Saw the Sublime: John Langan’s The Fisherman (Review)


John Langan is a major player in the weird fiction renaissance that bloomed over a decade ago and is only getting stronger. He’s previously released two collections and one novel. Of this work, I’ve only yet read – I want to use another word here that really encapsulates the experience, like injected or devoured or rubbed all over my naked body like goose fat, but you might get the wrong idea – the most recent collection, The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies. On top of that excellent riff on the “and other stories” addendum, it’s a quietly mind-blowing collection that treads startling new ground with some familiar monsters, and brings us some entirely new ones as well.

So on the strength of this already impressive body of work, news of Langan releasing a new, novel-length piece of cosmic horror through the always reliable Word Horde Press, was met by me with an eager pre-order. That book is The Fisherman, and the short version of this review is: it’s amazing, go buy it immediately, here’s a link.

And the long version? I’ll try not to give too much away here plot-wise, because the fewer details you know going into this, the better the experience. Just some broad, impressionistic strokes.

Langan is a marvellous storyteller in the most literal sense; The Fisherman is structured like a beautiful set of Russian nesting dolls, stories within stories within stories. The framing device, set in the present and narrated by widower and latent fisherman Abe, bookends the meaty “Der Fischer: A Tale of Terror,” which takes us back before the First World War. Abe’s sections are much more than bookends, though. Every element here is so carefully constructed and feels like a tangible part of the world.

There’s this great interplay in the novel between the sting of the beautifully executed horror, the vibrant setting, and the honest, at times heartbreaking human element, all of which are caught in the story’s current.

The Fisherman is set in upstate New York – a place whose name alone, for me anyway, conjures images of autumnal wilderness and sleepy towns (sleepy hollows, even, eh?). I’ve never been to upstate New York but in my head there’s this clear juxtaposition between vibrancy and decay; a place where humanity is a hopeful footnote or semicolon and the rest is just nature, along with perhaps a sliver or more of… something else.

The characters that inhabit this place are just as tangible. There’s a sense of familiarity about them, even the minor players. Langan digs his fingers into the grime of humanity, crafting their guilt and grief and fallibility with the care of a master.

Langan’s prose has a soothing quality to it, a cosy story-time warmth like a crackling open fire on a cold day. He writes in long, languid paragraphs that aren’t in any hurry, but there’s never a sense that he’s padding anything out or taking too long to get to the point. Every sentence belongs where he places it. The pacing is precise, and an absolute pleasure to keep up with.

So the prose is comforting, sure, but that doesn’t make it soft. When the horror swivels its gaze toward us, what do we do? We freeze, but we can’t look away.

I felt, for most of the book, that I was blind to the next step, unaware of what might come next and eager as anything to find out. This was especially true of the story’s final third, which, without spoiling things, bit me with many teeth. Some cosmic horror novels can be a slow burn followed by a brief glimpse of whatever awful truth the author is peddling, which, to be clear, I thoroughly enjoy. The understated approach can be extremely effective. The Fisherman, however, does not fall into this category. Both stories here throw the curtains wide in their respective climaxes, and the view is not only beautiful, violent and exhilarating, but bright. I had a real sense of the scenery while reading this. The only way I can think to describe it is that everything feels so well-lit. There’s a grand scale at work here, an almost operatic feel to proceedings. Langan has created a blend of fairy tale and cosmic horror that feels truly sublime; a unique portrayal of the magical vastness of things and our flickering place on the edge of it all.

We’re not bogged down in needless exposition, though; there’s still a nice level of ambiguity and the unknown here. We see a lot of this incredible universe Langan has crafted (and which makes references to his previous short story, “Mother of Stone”), but said universe is a huge one and the spectacle on offer here amounts to a tantalising glimpse.

I couldn’t find a thing wrong with The Fisherman. It’s the kind of book you want to get right back into the moment you finish the last line (which, as much as I love something, is not a sentiment I often have). There’s so much detail here, so much careful world- and character-building in Langan’s work that you could find something new in it every time you revisited it. I’d go as far as to call it a masterpiece, and definitely one of the best works of cosmic horror, or any horror, or, hell, any fiction, I’ve read in the past however many years I’ve been alive. That probably sounds gratuitous, but you only think that because you haven’t read it.

