“Most of all, I miss that feeling when you go to sleep at night and when you wake up in the morning. It’s that feeling that everything is all right in the world. You know, that amazing feeling that you’re whole, that you’ve got everything you want, that you aren’t missing anything. Sometimes when I wake up, I get it for just a moment. It lasts a few seconds, but then I remember what happened, and how nothing has been the same since.”
Directed by Burr Steers, Charlie St. Cloud is based on Ben Sherwood‘s book, The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, which revolves around the character of Charlie St. Cloud (Zac Efron), an accomplished sailor and devoted family member who promises to play baseball with his younger brother, Sam (Charlie Tahan), every single day. But when Charlie and Sam are the victims of a car crash, Sam sadly dies and Charlie is resuscitated to find that he has the gift to interact with the dead. Years later, still atoning for his loss and guilt, Charlie is determined to keep his promise and still plays baseball with Sam’s memory in the depths of the forest. But when he meets Tess (Amanda Crew), Charlie must choose between the past and present; between living with the memory of his dead brother or saving the life of another.
The following post is a review of the film adaptation in comparison to the book. You can read my review of the book on its own here.
The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud is a romantic and exhilarating book, but it’s a sensitive story that’s difficult to adapt. The book is full of emotion and centres on a powerful bond between two brothers, but the film doesn’t quite get the message across.
As with most adaptations, the film has all the unnecessary tweaks that are only too easily expected. I will go into all of these changes below, but there are many significant changes as to why the adaptation doesn’t work on-screen as well as the book reads that need to be discussed first.
The main difference is that the 13-year gap in the book is changed to a five-year gap in the film, presumably so that they could use Efron as Charlie for the whole film. Whilst this doesn’t matter in terms of storyline, it’s worth noting that, when reading the book, this 13-year difference means that you’re reading Charlie as a more mature character. With the film casting Efron in the lead, it’s aiming for a for a younger audience, one who can settle for High School Musical‘s biggest star falling in love yet again, but Zac Efron was the last person I was picturing whilst reading it. The casting won’t be for everybody, but Efron certainly gives it his all, at least.
With this age difference in mind, Charlie’s modesty in the book turns into arrogance on the big screen, which affects the emotional intensity of the story. This change in personality is a constant annoyance throughout the film, as scenes that bring you to tears in the book are adapted into ones that make you cringe in the film. This is by no part a criticism of Efron, however, as he provokes a lot of emotion from his portrayal of Charlie. Rather, it is an error on the director’s behalf, yet again losing the impact of the book by not capturing his character well enough.
Something else that diminishes Charlie’s character is that the adaptation loses much of the book’s meaning. It’s a difficult story to adapt when the premise is set around a character who is able to talk to the dead, but there are many well-received films out there that have dealt with this subject before, take The Sixth Sense for example. But Steers doesn’t manage to capture this with his adaptation. Again, the problem is that Steers misses out the reasoning for Charlie’s situation when going from book to film, as the book has pages of details to make us believe that something is really happening, whereas the film only has minutes to capture the best of it.
Sam’s death, in particular, lacks all of the emotion that the book captures and Charlie’s character doesn’t show nearly enough guilt, which means that his situation doesn’t have the same justification as it does in the book. But the biggest effect this has on Charlie St. Cloud is that it comes as a surprise when you realise that Charlie can talk to dead people in the book and that he has been having conversations with those he has spent his days digging graves for. In the film, however, we see Charlie talking to empty spaces, seemingly mocking the blur of reality lines between life and death.
“Trust your heart if the seas catch fire, live by love though the stars walk backward.”
Having such detailed explanations missed out and speeding through the beginning of the book, which opens up this main premise, the film makes the whole situation seem unbelievable. The film doesn’t detail how Charlie feels he has been given the power to talk to the dead after being resuscitated so that he can keep his promise to Sam, and that he cannot miss a single night because it is this promise that is the key to his gift. Granted, playing sports with your dead brother isn’t the most realistic of situations, but the book details it in a way that gives it a sense of meaning. There’s also more conversation around what happens to people and their souls once they have died, which is what makes the book so thought-provoking. These qualities are a huge key to the book’s emotional impact and are, therefore, one of the adaptations biggest downfalls.
What the adaptation does right, however, almost makes up for this, bettering the book in one of the most prominent scenes – the love scene in the forest. This scene is one of the few moments that is captured better on-screen, and it has quickly become one of my favourite romantic film moments.
