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Van Allsburg's universe expands with Zathura movie

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PROVIDENCE - Author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg lives in a big brick house on the East Side, a substantial house that looks not at all like it would ever be able to fly off into space on its own.

Yet that's what happens to a very similar house in his children's book and its opening-Friday movie version, Zathura: A Space Adventure, when a pair of squabbling brothers play a board game they have found.

As the game gets under way, the brothers discover to their horror that their house is no longer on their street. It's sailing past Saturn's rings, with meteors crashing through the ceiling, a psychotic robot clanging down the hall, a stranded astronaut at the door and lizard-like aliens blasting the house with death rays from their spaceship floating outside.

Rampaging robots and murderous outer-space lizards are just part of the fertile mind of Van Allsburg, a soft-spoken, genial man with thinning gray hair and beard. He's sitting on the cushions of a wood- framed sofa in his living room, looking forward to the national release of the screen version of Zathura Friday following a gala benefit premiere in Seekonk Tuesday with stars Tim Robbins, Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo in the audience.

There are differences between Van Allsburg's 2002 book and the 2005 movie. The astronaut and even the boys' father and teenage sister are inventions of screenwriter David Koepp. Even the role of the alien lizards, the menacing Zorgons, has been greatly expanded for the film.

But that's all right with Van Allsburg, who realizes, after all, that his book was pretty spare at 28 pages . . . and done in black and white, to boot.

"It's true that there's a lot of stuff in the film that doesn't appear in the book," he says. "But it still essentially is a story of some combative brothers who are put in a situation where their rivalry is not in their best interest because they have to deal with the perils of space. And that's the driving force of the movie.

"Picture books," he continues, "have a pretty slight narrative, so they have to be embellished, augmented, added on to. You could do that by adding material that has nothing to do with the book and ends up completely subsuming the original story. Or you can look at the material and just try to work with what's there and make it grander and more complex."

This is the third time Van Allsburg has had one of his 15 books turned into a movie. The last was almost exactly a year ago, when his classic Christmas tale The Polar Express came to the screen, filmed with the actors performing in a motion-capture process that recorded their body and facial movements, later turning them via computer into a sort of animated rendering of Van Allsburg's artwork. The moviemakers also added characters and adventures that were not in the book to that film.

A decade ago, Van Allsburg's Jumanji, about children who play a board game that conjures up wild jungle animals in their house, became a movie hit. Yet the screen version emphasized more action than Van Allsburg had intended, bringing the lions and hippos and zebras out of the house to smash up a small town.

Zathura, the book, is a sort of continuation of Jumanji. At the end of Jumanji, two brothers, Danny and Walter Budwing, played on screen in Zathura by Bobo and Hutcherson, find the abandoned Jumanji board game. At the start of Zathura, the bored Danny begins playing the game Zathura, which has been printed on the flip side of the Jumanji board, leading to their outer-space adventures.

However, the screen version of Zathura has no reference to the Jumanji game and can really stand alone.

Picking up the story

Van Allsburg recalls that, following the success of the Jumanji movie, executives at Sony Pictures Studios "went through a lot of writers and invested quite a bit of money trying to create a sequel. But each of the writers approached the story the same way, which was to simply take the game and put it in some other player's hands. They weren't having much success with that.

"I had the idea that I would write a sequel, not of the film Jumanji, but of the book." Van Allsburg had sold off his rights to subsequent screen versions, but could write a continuation of his book, "which really didn't have the same characters.

"Many sequels are basically a retelling of the same story, especially in Hollywood. Lethal Weapon 2 isn't a sequel. It's just another telling of Lethal Weapon 1. Die Hard 2 is another telling of Die Hard 1. So this is more in the spirit of a continuation of more adventures."

He was inspired by the many letters he'd received from children, wondering what had happened to Danny and Walter after they found the game at the end of Jumanji. "The only thing you know about Danny and Walter Budwing revealed in Jumanji is that the boys don't finish what they begin. And that created a lot of expectations about how horrible their experience might have been.

"So I was thinking about why Danny and Walter didn't ever finish anything. And I thought it was probably because they really couldn't stand each other. So I gave the boys this conflict. And then I thought, well, you can't just have them play the same game again, because people have seen it on film and in the book, too."

He came up with the idea of another game that was printed on the back of the Jumanji board after seeing similar games in a reproduction of a 1904 Sears Roebuck catalog. "So with those story elements in place, I went ahead."

Top secret

Eventually, Sony Pictures bought the rights to bring Zathura to the screen. Although Van Allsburg wasn't asked to take a crack at a screenplay, he was kept informed all along the line of production.

Sony even sent him a sci-fi-themed "care package" at the start of production whose contents related to the movie. It included a fancy telescope and a little red robot, representing the robot he wrote about, although it doesn't look at all like his drawings or the more menacing robot in the film.

At the start of production, he also was sent dailies, pieces of early footage. "Not the more elaborate stuff. They sent me the first couple of weeks so I got to see the boys, the casting. The story is really told through the performances of the kids. So the kids had to be really good, to maintain that seething resentment toward each other during the course of the film through their acting skills."

He had a private screening of the completed film "three or four weeks ago" in Seekonk, brought from Hollywood by the film's assistant editor, who was met at Logan Airport by a pair of private security guards. They drove her and the film to the theater, then searched the place before the movie started and stayed near the auditorium doors throughout the show to make sure no one else entered.

