There are parts of the latest young adult southern gothic novel adapted for the screen, Beautiful Creatures, which tend to break the mold of its predecessors of the same genre. There is an emphasis on classic literature, from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and subsequent identification with its marginalized characters. Ambition flows in the thematic rivers of free will and fate, Christian sacrifice and, of course, love.
That ambition to break free from genre, however, often shackles and confuses a story told many times before it. Continuing to modernize the Montague and Capulet family incompatibility, director Richard LaGravenese (Freedom Writers), adapting the first book of a trilogy, instead pits humans against casters (as in spell casters, who don’t prefer the term witch). More specifically, we center on Ethan (a dynamic Alden Ehrenreich, Twixt), the mortal, and Lena (Alice Englert, Ginger and Rosa), a caster who has just enrolled in his high school. Their on-screen chemistry builds as quickly as does their characters’ relationship. On her 16th birthday her destiny will be decided, and her soul will dictate whether she becomes a dark/evil or a light/good caster. It is the basis for a lot of anxious buildup and metaphorical pre-pubescent choices.
Lena’s fate actually becomes tied to a much greater cause, but her current preoccupations relate to her acceptance in the classroom, and further disassociation outside it. Gatlin is a town filtering its unacceptable racial rhetoric and channeling its discrimination towards Lena and her supernatural family who happens to live in a rustic, tangled mansion as only these kinds of families do. The inhabitants of the fictional South Carolina town live backward, stuck in its past, keeping it alive with annual Civil War reenactments. Ethan, who colors the film’s perspective with his thoughts, desires to be Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in time.
Preppy girls cast their own insults and religious vernacular towards Lena. Ethan, by simply being a normal, courteous human being, appears to be the only decent fellow in school, and the only one willing to give Lena a chance. They share an affinity for literature; she reads Bukowski and romance sparks between two figures, who claim to have seen the other in visions and dreams. At some point, Ethan realizes his Shakespearean dilemma: star-crossed lovers separated by distinct worlds.
Some of the factoring family members include Jeremy Irons (The Borgias), who plays Lena’s strict Uncle Macon, and Emma Thompson (Men in Black 3), who plays a dual role as a righteous Christian mother to Ethan’s friend Link and also the body inhabited by Lena’s evil spiritual mother Sarafina. Emmy Rossum (Shameless) is delightfully, viciously seductive as Lena’s chosen-for-dark older cousin, and Viola Davis (The Help) brings some gravity as Ethan’s guardian, a mysterious librarian. These are unusual roles for actors of such esteem, but they to be enjoying themselves, perhaps fully aware the emotional limits of a film like this.
Uncle Macon, who presides over the prickly exterior but vogue inside mansion, does his best to swarm away Ethan’s love for Lena, which as we later find out could turn her dark thanks to a curse that is activated during the same wartime battle the town replays each year. Can pure love overcome the prophecy? YA novels sometimes suffer in this regard, aiming to be grown up, but also censoring their darker and graphically dangerous content with these supernatural substitutes. It becomes a constant struggle then, for any director, to navigate the arc of a story: highly melodramatic, like the now complete Twilight series, or more levelheaded and rationally sound?
LaGravenese, who both directs and adapts, tries a dash of both, but the fusion is mediated by careful explication, dialogue and details the audience can already figure out by a look or cue. Such is the trouble for staying true to a book’s words, or that quintessential page-turning quote. Knowing you have meaning before something is even said often plagues an adaptation. When Ethan begins citing Vonnegut, there is potential to break free from the YA novel’s sappy clichés his hardheaded classmates are presumably fixated with. The script has the chance to be infused with powerful, meaningful words, down from the esteemed authors both he and Lena read. Instead, these rhetorical tools and their marginalized characters are props for heavy metaphors. These books are banned from school. So is their love.
Underneath the love story lays a curiously strong Christian influence permeating through a still bigoted town that one kid needs to break free from. In fact, it has been his life dream. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” wrote Mark Twain. Ethan surely must have internalized this quote and witnessed its truth in his homogenous town, which makes the ending of Beautiful Creatures less about the love and the sacrifice, and more about jealousy.