Still Scared: Talking Children's Horror

Still Scared: Talking Children's Horror

Paperhouse and Marianne Dreams

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In this episode we talked about the film Paperhouse, and the book it's based on, Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr.

Many thanks to our fab guest Ali Kay for joining us for this one! You can contact them by whispering their name into the ear of a standing stone on a moor at midnight.

If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is

Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, find her work at

Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and his band Etao Shin are at

Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at


Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, and today we’re very excited to have a guest on our show. Their name’s Ali Kay and they’re joining us as we talk about the 1958 novel Marianne Dreams, and the 1990 film that’s based on it, Paperhouse. Enjoy!

Ren Hi Adam! And hi Ali! Our first guest ever on the podcast.

Adam: We’re going up into the proper leagues!

Ren: This is also our tenth episode unless I’ve wildly miscounted.

Adam: Let’s say it is to make it sound even more legit!

Ren: And I think this is a pretty good one to join us on, because I thought this was pretty great. So the book is Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr and the film is Paperhouse.

So you suggested this one, Adam, where did you come across it?

Adam: Oh heaven knows. I have a real fondness for curious 1980s films that don’t easily fit into any obvious genre designation. Like, ‘80s films that you can’t tell if they’re marketed for children or adults. I may literally have looked up: ‘80s films, probably inappropriate for children’.

Ali: When did you first watch it?

Adam: I was in Exeter. So, I think I watched it about five years ago.

Ali: Okay, so not as a child.

Adam: No, not as a child. But I really can’t remember at all how I came across it. I may have looked up: ‘if you liked Return to Oz you’ll like this’ kind of list.

Ali: Had you heard of the book?

Adam: No, I’d never heard of the book. In fact, watching the film I didn’t know it was based on a book, and it was only when I looked up the film that I learnt that it was based on a book —

Ali: — loosely based —

Adam: — yeah, loosely based. Inspired by a book. Riffing on a book.

Ren: There’s quite a big time difference between when the book was published and when the film was made, so there’s some updates to bring it into the ‘80s.

Adam: Such as awesome guitar feedback on the soundtrack.

Ali: The film has a better soundtrack.

Adam: The film has a great soundtrack.

Ren: So, I’ll just do a summary of the book:

In Marianne Dreams, 10 year-old Marianne falls ill on her birthday with a mysterious illness, and is confined to bed for weeks on end. As she is convalescing, she finds a pencil and begins to draw a house, only to find that when she dreams that night, she is in the world of the drawing, and as she adds to the drawing in her waking life, these elements appear in her dreams.

She draws a face in the window of the house, and when she goes into the dream, there is a boy there, named Mark. It turns out that he is a real person, who is being taught by the same tutor as her, and he can’t walk because he’s suffering from polio.

There is a sense of unease and danger about the house she has drawn from the beginning, and this only increases when, in a fit of anger, Marianne scribbles bars across the windows and adds in a number of standing stones to the garden, each with one large eye. The rest of the novel goes back and forth between the real world, and the dream world, in which it becomes increasingly urgent that Mark gets stronger, so that they can escape from this house to the lighthouse on the hill.

And Paperhouse is, as you said, a relatively loose adaptation, with the major difference being a prominent storyline about the main character’s family. And she’s called Anna in the film.

Adam: Well, one thing Ali, you pointed out watching the film was that the laws of cause and effect don’t really apply in the way that the book has it. The book’s very much a sequential narrative.

Ali: Yeah, I felt like one of the things that I really liked about the book was that it was quite tightly structured. There’s quite a logical progression between the different dreams, and then she draws something else as a consequence of that dream, and then theres another dream and the consequences of what she’s just drawn are revealed. The film’s pretty erratic, in terms of how her drawing is motivated.

Adam: Sure. So in the book it’s much more based around problem solving. Creating objects that Mark might like, or might help Mark in the house. Whereas in the film, she draws the house and next time we see her draw a whole plethora of objects, and there’s not much rhyme or reason.

Ren: And then right at the end of that, the dream and the real world are completely blurred in the film, because she ends up finding a note from Mark, at the real lighthouse, that he’s gone off to write in the dream. So it’s definitely a lot less demarcated between the real world and the dream world and how they relate.

Adam: I felt like in the film, the world of the Paperhouse is more of an internal space. It felt more like a psychological space, than a tangible space, perhaps.

Ali: I think in the book, you never really know for sure, but the dream world is definitely treated as being real in terms of the narrative. Whereas in the film, it seemed to make more sense, at least, if you read it as being fever dreams. And the illness is much more linked to the dreams.