"They didn't want anyone to come in with a mini-cam in their beanie," says Van Allsburg with a laugh, illegal copying of films being a touchy topic in Hollywood these days.

And his review?

"I'm pleased. I think it's a pretty good movie."

Diplomatic critique

He was a little more reticent to give full-speed-ahead praise to The Polar Express last year. Asked whether he's happier with the way Zathura has turned out, he tries to be diplomatic.

"I feel like I'm always in a difficult position when people ask me that. Like all authors, I know that the film that is made from the book is not going to be exactly like the book and it's not going to be like the film you thought you would make from your book. But since I'm not a filmmaker, it's going to be somebody else's version.

"I've tried to make peace with that, so it's difficult for me to express the approval of what's done and yet still retain my opportunity to say, 'And yet . . . this is not exactly what I would have done.'

"But with all three of these films, I realize I'm pretty fortunate. They've all gotten the highest levels of attention from the studios. They've all been generously budgeted. They've all had great performances and good actors. So I'm disinclined to critique them in detail.

"For the most part, this is a really satisfying film. You know going in that it's someone else's interpretation of what you've done. You haven't provided them with a blueprint like an architect, and you can't expect them to function like a contractor. All you've done is given them some inspiration, and they have their own artistic impulses and they'll do what they want to do.

"And the fact is, if you could bend them to your will they'd probably make something worse, because they would be doing it without their own conviction."

Broom hasn't flown

Yet Van Allsburg has written a screenplay for his book The Widow's Broom, about a widow who discovers a broom abandoned by a witch after it lost the power of flight, although it still has other powers.

The book had been optioned by Paramount and was almost set to go, the author says, until the studio's management changed. "The new team came in and, as it always happens during management changes, they were disinclined to take risks because if the thing succeeds they don't think they're going to get credit. But if it fails, they figure they'll get blamed.

"They thought it was pretty interesting, but they were afraid of the budget and anxious about a film that stars a broom. The film's expressive power would be derived entirely through its mindlike manipulation of its shaft and bristles," he says, handing over a copy of the book whose text happens to be printed in Japanese.

"We'd done some tests with three different effects houses and thought we'd proved to Paramount that even a stick can squeeze out some emotion. But the new management let the option lapse after spending an enormous amount of time and money on it. But now they've expressed renewed interest."

He can only wait to see what comes of that.

Currently, Van Allsburg says, "I'm working on a story that's somewhat longer than anything I've done so far. I've spent maybe five or six, seven weeks on it and I probably have another couple of weeks to go. I'm sure that would surprise people: How could you spend that long on eight pages? I'm not sure why, but I take my time with it."

He points out that in writing the text, many changes take place along the way, and then things usually change again once he begins illustrating it.

"When I get the text, something that's a lot like a final draft, I do a bunch of little sketches. And then with the sketches I go back and look at the story, because as soon as I start thinking about the pictures, I realize there are things I don't have to do in the text. I don't have to describe certain things. I don't have to say where the action is taking place because as soon as you turn the page, you see it."

9-to-5 artist

When Van Allsburg started writing and illustrating books a quarter of a century ago, taking a rest from doing the sculptures that had been the center of his artistic output, he was turning out nearly a book a year "because I just saw it as what I did. I always try to think of art as the work. I know it's not exactly like a job, but I think of it as a job.

"Some people have this romantic idea that artists need to wait around for inspiration and they get blocked and they have to go through some sort of torture to dislodge the block. I've always tried to treat it more like simply what I do. So I get out of bed and do the work."

He works in the third floor office of his home on a quiet, leafy street, even sometimes putting in 9-to-5 hours. "It might come up like that. But I take some of the advantages of being self- employed, too. If I want to read all of The New York Times some morning, I can start a bit later.

"I think for the first eight or nine books I was doing a book a year, but then around the 12th book I became a father and that changed my schedule a little bit. And then I began getting involved with these film projects, which I don't end up contributing to in a direct way, but it still means occasional trips out West and note- writing, making phone calls.

"Even though I'm not the most important element of it, the reality is that when a book is optioned to turn into a film, it's a little like trying to start a fire with wet wood. If you get a little spark going, somebody's got to blow on it very carefully and keep blowing on it.

"One of my jobs is just to sort of keep blowing on the fire and hoping it takes. And that means communicating with my producing partner and writing notes to people at the studios. The thing of it is, though, you can't blow on it too hard or you'll put it out."

Van Allsburg has come a long way from that first book, the Caldecott Honor Award-winning The Garden of Abdul Gasazi, which he says he did as a sort of lark, "a kind of sabbatical from sculpture."

At first he had planned to only do one book. "And then I realized that I should do another one because I was certain I could do a better one. I had only done it once, and I figured you're bound to be on the upswing of a learning curve.

"So I did a second one, and then I did a third one because I thought after I did the second one that I could do a better one.

"And so it continues."

* * *

* Providence author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg hopes the screen adaptation of his picture book Zathura, illustrations from which are shown below, will make a big bang at the box office. A gala premiere in Seekonk on Tuesday precedes Friday's national release.


* Chris Van Allsburg at his home in Providence. The screen adaptation of his book Zathura, opening Friday, marks the third time one of his books has been made into a movie.


(C) 2005 The Providence Journal. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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