Sometimes it doesn’t pay to read the book. Based on the whimpers of the young women coming out of a preview screening, “Beautiful Creatures,” the movie, isn’t nearly faithful enough to “Beautiful Creatures,” the novel. Double-checking with the one person I know who’s a fan of the four-volume “Caster Chronicles” by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl (of which “Creatures” is the first installment), the teenage hero’s father is a crucial figure in the book but nowhere to be seen in the film. Two key characters have been mooshed into one. And there are other sins against the cosmos.
Which only proves the foolishness of expecting Hollywood to do right by a cherished source when there’s money to be made and a franchise to launch. As a “Caster Chronicles” agnostic, I kind of dug “Beautiful Creatures,” even if I, like most of you, am ready to drive a stake into the entire “My boyfriend/girlfriend is a vampire/werewolf/alien/zombie/Sasquatch” genre. The new film is porridge, but it’s porridge with a sense of humor about itself, and it clears a space for two nominally respected actors named Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson to have a ham smackdown amid the Spanish moss. Cheap thrills, but you take what you can get in February.
“Beautiful Creatures” is rare for the genre in that it’s told from the guy’s point of view. Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is a smart, gangly kid in rural Alabama, who has latched on to the school committee’s list of forbidden books as a lifeline out of his town’s numbing mind-set. Kerouac, Burroughs, Henry Miller — already we’re a long way from the “Twilight” zone. When a new girl named Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) arrives in town, he’s more in awe of her taste for Charles Bukowski than her ability to shatter the classroom’s windows with a raised eyebrow.
Yes, Lena’s a witch — excuse me, a “caster,” as in “spell-.” The idea of “Bewitched: The Early Years” is a fun one, and adapter-director Richard LaGravenese (a long way from writing “The Fisher King” back in 1991) squeezes as much playfulness as he can out of the material before the special effects and industrial-strength hormones kick in. Ehrenreich, who starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s barely seen “Tetro,” plays Ethan as a savvy hick fazed by nothing, not even a dinner party that turns into a tornado. Englert’s Lena is interestingly average — a vaguely goth-y girl with a really annoying medical condition.
“Beautiful Creatures” also plays surprisingly rough with its locals, evangelical nincompoops like Ethan’s ex-girlfriend (Zoey Deutch), whose horror of anyone not in lockstep with Jayzus makes her the film’s secondary, maybe tertiary villain. There goes that demographic, and you don’t sense that anyone here cares much. Why should they when Irons is laying out a sinfully thick shag rug of a Southern accent as Macon Ravenwood, Lena’s uncle and protector?
Silly plot stuff: The heroine is about to turn 16, at which point she’ll be claimed by the Light Side or the Dark Side. (A nice beige never seems to occur to these people.) Macon’s playing for the Dark team but can control it, or something, but Lena’s mother, Sarafine, is a full-on Dark Force who takes over the body of a local church-lady (Thompson) to meddle in Lena’s affairs. There’s a cousin, too, a hot-to-trottie named Ridley (Emmy Rossum), who wants to convince Lena that bad is beautiful.
It’s all a big, gluey metaphor for a girl’s sexual fears and raging mom conflicts, and, as in “Twilight,” the metaphor itself gets buried under mounting waves of CGI nonsense and a ridiculous back story about reincarnated Civil War lovers. I haven’t even mentioned the redoubtable Viola Davis as Amma, Ethan’s housekeeper, surrogate grandma, and local representative of the Obeah Lady Librarian’s Union. Even witches, it turns out, need Help.
But there’s a reason the “Caster” books are told from the man’s point of view: Ethan’s mischievous, down-to-earth sanity anchors “Beautiful Creatures” just as it does Lena’s emotional splatter. I doubt the movie will be a big enough hit to lead to a sequel, let alone the hoped-for franchise, and it really doesn’t matter one way or another. Still, this one has its upsides: snappy banter, Bukowski readings, and Irons happily channeling the spirit of the late, great Agnes Moorehead from “Bewitched.” He’s Endora-ble.