At one point, Abe ponders the question, “Can a story haunt you? Possess you?” This one did. It’s been a week or so since I finished it, but I can still feel its barbs under my skin, the sharp grain of its legacy rubbing between eyelid and eyeball, lingering obstinately in my peripherals.

Review: The North Water

The North Water
The North Water by Ian McGuire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The brutal and poetic lovechild of Herman Melville and Cormac McCarthy, The North Water is a beautiful gut-punch of a book that, strangely, seems both to rush past in a blur and to linger at the same time. But neither of those are bad things.

McGuire’s descriptions here are beyond vivid. His prose paints the world in bright, nauseating strokes. We see every open sore, every bruise and cut, and we smell the shit and sweat and blood spilled. Nothing is left out and nothing shied away from, and I loved this about it. Its lack of shyness might be seen as gratuitous by some but its depiction not only of an ugly time period (and trade), but of the darker recesses of human nature, is unrelenting in its honesty.

It stumbles savagely between thriller, existential musing and survival story but never quite manages to commit to any one thing for too long. I liked this about it. Why should a book be just one particular thing? The novel smashes through every framework with such energy and passion and poetry that you won’t care – hell, you won’t have time – to stop and calculate the speed. It covers a lot of ground but it also bores deep.

I think that perhaps it falters a little at the end, and is more concerned with the random knot of events than a carefully plaited plot, but this plays into the deeper elements McGuire explores. There’s a kind of nihilism at work here, in the landscapes and characters, a workmanlike practicality to proceedings. The moment-to-moment lives of these dirty, brittle characters are the thread here. Nobody’s really a good – or at least pure, or even innocent – person, but nobody could be in the world McGuire depicts, and that’s kind of the point. As one of the characters says, “It is a grave mistake to think too much, he reminds himself, a grave mistake. Life will not be puzzled out, or blathered into submission, it must be lived through, survived, in whatever fashion a man can manage.”

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High-Rise (Film Review)

Ben Wheatley is an insanely cool and focused filmmaker, his movies treading that delicious line between high-brow arthouse fair and primal batshit-crazy entertainment. Which is just my flamboyant way of saying that they’re both intelligent and engaging as hell.

He’s made five feature-length films thus far (as well as directing a couple of Doctor Who episodes, one segment in The ABCs of Death, and the awesome music video for the Editors’ song, Formaldehyde), and each one is as refreshing and varied as the last.

His debut, Down Terrace (2009), is a quiet, clever, nasty little crime film with a micro budget, highly original script, and tight focus on family machinations, with a sharpened edge of black comedy. It’s probably the least-known of Wheatley’s work but I highly recommend it.

Kill List (2011) is a near-masterpiece that starts out as a claustrophobic examination of a hitman’s suburban family life, but soon descends sharply from one last lucrative job into a terrifying folk-horror nightmare.

Sightseers (2012) is probably one of the blackest comedies I’ve ever seen, a hilarious and utterly disturbing film that follows a deranged couple’s caravan journey-cum-killing spree across Britain.

An unravelling of hallucinogenic arthouse weirdness is the only way I can describe Wheatley’s disturbing period folk horror, A Field in England (2013). Probably his least accessible film but still a knockout of visuals, dialogue and suspense, it’s a story of alchemy, treachery and violence that plays out in a single location with a small (and dwindling) group of actors. It’s definitely a film that demands repeat viewing, but I’d probably say the same of all those previously mentioned, as well as Wheatley’s latest, and largest, film.

Like a lot of his work, High-Rise has been divisive to say the least. An adaptation of JG Ballard’s cult 1975 novel of the same name, the film follows the residents of a self-contained tower block as it descends from this glossy ordered world (complete with supermarket, school and swimming pool), into class warfare and human degradation. We see this microcosmic unravelling of civilisation through the eyes of several characters, primarily Tom Hiddleston’s Doctor Robert Laing, Luke Evans’ leery, Neanderthal-esque Wilder, and Jeremy Irons’ grand architect, Anthony Royal.

