This book to film comparison contains spoilers.
It’s been a while since I’ve watched an adaptation where the book’s plot has just been thrown out the window in the opening sequence. Sometimes it’s a nice surprise. And sometimes you get something like Seventh Son, which takes an enjoyable book and turns it into a movie that could probably be described by many as mediocre or even laughable.
The movie in general seems to be more of a nod to the book than an adaptation. Some little references remain, like Mother Malkin’s blood cakes, Alice’s pointy shoes, and the character of Tusk. But, for the most part, the filmmakers just said, ‘You know what’s super cool? RANDOM NEW CGI MONSTERS.’ Those new CGI monsters would be awesome if they actually furthered the plot or bore any resemblance to their book counterparts but, alas, it was not to be.
Before I go any further, I’ll warn you that I’ve only read the first book in Joseph Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles. It may well be that some plot points are allusions to things that happen further on in the series but I’m only tackling this as an adaptation of The Spook’s Apprentice (or The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch as it was published in America).
In the book, Tom loves his family and it seems he’d be perfectly happy to work on the farm and stay close to them. He values his mother’s counsel above all else, and shares a special bond with her as she’s the only one who seems to understand his ability to see and be affected by otherworldly elements. Mam possesses mysterious gifts and general awesomeness but author Joseph Delaney is in no hurry to reveal her secrets so early in the series.
Tom’s family play a much smaller part in the movie. Tom doesn’t return home to visit them, and he certainly doesn’t seem to value his mother’s counsel as highly as he does in the book. Though Tom’s weird visions leave him shaken and he calls for his mother, he seems perfectly capable of dealing with them on his own; she does nothing overt to help him cope with them.
Mam is not at all keen for Tom to become a Spook, which is at complete odds with her role in the book. Later in the movie, we discover that she’s a witch who took out Mother Malkin back in the day. If this was meant to be a big reveal, it doesn’t really have any impact because Mam plays such a tiny part.
Book Tom is 12 years old, and a pretty cool kid. As much as he loves his family, he understands that he has to be apprenticed to someone to ease their financial burden. Following his mother’s stern advice, Tom proves to be a devoted student willing and able to learn from his mistakes.
A good judge of his own abilities, Book Tom is not too stubborn to ask for help. And he’s funny; most of the book’s charm comes from Tom’s narrative voice and the little gems of humour that are hidden in there. Basically he’s the kind of character you actually care about.
But why stick to that kind of character when you could turn him into an arrogant man-child? Enter Ben Barnes, who plays Movie Tom. I imagine that he’s supposed to be about 18, maybe 21. It’s hard to tell when Ben Barnes is in his 30s. Movie Tom is itching to get away from his family’s farm and find out more about these weird visions he’s been having.
He leaps at the chance to go with the Spook, not remotely worried about the dangerous lifestyle, and begins his apprenticeship by setting free a suspected witch because he thinks she’s a cutie. And cute girls you’ve only just met can’t possibly be witches, right?
I don’t like Movie Tom at all. I feel no emotional attachment to him and I’m not even moved by Ben Barnes’s attractiveness. I honestly could not make myself care about his story in the movie.
In the book, Gregory (the Spook) is a strict master but he actually seems like a nice guy. No matter how loathsome a creature can be, he always tries to deal with them in a humane way. The whole reason that Mother Malkin is living in a hole in the first place is because Gregory can’t bring himself to perform either of the two tasks required to truly kill a witch: (a) eat her heart or (b) set her on fire. Book Gregory explains everything to Tom, and there is a good reason behind all of his teaching.
Movie Gregory, on the other hand, is an angry drunk who just chucks his apprentice into a deadly situation with minimal training and expects him to match up to the guy he trained for 10 years. He’s totally fine with setting people on fire and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he’s eaten a few hearts in his day. To top it off, Jeff Bridges seems to have been directed to make his speech as unintelligible as possible. If I hadn’t read the book, I would not be able to guess at anything Movie Gregory said while his back was to the camera (which happens way too often).
