Spoilers ahead for the film Goosebumps
In the 10th book in the original Goosebumps series, The Ghost Next Door, Hannah Fairchild is a tween on summer vacation with nothing to do but ride her bike and suspect her new neighbor of being secretly dead. It’s very much a 1993 book—she’s upset at her best friend who’s away at camp and ignoring her letters—and it doesn’t age as well as other beloved children’s books might, with a dragging story, very little action, and goofy cliffhangers. (At the end of one chapter, Hannah thinks there’s a hooded demon on her bed. At the start of the next, she sees it’s just a coat.)
Horror for Kids
So compared to The Ghost Next Door, the Goosebumps film adaptation starring Jack Black as the author R.L. Stine seems impressive. It’s got a slick adventurous feel, good scares, clever all-ages humor, and the right balance of sincerity and self-deprecation. But in another, crucial way, the earlier book feels like a much more modern work, despite being 22 years older.
The book inspired the film’s character of Hannah Stine, the author’s teenage daughter who teams up with her new neighbor Zach when the monsters in her father’s books come to life. But book-Hannah achieved a surprising amount of depth and agency in the story’s 124 pages, aimed at those with a fourth-grade reading level, no less. Meanwhile, the film reduces her to a thinly written, uncomplicated girl destined to serve only as a love interest to the main hero. In doing so, it betrays the ethos of gender equality built into the book series from the very start, and one element that made the Goosebumps series such a mega-selling phenomenon.
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“The secret of Goosebumps … was it was the first book series to appeal equally to boys and girls,” Stine told The Washington Post in 2012, on the 20th anniversary of the series, which has sold over 350 million copies. “In fact, these books were originally done for a girl audience. And then the fan mail started coming in, and it was half from boys.” Anyone who read just a handful of Goosebumps books in elementary school would find this bit of trivia unsurprising. Stine’s books regularly featured both boys and girls as likable protagonists fighting killer cameras, werewolves, or ventriloquist dummies.
The Goosebumps film likely intended to do the same—and rightly so, considering its audience on opening weekend was split evenly between males and females—but it fumbles most significantly with how it portrays its young heroine. The first big twist reveals that Hannah (Odeya Rush) is one of her father’s creations—a book character come to life. Stine tells Zach he wrote Hannah to be a good, normal teenage girl, someone to love and to act as his companion. Zach, who has a growing crush on Hannah, is devastated but agrees to hide her true identity. But it turns out that Hannah already knows: “A girl can only have so many 16th birthdays,” she tells Zach near the end with surreal matter-of-factness, before she’s swept back into a book along with the other monsters. Then comes the second twist: Stine surprises Zach by writing Hannah’s character to life again and destroying the book she came from, to guarantee she will never return to its pages. This is the happy ending; the fact that Zach will grow older and Hannah won’t doesn’t seem to be an issue.
The film dwells more on Zach’s sense of loss and existential frustration when he learns about Hannah. Meanwhile Hannah seems unrealistically at peace with it all—even though she’s kept trapped in her house, homeschooled by her paranoid dad, and forced to relocate countless times. She’s brave, funny, accessible, magical, and beautiful in the way only idealized girls can be. And she doesn’t have a say in her return to her book—Zach only realizes her fate once it’s too late. The film doesn’t try hard to make the case that Hannah’s as “real” as anyone else despite being from a book, though it easily could have. That’s Goosebumps’s implicit premise when it comes to the monsters, after all.
Compare this to The Ghost Next Door: The twist is that Hannah Fairchild herself is the ghost, and the revelation has more of an impact since she’s the protagonist, not the pretty sidekick and love interest. When she learns she died in a fire along with her whole family and was left stuck on earth without realizing it, the book makes an effort to carve out her disorientation and sense of grief.
Now, Hannah understood why sometimes time seemed to stand still, and sometimes it floated by so quickly. Ghosts come and go, she thought sadly.
It was all beginning to make sense to Hannah. The dreamlike summer days. The loneliness. The feeling that something wasn’t right.
Even earlier in the book, Hannah’s self-aware and determined—she agonizes over whether she’s doing the right thing by spying on her neighbor, she worries that he’ll think she’s crazy before concluding that maybe she is crazy. The film instead transfers all this emotional and psychological turmoil to Zach and Stine. And while movie-Hannah’s fate is controlled in the most literal sense by the men and boys in her life, book-Hannah picks her own destiny. When her neighbor is trapped in a burning house near the end of the book, she rushes into the flames to save him in an act of sacrifice that sets her free.
The film gives short shrift to its other female characters, too. The wonderful Amy Ryan (The Office, The Wire) plays Zach’s mom, but spends little time on screen influencing the plot. Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street, Workaholics), is hilarious as usual as Zach’s aunt, but her character is painted as man-crazy and desperate—and she later ends up with Stine. Zach’s dorky friend Champ has a crush on a popular girl, who appears once to make fun of him and then a second time for Champ to rescue her—and to reward him with a kiss.
Of the 10 highest-grossing films in 2015, two are kid-friendly and feature female leads: Inside Out and Cinderella. Goosebumps feels caught between the two. Its source material is a lot like Inside Out—deeply interested in the thoughts and emotions of girls. But the film itself is a lot more like the traditional and unabashedly heteronormative Cinderella—all the main characters end up in some kind of romantic relationship, which detracts from the already flat depictions of its women and girls. So when the climax of Goosebumps ends with Stine, Zach, and Champ standing around the closed book that swallowed up Hannah, it almost doesn’t matter that she returns a couple scenes later. By that point the film has already shown it doesn’t think she’s real, anyway.