Speaking of which, what an incredible British cast, which is supplemented by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, James Purefoy, Keeley Hawes, Reece Shearsmith, Sienna Guillory, and Peter Ferdinando, all of whom are excellent, and clearly not afraid to get their hands – and all other body parts – dirty.

Wheatley has been mostly faithful in his translation of the book, working from a script by frequent collaborator and wife, Amy Jump. There are a few tweaks to the source material, but nothing apocryphal. I enjoyed the book when I read it, but found that it was hard to maintain focus on something that was basically an extended ramble of escalating violence and other aberrant behaviour. My fanboy hysteria for Wheatley aside, I was interested to see how successfully and/or faithfully this kind of material could be adapted to the big screen. Watching this film feels like being trapped in a madman’s head, and I don’t doubt that that was at least in the vicinity of the director’s intentions, not to mention Ballard’s. This isn’t a bad thing at all, but don’t go expecting any kind of cohesive narrative or conventional cause-and-effect structure with High-Rise. Both book and film are largely devoid of plot, and actually I feel like this kind of story works far better as a film, especially in this director’s hands.

High-Rise’s is an A to B plot in the sense that it marks a trajectory from the roof (A) to the gutter (B). It’s simple, and enormously effective in the way the descent is portrayed with all the visual and aural cues that surround the more obvious elements of depravation and degradation.

From the opening shots, Wheatley establishes an awesome rhythm of colour, movement and sound. There’s a vibrant busyness in every frame. So much is going on at all times but the camera doesn’t linger on any one thing for too long, instead subjecting the audience to a hubbub of fleeting moments. This, along with a 70s colour scheme that almost nauseates, adds to the increasingly schizophrenic atmosphere. Little things, too, add to the overall effect. The sky progressively reflects the overall mood, shifting from vibrant gold sunsets to an inclement monochrome. The lighting and the colours change, too, darkening and spreading.

Like Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s classic (and enormously overrated, but that’s another story) horror The Shining, there’s a sense from the beginning of High-Rise that this isn’t so much a slow descent into madness, as the madness seems already inherent, waiting just beneath the surface for its moment to emerge.

Clint Mansell’s predictably brilliant score softens the film’s edges in a way, adding an almost mocking, maybe ironic lightness. At first, anyway. As the violence increases and the etiquette crumbles and as the clouds outside swell grey with rain, the music takes a much darker tone. Every element of this film is in sync with every other; Wheatley has created a flourishing and perfectly balanced ecosystem, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.

Unlike a lot of films of this ilk, there isn’t really a central relationship or character fighting against the status quo – or destruction thereof. Nobody is immune, and all give in, often casually, even gleefully, to this shedding of inhibitions. A kid scratches the word “arss” onto a table and his mother tells him with a nonchalant tone, “That’s not how you spell arse, darling.”

Interactions between the characters are fleeting and often brutal, boiled down to sex, bloodshed or some primal clan mentality. About halfway through the film a character claims that, “We’re all bio-robots now. We can’t live without the equipment we surround ourselves with. Cameras, cars, telephones.” But as the building starts to deteriorate, and the madness and violence escalates, the film proves him wrong. Society degenerates into a primitive hunter-gatherer structure as everybody settles into a kind of self-contained post-apocalypse within the building.

High-Rise is a masterful creation that shimmers with the talent of its director, its cast, and everyone else involved in its production, but to me it also feels like something I’m on the edge of really “getting,” if only I could grasp that last piece of the puzzle. Also, watching humanity at its flabby, bloody ugliest does lose some of its appeal as the film progresses. This is far from a deal-breaker, though, and it’s a refreshing change to watch something as different and textured as this. The ending, too, depicts a really interesting power-shift that’s subversive and weighty without being ham-fisted or glaring in its execution.

