Fanciful Fears: Children’s Novels and Their Adaptations

October is the perfect time to be reading spooky stories, but what about the more fantastical ones with inklings of fear?

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Fall is my favorite time of year and thus contains some of my favorite literature. Halloween is right around the corner and with it, its frightening stories. However, I want to take a moment to reflect on the novels that have not only a scary side but also an imaginative one. The world of children’s novels do this effectively but also curiously; why are novels meant for children written to bring fear? And why do some of these novels still scare me to this day?

Here are three children’s novels that instill fanciful fear in their readers, but do so in horrifying imaginativeness.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

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Let’s start with my favorite of the three, Coraline by Neil Gaiman. This is a novel sure to make anyone a little frightened no matter the age. The cover alone makes me squeamish. The story follows a young, lonely girl, Coraline, as she explores her new house, neighbors, and the little door in her living room. On the other side of the door is the Other World, a replica of her home. She has an “Other Mother” and “Other Father” both with buttons for eyes.

In the novel, Gaiman leaves space in the text to make us scared. He leaves room for interpretation. When comparing the book to the film, there are a few key differences. For example, in the book, Coraline blinds the “Other Father” who looks like a bug, and escape quietly so he can’t hear her. In the film, he is swallowed by the garden on top of a praying mantis. The truly scary aspect of Coraline is the “Other Mother” because she is determined to keep Coraline in the Other World and sew buttons into her eyes. She is absolutely terrifying in the film, especially by the end when she is in her true form. However, in the book, she is scary because Gaiman leaves out certain details allowing our mind to fill in the scary gaps.

The Coraline film is one of my absolute favorites and I am constantly watching it. If you can stand looking at the cover of the novel long enough to read it, Gaiman’s story is a must-read.

Click here to read more about Coraline!

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a fun and mysterious novel with darkness at its core. The novel follows Jake Portman as he ventures to the place his beloved grandfather always told stories about. He arrives to find a home for children with supernatural abilities, stuck in a time loop, always repeating September 3rd, 1940 (in the movie, the year is changed to 1943). There are not too many differences from book to film, but perhaps the scariest one is how the Hallowgasts/Hallows (monsters created by an illegal experiment) turn into wights (the evolved human form of a Hallowgast and the antagonist of the story). In the novel, Hallowgasts eat the souls of Peculiars to become wights, while Tim Burton changed souls to eyes in the film adaptation.

Other differences from book to film revolve around the sequence of events and the children’s powers. At the end of the book, the villain’s death is swift, while it happens with more intensity in the film. Though he dies the same way, it takes more attempts by Jake and his friends. It is also takes place at a carnival but is arguably one of the most exciting supernatural battles. With respect to the children’s powers, Jake’s love interest Emma Bloom floats in the air, having to be weighed down by metal shoes. However, in the books, she can create fire. The film switches Olive and Emma’s powers.

This is quite a spooky story with enjoyable, supernatural children who welcome Jake into their world. The villain, however, uproots this story from charming to absolutely terrifying.

Click here to read more about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children!

The Witches by Roald Dahl

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The Witches by Roald Dahl is one of my favorite childhood novels, but I have always been aware of its horrifying qualities. Dahl’s book is about a young boy and his grandmother as they encounter a witch gathering at the hotel they are staying at. He grew up listening to his grandmother’s stories but he specifically loved the ones about witches who looked like ordinary women but desired to kill human children. She describes the ways to tell whether a seemingly normal woman is a witch – scratchy wigs to cover their bald head and gloves to hide their claws. Naturally, the boy is curious when he sees the signs of witches at his hotel, but is turned into a mouse by the witches. The story ends in a bittersweet manner as the boy and his grandmother realize they will not live much longer, but at least won’t have to live without each other. These complex themes most certainly don’t seem childish to me!

There are two adaptations of the book, a 1990 and 2020 version. The 1990 version does a great job following the descriptions of the witches. However, the book is incredibly detailed in their characteristics and mannerisms making them even creepier to imagine. For example, in the novel, the witch’s saliva is as blue as ink. Dahl focused on small qualities that the movie overlooks. In the 2020 version, the witches aren’t as gruesome to look at as those in the 1990 version. However, their smile spreads across their face, going up their cheeks in a slicing manner, making it the most creepy part about them.

Both the book and films do not strike me as child friendly, some aspects of both still make me shudder to this day.

Click here to read more about The Witches!

I want to go back to the question I proposed at the start: Why do some of these children’s novels scare me when I read them now? My answer would be that I often live in an imaginative world, so I find the horror in these more a possibility than others would. I would also attribute my fear to the adaptations of these novels. Words will always hold incredible meaning, but seeing something demonstrated visually is a whole other experience. A visual adaptation also uproots the version of the story we have created in our heads as we read. I find this rewiring of a story to be frightening in itself.