Coraline are sure to please. Aside from its commentary on gender roles (and race issues in the movie), it is a darkly dazzling fantasy straight out of a childhood nightmare with an irresistable heroine and eye-popping imagination.

I give it a full four E.L. Fudge Elves Exist cookies out of four.


5 Responses to “The Coraline Grab Bag!”

  1. Rhapsody says:

    The paperback copy of the novella that I bought identifies it as “One of the most frightening books ever written,” at least according to the New York Times Book Review.

    Oh yes, it gave me the creeps. I usually do not read horror, but when eyeing Coraline, a children’s horror novella, I thought.. let’s give it a try. I found it a magnificent read 3 years ago and I have a hard time remembering the gender roles to be honest. I was too spooked out I suppose. I think what struck me the most when reading this book was Coraline trying to resist the lure, she gives in and her slow discovery of what this lure of the other mother really is. I doubt that I get to see this movie in de cinema, but if the movie has the visuals of Mirrormask… 😀

  2. So, this morning, when I suggested to the fruits o’ my womb that we might see a movie today (have the day off, amazingly enough), both of them answered in unison: “Coraline!” I have raised them well. :^D I just bought tickets for the 12:15 show.

    I read Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things a while back, but not Coraline so I have no preconceptions. :^) Back later with my impressions.

  3. pandemonium_213 says:

    Dropping by again to say that the full four E.L. Fudge Elves Exist cookies out of four rating for “Coraline” is well-deserved. It’s a heady brew of Lewis Carroll meets (unsanitized) Brothers Grimm meets Stephen King. I loved its multiple layers and examination of the darker side of childhood, family, and children’s perceptions of how their family “should be.” The animation and imagery were fabulous: eerily whimsical to outright terrifying. Clever use of archetypes, too.

    You are dead-on right that this is not a movie for small children. I find the PG rating to be pretty tenuous. PG-13 would be more appropriate. The woman sitting behind my spawn (ages 17 and 21) had her little boy, who looked to be about 4 years old with her. Ai carambë! I had nightmares from watching the “Zanti Misfits” episode of “The Outer Limits” when I was significantly older than that kid. There were things in Coraline at least as frightening as the Zantis.

  4. Dawn says:

    Rhapsody: I think the gender roles are less obvious in the book than the movie; I was making a conscious effort to look for them and so saw them. Otherwise *whoosh*–there they go over my head! 😀 The movie, though, has those stereotyped images (the Other Mother in her apron with her tidy kitchen mitts) and sounds (the grating, impatient voice of Coraline’s real mother, trying to hurry her daughter aside so that she can get back to work), and it’s much easier to see the contrast.

    I hope the movie comes around so that you get to see it! :) The visuals were stunning though very different from Mirrormask. They were aimed at a child-like appreciation of fantasy, I thought, with very traditional imagery in a lot of places, where Mm was just mind-blowing and really stretched to the extent of grown-up imagination as well.

    Pandemonium: I’m glad you got to see it! And that you liked it! 😀 But I figured you would.

    I would not have been able to handle Coraline-the-movie before, say, middle school. Even then, it probably would have disturbed me. Even as a grown-up, I do not do well with the on-screen misery of other people (yes, this from someone who sees just about every R-rated horror movie that comes out); Coraline was far enough from reality that I could really sink in and enjoy it, but I doubt my young mind would have so easily made that distinction.

    (Strangely, despite a lifelong squick of all things eye-related, the silencing of Wybie bothered me far more than that.)

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