In the book she gets ill, and as a consequence of that she finds the pencil and starts drawing, but the worst part of her illness is before that, and it doesn’t feel like the reason she’s having these dreams is because she’s ill. Whereas in the film it definitely seems to be the case.

Adam: Yeah, I’d agree with that. In the book you get the sense that she’s on the long road to recovery, as it were, and the worst part of it is the boredom. So the drawing becomes a respite from the daily boredom. Whereas in the film, its more that she’s got the heady, out of it thing going on because she’s feverish.

Ali: And in the book the existence of the house is definitely caused by the pencil, specifically. It’s tied to this particular pencil that she finds in her grandmother’s work box. There’s no suggestion of that in the film at all, she just draws stuff.

Adam: It starts with her drawing —

Ali: — she does draw, and she does use the same pencil, as far as you can tell, but it’s not really emphasised as being an important object.

Adam: No, there’s no focus on the pencil as a magical object.

Ali: Whereas in the book, it’s always capitalised.

Adam: The Pencil

Ren: So, in the film right at the beginning where Anna’s drawing, there’s some very ominous music happening to let you know that this is not going to go particularly well. But shall we talk about when it starts to get actually creepy. It doesn’t take all that long.

Adam: Hans Zimmer seems to have been somewhat responsible for the soundtrack, interestingly. It’s very odd, it moves between discordant ‘80s synth-pop to almost operatic music at times. And then bits with odd guitar feedback. And also parts where sounds that we would later associate with the diegetic world of the film, being used far earlier. So the sound of helicopters, for instance.

Ali: The helicopter sound comes really early, and I was like ‘what, they’re putting the helicopter in now?’

Ren: Ahhh, that’s interesting.

Ali: But there was no helicopter, it was just part of the soundtrack.

Adam: So when did it start getting creepy for you, Ren?

Ren: Well, I think it’s immediately creepy from the first time she goes int the dream to the house and it’s this flat-looking house on this absolutely deserted plain because she hasn’t drawn anything else, and the wind whipping through the grass, and it definitely has a pretty eerie atmosphere from the beginning.

But where it accelerates is when she gets angry. She has an argument with Mark, I think it’s because he doesn’t believe that she’s changing and creating the house through her dreams.

Adam: I think poor Mark is struck with some existential anxiety. It reminded me a lot of Alice Through the Looking Glass, where Alice is informed by one of the other characters that she is just a figment in the dream —

Ren: — the white queen.

Adam: Or the white king possibly. Anyway, the sleeping monarch’s dreams. And Alice is very upset by this, and protests that that’s not true. So Mark seems equally upset by the idea that he might just be a character in Marianne’s dreams.

Ali: Yeah, understandably. Because also he can’t remember the real world when he’s in the dream world. Whereas Marianne, maybe can’t remember to start with?

Adam: She knows there’s an outside. She seems to recognise that she is somewhere else, but she can’t quite remember what the other world is. But she seems to know more than Mark, but isn’t completely aware that she’s in a dream.

Ali: Except in the film, where she knows straight away.

Adam: So you were saying about the bit where she gets angry?

Ren: Yeah, I’ve got the extract here:

‘She scribbled viciously over the face in her picture, and felt as if it really was Mark she was destroying. The house had begun to look like a prison now, with thick crossed lines like bars over the window, and Marianne took an evil pleasure in heightening the resemblance. She made the fence around the sad little garden thicker and higher, so that it enclosed the house like a wall around a prison. Outside it were the great stones and boulders she had drawn before, reminding her of gaolers. They should watch Mark, she thought with angry satisfaction, keeping him prisoner under constant surveillance. Marianne drew in more stones, a ring of them round outside the fence. To each she gave a single eye. ‘If he tried to get out of the house now, they would see,’ Marianne thought. ‘They watch him all the time, everything he does. They will never let him out.’

It turns out that she’s actually used a different, ordinary, pencil to scribble over Mark’s face. Which is fortunate.

Adam: Which is fortunate!

Ren: Because it’s a pretty horrifying idea that’s then returned to in the film.

Adam: Ah yes, the father with the scribbled-through eyes.

Ren: This film proper scared me! This whole scene.

Ali: I think it would have scared me if I’d been watching it on my own.

Adam: Did you watch it on your own, or did you watch it with someone?

Ren: I watched it on my own. Maki was in the room and occasionally heard me yelping.

So, in Paperhouse, it’s a similar setup, Anna draws her father and then decides she’s drawn him wrong and scribbles his face out.

This leads to an incredibly threatening sequence, in which her father appears outside the paper house, and Marc is telling her that it’s dangerous and she shouldn’t go to him, but Anna runs out to meet him. He’s calling her name but then shouts: ‘Anna, is that you? I’m blind!’ and she realises that it’s not her actual father, but a kind of wrong, scribbled-over, murderous version, brandishing a hammer.

