'Coraline' author handles star status well

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The day after attending the Hollywood premiere of "Coraline" and a few days after winning the Newbery Medal for children's literature, Neil Gaiman was on the phone, gabbing with media members at 15-minute intervals, doing something few authors are asked to do: Promote the movie based on their work.

It says something about Gaiman's stature as a rock-star author that he can charm the fanboys with the Eisner Award-winning "Sandman" and his contributions to Batman comic books, earn spots on best-seller lists with "American Gods" and inspire filmmakers to re-create his works, such as "MirrorMask," "Stardust" and now "Coraline," the stop-motion-animated movie by director-screenwriter Henry Selick.

With "Coraline," the shaggy-haired Brit-American who rules at comic-book conventions has become a hero to children's librarians and the preteen set, too.

"At the screening [at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood], when it was over, I got to know what it feels like to be the Jonas Brothers," Gaiman said with a laugh. He was besieged by "a number of young ladies between the ages of 8 and 11" who wanted his autograph.

"I asked them what they liked about the movie. And they said the things they loved about 'Coraline' the book were all in there. ... Maybe it was just different enough that they were still surprised about what was going to happen next. But it was similar enough that all of the beats were there."

In fact, "Coraline" has many differences with its predecessors -- the novel illustrated by Dave McKean and graphic novel drawn by P. Craig Russell, each with its own visual and literary style. Selick's 3-D, stop-motion movie is an entirely new vision.

The source material that attracted so many interpretations tends to be classified under the "horror-fantasy" genre, but the writer doesn't think in those terms while he's creating. "I think partly that's just how my head goes," Gaiman said, then explained, wielding words like a paintbrush:

"If you put me and John Grisham and Stephen King in front of a deserted boathouse by a lake, Grisham would write about a brave young lawyer who was fleeing the mob and who would hide in that boathouse, and Stephen King would write about the thing in the lake that came out of the lake and ate the people in the boathouse, and I would write about how the boathouse got up on chicken legs and walked away into the woods.

"That's just who we are and that's what we write."

It's not just ego that allows Gaiman to put himself in that best-selling company. He has the readership and awards -- and blogosphere backlash -- to back it up.

Still, the Newbery for "The Graveyard Book" -- like "Coraline," a sometimes scary story with a child hero -- came as "a complete shock." He was on tour for the movie when the news came, so he finds himself fielding questions about the film at hand and "The Graveyard Book," which will be a live-action movie directed by Neil Jordan ("The Crying Game") and starring "the cream of British acting."

But that's yet to be cast. "Coraline," with the voice talents of Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman (the PC guy from Mac ads), has been brought to the screen by Selick, of "Nightmare Before Christmas" fame.

Gaiman said this was not so much a collaborative effort, but he "encouraged" Selick after reading a first draft that was faithful to the original.

"I said, "Henry, you've got to open it up. You're making a movie. This is incredibly close to the book, and I'm not sure that it works.' Things that work in the book because you're inside Coraline's head when she walks through a creepy corridor don't necessarily work when you're outside [her mind]. So Henry took a year and he mulled it over and he sent me his next draft, which is the basis of what we've got now."

Gaiman was impressed with the Real D 3-D, comparing it to the 3-D version of "Beowulf," a 2007 animated film for which he was co-writer and executive producer.

"I don't think the producers of 'Beowulf' would come after me with hatchets if I say that this is the very best 3-D I've ever seen ... it's the clearest, it's the most precise. And Henry doesn't use it to throw things at the audience. He uses it to add dimension. It's the first time I've seen [3-D that] it's much more about things receding than it is about things coming toward you."

The scares in the movie don't come from the 3-D, they come from the story and characters, particularly Coraline's Other Mother.

"I loved how wonderfully, satisfyingly terrifying the Other Mother was in her final incarnation," Gaiman said. "And I thought Teri Hatcher was for me the revelation. There were some great parts and some great [voice] performances, but I didn't know Teri Hatcher could do that. She essentially plays four characters -- four different versions of the same character -- and I think makes a star out of herself on the way."

The writer knows all about star-making turns. Asked what's it like to have his work inspire illustrators and filmmakers, he said, "It's wonderful." Then he added that there'll be a stage musical of "Coraline," too, due off-Broadway in May.

So, now that Gaiman has fans of all ages and his work has gone from book to screen to stage, are there any worlds left to conquer?

"Not that I'd want to ..." he trailed off, then continued, "There isn't that sort of Alexander the Great feeling of, 'Oh no, no more worlds left to conquer.' It's just an enormous amount of fun.

"And with that," he concluded, "they're making fingers-across-the-throat motions that it's time to go."

Sharon Eberson can be reached at seberson@post-gazette.com and 412-263-1960. First Published February 6, 2009 5:00 AM


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