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Orion and the Dark: Varieties in Storytelling

The new Netflix film, Orion and the Dark, is an animated adaptation of the 2014 children’s book of the same name, by writer and illustrator Emma Yarlett. In the book, Orion is a young boy who is defined by his many fears: dogs, wasps, the ocean, girls, space, grandma, etc. But, what he’s more frightened of than anything else is the dark. We meet him on the night when that finally changes for him. 

In the book, on the night in question, Orion is in bed, too scared to sleep. He ultimately grows so frustrated with his own fears that he yells out to the darkness, telling it to just go away. And, to Orion’s surprise, the darkness hears him. Orion watches as the night and shadows take shape in his room to talk to him about his request. 

If you’ve ever read any children’s book, you can probably work out how the rest of the story unfolds. This personification of darkness convinces Orion to accompany it for an evening to explore the dark places in his family’s home, along with those outside his window, to see how these places don’t need to feel as scary as they seem. This exposure therapy works, and by the next morning, Orion is so attached to Dark that he’s now sorry to see it go. And to this Dark tells Orion not to worry because, wherever he might go, it will never be far away from him. Very touching. 

The book is a perfect little gem of a story. It’s not trying to do too much. It’s 25 pages of pictures that can be knocked out in 5 minutes at bedtime while delivering an easily digested message for kids about facing your fears. What it isn’t, though, is an obvious candidate for a feature-length film adaptation, particularly not one penned by Oscar-winning screenwriter and experimental filmmaker, Charlie Kaufman. 

Charlie Kaufman is no stranger to adaptation, of course. Of his nine screenplays that have been turned into films, Orion and the Dark is the fourth to be adapted from someone else’s book. What all of these adaptations share with Kaufman’s original stories is a generally bleak view of the human condition, typically conveyed through the perspective of some lonely creative who shares many of the same fears and flaws that Kaufman sees in himself. Even when adapting someone else’s work, Kaufman always finds an approach that allows him to fit that story into his own strange voice. 

Orion and the Dark is so tonally out of step with the rest of Kaufman’s work, though, that it feels like a wild departure. But, in terms of actual content, this children’s film overlaps with the rest of his projects more than you might think. Orion shares many of the hallmarks of a typical Kaufman protagonist; he’s smart and terrified of the world, painfully aware of how close at hand the life he wishes he was living would be were he not so incapacitated by his own fears. The key difference in this story, though, is that Orion is still young enough for his life to turn out differently. 

Kaufman makes two big changes to the book to expand the story into something that could be stretched to feature length. The first big difference is that he radically expands the world that Dark shows to Orion. They still spend the night together, but Kaufman’s cast of nighttime entities expands to include other personifications like Insomnia, Unexplained Noises, Sleep, Quiet, and Sweet Dreams. All of these are friends with Dark, and become friends with Orion, too. Kaufman also creates a character that works as a foil to the darkness, Light. Light isn’t exactly an adversary for Dark, but rather just that better-liked part of the natural order that works in opposition to darkness. A dynamic Dark is aware of and self-conscious about. In Charlie Kaufman’s imagination, even the constituent elements of the universe have their own neurosis to work through. 

The other big change Kaufman makes is the structure of how the story is being told. While he largely follows the children’s book in how he initially sets up the plot, he makes a big departure right when Orion first agrees to accompany Dark for the night. Just as they are about to head out on their predictable nighttime adventure, the story breaks for a moment, and we learn that everything we’re experiencing is actually a story that an adult Orion is telling to his daughter, Hypatia, as she navigates her own fear of the dark.

This little reveal was the moment when I fully got on board with what Kaufman was doing with this story. Similar to how this same conceit functions in The Princess Bride, this move creates a meta-commentary on storytelling within the story being told. In The Princess Bride, what’s being drawn out has more to do with that interactive element of telling and being told a story. We watch the grandfather tweak and massage the story based on the reactions of his audience of one: A little less kissing, a little more sword fighting, and maybe we’ll skip that bit about the shrieking eels this time. We’re seeing that, rather than a story being something fixed and rigid, it’s ideally a live experience shared between the teller and the audience. 

Kaufman is doing this, too, but he’s also using this conceit to say something about how we use stories to pass important knowledge between generations over time. Fear of the dark and the unknown are primal fears that have been with people for as long as there have been people. (In the unexpected words of Werner Herzog, for almost as long as there have been light-sensitive proteins.) Orion begins to tell his daughter this fanciful tale about how he overcame his fear of the dark, and then one day she’ll tell her version of that story to her child, with each new generation adding what they’ve learned from their own unique experience along the way. 

Without going into details, the ending of Orion and the Dark is hopeful, happy, tidy, and family-friendly. Not at all Charlie Kaufman’s usual, but appropriate here because of the kind of story being told. Kaufman is approaching the same issues he normally does - human fears in a foreboding natural world - but from the opposite direction, from the standpoint of the child who still has their life ahead of them. This makes Orion and the Dark less of a departure for Kaufman, than an entry point for his ideas tailored for younger viewers. Exactly the kind of film I wish I had when I was a kid. 


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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