Adam: There’s no hammers in the original book.

Ren: No, no-one brandishes a hammer. Anna blocks the door from him, and he smashes his way through the window and destroys Mark’s bike that they were going to escape on. And Anna wakes up, but the next time she goes to sleep she’s in the house in a room filled with candles.

Ali: I love that bit.

Ren: It’s a really amazing looking scene! The candles blow out and the not-father looms up and says: ‘daddy’s here!’

Ali: And that’s also where the evil radio is.

Ren: Yeah, do you want to explain about the radio a bit?

Ali: Well, in the book. Marianne draws a radio in another room to where Mark is, because she thinks it will keep him entertained. But then when they turn it on — well, we haven’t talked about THEM yet, but anyway, it’s a sinister radio.

In the film there’s also a radio, although like a lot of the things that she’s drawn in the house, it doesn’t look hugely like a radio.

Adam: Yeah, that’s one of the differences between the books and films. In the books despite her, I don’t want to say (Adam puts on a sneering voice) ‘ineptitude’ at drawing, but despite the fact she’s just a kid, and she’s no child prodigy as the book says.

Ali: It’s clear that none of this is happening because of her superb skill.

Adam: But the objects still turn out fairly realistically, as she intends them. Whereas in the film you get the sense that the objects are disproportioned because she’s drawn them disproportioned.

Ali: Yeah, you’ve got a lot of long eggs. Pointy eggs.

Ren: Which leads to some very strange sets, the room filled with all these bizarrely proportioned objects.

Ali: Which is one of the best things about the film, I think. The general weirdness of the house and the things in it.

Adam: Yeah, agreed. But anyway this radio is drawn far bigger than a regular radio, and is embedded in the wall.

Ali: It’s embedded in the wall, and it lights up. So it kind of looks like a big face. She runs out of the room, runs downstairs and hides under the stairs where she finds Mark, and the father is descending the stairs.

Adam: Like Nosferatu, or something.

Ren: He’s counting.

Ali: He’s doing the hide and seek thing, which is a throwback to the beginning of the film where she plays hide and seek, and faints in a railway tunnel. As you do. But the radio is —

Adam: — the radio is helping the not-father, and blares out (Adam does a malevolent robotic voice) ‘They’re under the stairs! They’re under the stairs!’

Ren: Not a helpful robot friend, like Tick-Tock.

Adam: No, a malevolent, bad robot friend.

Ali: Although it does look quite friendly.

Adam: It has a nice face.

Ren: The not-father is creeping down the stairs and Mark’s urging Anna to destroy just the part of the drawing with her father in it. But she’s asleep, so her sleeping self is reaching for this drawing, and she has a candle next to her bed, and she manages to set it on fire.

Adam: It reminded me a bit of Knightmare, that whole sequence of her trying to do something without being able to see in the real world.

Ali: It used to make me really nervous, that.

Ren: So this doesn’t seem to destroy everything, but pockets of flames spring up.

Ali:It kind of creates a huge chasm.

Adam: Where the rip is, presumably.

Ren: So the uhh… I’ve written in my notes ‘horror daddy’. Really? Okay. ‘Horror daddy’ finds her and bundles her out of the house and kind of pins her to the ground and he starts hitting her in the chest, hard, again and again, until Mark manage to hit him in the neck with the claw of the hammer and throw him into a pit of flames.

Which is pretty intense!

Adam: Too rich for your blood. I did wonder… I thought they missed a trick not cross-cutting to her in the real world. I thought she would have a defibrillator starting her heart up, because of the pumping on her chest reminded me of that.

Ali: Well, it turns out that is what happened to her. Because when she’s in hospital, the doctor comes and talks to her again and she says ‘Oh, my ribs really hurt’. And the doctor says, that’s because the paramedics had to do that. So it seems like you’re meant to infer that’s whats happening, but you don’t see any of that. And it’s not clear what’s happened, medically speaking.

Ren: Yes, because it’s like — is it part of her illness, or is it because she set her bed on fire? You don’t know.

Adam: But this is what we were saying about the dream logic of the film, if you want to be charitable. I’d want to call it dream logic.

Ali: That seems fair enough. Considering what the film is trying to do.

Ren: So one of the main differences between Marianne Dreams and Paperhouse, is that Paperhouse introduces this whole thread with the father and the storyline about Anna’s family. Whereas her parents are fairly irrelevant to Marianne Dreams, her mum just brings her things.

Adam: The father is almost notably absent, I’d say, in Marianne Dreams. He’s mentioned maybe twice, but very much isn’t present, interestingly. So I thought that the film maybe reflected that by having the father not present, and being away for his work.

