Remember the hipster Harry Potter lovers—devoted fans of the books—who appeared in line at theaters clad in wizard apparel when the first movie debuted? Now there is a “new” franchise with Potter-like potential, sans inaugural cosplay.
The Spook’s Apprentice, Revenge of the Witch (titled “Last Apprentice” in the United States), by Joseph Delaney is a children’s fantasy novel aimed at readers a tad younger than Harry Potter. But the writing is superb and, as you can see from the theatrical trailers of the film adaptation, Seventh Son, the visuals are menacing and spellbinding even to adult audiences.
The Spook’s Apprentice was published in 2004, and while that seems like eons in the fast-paced release schedule of the film industry, the book is just now enjoying mass popularity in bookstores and libraries.
Obviously, Harry Potter is one of the most successful book to film adaptations in history. To say that Delaney’s book has the same financial potential or latent cultural impact is a vapid prediction. Harry Potter’s pre-film momentum was already many times that of The Spook’s Apprentice; I blame the title.
But there is that chance.
The story has the makings, albeit the makings were largely dormant in book form. If the film proves to be a retroactive steroid, elevating the series into the mainstream, we might see the birth of a new franchise every bit as popular as Harry Potter.
As a matter of full disclosure, I am not an aficionado of the genre. It is easy for me to compare any dark movie or book that features witches without the burden or pleasure of the nuance. Then again, the filmmakers must have recognized the same potential, as they injected a lot of steam into this project compared to previous rush-to-film adaptations, Ender’s Game for instance.
Delaney’s novel is about Tom Ward, a twelve-year-old boy who is the seventh son of a seventh son, which gives him the power to see supernatural beings. Since he cannot inherit the family farm, a birthright of the firstborn son, Tom’s father obtains for him an apprenticeship under a mysterious man named John Gregory, known as the Spook.
The Spook and his new apprentice traverse the County—a land of peasants, merchants, and farmers—protecting it from ghasts, ghosts, boggarts, and of course, the title creature, witches. The Spook, played by Jeff Bridges in the movie, trains young Ward, portrayed by Ben Barnes, to battle The Dark, so that Tom may eventually become a spook like his teacher.
While on a solo trek for supplies for his family, a gang of boys begins to harass Tom, threatening him with a beating if he does not hand over his food. A young girl named Alice shows up and scares away the boys. Tom is taken with Alice, who happens to be kin to some of the most sinister witches in the land of boggarts.
One of her relatives, Mother Malkin, played by Julianne Moore, is a menacing blood witch. She drains her victims of their blood to keep herself alive and youthful. But the Spook imprisons Mother Malkin in a garden pit, fitted with thirteen bars. She is starved of blood, keeping her week and thus preventing her escape.
Young Alice tricks Tom into feeding the witch [human] blood cakes, which allows the sorceress to gather her strength and to break free of the prison. The Spook, away on his own adventure, has left Tom to take care of the County himself. But it is not only witches he must battle. Tusk, an evil, demon-like creature born of Mother Malkin and Satan himself, stands as formidable opponent.
The Spook returns, battles Tusk and captures one of the evil witches, Bony Lizzie, played by Antje Traue. He tests Alice to see if she is inherently evil—the results of which I will leave for you to discover on your own. Tom trusts Alice, and believes she is not inherently evil. If he could only free her from the influence of her relatives, she would be a good witch—typical of in-laws.
At the pinnacle of the story, Tom visits his family’s farm unaware Mother Malkin, disguised in the possessed body of a trusted farmhand, is there to destroy all he holds dear.
Since this nears the end, I will let you off here in hopes you watch the movie, or better yet, read the book and get your kids involved in this series. It could be around for a while, and you might be seen as an early adopter of “cool.”