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The Novel’s Magic Has Been Excised From Winter’s Tale

Rating

C-

Location

Wide Release

Dates

Opens Feb. 14

Maybe they should’ve gotten Peter Jackson involved. The Lord of the Rings mastermind is possibly the only skillful film director today with both the clout and the demonstrated willingness to commit to transforming a story as epic in scope as is the novel Winter’s Tale into a richly realized trilogy. If he’d had to throw a few hobbits into the screenplay to secure the financing, fine.

That couldn’t have been worse than what writer and first-time feature director Akiva Goldsman has done in bringing to the screen this limp, schmaltzy, bastardized take on a fantastic book.

For the benefit of those who’ve not had the good fortune of delving into Mark Helprin’s multigenerational saga of love and justice played out over a century in a magical realist version of New York — and therefore may not immediately recognize this film for the travesty that it is — let me explain. Imagine adapting The Wizard of Oz without the Scarecrow or the Tin Man. Or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland without the Mad Hatter. Or The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe without the lion or the wardrobe. Then replace those essential elements with a couple of characters who seem like ripoffs of villains from Joss Whedon’s Buffy-verse.

Obviously cuts must be made to cram a story with such grand ambitions into just two hours. So perhaps I might have been willing to grudgingly accept Goldsman’s decision to scale back the narrative to focus on just one of the book’s love stories: that of the burglar Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) and the dying heiress Beverly Penn (Jessica Brown Findlay) in the early 20th century. But I could not then stomach his dozens of other unnecessary alterations or the host of overly sentimental babble that he substitutes for the book’s mystical musings.

Meanwhile, if you come to the movie without knowing the book, there’s much here that will appear laughably nonsensical. After Beverly’s death, Peter Lake confronts the demonic gang leader Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and ends up stuck in time, losing his memory and ceasing to age even as he lives into the 21st century. In the book, he disappears into a mysterious cloud (just go with it) and reemerges decades later, after we’ve spent hundreds of pages among other characters and storylines. But because all of that’s been excised from this version of Winter’s Tale, we’re left to watch Peter repeat the same sad actions day after day and expected not to wonder how Pearly Soames, even with his supernatural powers, spent 100 years unaware that Peter was still alive in the same city.

Gone too is the sacrifice Peter makes at the novel’s end. Instead there’s a climactic brawl followed by a treacly happy ending. And I haven’t even gotten to Will Smith as Lucifer himself. Sorry, too late to bring that up now. I’m sitting here clenching my fists just thinking about it.