At the end of it, High-Rise has been beautifully, painstakingly made on every level, I’m just not sure if I enjoyed it to quite the same heights as Wheatley’s previous films. But I’ve only watched it once so far, and that will likely change with more viewings. It’s definitely something I want to re-watch, and that can only be a good thing. Either way, this is another interesting and original entry on Wheatley’s increasingly impressive CV, and I’ll be first in line to see more of his work.

Review: The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature

The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature
The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite the odd splinter of racist nonsense, HP Lovecraft’s seminal study of horror literature is pretty damn good, and one of the most thorough examinations of its time.

This is Lovecraft, so the text is not without the odd bruise of purple prose, but this is a nice and not too cloying touch that marks the essay as his own and, importantly, doesn’t get in the way of the information he is relaying to the reader. In fact, if anything, the subject matter on offer here welcomes HP’s sparing flourishes.

In ST Joshi’s introduction to this edition, explains that Lovecraft’s catalogue of horror writers from antiquity to (his) present inevitably left some names and works out, and that his knowledge in some areas is a little scant. But for all the supposed omissions or oversights here, this is still a text that leaves the reader buzzing with the possibilities of further reading, and a lot of it. Well-known writers like Poe, Machen and Blackwood are given equal airtime along with names I’d not heard of before, like Herbert Gorman and Leonard Cline. I finished the essay with a long list of names and stories to chase up. This edition also has a lengthy appendix of notes and an enormous bibliography of all the authors and works Lovecraft mentions.

A necessity for both fans of horror and those new to the genre.

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Swords v. Cthulhu (Review)


I’ll be honest, I’m a bit of a salivating fan of Jesse Bullington and Molly Tanzer, two writers whose work consistently sets high standards for weird fiction. Both incorporate humour, action, terror and suspense into their work in the most wonderful and original ways. Their characters are so real and honest, burdened with fallibility, and the worlds they build thrive inside you long after you’ve scraped every last delicious word from whatever work of theirs you’ve consumed.

A kind of pleasant indigestion, maybe?

But I digress.

The short version of my praise-singing is this: the fact that I’d enjoy a Lovecraft-themed anthology edited by both of these genius writers is an absolute no-brainer. That anthology is Swords v Cthulhu, which the cover’s tagline describes as “swift bladed action in the horrific world of H.P. Lovecraft.” The parameters this criteria sets are quite broad, and have bred an incredible variety of work, from more sombre, gritty historical pieces to the soaring pulp that leans towards the sword and sorcery subgenre.

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy of the book, which comes out today from Stone Skin Press, and which you can and should and will buy it from this link right here.

This is the kind of collection that makes you lie to yourself as you promise to read just one more story, just one more before you surrender to a nightmare-riddled sleep, but you’re not to be trusted and so the promises keep falling and breaking until dawn bullies the night away and reveals you, eyes dry and heart stammering and this beautiful big volume of short story-shaped terrors clutched in your trembling hands.

But gratuitous metaphors aside, this is a superb anthology that mates pulp madness with a seriously sharp sense of character and world-building and blind, sweat-soaked terror, giving us a unique creature far removed from the herd of pallid pastiche that can be a danger for any anthology with Cthulhu (or other related Mythos terms) in its title.

So, the stories themselves. It’s a hefty body of work, and I won’t talk about all twenty-two of the entries collected here, or you’ll be reading forever. They’re all great, really, and I didn’t find a single note out of tune among them. Here, then, are those stories that really stood out for me, that left a bloody, slimy impact and burrowed into my head to lay their vile eggs.

John Langan never disappoints, and his “The Savage Angela in: The Beast in the Tunnels” cuts this anthology’s ribbon with originality and flare. His mature, butter-smooth prose works well with the more swashbuckling theme here, and is juxtaposed beautifully with the characters’ crisp dialogue. Langan’s story is veined with melancholy, something he excels at in all his work, and which adds a delightful flavour to the narrative’s already complex palate. His monsters, too, are always a surprise and a pleasure, and Angela’s primary foe is no exception; a decidedly un-Lovecraftian beast that nicely offsets the story’s other more cosmic elements.

