He first bewitched us with a boy who sees monsters, a girl who floats like a balloon, Lovecraftian tentacle-tongued horrors and a headmistress who morphs into a bird and manipulates time. Now the pages of Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children will fly onto the big screen and enchant us all over again in full color this Friday.
Riggs swears he has no special powers, but his peculiarity is an imagination that can conjure cinematic visions of the strange and fantastical. The film school graduate’s background in directing opened his third eye to a style of writing that almost supernaturally captures image and emotion. His fascination with vintage photos of the bizarre led him to writing a story around them whose magic turned it into a national bestseller.
After falling under the spell of Tim Burton’s spectacle of a movie in 3D (which I highly recommend if you can find a theater where it’s available), I had the otherworldly privilege of sitting down with its story’s creator to discuss movie magic, metaphors, and—of course—peculiars.
Den of Geek: With your background in film, how did you envision the movie? Was it similar to your original vision?
Ransom Riggs: I think my background in film taught me that a great book adaptation is not always slavishly faithful to the source material. I tried not to envision too much of what it would be before Tim and Jane did their work, because I didn’t want to get attached to something that would change. I tried to be neutral, open and receptive, to just wait for the scripts to come in—and I was so, so pleased.
Of course there are many things are different, but I feel like all the changes were intended to make the story more cinematic. I hope readers feel this way even though there’s a lot of elaboration [in the movie]. I feel it’s something I could have written and I think it’s totally keeping in spirit with the book.
What was it like for you to see your story come to life on screen for the first time—what things surprised you and struck you as the most amazing?
I had to see it like, 3 times before I could get over the “I’m actually seeing Miss Peregrine!” and “I was on the set for that scene!” and “I remember writing that line at midnight at home alone five years ago!”
So after I got over that surreal shock of “this is real”, there are certain scenes that just stayed with me. The ocean liner rising from the sea is one of the most cinematically impactful things I’ve ever seen on film. I also feel that Tim really nailed the relationship between Jacob and his grandfather, which is so important to the core of the book. It’s kind of an engine that drives the whole story.
There are so many things—I could spend all day just listing what I liked about the movie, but Eva (Green)’s performance as Miss Peregrine just blew the doors off the hinges. So fascinating and specific and studied. Her embodiment of the character is like a classic film performance that I hope will be remembered. It’s so cool and builds upon what I envisioned in a whole other way. You can’t write, you know, the exact way someone moves their head and says a line in a book but, I mean, [her performance] is unbelievable.
You’re obviously a very visual person, since you were inspired to write the book by the photographs you collect. In what other ways do your visual tendencies tend to influence your writing?
I try to imagine the scenes as I’m writing them as if I were watching them play like a film. I mean, I went to film school, trained as a director, have made a lot of movies and taken a lot of photographs, so I tend to envision things spatially. As I’m working I need to have a map of the space. I need to know what’s happening in all corners simultaneously.
Just the textures of things are really important to me as I’m writing; I think atmospherics and visuals can have such emotional impact if you can harness the thematic thread between how scenes look and how your characters feel. I like to tug on that thread.
There seem to be a lot of metaphors related to bullying throughout the series. Was this intentional from the beginning, or did it unconsciously evolve with the story?
It wasn’t necessarily intentional that I was going to discuss bullying, but Jacob is a character who doesn’t fit into the place where he grew up. That’s just what happens when you’re a teenager on the fringe. Someone pushes you to the outside of the circle; you don’t just start there. Sometimes when people really go into it and analyze a story I’ve written, I learn things about the story that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own, so maybe you know something I don’t!
You once said “There’s a certain amount of acting ability required to write well-developed characters”—a sort of empathy. How do you bring that to life in your writing?
To create 3-dimensional, well-rounded characters, you just have to feel their scenes from every perspective, otherwise your villains will lack motivation and your heroes will seem a little bit plastic. I just try to come at a scene from everyone’s angle. It’s sort of difficult when there are ten characters in almost every scene, but I try to work them all in.
I think that when I’m talking about having a little acting skill—I don’t have any skill as an actor, but—what I mean is sitting there thinking something like “Okay, someone just died on that end of the room, how does your character react?” You imagine yourself sitting alone in that room, schizophrenically reacting and thinking about the space and how you would react. You sort of go through these emotions on your own, trying to feel them on a human level and translating that into your vision. I look really weird to watch [when I’m writing]. That’s why I don’t work in coffee shops.
Do you have a peculiarity?
You know, sometimes people are disappointed meeting me because I seem so normal, except I collect photos of dead people and stuff. I think my peculiarity is that I wrote this book.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children lands in theaters Friday, September 30th.