Haunting Dyatlov Pass Mystery

Even 54 years after this tragedy occurred, there is no definite answer to what had happened there on till then still unnamed pass on the slopes of Mount Otorten and Kholat Syakhl. The whole world is now familiar with the puzzle that was until the fall of USSR quite contained within its borders. People in the region, but above all, the still living friends and relatives of unfortunate members of the expedition who died so gruesomely, still wish to have the answers – How? Why? Who? Or… What?

THE INCIDENT IN THE BOOKS AND DOCUMENTARIES

In order to get some more insight into what happened there that fatal February 1959, I’ve tried to find some books written about it. Not any fictionalized version, but serious non-fiction work about it. There are three brand new books (written this year) that came to my attention:

  • Dyatlov Pass Keeps Its Secret by Irina Lobatcheva, Vladislav Lobatchev and Amanda Bosworth;
  • Dead Mountain: The True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar;
  • Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident by Keith McCloskey.

Keith McCloskey: Mountain of the Dead (The History Press, 2013, ISBN: 9780752491486)

Not having that much money to spend on every book out there, I chose only one, and that is the last one. I didn’t regret the choice – the book was great in every sense. It didn’t try to persuade me into anything and offered on the plate as many theories as were available at the time of its print – some quite convincing, some totally unbelievable. I liked that the author was of opinion every thought was worth hearing, never mind how weird it would sound to an average reader. There were no prejudices set in advance against any theory. I wish only there were some sketches of the investigation (or theories). Charts at the end of the book were all right, but not enough informative for so many data in the text. I know it might be said pictures dumb down the content, but still, a sketch or two would have been helpful to me, as my understanding of distances and an area in question is tad limited.

I highly recommend this book for anybody who wants to know more about this tragedy in one comprehensive volume. The sad thing is only one will get out of it full of information but with not much more insight, because cloud of secrecy still remains above every word and document. There are probably many files yet to be uncovered.

For a quick overview, one may check some articles written about the case:

As for my complaint – not enough images – I quickly solved that issue with absolutely brilliant documentary film made by Television Agency of Ural, translated as Mystery of Dyatlov’s Pass. Some documentaries tend to be boring. This one no – it was amazing. Not only it was obvious the research was done meticulously and highly respective of all people interviewed, they didn’t try to push their own views of the story. They just offered the facts and words of interviewees about the participants of the expedition, the search teams and the whole investigation. In my opinion, this documentary film is the showcase how stories about real life events should be done.

THE INCIDENT AS INSPIRATION FOR AMERICAN CINEMA AND TV

Devil's Pass (2013)  - American PosterDevil’s Pass (2013) is, scientifically (and in any other sense) speaking, nonsense. It had incorporated some facts known from the files into the film, but didn’t make much effort to stay truthful, for the thrill sake of course. And the conclusion to the story? Risible effort to kill two flies with one stroke, mixing American mysteries with the Russian ones, and voilà! Here was the answer to both. However, as a movie, if I dismiss the background of the story, it was entertaining. Some puzzles (seriously, you must suspend the belief…) have nicely fitted to the beginning of the story. The only thing that was pretty bad for today’s standards, was CGI, as if from videogames.

Dark Matters: Twisted But True (season 2, episode 7) didn’t cover the story badly, it just oversimplified it. Well, in the lack of any other material, I guess it might serve in educational purposes.

NOW… WHAT DO I THINK?

Please, do not read further if you wish to hear and/or read the facts and/or theories for yourself. Besides, the paragraphs below are just my disconnected ramblings, my efforts to make some sort of simplified conclusion for myself. All theories were mentioned in the book and documentary film highlighted above, or I’ve read about them in the articles written about the case. In short, don’t take my words for granted.