Ren: So Anna’s mother is quite frazzled, and her father is away for long stretches of work. And Anna compared to Marianne is a much more rebellious kid. Marianne is in bed for weeks at a time, convalescing, whereas Anna doesn’t seem to spend more than a few minutes in bed before she’s up wandering around.

Anna keeps mentioning her father, and how she wants to see him, but we also find out that in the past he’s been drunk, and there’s some implication that he’s been threatening. Or Anna, at least says ‘I don’t like him when he’s drunk’.

Adam: It’s like a Jack Torrance in The Shining kind of thing, perhaps the father has been violent or physically abusive.

Ren: We don’t really know, but there’s that edge to it. And that comes in with the sinister father in the dream. And then afterwards when she wakes up in hospital, her real father’s there. And she’s understandably distant with him for a while. Which I think is fair.

Ali: But then he’s actually… I don’t know. It definitely felt like from that point onwards, the film didn’t seem to be positioning the real father as being threatening? Which I was slightly surprised by.

Ren: I think they wanted to rehabilitate the image of him after the horrifying dream father sequence. Because he seems pretty decent.

Adam: But you’re in a similar position as a view to Anna, I think. You don’t trust him, even though he seems kind of decent, because you’ve had these quite disturbing scenes in the paper house, and that’s the same actor, obviously.

Ali: Yeah. He definitely seems threatening, because you’ve seen him doing all of these things, but then it seems like the film, as Ren said, was trying to rehabilitate him and position him as being quite nice and caring about her.

It just seemed like an odd choice, because it seemed like it was moving the film from being about feelings about a genuinely threatening father, to then veer away from that a bit.

Adam: I think it becomes a bit more about abandonment anxiety. More about her frustrations at his absence than any violence? I don’t know. It does feel like an odd choice, and then it does then put the rehabilitation of the father, and the restoration of the father-daughter relationship, to the forefront of the narrative.

Ren: So the threat, as we’ve mentioned, in Marianne Dreams is completely different. It’s these bizarre seeing stones that Marianne has drawn in the garden. Quite soon after she’s drawn them, the next time she’s in the house, the windows have scribbled over bars like she’s drawn, and she hears from Mark about THEM in all-caps, for the first time.

Adam: I’ve made a note of the page, so do you want me to read this?

‘But who are THEY?’ ‘Well, they look like - you look yourself. Look between the bars, only don’t let them see you. Outside the fence - you can see between the posts. Be careful.’ Marianne approached the window, keeping well to one side and peered out between the bars. Beyond the little garden was the fence of high, uneven posts. Beyond the posts she could see the outlines of squat figures, standing round the garden like sentinels. She jumped back. ‘Mark! People, outside!’ ‘Look again,’ Mark said. Marianne peered out, more cautiously than ever. The people stood in strangely stiff, unyielding positions. She looked fixedly at one to see him shift his position, give some indication that he was alive. But he stayed absolutely still. So did the others. ‘Oh,’ she cried in relief. ‘They’re not live people. They’re only stones.’ ‘Be quiet,’ Mark hissed at her. ‘I told you, I don’t know if THEY can hear as well as see.’ ‘See? How can stones see?’ ‘Look! Don’t talk, look.’

Marianne looked again. It was difficult to see much of any one of the stones because of the bars and the fence hindering her view. But as she concentrated on one of the humped squat figures with all her attention, she saw suddenly a movement. A dark oval patch, which she had taken to be a hole, disappeared, as a pale eyelid dropped slowly for a moment and then was raised again. And in the dark oval, the ball of an eye swivelled slowly towards the house and remained there, staring with a fixed and unwinking gaze straight, it appeared, at Marianne herself. She shrank away from the window and turned to Mark. ‘One of them looked right at me!’ she said. ‘I can never tell whether THEY really see me, or just pretend to,’ Mark said, in a low voice.

Ren: (pleased noise) That’s great. I love it.

Adam: So you were particularly keen on THEM.

Ali: I was as well.

Adam: Why do you like THEM so much, the object animism, or?

Ali: Yeah, I like standing stones in general. But as villains I think they’re pretty good in this. Standing stones with a single cyclopian eye is particularly good for me.

Adam: I like how they’re established as obviously dangerous, but we don’t really see how they would kill anyone. But it would probably be horrible. There’s a bit later on where they mangle the bicycle, and we don’t know how they mangle the bicycle —

Ali: I think at that point it’s fairly clear that they are, well, there’s this sound of stony stamping.

Adam: So you think they uproot themselves and jump forwards?

Ali: At that point it seems like they’re hopping.