Michael Cisco’s entry, “Non Omnis Moriar (Not All of Me Will Die),” is actually a sequel to Lovecraft’s own short work, “The Very Old Folk.” The latter takes the rather clunky form of a letter recounting a dream of a Roman legion encountering the usual malignant Lovecraftian force and coming out on the losing side. The meat of the story is rather good though, giving the reader a setting and time period that’s a nice departure from H.P.’s usual fair.

Cisco abandons Lovecraft’s modern-day framing device and instead throws us right into the ancient Roman world. This is an excellent choice, and gives the narrative a sense of gritty immediacy that Lovecraft’s original lacked. We follow a small group of men sent into the mountains to discover what they can about the previous expedition’s killers, “those nameless, monstrous gods of the mountain people.” The character interactions here are superb and tightly drawn, as is every moment of the narrative. It reminded me a little of Neil Marshall’s chase film Centurion, with extra helpings of horror and weirdness. I really felt my sanity crumbling along with the characters’ as they descend into a wilderness of horrors.

This piece also contains one of its genre’s more unsettling dwarves, trumping Donald Sutherland’s tormentor in Don’t Look Now and closely rivalling Laird Barron’s skin-crawling Rumpelstiltskin from his novel, The Croning. Some of the stories in this anthology are much more colourful and frivolous, erring on the side of adventure, but Cisco’s is one of the most disturbing entries, inflicting a real sense of madness onto the reader with its monsters and shifting reality. There’s a terror here you can really taste. I’m not as familiar with Cisco’s much-lauded work as I should be, but if this is any indication of his output, I’d better get onto it ASAP.

“The Lady of Shallot” by Carrie Vaughn is a short, sharp morsel, cleverly deconstructing fairy tale tropes and throwing in some tentacles for good measure. There’s also a cutting sense of humour underlying the horror and ribaldry that elevates Vaughn’s tale to memorable heights.

A. Scott Glancy’s “Trespassers” is another tale which, like Cisco’s, falls more under the squirming paper-cut sort of horror than it does the gleeful sword-and-sorcery pedigree that makes up the grist of this anthology. Which is not to say that it doesn’t entertain. It does, and enormously so, but more in the way of filling my sleep with nightmares than with dreams of gallivanting sword-fights and faraway lands. A harrowing tale set some time during the nineteenth century about an expedition travelling through an inhospitable mountain range in Asia, “Trespassers” is one of my favourite short stories, period. The prose here is deceptively understated, the language crisp and restrained. The grimy dread is palpable from the start, evoked by the terrain through which the characters travel and the inhuman enemies that stalk them (unpleasant dwarves feature in this story too, this time in much greater and more terrifying numbers). The primal terror Glancy evokes here is genius. The aesthetic is a really vile shamanistic one, which is a nice alternative to the Westernised fair more common to Lovecraftian fiction. Like Cisco’s story, “Trespassers” depicts another descent into certain death and/or worse, a toe-curling uphill slog that culminates in a relentless, breathless swell of carnage and horror.

“The Dan no Uchi Horror,’ by Remy Nakamura is a brutal, bloody tale of familial horror set in feudal Japan, which makes for a rich and brilliantly realised setting. Nakamura pits a strong female samurai against a variety of tentacled monstrosities, all backlit with bright hot language that burns as much as it beguiles.

“St Baboloki’s Hymn for Lost Girls” by L. Lark has a fleeing poetry to it, a mixture of myth and fable evocative of a tale told by firelight, beneath a crowd of bright, listening stars. It’s a story kind of like steam, curling and intangible, but capable of blistering you the longer you hold your hand over it. The imagery here is magical, from a saint made of flies to a towering but surprisingly polite monster. A sense of tragedy pervades Lark’s story, too, and it reminded me a little of that wonderful video game, Shadow of the Colossus.