What had exactly happened out there? It wasn’t first expedition done there. These mountains were popular among Sverdlovsk ‘tourists’ – the Russian equivalent for amateur sportsmen, mountaineers, hikers and such. The expedition itself really wasn’t something special, it was done before and after the mountains were opened again for the public. The issue though might be that this whole Sverdlovsk Oblast was a huge military zone. Without quite precise borders and limits in between, with many secret facilities, not to mention cities that were only numbers without marks on any road maps. Sverdlovsk itself (today Yekaterinburg) was a closed city back then. The fact that the military was involved in the search and in the investigation still makes people highly suspicious, because it certainly wasn’t the first time some mountaineers went missing and there were so many highly ranked officials around. The search itself started many days later than was expected to begin with. The case was at last abruptly closed with unsatisfying conclusions such as ‘death from hypothermia’ and ‘by an unknown elemental force’. We do not doubt that they died of hypothermia (and brutal injuries some victims had), we doubt willingness to investigate the causes that led to such deaths. To say they died that way would be just the same as to say an old man died of heart attack during the bank robbery without mentioning the robbery itself.

It could be said that it was in the spirit of USSR government back then to hush anything that might make people uneasy. However, it is unfathomable that after so many years government still clings to secrecy, and so stubbornly. If that was a sort of military accident, possible culprits in the case are probably long gone or too old to be charged for anything – if that was indeed an accident.

Some files are revealed to the public, but some requests mysteriously refer to the numbered documents that obviously aren’t. Some claim there was another diary, written by only one of the members. Some still hint at non-disclosure agreements that participants of search expeditions and investigation were obligated to sign. Only many years later, some of them revealed their thoughts of what had happened. The testaments of people who were involved in the search clash in weird way – tent wasn’t first seen at the spot where it was claimed to be found, as if it was planted there for some reason. It wasn’t put up as an experienced mountaineer would pitch it, especially when one compares it with the photographs of the same tent in the days before. There were bodies around it when it was observed from the airplane, why there wasn’t any when it was found a day later?

So, what was it? Some plain natural disaster maybe? I find that explanation the least plausible, because slopes on the photos themselves do not suggest that kind of calamity possible. Even if we do take that in consideration – an avalanche or a ragging snowstorm – why would experienced mountaineers flee the tent without any warm clothes and shoes on them? I am certain fear makes people do a lot of irrational things, but those weren’t incidents they weren’t in their minds prepared for. If an avalanche occurred in the middle of the night, I think they still would know what to do. They would run from the tent in a fear of getting buried under the snow, sure, but not without grabbing warm clothes and shoes first. How scared of a natural disaster they had to be to go into such coldness without protection? Snowstorms wouldn’t force people to use the knife either, in order to escape in the other direction – an avalanche might, I suppose. However, they wouldn’t afterwards try to climb a tree (a supposition though) in order to get a visual of the tent before going back. Unless there was something else in the darkness. Or somebody else.

The typical signs of hypothermia definitely leading to death are paradoxical undressing and terminal burrowing. Some victims were found almost naked, but they were unclothed after they died and those pieces of wardrobe were found on the others – not really irrational behaviour for the latter. That anyway doesn’t explain why they all went out of the tent so unprepared in the first place? Confusion and disorientation doesn’t seem applicable to those three found closer to the tent – the position of their bodies suggests they tried to get back to the tent but it was too late. The group of bodies found in May seemed as if they really attempted to make themselves not only a fire but a shelter also. Two of them were probably too badly injured to go back on their own. One of them wore the clothes of those two from the first group that built fire by a cedar tree. Why were they separated in two groups at all?

Those names, Otorten and Kholat Syakhl come from Mansi words for Don’t Go There and Dead Mountain, definitely appealing words to many lovers of supernatural. It doesn’t take much effort to make ourselves believe that some local forest deity was angered by the presence of the people on its mountain so as to dismiss any rational answer to the mystery, or to go to the opposite direction, that some Mansi tribesmen were led to believe that enough to commit a crime themselves. But, if that was indeed a case, then there would have been many more corpses around, as these mountains were popular among mountaineers and hikers, and still are. Besides, it is said these two mountains aren’t Mansi sacred nor taboo sites – Mansi were even very helpful during the search. Most likely that choice of words had really nothing to do with Mansi religion at all, but rather very rationally with the harsh living and hunting conditions of Northern Ural mountains, as Mansi tribes were mostly nomadic hunters and herders throughout their history.

