If Dorothy Gale ran into Lena Duchannes she would inevitably ask her, “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” Sadly, Lena (played by Alice Englert) would be unsure how to answer such a question because until she turns 16 (in about 100 days, according to the countdown clock on her hand) she won’t know if she’ll be claimed by the light side or the dark side. Lena would also balk at being called a witch since such a slang term is offensive to casters like her and her family.
Of course, Lena would never really run into Dorothy, because she lives far from Kansas in Gatlin, South Carolina (one of those Southern states that still believes the Civil War was the only true Great War and continues to reenact “famous” battles). Instead, she runs into perfectly ordinary Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) who enjoys reading banned books and is immediately infatuated with her when he sees her reading Bukowski—even when he learns of her Caster abilities. Although the two are eager to start up their electric chemistry, Lena’s reclusive uncle Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), he of the light side, is determined to prevent her from loving a human, for that is a surefire way to the dark side.
Unfortunately, Lena’s mother Sarafine, currently inhabiting the body of religious fanatic Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson), wants her to join the dark side with her, Sarafine, and Lena’s wayward cousin Ridley (Emmy Rossum); and Sarafine is determined to manipulate her into it. For, while being claimed for either side may seem arbitrary, one’s emotions and attitudes can greatly influence which side claims you. And, as if Sarafine’s manipulations weren’t worrisome enough, a convoluted curse makes Lena’s quest to join the light casters that much more difficult—only an intense power read of the mysterious Book of Moons (think of the Halliwell sisters’ Book of Shadows) can provide a fix for this sticky situation.
Richard LaGravenese adapted the film from the novel Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl in Hollywood’s attempt to jumpstart the next young adult book series adaptation blockbuster (a la Hunger Games and Twilight). In that regard it certainly has it all: star-crossed teenage lovers; supernatural elements (witches who cast weather spells and illusions); famous-actor stunt casting (see below); and a mildly successful book franchise (there are already 4 novels in the Caster Chronicles). Although the buzz around the film never quite reached the explosiveness of Hunger Games, Beautiful Creatures is still a great film.
But in adapting the novel it loses some of the novel’s pure essence (as most adaptations are wont to do). The novel is told purely from Ethan’s point of view, limiting our knowledge of what is actually occurring with some of the characters. For instance, we don’t learn until the end that who Sarafine really is—even though in the film we learn pretty early on. The book also goes more in depth into the mythology of the Casters and their legacy in Gatlin. This, of course, creates a more expansive universe necessary for the following novels in the series.
In the film, LaGravenese does a good job of condensing the 600-page novel into a manageable, engaging film. He cuts back on many of the rules of that world (some of which can be confusing) and streamlines the story. He also cuts back on some of the characters (Marian and Amma are merged into one character and Ethan’s dad is never seen), a useful technique used by almost anyone who adapts novels. But none of his alterations are egregious and merely serve to make a tighter film.
What LaGravenese’s script does is place most of his hopes in the cast for Beautiful Creatures, and a better group of actors perfectly suited for this film would be hard to find. Ehrenreich is a lovable, accessible hero (unlike, say, his character in Stoker) who, for once, is the human in the supernatural romance. His Southern twang is endearing and his brimming optimism is easily conveyed in his bright eyes. Ehrenreich’s energy makes up for morosely pouty Englert who is forced to play the Debbie Downer of the film, a task she takes to too easily. Viola Davis plays Ethan’s watchful parent stand-in Amma, delivering some powerful reaction shots. They all hold their own as the more serious center of the film, not an easy task considering how campy everyone else gets.
Not that the trumped-up camp factor is a bad thing. In fact, it’s what makes this film not only great but also sets it apart from seeming too pretentious and dour (the novel itself has light humor interspersed throughout, lending it a respectable campiness as well). Emma Thompson is wickedly fun as the possessed Mrs. Lincoln, snarling at the goody-goodies and slutting up the woman’s drab housecoats. Jeremy Irons matches Thompson’s wickedly fun attitude, making their confrontation scene one of the best in the film. While Irons and Thompson are restrained in their roles, Emmy Rossum lets loose as Ridley, vamping around town and delivering some saucy one-liners, making any scene with her a real gem (hopefully she does more fun roles like this in her future). And how could you possible dislike a film that gives veteran British actress Eileen Atkins shockingly pink hair and critical darling Margo Matindale a Bride-of-Frankenstein updo?
Beautiful Creatures is a supremely fun film that will touch your heart and leave you ready for a sequel. The novel is an equally engaging read, appealing to any fan of YA fiction. And both of them contain endings that will leave you wanting more, jettisoning you into the Beautiful Creatures books series (all of which are already published) or aching for a sequel film. And sometimes there is nothing greater than that.