John Hornor Jacobs’ “The Children of Yig” features another snarling, awesome female protagonist, this one holding her own as the newest member of a Viking raiding party that of course runs into some unexpectedly eldritch forces, which are drawn from a combination of Norse mythology and Lovecraft’s mythos. Jacobs’ language and dialogue is muscular and well-paced; there’s a sense of physicality to this world and its occupants that makes you recoil with every arrow wound and sword-thrust.

In “A Circle That Ever Returneth In,” Orrin Grey crafts an enormously entertaining work that skilfully mates the goofy fun of a choose-your-own-adventure story with monsters and dark magic, and the ultimate bleakness of the Lovecraftian philosophy. As its title suggests, there’s a circularity to the story here too, a sense of the inevitable that seems to tickle at the armpit of metafiction and self-awareness. Grey’s work is always a fresh and original pleasure to indulge in, and this story only adds to his already daunting résumé.

“Red Sails, Dark Moon” by Andrew S. Fuller is a vibrant, outrageous story set in the Dreamlands that bludgeons you with the kitchen sink – in the nicest possible way. It starts out big and bright and weird, and continues that way for most of the word count. The author dances across the years of the protagonist’s life with evocative and well-paced scenes. I know I probably should have, but I wasn’t expecting the climax; it was an emotional sucker-punch and a fantastic payoff. I think the last few lines might have been chopped, but it still works well as it is.

“Without Within” by Jonathan L. Howard is an excellent study in claustrophobia and paranoia, and ends with a nice little “WTF” twist that kept me thinking about it long after it was over.

Jason Heller’s “Daughter of the Drifting” opens with powerful, gag-inducing prose that never lets up, splattering the reader with a story of post-apocalyptic insanity and utter cosmic weirdness. Swords play a much larger role in Heller’s narrative than expected, and there’s a fantastic line where the narrator extrapolates on this: “Like lovers, blades were neutral, utilitarian, to be wielded however one’s will might bend them. They could be friends or foes, stolen or won, relations or strangers.” There’s a kind of utilitarian quality to the protagonist, too. Definitely one of the most original – and wonderfully textural – stories I’ve read, in this anthology or anywhere else.

“Of All Possible Worlds” by Eneasz Brodski is a tale of visceral gladiatorial combat in the Roman arena that quickly turns to hallucinatory madness and confusion. Just as the protagonist walks through the world as if in a dream, so the story feels like a waking haze. Dreams ooze into reality and back again with sickening ease. At one point the narrator proclaims that “every nerve had been frayed down to its raw, bleeding quick,” and I certainly felt that way, vicariously experiencing the horror myself. There’s a pleasing kind of bloody circularity to the story that gives it that little bit of extra weight, too. Also, add another point in the “malignant dwarves” column.

We finish off with Caleb Wilson’s hilarious and horrific “Bow Down Before the Snail King!”, and what a fantastic end to a fantastic anthology, in all senses of the word. Wilson fully embraces the sword and sorcery style of fantasy with his story of a treasure hunt that turns, as we expect from the start, to treachery and, for some, death. The heroes encounter a monster that would “crush the world just to satisfy the itch of curiosity.” It’s a vibrant story full of dark humour, madness and monsters, and an exploration of the monstrous in all it’s forms.

It’s also one that I found myself quoting every few lines, relishing Wilson’s clever and delicious prose, the poetry of his word play. The heroes’ realisation, for example, that “there was never any treasure to be found in the hall. No kind of treasure, except that coveted by a glacial alien mind. Fear, flesh, souls; all three, churned into a piquant slurry.” Or when the protagonist feels like “she was tracking something in a bad dream it would have been wiser to wake from.”

Alas, I had to wake from this particular dream, bristling with blades and unspeakable appendages, but what a varied and unique dream it was. There’s as much diversity of race, gender and sexuality here as there is of setting, time period and tone. Every entry in this anthology is as varied as the next, but what they all have in common is a kind of magical quality, a depth and a colour that makes every single piece of work here a necessity. Not just for the collection, but for the reader to consume.