Some theorists believe no deities were involved, but UFOs. They base their theories on some testimonies relaying there were some lights on that unfortunate night sky. Well, that might partly explain what might have frightened the students so much as to leap out of the tent scantily clad for the freezing night outside, but injuries do not explain that much. They were all found quite far from the tent. Some were found only with bruises and frostbites, while the others had injuries that defy any logical explanation. According to positions of their bodies, only three were on the way to the safety of the tent, while the rest of them were found frozen farther away in two separate groups. No, no. You can’t make me believe any UFO did this. Nor any snowman. I do not dismiss the possibility there might be some strange creatures up there – after all, we do still discover many new species every single day in the jungles and in the oceans, why not high up in the mountains too? The whole tongue removed from one victim does suggest a monstrosity, but injuries on victims were too random to be caused by a single person or a creature – maybe there was a group of them, but why would they then allow them to scatter like that and afterwards just leave them alone?

I think we do not have to go that far. The whole area was a military zone during the Cold War. There were many scientific facilities, whose purposes were mostly classified. It’s not hard to imagine some were there for new weaponry tests. It is peculiar that two years before there happened a huge nuclear disaster, in size a third after Chernobyl and Fukushima, called Kyshtym disaster, after the city that was closest to the site of radioactive contamination. Twenty years later, there was Sverdlovsk anthrax leak. There were also some Gulag camps nearby. Forgive me for jumping to conclusions, but don’t you think it was at that time a bit disturbing place to live in? All right, let’s not forget, beside having military facilities and forced labor camps around, Yekaterinburg was then (and now) highly respectable city in academic circles, a “leading educational and scientific center of the Urals”. After all, some young victims of the expedition were students at the local UPI University.

Military involvement is curious also because the main investigator in the case used Geiger counter in order to trace the level of radioactivity on the mountain and on the victims. Who in his/her right mind uses such an item in simple missing-mountaineers-frozen-in-the-snow case? Only the one who thinks the case isn’t that simple. And indeed there were some traces of radioactivity found on clothes. However, at least one of the victims was an active participant in the Kyshtym rescue activities. Some witnesses that were on the funeral claim the skin of the deceased was unusually deeply tanned.

The book goes into detail about some weapons able to produce terrible internal injuries, even from afar. Weaponry isn’t my fad, but radioactivity in this case indicates some military mishap might have occurred that night. Could it be that, in order to exterminate some Ivdel Gulag escapees without much effort, military accidentally tested some new weaponry on young campers as well? Could it be that the campers simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time? They could have seen some fireballs (UFO lights from previous paragraphs?) approaching the camp and tried to escape them as fast as possible. Three of them didn’t manage to escape the blasts unscathed hence such injuries. There didn’t have to be anybody else on the site. If soldiers of any kind were really personally there, and wanted to eliminate them for any reason, I doubt military would be that clumsy. Not only injuries were quite strange, military would probably have ensured their bodies weren’t to be found ever, regardless of the outcry of their relatives. It wasn’t so unusual to disappear back then.

If there was no trace of military activity (bombs, missiles and such) at the campsite, beside some radioactive matters, that doesn’t mean military didn’t have enough time to remove them. Maybe they even managed to transfer the place of crime somewhere else. The place where they were found was suspicious itself. According to their route plans, Dyatlov group wasn’t supposed to be on Kholat Syakhl at all. Mount Otorten was their target, in the other direction. They weren’t inexperienced beginner scouts. It was unlikely they would change plans on some whim, especially not without writing that fact down in their group diary, although who knows, maybe they would have written that down hadn’t something happened to them before. Unless they were supposed to be there, but for quite different reasons. Some conspiracy theorists say they might have been spies. Yes. Some do claim that because some members of the group were odd, like Semyon Zolotarev who died right on the eve of his 38th birthday, more than ten years older than the rest of them. Maybe they were all celebrating his birthday with drink and food that caused them to momentarily lose their minds? Now I am going too far…

I just got a headache from so many theories and conspiracies around. I would gladly cut them all down to one. There was simply some embarrassing military test gone totally wrong, the government tried to hush it, but instead created bigger mess than it should have been, so they closed the case without even trying to come up with any other conclusion beside hypothermia. If only things would be that simple… If only there are really some documents still waiting to be found. If only there are some witnesses finally willing to speak out despite of non-disclosure agreements. But as it seems, there aren’t any for now.

