I was pleasantly surprised by the made-for-TV adaptation of David Almond’s Skellig, a Printz Honor and Carnegie Medal–winning book. Released on DVD in August 2010, Skellig: The Owl Man (Feel Films; PG) — the unfortunate subtitle added for the U.S. release — originally aired in the U.K. in 2009.
Fantastical realism at its finest, Skellig is the story of ten-year-old Michael and the mysterious being he discovers in an outbuilding of his family’s new house. This creature, Skellig, looks like a man but eats bugs and mice, has tattered wings, eventually flies, and inexplicably heals Michael’s ailing baby sister. Is Skellig human, an angel, or something else entirely? Michael’s question to Skellig, “What are you?” is the mystery that the book never truly resolves; wisely, neither does the movie. Instead, both novel and film allow this unanswered question to linger, capturing the mystery and wonder that accompany Skellig.
TV and film star Tim Roth (Lie to Me, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction) as the enigmatic Skellig is superb in his portrayal of the gruff but gentle character. As Michael, relative newcomer Bill Milner is just the right mix of sensitive and sincere — qualities that explain his desire to help Skellig. Young actress Skye Bennett as Michael’s new friend Mina exudes her character’s inquisitive, free-thinking nature, but she plays a less active role in the film. The whole cast is uniformly outstanding in their realistic, moving performances.
This faithful adaptation includes all the book’s characters, and the storyline closely follows that of the book (with dialogue picked up almost word for word at times). The film version even keeps small details such as owls bringing Skellig mice to eat. References to Icarus and William Blake remain — though I was disappointed that the film’s discussion of Blake, whose work is so relevant to the storyline and referenced extensively by Mina, is reduced to one scene.
The film does heighten fantastical elements of the book. Michael now has a fear of heights, making it all the more dramatic when the audience finally sees Skellig fly and adding action to this otherwise quiet story. The addition of a shed burning scene, in which Michael saves Skellig, highlights Skellig’s ability to heal Michael’s burn by holding his hand. This proves to Michael that Skellig can save his sister, something Michael only wonders about in the book. The film creates a spiritual connection between Michael, Skellig, and the baby that the book only hints at, and the filmmakers use an eerie technique with Skellig’s eyes to make him seem even more otherworldly. I chalk up all these minor differences to artistic license and the natural evolution of a story from page to screen.
My favorite cinematic enhancement of the book is the soundtrack, composed by veteran music man Stephen Warbeck, whose film credits include Billy Elliott and Shakespeare in Love, for which he won an Oscar for original score. Warbeck gives a musical narrative voice to this moving story, at times hauntingly ethereal, but sometimes hopeful and soaring in its composition to appropriately suit the emotion of a particular scene. In addition to the music, the cinematography, camera angles, and Skellig’s makeup and wings contribute to the mood of the film. While I always hope seeing a movie based on a book will lead an audience unfamiliar with the text to seek out the source material, I certainly would recommend the reverse this time — lovers of Almond’s award-winning novel won’t be disappointed by this impressive film.