With Efron and Crew having such chemistry in this scene, and with ‘While We Were Dreaming’ by Pink Mountaintops playing in the background, the brilliant use of silhouettes looks beautiful, as the phrase “Come find me” echoes throughout the rest of the film. In the book, Charlie sleeps with Tess, more than once, knowing that she is a ghost so it would have been weird for the film to have followed the book exactly at this point. These final few scenes are condensed quite well and the film really does the book justice here.
As for the casting, my only issue with Zac Efron was that of his age difference, meaning that most, older, audiences won’t have the same attraction to him as they do in the book. Alongside Amanda Crew, the couple look like they’ve walked straight out of a Nicholas Sparks’ book, which the book definitely isn’t, but they give equally good performances, nonetheless, and Crew, especially, is really likeable. Charlie Tahan as Sam is a perfect casting. The adaptation sees him arguing a lot more with Charlie which means their close brotherly relationship isn’t expressed as well as it is in the book, but Tahan is adorable, nonetheless. I also love Kim Basinger as their mother, and I only wish we got to see more of her. Ray Liotta is great, too, and even though Dave Franco‘s character didn’t exist in the book, he’s a brilliant addition.
Surrounded by beautiful scenery and a rise to good directing from Steers towards the end, let’s just say I broke into tears more than once. There’s certainly a lot that the adaptation lacks, but there are some moments of beauty to it, as well.
Differences From The Book:
Whilst I’ve gone into the main differences above, here’s a shorter summary of all of the changes from the film to the book:
- At the start of the book, Charlie is 15 and Sam is 12. There’s a seemingly bigger age gap in the film, with Efron appearing much older than Sam.
- The book’s first few chapters detail Sam and Charlie’s drive to the baseball game and the subsequent crash, whereas the film opens up with scenes of Sam and Charlie sailing together (which isn’t detailed in the book), Charlie’s graduation (which isn’t detailed in the book), and the boys playing a game of catch, which is when Charlie makes his promise to Sam (which isn’t detailed in the book).
- During the sailing scene in the film, Tess is also competing in the race. In the book, Tess comments that she has never seen Charlie on the water.
- In the film, we meet some of Charlie’s friends, including Sully. In the book, we do not meet any of Charlie’s friends, and the scenes with Sully in the graveyard and the fight in the bar later, therefore, do not happen.
- In the book, Charlie comments that he and Sam have different Dad’s, even though we don’t meet either of them. In the film, they both have the same Dad.
- In the book, Charlie asks Sam to go to a baseball game with him and they steal their neighbour’s car. In the film, Charlie is forced to babysit Sam and tries to sneak out. Sam persuades Charlie to take him to a friend’s house, and there is no mention of the car being stolen, although it is hinted at.
- In the film, Charlie and Sam are arguing with each other and the car crash appears to be no fault of Charlie at all. In the book, Sam distracts Charlie by telling him to look at the moon, and Charlie feels more to blame for the crash since he wasn’t paying attention.
- In the book, Charlie and Sam take their dog with them, who also dies and returns every night with Sam. The dog isn’t included in the film.
- There is no funeral for Sam in the book. In the film, Charlie runs away from the funeral and this is when he first sees Sam. In the book, we don’t see Charlie’s first meeting with Sam. We only learn that he has been meeting Sam every night once we have skipped forward in time.
- There is a 13-year gap in the book, but it’s only 5 years in the film. Charlie should, therefore, be 28, but Efron now appears much younger than he should be.
- In the book, Charlie gets a degree in emergency medicine, becomes a licensed paramedic, and volunteers at the fire station. None of this is mentioned in the film.
- Charlie has also been to see numerous doctors in the book, has been referred to a shrink and put on numerous medicines, and is diagnosed with PTSD. This is again not explored in the film, either.
- There is no mention in the film of Mr Guidry, an old man with early onset Alzheimer’s who Charlie sees every night in the cemetery.
- There is also no mention of Mrs Phipps, Charlie’s old school teacher who is struggling to come to terms with her death. In the book, this is the first clue we have that Charlie can talk to other dead people.
- In the book, Charlie meets Florio in the graveyard, wearing his fireman’s outfit. Florio doesn’t die until later in the film, but he does meet Charlie in a cafe to have their conversation.