Igor, Yuri, Lyudmila and Tibo - Goodbye to YuriI am sincerely sorry for the deceased. Zinaida Kolmogorova, Lyudmila Dubinina, Rustem Slobodin, Semyon Zolotarev, Alexander Kolevatov, Georgyi Krivonischenko, Yuri Doroshenko, Nicolas Thibeaux-Brignolle and Igor Dyatlov. They deserve to have their deaths explained. They experienced something terrible and died in such a horrible way, out there in the freezing darkness, with no help available for hundred miles around. Some relatives and friends of theirs are still living. They deserve to know the truth. The Dyatlov Foundation, led by one of Dyatlov’s friends, Yuri Kuntsevich, is still trying to make the government to reopen the case. There was somewhere a mention the only surviving member of the group, Yuri Yudin, felt guilty whole life, just because he wasn’t there with them – he had to go back home before time because of a leg injury. In the photograph above on the left one can see how much they cared for him. How innocent and happy all they looked in all the photos! Who would have imagined such a fate was destined to them? And we might never find out why…

Mansfield Park – the most unromantic romance ever written


Jane Austen: Mansfield Park (Miramax Books, movie tie-in edition, 1999, ISBN: 9780786885244)
Despite enticing film tie-in cover, the actual romance between our heroine and the hero starts and ends with the last chapter of the novel, and without much fuss. It seemed as if Jane Austen got tired of the story when it at last came to its conclusion, after 400 pages of meticulous descriptions of seductions and refusals. I often wondered how on Earth Austen managed to write so much… about what exactly? The story may be put in two sentences – Fanny Price got lifted from her poor plebeian background to the wealth and noble dignity of her uncle’s family where she gradually fell in love with her cousin. (Don’t even start that topic – at Austen’s time it didn’t seem so big deal, and although I still got the creeps over that issue, I had to get over it.) She secretly (of course) desired (and did manage) to marry him at last, but in meantime she had to endure the advances of a man whose consistency along with her own she would firmly test and finally (dis)prove.

The main storyline however wasn’t what really interested Austen – at least that’s my take on it – the relationships and the clashes of different character types were what delighted her along with the issues women of her time were dealing with, such as peer and parental pressures, marital decisions and its consequences. I loved all those details, and the way all those depictions of different marriages, different lifestyles and different classes were interwoven. One could acutely feel the atmosphere of that time and the state of Fanny’s mind in every turmoil of her life. At first glance, for an example, the situation of Fanny Price’s mother did not appear relevant, but related to Bertram’s family and wealthy Mr Crawford’s proposal, it held an important leverage, along with Mr Crawford’s kindness and attention in other fields during that wooing time. Interesting though, it’s difficult from those descriptions to figure out Austen’s personal thoughts on marriages. It doesn’t appear that she disapproves marriages for love in general, after all, Fanny marries for love, but those that lack everything else – like that of Fanny Price’s mother. She believed I guess in prudent liaisons, where the partners in love can offer to each other not only love but also respect and security of some kind.

Fanny Price isn’t quite appealing character. Reportedly, even Austen didn’t like her very much, but rather challenged herself to invent such a main character. Young Fanny Price resembles a lot Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and the older one seems equally… virtuous and equally difficult to care about. Her opinions are so firm and her lifestyle so rigid, almost as if every hour of her life had to be strictly regulated and defined or she would lose her wits. BUT – very big but – I really liked how she stood up firmly against all persuasions to marry Crawford. I really liked how Austen transformed Fanny from insecure child to fully grown woman with her own mind and stand, despite my own opinions of them. I was appalled by all those speeches made to her – she was barely eighteen and it was really expected of her to jump on that chance to marry even if she doesn’t love the groom in question, because she was mere woman and supposed not to think at all, certainly not with her own head and especially not with her own heart. They almost convinced me she was making mistake! Although that might be due the hard time I had swallowing the fact she was in love with her own first cousin.

The problem remains also, that Austen did never fail to make us understand, women of her time and class were considered merely as beautiful and fragile ornaments – it’s enough to observe the way Lady Bertram was treated by her own family – and that makes their decision-making more difficult. Every decision that would be beyond social expectations was met with terrible resistance in their inner circles and even with abandon if thoroughly conducted.