Ren: It says when Marianne and Mark are escaping, they hear ‘the sound of steps behind, plodding, slow, like the pounding of a giant pestle in a huge mortar’.

Adam: So do you think they’re in danger of being stomped to death?

Ali: I mean I didn’t until that part of the book. Because up until then they move, but you don’t see them move. There’s just suddenly more of them and they’re closer to the house.

Adam: Kind of like the stone angels in Doctor Who.

Ali: Yeah, which is obviously the most horrifying thing that anyone’s ever invented. It had something of that about it.

Ren: Is the horror increased by imagining them hopping along, or does it make them less horrifying?

Ali: I think if they’d done that to start with then it wouldn’t have been scary, but because that’s pretty late on, when they’re making their escape to the lighthouse. By that point I felt like I was invested enough in the thing for that to be sinister.

Adam: And in the book, of course, we hear their thoughts to some degree, or their basic sensory impressions, through the radio.

Ren: Yeah, and for some reason the room that the radio’s in is kind of more sinister than the rest of the house.

Adam: That’s the candlelit room in the film.

Ren: Because she only draws the radio in it, and the radio goes wrong so she doesn’t draw anything else because she doesn’t think it will come out right if she puts it in that room.

Ali: She’s very scared of going in there.

Ren: But she’s drawn this radio and it doesn’t pick up any music or anything, it just picks up the sound of the grass outside and the thoughts of THEM.

Ali: I really liked the grass. The grass is genuinely described as being malign. Right from the beginning when she finds herself out in the grass, and also later when she has to hide in the grass, during the escape from the house, there’s definitely a feeling that the grass is watching and it’s not on the children’s side.

Adam: I know when you were young you were quite a fan of Alan Garner, Ali?

Ali: More when I was an adult. I think when I was young I was too scared, certainly of the owl service.

Adam: I’ve only read The Weird Stone. He’s certainly got a good sense of the living world, or the world charged with animistic energy.

Ali: Yeah, and it is a dream world, but it definitely has a lot of that. A definite feeling right from the start that there’s something wrong outside in the world. Sorry, that was a tangent.

Ren: That’s good, we like tangents. That was very mild as tangents go on this podcast.

Adam: Yes, I’ve yet to say that the house is ‘made of paper!!’

Ren: I know, I can’t believe we used that joke on a previous episode when this one is literally about a house made of paper.

Adam: I kicked myself. We pre-empted it.

Ali: Foreshadowed.

Adam: On the note of tangents shall we have our Textures of the Week?

(rattling noises ensue)

Ren: (feebly singing) Texture of the week!

That’s getting stranger each time.

Adam: I’m going to have to buy some special objects.

Ren: So I have two textures of the week, they’re both from the same scene in the film, and they’re both great. So my first one is the huge industrial-looking ice-cream machine —

Adam: — Ah, that was mine! That was my texture of the week too!

Ren: Anna draws this for herself and then this bizarre sludge of ice-cream comes out, just splurges out —

Ali: It’s so gross.

Adam: It’s really horrid.

Ren: And it’s this kind of NHS green?

Adam: NHS green ice-cream. And she kind of says to herself, ‘Oh, I forgot to draw some cones’. As though a cone would make it all better.

Ren: As if it were redeemable with a cone.

Adam: It’s thoroughly irredeemable ice-cream. Original sin ice-cream.

Ren: Did you have another one or did I just steal your one?

Adam: Well, that was my main one, but I was also going to say the general texture of the walls of the house.

Ali: Especially after, well, in the film the drawing gets thrown away and they have to search through all of the block’s rubbish to try and find it.

Adam: As assisted by some incredibly accommodating dustbin-men, really quite decent of them, frankly.

Ali: Yeah, I mean they mock them a bit to start, but it’s still far beyond.

Adam: Far beyond the call of duty.

Ali: So after that the house is very crumpled and grimy and smeared with dirt. It really does have the texture of something that has been in the bottom of a bin bag.

*Ren: * Ah, that’s interesting. I didn’t notice that.

Adam: Yeah, the walls look really like they’ve got mildewed, and rotten and slimy and stinky. So what was your other (half-singing) Texture of the Week?

Ren: So Anna, at the same time that she creates this horrendous ice-cream machine, she tries to get Mark walking by drawing him standing up on the stairs. But instead she just manages to create a bizarre pair of plaster-cast legs standing on the staircase, that then crumble in front of her.

Ali: That was my favourite bit of the film. That was the bit where I got on board with the film properly. When she opens the door and on the stairs there’s just this pair of plaster legs. It’s great.

