I saw a preview for the forthcoming Inkheart movie a few months back, and it looked like fun--and it appeared to feature a sort of magic that I particularly like. And I had vaguely heard good things about the book, which I vaguely thought was one of those fantasy books I had somehow missed as a kid (much as I had missed all of Diana Wynne Jones's and Patricia Wrede's and Diane Duane's kids' books).
So when I was in a bookstore a couple weeks ago, looking for the book of Despereaux, I saw a copy of Inkheart on the shelf and thought, what the hell, might as well give it a try; I generally prefer to read books before seeing the movies based on them.
I did have some concerns even before I bought it, though: it's much longer than most books I'm willing to read, and it's the first of a trilogy.
Anyway, I got it home and started reading it, and though it had a pleasant emphasis on books, and I more or less liked Meggie and her father, it wasn't really grabbing me. I kept waiting for the magic to happen.
There are a bunch of spoilers for the book in the rest of this entry, so I'll start by saying that, sadly, I just didn't like the book. Details follow. But lots of people love the book. If you're emotionally attached to it, be warned that I'm going to say some pretty negative things about it.
The first problem I had is that it isn't until page 138 that we even hear about any magic in the world of the book, and not until page 176 that we see any magic. Perhaps my expectations were set wrong by seeing the movie trailer. But I wanted to see people and things coming to life out of books, whereas the first 130+ pages read to me like kind of mundane kids'-adventure-story stuff. I got impatient.
I also got impatient with the deliberate hiding of information from the reader. Mo insists on not telling Meggie anything until page 138. Why? What good can it possibly do to hide everything from her? Then when he finally does tell her what's going on, someone asks about Capricorn and he says the less you know about him the better. Okay, yes, I see that the author is trying to ratchet up narrative tension by scary foreshadowing, but I just found it annoying; Mo really didn't have any good in-story reason to hide so much important information for so long.
On a side note, I was surprised (not in a bad way) to find out various information about the book itself. (This paragraph isn't criticism, just notes.) Somewhere in the first few chapters, there was a comment about driving to Italy, and I thought, oh, huh, I didn't realize this was set in Europe. And there was a line about it being the twenty-first century, and I thought, oh, huh, I wonder when this book was published. And I checked, and was surprised it was so recent (2003), and then discovered that it was written in German and translated into English. That's pretty cool; I can't think of very many kids' sf books that have been translated into English.
And yet, I wonder if the translation had something to do with my feeling that the prose wasn't as fluid as I wanted it to be. It's perfectly good, nothing wrong with it; just felt uninspired to me. Normally that wouldn't be a problem, but there weren't enough other sources of reader pleasure to distract me from noticing the prose.
Later, I got annoyed at the inconsistency in the magic rules. The author sets up this magic system that's so scary that I can't imagine anyone using it intentionally unless they absolutely have to--when you read aloud, anyone who's even barely within earshot might disappear permanently. That's scary! And then Mo, who's already lost his wife to this magic, and who's spent years avoiding reading aloud because of it, casually reads from Where the Sidewalk Ends with Meggie in the room. Huh? Isn't he worried that she might vanish into the book? And why would Capricorn be willing to risk being in the same room when Mo reads from Inkheart? Shouldn't he put Mo in a room by himself and say "There better be gold here when I come back"? Anyway, from about halfway through the book onward, the idea that people disappear from the real world when the magic reading happens is pretty much dropped. And removing that consequence from the magic completely changes the tone of the magic system, and makes one of the central pieces of backstory (the loss of Meggie's mother) feel, to me, arbitrary and capricious on the author's part.
On a side note, the postman disappearing when Mo read aloud put me off and distracted me. Surely the postal authorities would wonder where their employee went. Surely they would send someone around, and find his vehicle, and question Mo. Surely the police would investigate, and would learn that Mo's wife had mysteriously disappeared, and that Mo couldn't give a plausible account of what had happened to her either. Surely the postman's wife and kids would be distressed by his disappearance. And so on.