Maybe that’s why Austen didn’t elaborate much Edmund’s feelings towards Fanny. This wasn’t romance story at all. This was Fanny’s story, and the story of all women (and men in some cases!) that have to fight argumentatively for the right to make their own choices. Charlotte Lucas from Pride and Prejudice might be an example of Austen’s contemporaries that bowed to such pressures from their peers and relatives. Austen did not try to sweeten these women’s deals, analyzing and even (perhaps) condemning them in more detail in this novel.

From all the adaptations, I was able to see Mansfield Park (1983), Mansfield Park (1999) and Mansfield Park (2007). The bonus was Metropolitan (1990), that did some direct (and honorable) references to this novel.

Mansfield Park (1983)

Mansfield Park (BBC, 1983)

This six episode long BBC adaptation of the novel followed the book the most faithfully, leaving out maybe two or three scenes from the whole book, and let me remind you, it is 400+ pages long one. Unfortunately, this version is also the dullest one, way too long and way too stiff. It wasn’t so theatrical as BBC’s Pride and Prejudice from 1980, but still was weird. There wasn’t even a hint of attraction between anybody! Maybe that’s mostly the fault of the costume and make-up department – the most frightful was Adam Ant hairstyle of poor Mr Yates and so obviously fake tan smeared over Tom Bertram upon his return from Antigua – but not a single person from the younger cast was worth attention, not enough to see beyond their pompous manners. Especially Fanny Price, who was depicted more as dim-witted old aunt than as timid, introverted late bloomer.

In this adaptation Fanny Price didn’t blossom at all. In the book, she is actually strong character that just happens to prefer backstage to the stage itself. She is more observer than performer, and her virtuous presence meant a lot to the integrity of the whole family in the quiet, positive manner. This Fanny Price is so impossible to like. There was no refinement and gentleness from her character in the book – when she did express herself, she seemed just demure as an old grumpy teacher we all used to know at one point in our lives. Although her personality does get more pronounced in the last two episodes, this Fanny Price lacks firmness and spirit – there was no spark in her eyes that her relatives seem to discover later in the novel.

And what a pair of creepy pomposities were Crawfords! It was impossible to see the appeal of them, unlike with Hayley Atwell from 2007 version and with Alessandro Nivola from 1999 version (I like the other two actors as well, but chose still those I prefer the most). It was more delight to see quite unrecognizable Gorden Kaye in the role different from René Artois (‘Allo, ‘Allo) and young Samantha Bond (Downtown Abbey, Miss Moneypenny from James Bond movies). Supposedly Jonny Lee Miller was Fanny Price’s younger brother in this series years before he would become her lover in the newer Mansfield Park adaptation, but if that was him, in those last two episodes, I caught only unrecognizable glimpses of him. The greatest delight though I found in watching marvelous Anna Massey’s performance as Mrs Norris and Angela Pleasance’s as Lady Bertram. Mr Yates was also fun to look at, acting so very differently from the others, as if he regretted being in this series so much he did the mockingly best of it.

Mansfield Park (1999)

Mansfield Park (1999)

While first adaptation harmed itself by following the book too closely, the second ruined its chances by taking too many liberties with it. Although I found myself liking Frances O’Connor’s interpretation of Austen’s Fanny Price, even that Fanny wasn’t the person described in the book, let alone the other characters, particularly Sir Thomas and Mr Crawford. Sir Thomas was made into awful slave rapist, while Mr Crawford had nothing substantial to offer to Fanny beside his looks and wealth. Why messing with the original novel? Why completely omitting William, why simplifying Fanny’s issue with Crawford that was in the book everything but simple, why adding some intricacies to Fanny’s character as if she wasn’t character good enough to portray faithfully on the screen? It must be dully noted though, for the additions to Fanny’s character, that the sources for the script were also Jane Austen’s letters and Juvenilia, which I haven’t read.