Ren: So a lot more is made in the book of Mark recovering, or becoming stronger and becoming able to walk and ride a bike. And this is a process that takes a long time, faster than it would in the real world, but still quite a long while of dreams, and Marianne providing more equipment and items that Mark can use to become stronger.

Catherine Storr was a doctor for a while before she started writing books.

Adam: You mentioned that Marianne’s doing things for Mark to speed his recovery, so this is just after she’s been angry at Mark, so she’s scribbled out on him, and luckily she doesn’t do it with The Pencil, so she doesn’t kill him, thank heavens. Or erase his face or whatever.

Ali: Or create Fiona.

Adam: Or create Fiona, the possibly friendly giantess.

Ren: She decides to make a girl to be friends with because she’s angry with Mark. But she draws her to totally the wrong scale, so she’s worried for a while that she’s created a friendly giant of a girl.

Ali: She definitely doesn’t seem sure that she’s going to be friendly.

Adam: Anyway, she’s realised that if she can make bad things happen she can also make good things happen.

‘I’ll draw a picture of Mark feeling quite well again. Only I suppose then I’ll have to dream about him again, and I don’t want to. I don’t see why I should have to dream about him - why can’t he get well without my having to see him? Perhaps I could just draw him looking quite well, but not in that house, which is where I always seem to get to. And then he probably wouldn’t believe I’d done anything about it, he’d think it had all just happened, and what I’d done didn’t make any difference at all!’

She stopped to consider this. Although she definitely didn’t want Mark to die, particularly didn’t want to feel that his death was in any way connected with what she did or didn’t do, she also didn’t want Mark alive and cocky and sneering, in her dreams, telling her that she was no use and hadn’t any influence on what happened to him. ‘Bother,’ said Marianne to herself. ‘I suppose I’ll have to draw him getting well. Even if he doesn’t believe it’s anything to do with me when he is quite better. But I wish I could prove it somehow. Only I’ll have to get him well first — I can’t just let him get worse and die, even if he is beastly when he’s well again.’

I like how genuinely conflicted she is. Like, ‘I guess I can’t kill him. But God, I really don’t like him!’.

I remember Ali, you laughed in the film when you first saw how she draw Mark. She gives him a very crotchety unimpressed expression.

Ali: Yeah, whereas of course, in the film they meet and basically immediately fall in love.

Adam: So in the book it’s a pretty strained relationship for most of the book, by the end they’re friends, but —

Ali: I mean they are friends, they just also argue a lot.

Adam: Whereas in the film it’s only the first encounter where there’s some kind of argument. But yeah, there is that curious romantic subplot built into the film, which is very odd because they’re only little! She’s only eleven or something, it’s quite strange.

Ali: It’s pretty awkward. I think my last note is just ‘cringe cringe cringe’.

Adam: It reminded me of rewatching Big with my sister, the Tom Hanks film in which he’s young and in the body of a boy, and there’s a whole relationship scene where me and my sister were going ‘Oh ho ho, wouldn’t it be awful if something actually romantic happened’, and it does, and we were both quite horrified.

As I’ve said before in this podcast, the 1980s just seems like it was this special decade, particularly when it comes to making films. I mean, I like Paperhouse, but who is it made for?

It’s a children’s book, as you said, but we haven’t mentioned yet that the film, at least by BBFC is 15 rated.

*Ren: * Oh, is it? I was trying to work out what its rating was.

Adam: Yeah, on my DVD its 15.

Ali: That does seem high.

Ren: I feel validated now, because it scared me, but I don’t know if I’d put it at 15.

Adam: It does have quite a lot of serious threat, from the wrong father.

Ren: I mean I think it’s definitely a proper quintessential children’s horror theme. In the Coraline vein of something familiar becoming unfamiliar and monstrous. But you don’t really know who it’s aimed for.

Adam: It’s not a cosy film.

Ali: And the book had more of a sense of being kind of an adventure. There’s the threat and they’re trapped in the house with the stones around watching them, but there’s also solving the problem of what to draw that’s going to enable them to escape. They come up with the idea of bicycles, and they make their escape —

Adam: — they get to the sea.

Ali: That makes sense as something you can imagine a child enjoying. I find it harder to imagine a child enjoying the film.

Adam: But then, I’m fond of the film but I can’t imagine many groups of adults going to the cinema and enjoying it.

Ren: Roger Ebert liked it.

Adam: Oh yeah?

Ren: He was pretty keen, I read a review, he compares it to The Seventh Seal.

(Adam:, in voiceover: Adam editor note. At this point in the recording, Ali and myself laugh in such a way that can only be described as hysterical and uproarious. You’re advised to turn your volume down now.)

(Adam and Ali do indeed laugh uproariously)

Adam: (hysterically) On what grounds?!

