Will a ‘Goosebumps’ movie scare up the books’ audience? – Los Angeles Times
There was a time when the idea of a movie based on the “Goosebumps” series of books would have seemed as natural as a Harry Potter visit to the wand shop.
“Goosebumps,” after all, had turned scores of pre-teens into obsessive readers with its mix of laughs and light scares. So popular was R.L. Stine’s anthology series â€” a seeming never-ending carousel of kid heroes and colorful monsters â€” that for several years the books tallied more than $100 million in annual revenue for publisher Scholastic and made Stine the top-selling author in the country. If you hadn’t kept up to date on the latest “Goosebumps,” you might as well just pack up and leave the fifth grade.
That time, alas, was nearly 20 years ago. The original series ceased publication in 1997, and though a number of spinoff lines followed, the books’ popularity would never achieve those heights again.
Which makes it a Hollywood anomaly that all these years later, a movie, backed by Sony and starring Jack Black, will arrive in theaters on Oct. 16. After all, with its ability to turn kids into devoted readers, book releases into epic events and children’s publishing into big business, the 62 (!) original “Goosebumps” books that began in 1992 helped lay the groundwork for the gush of youth-oriented literature that followed. Shortly after the “Goosebumps” series ended, J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books would go on to become publishing phenomena and spawn eight smash movies, the last of which came out in 2011.
For the record
An earlier version of this story said that “Goosebumps” would be released on Oct. 7.
Even the “Goosebumps” creator at first wasn’t sure what to make of the news. “It came as a surprise the movie was still alive,” said Stine last week. “You sort of forget about it. And then I get this call from Deborah [Forte, Scholastic film overseer and one of the movie’s producers], and it dawned on me, ‘This might actually happen.'”
Said Diane Roback, the longtime children’s books editor at Publishers Weekly: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. It’s been so long that some people who don’t know the books will say, ‘Is this ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Hunger Games’ lite’? And of course ‘Goosebumps’ came out earlier than all of them.”
It’s no surprise that Hollywood, smitten with the lucrative allure of kids’ stories, would embrace the horror-infused book series (estimated global sales: 400 million copies). What is a surprise â€” and, to some, as mysterious as the events of the lighthearted chillers â€” is why it took so long and whether they’re relevant in 2015.
There is much on the line. That’s true for Sony, in need of fresh franchises. But there are also intriguing stakes for the entertainment world at large. In taking on a well-known property from so long ago, the “Goosebumps” film addresses questions about the durability of once-dominant brands and the importance of pop-culture narratives in retailing movies generally.
Enter R.L. Stine
On a soundstage in this town 25 miles east of Atlanta one day last summer gathered, in no particular order, an extensive crew, a trio of teenage actors, Jack Black and a ventriloquist dummy.
In one corner of the space a study had been meticulously built, complete with knickknacks, books and, at the slightly unexpected request of Black, a menorah. He was starring as R.L. Stine, the author of the “Goosebumps” series in real life, but also an eponymous character â€” more eccentric and reclusive than the real one, both would hasten to note â€” in the latest meta turn from Hollywood.
The U.S. men’s soccer team was playing a critical World Cup game that day, and the cast and crew paused to huddle over an iPhone to watch. It was a break from the delicate if chromatic work of building a story based on such a rich book property.
In a field outside the soundstage an abandoned amusement park had been created, with a restored haunted house and a souped-up Ferris wheel that would become a centerpiece of the movie’s climax.
Completing the tableau was a group of monsters. There are many in the “Goosebumps” universe, including an Abominable Snowman, a haunted mask, a swamp-dwelling werewolf and the gleeful (and, most important for the film, speech-enabled) Slappy, a possessed ventriloquist dummy. Several actors dressed as ghouls drifted through the space. A man on stilts loped into a makeup area. A witch-like woman in ratty clothing practiced her planned reaction to an explosion, repeating her double take with the solitary concentration of a Shakespearean actor rehearsing “Hamlet.”
Just before the cameras began to roll, Black walked into the study, with the crew offering the respect due a distinguished clergyman, the actor the high priest of the goofy-creepy.
“Now we go tighter on Phase 2 so Slappy’s back on the pedestal,” called out the director, Rob Letterman, who had previously directed “Shark Tale” and collaborated with Black on “Gulliver’s Travels.” Then the ventriloquist operating the puppet villain, after announcing his plans to terrorize the town, growled the line: “You’ve made Slappy â€” very unhappy,” which the kids shrunk back from with a sort of benign terror.
Creating just-scary-enough entertainment is not easy.
“The really daunting part â€” besides the monsters â€” is the tone and how to make it scary but also fun and not gruesome,” Letterman said. “I really want to make the Amblin movie I grew up with,” referring to early Steven Spielberg pictures. “It’s accessible but with the edge of scares. ‘Keep an eye on the tone’ â€” that was the advice R.L. had given me.”
The day before, Stine, 71, had visited the set, for a cameo as “R.L. Stine’s'” colleague. The moment offered a Hollywood head-spinner: an author whose material is being adapted playing someone who is not him opposite a man who is an exaggerated version of him.
A frightful journey
More than most, the “Goosebumps” back story shows the studios’ fevered interest in harnessing a literary smash and the challenges in doing so. Beginning in the late 1990s, a number of versions languished at Fox, with Tim Burton onboard at one point to produce; the mix of horror and comedy is the director’s specialty.