Movie as itself is perfectly all right, and would be for anyone who has not read the book. Even if Austen did not admire Fanny Price very much, she would probably feel this adaptation unfair to her… Now, the casting was great, especially Lindsay Duncan, successfully starring in two different roles. It was interesting to see some actors that were at time (almost) unknown outside UK, like James Purefoy, Sophia Miles, Justine Waddell, Amelia Warner etc.

Story is troublesome. In effort to depict Fanny’s constant nature, the other characters’ consistency suffered. I haven’t even for a moment thought this Fanny would ever like Crawford, as his portrayal on screen for better didn’t go beyond few easily dismissible words. In the book the doubt concerning her (and our!) decisiveness lingered quite a while before the end – this was portrayed better in earlier adaptation, but that one had issues with the unsympathetic actor having the role of Mr Crawford from whom I would run away without hesitation.

In short, this was solid movie, but not compelling enough… Considering even apart from Austen’s novel, it didn’t have enough spirit to care about it.

Mansfield Park (2007)

Mansfield Park (2007)

Oh what a horrid adaptation. Everything seemed so… anachronistic, to say the least. I couldn’t figure out the period of time it was set in – everything was in such disarray – odd, too modern dialogues, general looks of the characters, manners, clothing, dances, activities… I am so ashamed that the lack of funds for this film was so obvious. It hacked whole portions of the book just to remain within budget – I mean, to have a picnic instead of the ball that is anyway almost inseparable element of every period piece British TV and cinema produced? Really? And decision to portray already aloof Fanny secluded in Mansfield instead of sending her off to Portsmouth as punishment for not taking Mr Crawford’s offer at once – it was disastrous that much it completely wrecked the rest of the movie. That Portsmouth section of the book was important for her perception of different statures in life that might come out of different marriage decisions.

The only thing I was absolutely fascinated by, was gorgeous Hayley Atwell, who captured Mary Crawford’s character immaculately. Billie Piper seems good actress, but not really fit for this role – that is probably producers’ fault that wanted not Austen’s Fanny, but postmodern, feminist version of her. Blake Ritson was handsome Edmund, but his over-the-top falling in love performance measured in mere seconds of the end of the movie was too much for my already wrecked nerves. It insulted my intelligence much to see him so suddenly discovering her outer beauty, as if he were blind until now. For someone who’s been whole life with that other person, I think it would have been better if they had shown how he became enticed by her inner beauty, after all, the want of it was what disappointed him in Mary Crawford. The kiss was enchanting though.

I think the script, budget shortcomings and some unfortunate casting choices did great disservice to this novel. I fear because of this one, and the previous 1999 failure, we might not see proper adaptation for a while, and that’s a shame.

This novel deserves better treatment and I hope it will get it one day. We still have to find perfect Fanny Price and fair treatment of her relationship with Edmund. It is not required to follow every single scene from the book – some might be trimmed down without harming the heart of it indeed – just leave the crucial ones unscathed and please remain truthful to all the characters.

Metropolitan (1990)

Metropolitan (1990)

This movie actually has nothing to do with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park except for discussing it (as films go) quite extensively and directly. Audrey and Tom’s personalities even echo a bit Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram. Even a couple of other characters might be linked to the book too – the most interesting one, Nick, might be older Bertram brother, Rick might be a portrait of Mr Crawford and Serena of his sister. All right, that is a bit going too far.

The movie had an interesting take on the novel, as it being centered around one forbidden play, which it isn’t  of course. Nevertheless, that play had an important role in the book, as a reflection of each character’s values and opinions. I did wonder at first why Austen, better said, the main characters of the book, were so stiff about theatre in the house, but I think I got the reason behind it. I doubt Austen was against all the plays, but rather those that didn’t have any added value beyond the controversy. It was a period where conceit and pomposity were so often on the menu it was nothing out of ordinary, and despite Austen’s tendency to laugh about it, she was aware of importance of eloquence and proper manners for acceptance in social circles. Therefore, nobody would be against Shakespeare’s play, but would be against one that was a bit inappropriate having being performed by people who weren’t related to each other.

