There are good writers, there are great writers, and then there's Neil Gaiman, who inspires slack-jawed awe. His omnibus Fragile Things contains my all-time favorite short story, "A Study in Emerald"; I don't want to give away too much, because I think you should read it for yourself, but suffice it to say that it begins as very clearly one thing, and slowly, organically turns into something else entirely. Gaiman's ability to tell a fully-formed, absorbing story while moving between genres with confidence and grace is nothing short of astonishing. His brand of fantasy may not be for everyone, but as a writer – in terms of versatility and control of the form – he is second to no one.
In the afterword to one of the more recent editions of Coraline, Gaiman calls the short novel his proudest achievement as an author. He's right to be proud. Some people are stunned to learn that Henry Selick's recent animated adaptation was made using stop-motion: frame-by-frame manipulation of physical objects and sets. I look at the book with a similar sort of amazement bordering on disbelief. It's an remarkably meticulous and effective work, such a stylistic and formal balancing act that it almost seems fragile.
Coraline begins by lulling you into complacency. We know it's a "children's book," and the opening pages are filled with the lovable naiveté, repetition, and short, declarative sentences we usually associate with writing for tykes. And so we settle in for a gentle children's fantasy story. The title heroine will have an adventure – scary, but not too scary – learn some lessons, and give her parents a big hug when it's all over.
But then, gradually, almost imperceptibly, Coraline turns on us. The best way I can describe it is to say that the novel "goes sour," though I don't intend the negative connotations that accompany that phrase. Because when Coraline goes through the mysterious door in the old house she shares with her parents, two former actresses, and a crazy old mouse-circus-master, what she finds isn't kid stuff – boogeymen easily defeated with generous applications of goodness and bravery – but something far more disturbing: an evil that's vast and eternal, and that uses as its weapon a perversion of parental love.
The book goes all profound on us, too. It speaks eloquently to desire and fulfillment – the world Coraline discovers can give her anything she wants, when she wants it, but instant gratification for the rest of her life isn't as tempting a prospect as one might think (something Coraline is smart enough to realize). If you always get everything you want, then what's the point of getting out of bed, or even existing on the planet?
Selick's film is terrific in its own right, though its achievements are more in the realm of conventional world-building. The tiny novel actually doesn't dwell on the details of the Other world for very long: Gaiman provides brief, intriguing descriptions and then moves on. The film, by contrast, goes to head-spinning lengths to create a dazzling new universe that's a joy to inhabit. The things Selick shows aren't quite as scary as the things Gaiman suggests, but they look amazing. Has anyone ever made a documentary about the production of these stop-motion marvels? The mind boggles.
The movie makes other changes you'd expect: it adds characters, makes Dakota Fanning's Coraline more of a cool, sarcastic heroine, and converts the story's subtext into the more clear-cut "be careful what you wish for" message. (The latter is accomplished by the dubious method of making Coraline's parents obnoxiously inattentive so that she wanders into the Other world out of frustration instead of mere boredom.) Some of the Selick's liberties (he wrote the adaptation) were seemingly aimed at ramping up the spectacle: Coraline's nifty, calculated climactic master plan is replaced with something much bigger and more chaotic, ironically resulting in the only segment of the film that drags a bit.
Coraline the movie is as wonderful to look at as Coraline the novel is to read; Selick and Gaiman are both monumental talents. I think the delights of Gaiman's book are probably richer. But in their own ways, both sort of render my critical faculties mute. All I can do is stare and drool a little bit.