Ren: Umm… strange symbolic imagery. I don’t know, you’d have to ask.

Adam: (still laughing) Oh, that’s brilliant. Now I’m going to try and make Bergman connections. No, I don’t really think…

Ren: It has cliffs, maybe.

Adam: There’s chess in the book.

Ali: But they don’t really play chess.

Adam: No, not against death.

Ali: There was a beach.

Adam: There was a beach. It did remind me, reading the book, how much better board games have got. They have chess, and they’re like ‘we could draw Monopoly’ and then play two games of Monopoly in a row. I was like, God, two games of Monopoly in a row! I felt sorry for them.

Ali: No wonder they’re getting cross with each other.

Adam: No Settlers of Catan for them to play. They don’t even have Kerplunk. Although Kerplunk would probably be quite hard to draw and if you drew that you might end up with a horrible monster in the paper world.*

There’s some danger in the book, which you don’t see in the film when they come up with the idea of drawing a helicopter that the helicopter will turn out as a horrible winged insect monster.

Ren: Which kind of brings us to the end, or the differing ends of the book.

Both of them have the lighthouse having an important role in their escape. In the book they find through this strange radio that THEY are intolerant to the light, because every time the beam of the lighthouse sweeps round they hear THEM whispering ‘not the light, not the light!’ and the stones close their eyes for a few moments, so Marianne and Mark can sneak out the house.

In Paperhouse, they escape the threat of the father and make it to the lighthouse, but then they feel that the lighthouse is only a kind of resting place, not the final destination. Where was I going with this?

Adam: Just the difference between the two ends.

Ali: I guess it’s pretty significant that in the book by this point, Mark is recovering in the real world, and in the dream world he’s pretty much fine whereas that’s not what happens in the film.

Adam: Well, in the film he has muscular dystrophy. So we kind of know as adult viewers from the start that he’s probably going to die. Muscular dystrophy’s degenerative and pretty devastating.

Ali: And that’s what happens.

Adam:Yes, we’re informed helpfully by Anna’s father, in a move that won’t endear him any further to his daughter that her friend Mark has died.

Ren: Yes, it’s not the best way to break the news.

Adam: He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, didn’t you have a friend? Were you very close?’

Ren: ‘The dead one?’

Adam: Yeah, pretty much! There’s quite a lot of Anna’s parents in the film being oddly blunt. Like when Anna’s mum talks about her drawings.

Ali: She’s like ‘What’s that?’ ’It’s a radio’ ‘It’s too big!’ That’s not what you say when your child has drawn a radio: ‘it’s unrecognisably large’.

*Ren: * And then she tries to save it by saying ‘it’s good, it’s good’.

Adam:It’s too late. But yeah, in the film Mark is dead but in the book he’s not. And in the film Anna and her parents go on holiday to a coastal resort and Anna sees a lighthouse in the distance, which is seemingly the lighthouse from the dream world.

Ali: It pretty much seems to be actually the lighthouse. But it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not at this point in the film.

Adam: So she runs away, basically, from the holiday home and gets to the lighthouse and she finds this note from Mark hidden under a rock. Can you remember what the note says?

Ali: It’s the same as what’s in the book. So she knows he’s going to die, and so she goes into the dream and meets him at the lighthouse, and she draws a pencil so he can draw things now in the dream world as well.

And he’s going to go off and drawn the helicopter, but he’s going to do it on his own, because he doesn’t like people to watch him drawing. And that’s the last time she sees him. And after that she finds out that he’s dead.

So the note… it’s very confusing matching up the two narratives.

Ren: Yeah, we’re all having a bit of trouble.

Ali: But they converge into the same note existing in both versions.

Ren: But in the book Marianne finds it in the dream world.

Adam: So do you want to read the note?

Ali: The note says:

‘The helicopter has been hovering around all day. I don’t want to go til you come, but as they seem to be waiting for me I think perhaps I’d better. Don’t worry, I’ll make them come back and fetch you as soon as I can. Won’t it be terrific to get to the sea at last? Thanks awfully for the pencil, it seems to have done the trick. Mark.’

It is slightly different in the film, the gist is the same, that he’s gone off in the helicopter but that he’ll come back and get her.

Adam: And then an odd thing happens in the film, which is that Mark’s voice in the imaginary voice-over then morphs into the voice of Anna’s mother.

Ali: Yeah, and a helicopter appears.

Adam: And it’s possibly a rescue helicopter? Because as we said, Anna has run away from the holiday hotel, and this helicopter is dangling a rope ladder.

A ladder that’s not long enough. So there’s this whole strange business in the book and the film about their inability to draw a long ladder. Did you notice this, Ren?