Which brings me to another issue: the book didn't feel to me like it was set in the real modern world. For example, until very late in the book, the characters don't seem to know about telephones. Why didn't Mo phone Elinor to let her know he was coming? Why does the first mention of cell phones come nearly at the end of the book? Also along similar lines: when modern Western people escape from being kidnapped by a gang of brutal thugs who appear to have a bunch of other people in slavery, I would expect them to immediately go to the police. Doesn't seem to occur to our heroes. (Late in the book, they go to the police about a different issue and discover that the local cop is under Capricorn's thumb, but they should have tried this much earlier. And maybe this is just me being provincially American, but I would expect that kidnapping and slavery would be matters of interest to law enforcement at a higher level than just the local cops. (But I don't know whether Italy has an FBI equivalent.))
One more related thing that I didn't even notice until I read reviews of the movie (more on that below): The book appears to be set in the early 2000s, and yet, iIrc, there's no mention whatsoever of computers or the Internet.
There were a bunch of other small oddities that I could have forgiven if I had liked the book more. For example, in the modern world, is it really true that people don't think of books having authors? My sense is that most adults who read (and quite a few kids) are very aware of authors--Judy Blume, Rowling, Tom Clancy, various romance authors, etc. And the idea, repeated over and over, that readers not only don't pay any attention to author names but believe that all stories were written long ago and all authors are dead just seems weird to me. I don't think I know any adult readers who think that (feel free to prove me wrong), but pretty much everyone in the world of the book seems to think it.
Relatedly, one other nitpicky little thing that bugged me: All through the book, Meggie looks at book covers, and reads stuff that's inside the books, but the narration never mentions a title or author. This started to feel to me like Funke was deliberating avoiding naming the books--which I can see being a fun game of catch-the-reference for readers, but in the context of this book it annoyed me. For example, why not say that the book that Elinor gives Meggie is Where the Sidewalk Ends? Relatedly, Meggie gets a couple of chances to look inside Inkheart, but she apparently somehow manages to avoid reading any of the words or having any idea what the book is about, which just doesn't seem plausible to me for an avid reader.
There was at least one aspect of my reaction that was really my fault for setting my expectations wrong: three people who had read the book mentioned in passing, while I was reading it, that it (or possibly the sequels, not sure) got very dark, so I was tensed for some really bad stuff to happen--but I don't feel like it did. None of the good guys get tortured or raped or killed or even severely injured. (And I'm glad they don't! But I was expecting that something at that level was going to happen.) Elinor loses all her books, which is pretty awful, but she had earlier seemed almost pathologically attached to them, and she seemed to be interested in them primarily as objects of monetary value rather than for what they contained, so I was less sympathetic than I might've normally been. And almost everyone gets a mostly happy ending. All the characters talked constantly about how horrific Capricorn and Basta were, but the bad guys never actually did anything especially evil on-camera; every time they were about to, something would stop them. Which again made me feel like the tension was being artificially manufactured. But again, this aspect of my reaction probably did have more to do with my setting my expectations wrong (because in kids' books I don't normally expect awful things to happen); and it wasn't a huge part of my reaction, just a sidelight.
Anyway. Halfway through the book, I realized that I wasn't really enjoying it, and that there was a long way to go, and I decided it wasn't worth my time to read the rest in detail, so I started skimming. I do more or less like the ending, and the sample chapters from books 2 and 3 are intriguing, but I'm not going to read those other volumes.
The movie still looks to me like it could be fun--though, based on the preview, it appears to deviate wildly from the book. (There are no spoilers about the movie in this entry; I haven't seen it yet.) I was a little hesitant about Brendan Fraser playing Mo, but it turns out that he's who Funke modeled the character in the book after, so that's all right. (And I've rather liked him in most of the movies I've seen him in.)
The reviews of the movie that I've seen so far have been mostly middling-to-negative. Amusingly, several of them complain about specific things that were also problems in the book, and a couple of them seem to assume that those problems weren't in the book; I don't think any of the reviewers I've read so far have read the book.
So I think that if I set my expectations appropriately, I may well find the movie worth watching.
(Wrote most of this entry over a week ago, neglected to post it 'til now.)