As movie itself, Metropolitan has something what many movies today do not have, a magnificent screenplay. On-screen presences and dialogues were remarkable, despite theirs depicting a world I am total stranger to, nor wish particularly to know more about. This whole debutante season in New York is so strange concept to me, I am not even sure about the period of time in which the story is situated. I felt also more as an observer than as a real participant to it. The conversations and the characters were anyway delightful. They were unconventional, certainly, but amusing, wholly shaped, and well, intelligent characters.

Coraline – Be Careful What You Wish For

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (Bloomsbury, movie tie-in edition, 2009, ISBN: 9780747597308)Coraline is award-winning children horror fantasy novella written in 2002 by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean. It is dark yet magical fairy tale about a girl whose end of the summer in the new abode turned out to be everything but ordinary. That new abode was a flat in an old, nightmarish looking mansion, that once might have been a property of some E.M. Forster’s contemporaries (you know, those having tennis courts behind their houses), but now was in disrepair, possibly because of some dark secrets that little girl unwittingly uncovered.

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (HarperFestival, movie tie-in edition, 2008, ISBN: 9780061649691)New surroundings, feeling of loneliness with always busy work-at-home parents and utter boredom silently paved the way through the bricks behind the door Coraline’s mother unlocked at her insistence. First marveling at the discovery that the door actually leads to whole new world that is exactly the same as the one she inhabits, only improved – then wondering, are these changes really for better or rather for worse. Is really better to have everything you wish? Are people really better the way you wish they are? So, Coraline was tempted to embrace that alternate world, but found out that world isn’t near so cool as it seemed to be at first. Naturally bright, courageous and genuinely kind in heart, she has gone through a real adventure of a lifetime, saved a couple of lives along the way and acquired one particularly interesting friend and ally.

Neil Gaiman: Coraline (HarperEntertainment, movie tie-in edition, 2008, ISBN: 9780061649707)

In this story Neil Gaiman gently emphasizes eternal values every child (and grown-up person as well) should be aware of, without being not a least bit patronizing. At the same time, his readers are confronted with some terrifying images that are disturbing to children and to adults alike. Buttons instead of eyes, spidery hands, hallway walls slimy, soft and warm on touch, cocoons with some undefinable creatures — I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those descriptions have inspired also Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Such imagery is part of our human nature (just think about how many times you have dreamed some extraordinarily weird dreams — you would know something was odd even if you couldn’t remember them afterwards!) so I do not think children would be much afraid of this story. Their imagination is more vivid and stronger than ours, burdened with everyday’s trivial worries. I dare to believe even that they would be grateful for such an offer. It would gratify their sense of self-worth if we would think them more mature and more valiant than their age shows, if we would approve them to read it. 

Coraline (2008) — The Film

Henry Selick already had some great experience with The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and with James and the Giant Peach (1996), so the stop-motion adaptation of this story should have been a piece of cake to him. He himself scripted the story and presented it to our theaters 2008. There were three principal posters (see book covers above) for the film – they all look great and appear aimed to different age groups, although I wonder, what was actually the target audience for this film.

Coraline - The Movie AlphabetThe animation was fascinating, and the soundtrack brilliant, but the story on screen was a lot creepier than expected. I did not feel comfortable even with the very first scene, of a rag doll getting full make over as if on surgery table. The story veered a bit from the original source – it was transferred from polite British countryside (remember E.M. Forster earlier?) to casual American (New England?) territory, which does not matter much, but the characters changed manners as well. Although in that new setting that change was curiously fitting, the characters weren’t so appealing as in original, though this might be simply due to my Old World upbringing. I felt also that the introduction to the story and its characters lasted too long. The real action started only after an hour or so… On the other hand, the thrill of suspicion, of a true nature of that alternate world, was suspended too early, so there is no much commitment required of the audience. One just has to passively watch Coraline unraveling the puzzle till the end. If this movie was aimed for older children, they might feel sort of disappointment, as they might need more than just to be mesmerized by beautiful animation, while the younger ones might be frightened out of their wits before Coraline would even utter a first word. Pity – considering The Nightmare Before Christmas, I expected the same charm and sparks, but that didn’t happen – it was more James and the Giant Peach repeat, in a sense it certainly was not suitable for every taste. For me there simply wasn’t magic on the screen, at least not the same I felt while reading the book. It was beautiful movie, undoubtedly, but my heart was not with it.