- The book skips between chapters of Charlie and Tess, as she is preparing for her trip. There is, therefore, a lot more ‘boat talk’ and a bigger focus on Tess’ character.
- In the book, Sam can venture much further than the opening in the forest, and often visits Charlie in his cottage. The timings and locations are much more restricted in the film.
- In the book, Charlie does not meet Tess properly before he meets her ghost but, in the film, there are numerous meetings between Charlie and Tess when she is still alive.
- After Tess has had her crash, she wakes up by her father’s grave alone and somehow back on dry land. It skips over how she gets back home, but we still think she’s alive at this point. She then meets Charlie elsewhere in the graveyard and shouts at him for his goose drone. In the film, Tess wakes up to find Charlie beside her, and they have already met. She also has a cut on her head which Charlie mends.
- In the book, Tess says that she doesn’t know the meaning of the poem she read at her father’s funeral. In the film, she tells Charlie it’s about taking chances, which he reminds her of at the end.
- Before dinner, in the book, Tess visits her grandmother in a nursing home who doesn’t see Tess, but tells her she will “see her soon” before she “falls asleep”. This scene is not included in the film.
- There is no scene in the book where Charlie and Sam play in the storm. In the book, they do the same thing every night like a ritual.
- In the book, Charlie makes Tess a birthday cake since he won’t see her for so long.
- In the book, Charlie invites Tess to go for a walk with him. They talk about Sam, Tess’ father, and what they think happens to people after they have died. Charlie also sees Sam messing about in the background. They kiss and then Tess goes home. In the film, Tess teases Charlie outside and they make love in the woods.
- There’s a number of chapters of the book missed out at this point in the film, in between Tess going home and their sex scene. In the book, Tess bumps into Sam in the streets, who asks her to join him and Charlie for a game of catch later. Sam obviously realises that Tess is dead, just as Charlie finds out that Tess’ boat is missing. Charlie then explains to Tess that she has “one foot in both worlds”. Sam teaches her about dream walking and spirit travelling, none of which is explored in the film, and then Charlie spends some time with Tess afterwards. Knowing that she is a ghost, they sleep together numerous times. Charlie tells her they have plenty of time, whereas in the book it is a rush to find Tess’ body.
- During both sex scenes, Tess blows out a candle. In the book, she does this because she is slowly fading away and doesn’t want Charlie to see. In the film, we do not know that she is dead at this point.
- When Charlie wakes up in the book, he finds a note on his pillow saying “Come find me”. Thinking Tess has gone, Charlie cries to Tink. In the film, Charlie doesn’t have a relationship with Tink.
- In the film, the note is pinned to his door, and Charlie quickly finds Tess in the lake on her boat. He doesn’t realise the meaning of “Come find me” until much later, since Tess’ ghost is still around.
- In the book, Tess’ boat sets on fire, which links to the poem that Tess reads: “If the seas catch fire.” This link is lost in the film.
- Thinking Tess is gone, in the book, Florio reminds Charlie that God has chosen him for a reason. In the film, Florio’s wife visits Charlie informing him of Florio’s death. She’s the one to remind Charlie that he has another purpose in life.
- In the book, Charlie takes Joe’s boat and asks Tink to join them. In the film, Joe and Charlie steal Tink’s boat.
- In the book, Charlie whispers “Goodbye” to Sam. In the film, he says, “Forgive me.”
- When Charlie doesn’t show up to meet Sam, in the book, Sam crosses over to the other side and becomes the wind, directing Charlie on where to find Tess. In the film, Sam disappears into the woods, and a shooting star (assumed to be Sam’s soul), tells Charlie where to go.
- The rescue of Tess is much quicker and easier in the book. The film makes it out to be much more difficult.
- In the book, Charlie returns to the woods to meet an older version of his brother. In the film, Charlie can hear Sam’s voice, but he remains the same age.
- In the book, Tess is in a coma for 6 months and wakes up in the hospital to Charlie beside her. Here, he tells Tess their story since she does not recognise him. The film doesn’t say how much time has passed, but it comes across as days, if not hours. Tess meets Charlie at the docks once she has recovered.
The book is beautifully written, and its descriptions are so in-depth that you really find yourself part of the fantasy. The adaptation doesn’t come close to the book in terms of emotional investment, but I would recommend it if you like Zac Efron or are in need of a light-hearted rom-com.