The truth is, there are a lot of Lovecraft-inspired anthologies oozing out of the woodwork every year, and it’s just a matter of statistics that not all of them are going to be as original or scary or fun as they could be. Some of them, though, exceed all expectations, and Swords v Cthulhu is one of them. Bullington and Tanzer have done a wonderful job compiling these stories, and I cannot recommend it enough. Buy this book for the credibility of its editors, and love it for the exquisite writers and works they’ve so lovingly filled it with.


On The BFG and Film Adaptations (Review)

Any time a book (or graphic novel, or any other paper-based work of art) is subjected to a film adaptation, alterations of the source material are made on some level. Ultimately everybody has an opinion about such adaptations, and the changes that are made to fit this largely visual, aural medium. I often see Watchmen criticised for being too slavishly faithful, but I can safely assume that Zack Snyder would have drowned under the criticism had he made any significant changes to Alan Moore’s venerated graphic novel. Personally I think Snyder did a magnificent job, and am eternally grateful that the world was never subjected to Terry Gilliam’s frankly awful-sounding version (to be clear though, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of Gilliam’s output).

Anyway, I could rant on about Watchmen for hours but I’ll save that for another post, because right now I’m supposed to be talking about Roald Dahl. I can think of seven films based on works by this classic children’s author that I’ve enjoyed on some level, and which all made changes of varying degrees and levels of success. The Jeremy Irons-starring Danny the Champion of the World I vaguely remember enjoying and was, I think, mostly faithful to its source, minus a few characters and scenes. Both versions of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory take major liberties with the book but are both charming/creepy in their own way. Gene Wilder was the best thing about the 1971 version. Tim Burton’s 2005 film seems to get a lot of flak but is actually much more inventive and fun than it gets credit for, and Johnny Depp’s insane take on Willy Wonka is both terrifying and adds a surprising amount of depth to the character. Danny DeVito’s adaptation of Matilda again makes several large changes but still captures that delightful and often gross magic that made the book so much fun.

Stop-motion versions were made of both Fantastic Mr Fox and James and the Giant Peach, by Wes Anderson and Henry Selick respectively (although the latter was framed by live-action sequences). Both are vastly different from Dahl’s versions, particularly Anderson’s Mr Fox – which basically becomes a Wes Anderson film with anthropomorphic claymation animals, in the best possible way – but both are also marvellous and a pure joy to watch. The industrial/steampunk shark in Selick’s Peach is also a big favourite.

And then we have Nicholas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches. Although it significantly softens the ending (which Dahl himself apparently referred to as “utterly appalling”), Roeg’s film is otherwise wonderful. It terrified me as a child, but even through a tight lattice of fingers I couldn’t stop watching. It has a beautifully grim atmosphere, from the Norway-shot fairytale-esque prologue to Angelica Huston’s Grand High Witch removing her human face to reveal the bony, hair-speckled monstrosity beneath. These practical effects, so wonderfully created by the Jim Hensen Company, are part of what give the film its gruesome, terrifying charm. We just don’t see this kind of darkness in kids’ movies anymore (apart from maybe Coraline and a handful of others) and it’s a real shame.

(On a side note, I’m still waiting for someone to make a gelatinous, grimy version of The Twits. IMDB tells me that actually there’s one in development, but I won’t hold my breath.)

So we’re seeing a pattern here: mostly excellent adaptations that seem to capture the spirit of Dahl’s fun, whacky, heartfelt and often quite dark stories without necessarily keeping every plot point or character. In basically all of these cases, I think the divergence from the source material works far better than if they’d clung faithfully to the books. Really it’s that tone, that spark that counts more than anything.

So, finally, how does Stephen Spielberg’s big-budget version of one of Dahl’s best loved works, The BFG, rate?