I guess the grumpy old teacher trope works at the beginning but I have a real issue with Gregory just waltzing off into the sunset at the end of the movie. How is it appropriate to dub Tom the new Spook and leave the safety of the County in the hands of a novice with a lucky charm?
Mother Malkin, Bony Lizzie, and Alice
Clearly a witch who thrives on the blood of children is not nearly scary enough for the movie. For one, Book Mother Malkin is not beautiful or seductive and, according to Seventh Son, that is the main aim of every witch around.
Instead of being a decrepit yet terrifying creature, Mother Malkin has been transformed into the queen of all the witches everywhere. I’m not certain if this is determined by power, royal bloodline, or if she just started calling herself the queen and all her besties kindly let her keep the nickname.
Either way, Julianne Moore looks fierce and has an army behind her even if it seems like it’s just to get revenge for being spurned by her ex-lover, Gregory.
I find it weird that Mother Malkin is so powerful in the movie that a Blood Moon is enough to let her break out of her prison. Yes, the cage seems to have been weakened by time but if Gregory is all he’s cracked up to be then surely he should at least check on it and strengthen the protection periodically. Whatever’s going on with her prison, Mother Malkin’s dramatic escape has nothing to do with Tom’s mistakes and serves simply as a catalyst for Tom to join the Spook in the first place.
Her death is also extremely different in the two mediums. In the book, Mother Malkin is destroyed once and for all when her attempted possession goes awry and she’s eaten alive by pigs. In the movie, she’s wounded first by her sister, then by a knife in the chest from Tom, and finally killed when Tom gets over his (understandable) reluctance and sets her on fire.
Bony Lizzie has a bigger part, and some added depth to her character. She’s been promoted from Alice’s aunt to her mother, and from Mother Malkin’s granddaughter to her sister. I guess there mustn’t be a royal bloodline because, if there is, Lizzie has been pretty chill about it while Malkin has been imprisoned.
Book Alice is a complex and interesting character. She maintains some of her feistiness in the film but her distaste for dark magic is more pronounced. Alice has no apparent concern for her safety when she goes against Mother Malkin and Lizzie, which seems to firmly identify her as a good guy. In the book, Alice is neither truly good or bad; she usually makes decisions based on what will keep her alive.
Like Tom, Alice has been aged to suit the movie’s purposes. And if everyone’s of age then why not get some romance happening? Tom spends most of the movie mooning over Alice, who for some reason decides that he’s tolerable. Maybe she’s fond of the way that he attacks her mouth with desperate kisses and doesn’t think it makes him look like a sugar glider leaping through the air towards her face. Or maybe she’s just willing to put up with it because he’s good looking.
Mother Malkin and Gregory have one hot mess of an on-again, off-again relationship complete with coldblooded murder and deprivation of liberty. I’m actually unsure whether Mother Malkin’s attempts to seduce Gregory towards the end of the movie are genuine or whether she’s just revelling in being able to control his mind again. You guys do what you like but I’m pretty sure whatever relationship you have is unhealthy.
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the book and eager to see how it translated into film. Unfortunately, the film seems to have been only vaguely inspired by its source material and most of the story has been completely rewritten.
Putting aside my feelings about the adaptation, I’m not even sure if I enjoyed the movie on its own merits. The characters are unlikeable, less complex, and merely stereotypical. Gregory, who does most of the talking, is almost unintelligible most of the time. This seems to have been either an acting or directing decision since recent YouTube videos suggest that Jeff Bridges still remembers how to form words.
Overall, I much prefer The Spook’s Apprentice to Seventh Son. It’s a fun, interesting read and I wouldn’t mind reading the rest of The Wardstone Chronicles to see how the story progresses. However, if (and that’s a big if) any sequels for this movie are made, I certainly won’t be first in line to see them.