Ren: Yeah, I did wonder about that. Because they’re like ‘we could get down to the beach by drawing a ladder’ but then they think ‘oh, but you couldn’t draw a ladder that long’.

Adam: ‘It’s impossible. It can’t be done.’

Ali: To be fair, if it was just a ladder that was propped up against a cliff, that would be quite dangerous to climb down.

Adam: Yeah, but the length isn’t the issue. The inability to draw a long ladder.

Ren: So Anna is teetering on the edge of this cliff, trying to grab the helicopter’s ladder, and Mark’s voice is saying ‘step back from the edge, it’s dangerous’ and we do think for a moment that the film’s going to end with both of them dead.

Ali: I totally thought that was where it was going.

Ren: But it doesn’t, her mum runs up and catches her and takes her back from the edge of the cliff, and Anna is satisfied by seeing the helicopter…

Adam: Her grief is resolved! And she’s happily reunited with her father.

Ali: I definitely felt like the helicopter and the note probably weren’t real. I felt like the film was implying that this was all a hallucination. But not that she was actually dead, I don’t think.

Adam: Interestingly, in my copy of Marianne Dreams right in the start in the little author bio of Catherine Storr it says ‘she loved writing for children because they realised that fantasy and reality are not opposites, but different ways of looking at the same thing’.

And I wonder if that’s something that the book has and understands, that the book doesn’t, perhaps.

Ali: I think in the book the dream world is real. Ontologically real.

There’s a slight feeling that actually at the end of it it could have been just that she dreams about the things that she draws, but it feels like the internal logic of the book is that the dreams are real and the film doesn’t convey that feeling and it seems more like everything that happens is in her head.

And that towards the end these two worlds converge.

Adam: Which is what I think makes the film a very odd adaptation of the book because it’s coming from a very different perspective.

I liked the book and the film, but I don’t know if the film works as a successful adaption of the book. I think it works on its own merits.

Ali: I think Catherine Storr did not like it as well. It said that on Wikipedia.

Ren: I wouldn’t be surprised. It definitely feels like its own thing. It’s interesting, it’s good. I liked them both, I think they both work really well for what they are, but they’re not the same thing at all.

Ali: I think actually that some of the strongest elements of the film are the parts that are about the fantasy, the visual elements of these dream-like things that have been shoved together and are the wrong shapes.

Which you don’t get in the book, because the things in the book are real, and are the right shapes for what has been drawn.

Adam: Agreed. The film’s more phantasmagorical than the book.

Ali: And that’s what makes it visually interesting a lot of the time.

Adam: Cool. Any finishing thoughts apart from eggs used for comedy purposes?

Ren: The set of the outside of the paper house is very good. In the film, when you first see it it’s convincingly flat and eerie looking.

Adam: Yes, it’s how I imagined the house in The Third Policeman to look!*

Ali: Oh yeah!

Adam: I like the way it tapers up like a drawing does as well.

Ali: One of the things I liked in the book was how it talks about Marianne’s feelings about being ill.

Quite a lot of it is about her frustration at not being able to get out of bed, and her being grumpy and upset about having to spend this time in bed, and how she feels about the people around her and things like that.

Adam: I think it gets across that feeling of being ill as a child. I had a lot of chest and ear infections as a young kid, so I definitely remember long days and weeks spent in bed and feeling stuffy and frustrated but also out of it and woozy.

Ali: I think it conveys those feelings pretty well.

Adam: So I think all of us would recommend the book and the film, but to different audiences and age groups.

Ali: Well, I’d definitely recommend the book. I liked elements of the film but I didn’t really feel like it hung together.

Adam: I think I like films like that.

Ren: In terms of absolute children’s horror I think the film is pretty great, and I’m glad we looked at both because I did really love THEM.

But yeah, I enjoyed them both and was legitimately scared, so a success.

Adam: A success for our tenth episode!

Ren: Do you have a sign-off, Adam?

Adam: Uhh… Don’t set your dad on fire? It’s made of paper! Can that be our sign-off?

Ren: Don’t set your dad on fire, spooky kids, it’s made of paper!

Adam: There you go, that’s a totally legitimate sign off.

Ren: Is there anywhere online people can find you, Ali?

Ali: Nope!

Ren: Okay, cool. That’s good then.

Ali: I want to keep it that way.

Adam: Bye!

Ren: See you next time!

  • I would rather play Monopoly than Settlers of Catan, tbh.
  • Novel by Flann O ’Brien.


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About this podcast

A podcast in which one film lecturer and one scaredy-cat discuss creepy, spooky and disturbing children's books, films and tv.

by Ren Wednesday, Adam Whybray


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