Friday, January 05, 2007

THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN by Christopher Woods

“Sometimes the design is the statement.”
-Ridley Scott

This quote by the superstylish filmmaker kept buzzing inside my head while I read my next script selection. I wouldn’t define it as a complete success…actually, I’m not sure if I even liked it or not…but I’ll give it this much: the script haunted me, and is unlike anything I’ve read in quite some time.

By Christopher Woods
111 Crescent Court
Louisville KY 40206
Tel: (502) 895 8240

Now…how the hell do I begin to describe this screenplay?

Think of a gothic fairy tale for adults—dark, sinister, with sly references to fantasy stories and folklore of the past. What Neil Jordan’s THE COMPANY OF WOLVES did for Little Red Riding Hood, THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN does for stories such as The Wizard of Oz and Hansel and Gretel, retelling them in a mature, frightening context. It ain’t kids’ stuff.

The story follows two teenage sisters, Luna and Terra, either abandoned by, or fleeing from, their tyrannical mother and ineffectual father. (The story sways from one possibility to the other.) Lost amidst a mysterious forest called Everwood, they encounter a wolflike creature set on eating them and—yup, you guessed it—a scarecrow in a cornfield (though this one breaks into a variation of the song from the 1939 film, lamenting his lack of something other than a brain). There is even a character called “The Lord of the Junk,” and like Baum’s original Tin Man, this creature is definitely in need of a heart…if for entirely different reasons.

The main story involves—surprise!—a witch, but this cackling hag is a diabolical cannibal who not only terrorizes the two children, but would probably terrorize much of the adult audience as well.

What struck me most about the script was its visual imagery. Woods obviously has a strong eye for the fantastic, and THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN presents us with a world not unlike the ones featured in LEGEND, or the more recent PAN’S LABRYNTH.

Yet perhaps my comparing it to THE COMPANY OF WOLVES is most fitting. Both are reworkings of classic tales, told with great intelligence and care through a dark, mature voice…and peppered with some erotic, even sexual overtones. Alas, both works share many of the same problems: a lack of a cohesive central story and emotional heart, and the unsatisfying feeling that they are more polished exercises in style rather than storytelling.

Luna and Terra are little more than symbolic figures here, and while they show courage in the face of danger and obviously care for one another, they never develop into three-dimensional characters. This is a significant shortcoming that distanced me emotionally from the material. They, as with the characters around them, strangely seem like mere pawns, moving by-the-numbers through the fantastical creatures and supernatural trappings around them.

But oh, what trappings! This is a world that you can smell and feel, with bitterness as well as humor. I can’t say that I liked THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN, but a the same time, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. It has dynamite potential…but then so did THE BROTHERS GRIMM—and that film had a stronger story and grade-A talent behind it. (Terry Gilliam is a genius, but his film felt more like a shallow enterprise in manic energy and dark atmosphere than a soulful, spiritual adventure.)

I’d really like to see Woods give the script a complete overhaul, making Luna and Terra into more rounded, developed characters who change from, rather than merely react to, the wondrous, crazy happenings around them. Easier said than done, I’m sure.

As it is, THE WITCH AND THE GARDEN evokes more admiration than enthusiasm. But there’s something to be said for admiration...and I certainly wouldn't be writing about this script here if I didn't feel strongly about it. This is a keenly rendered vision--born of obvious imagination and intelligence--and a genuine feast for the eyes. I only wish it could have stirred my heart.

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