The first half really sings, and what a beautiful, magical, bittersweet song. We’re introduced to the independent and somewhat mouthy insomniac Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), roaming around the orphanage she calls home at 3am, the “witching hour.” Through her window she spies another nocturnal wanderer, a giant who snatches her up and carries her off to his home. Her kidnapper is the Big Friendly Giant (BFG for short), an outcast among his much larger and meaner race of child-gobbling monsters. The BFG, on the other hand, is a sweet soul. He’s a vegetarian, persisting on the as-disgusting-as-they-sound Snozzcumbers, and he roams the human world at night, dispensing the pleasant dreams he catches and crafts to all the sleeping children of London.

Created in part with motion capture and the performance of the magnificent Mark Rylance, the BFG looks fucking incredible. Rylance breathes innocent, fallible life into this idiosyncratic character, whose language, expression and even posture paint him as a sweet, eccentric soul you’d basically be a monster not to love. Every shot he inhabits is hypnotic; I couldn’t take my eyes off the facial detail and body language (and damn cool hair). Even his dialogue, which worked so well in the book, becomes a delicious vernacular uttered with halting, upside-down relish by Rylance, whose talent and rhythm as a Shakespearean actor is evident.

From the antiquity of London’s cobbled, lamp-lit streets, to the fresh rocky green of giant country, there’s a palpable atmosphere here that the technical wizardry only adds to, a kind of old-fashioned feel to things that gives the film its magical, honest quality. This makes a refreshing change from the usual bright, clean kids’ films that are the regular output for large studios. Not to say that those are all bad, just prolific. By contrast, even the pacing of The BFG seems more languid at first, focusing more on the protagonists’ interaction and development, a pair of outcasts getting to know each other in a beautiful, magical world. There’s not much of a plot here, but that’s okay because we’re happy to go on this weird journey with two interesting characters, and because it seems like the film’s leading us somewhere, a promise of something a little dark and sweet, mysterious and different.

But it’s a promise Spielberg ultimately reneges on.

The problem is, you can’t sustain a whole film with sweet weirdness, but as soon as a plot and some conflict tries to rear its head in the film, things derail. This would work if the threat of the child-eating giants was a stronger contrast to the benevolent aspects/characters, but this is where it falls short. Apart from their creative names, the “evil giants” are more like dumb, ham-fisted playground bullies than tangible threats. Jemaine Clement is excellent as Fleshlumpeater, the chunky, dim-but-mean ringleader (and again the motion capture is astonishing), but he doesn’t have much to work with. Spielberg shies away from the whole child-chewing aspect by reducing it to the implication a few newspaper headlines, dreams, and lines of dialogue can muster. From what I vaguely remember, I’m sure there was much more to this part of the story in the book. I suppose this is to allow the film a wider audience appeal but it feels like a cop-out, like the filmmakers don’t trust that it’s not actually a bad thing to scare the kids even a little.

Once the film’s second half introduces the Queen, some slapstick and a bunch of helicopters, things become less atmospheric and more formulaic. I realise this is the gist of what happens in the book, but I feel like there was an opportunity here to use a bit of that creative filmic license that directors and screenwriters so often put into play. I feel like Spielberg could have changed some elements he was faithful to and been more faithful in the parts he overlooked. The conflict is resolved far too quickly, the villains bested with gratuitous ease, and ultimately there’s nothing much at stake, apart from a few scenes of superficial tension. All that sweetness, all that character- and world-building is rendered that much less bright in the face of it.

Where The Witches was brave enough to scare the shit out of me because it pitted children against a truly scary, dangerous enemy, The BFG washes its darkness down to an at-first promising twilight on which the sun never truly sets.

It’s not a bad film by any means. Spielberg’s touch is at times familiar and homely, and the expected – but always welcome – John Williams score tinkers about in the background. Everything looks creased and lived-in. There’s even a lovely nod to Quentin Blake’s beautifully scratchy illustrations from the book. Ruby Barnhill and especially Mark Rylance hold up the film on the strength, passion and honesty of their performances. The visuals and art direction are all beautiful. It is mostly a lovely film, but it just could have been an amazing one that did something different with the source material, while keeping that contrast of sweet and dark, rather than playing it safe and sanding down the edges.