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I Am Number Four opens tomorrow, an adaptation of the young-adult sci-fi novel by James Frey and Jobie Hughes. The story follows a young man who also happens to be a super-powered refugee alien hiding out on Earth after his civilization’s destruction at the hands of malevolent invaders. Director DJ Caruso takes on the difficult task of fitting the book’s complex fictional universe into a two-hour running time. The YA label is perhaps misleading for I Am Number Four, as the book has many layers, all of which are wrapped up in a set of rules that must be established for the unfolding story to work.
Caruso took some time out last week to chat with Spinoff Online about the adaptation, the process involved in bringing it to the screen, the challenges of honoring the book, and the casting of star Alex Pettyfer in the lead role of John Smith. The director admitted he leaned heavily on, and worked closely with, the writers at every step, to better ensure a faithful adaptation that plays well for a theater audience.
“We work really closely,” Caruso said. “Miles [Millar] and Al [Gough] did the first [draft], really taking the book and trying to structure it into a movie. I worked with them a little bit. Then Scott Frank came in for a couple weeks and he really helped with characters. Then Marti [Noxon] was with me from the rehearsal process all the way through shooting whenever I needed something.” Caruso also credits his producer-auteurs Stephen Spielberg and Michael Bay for their involvement, offering him the benefit of their years of experience. “It was important for me to have a writer with me all the time because they have such a good ear.”
The movie is an interesting case among adaptations because it actually went into development and, eventually, production before the book’s release. “If you’re doing Twilight or Harry Potter I would imagine those filmmakers have much more pressure because you’re talking about millions and millions of people who have read the book and the expectations are there,” Caruso explained. “So for me, I just wanted to make the best movie. I felt completely liberated because I wasn’t constrained by what people loved or didn’t love about the book. I didn’t know what they liked. I had the book in my apartment in my book every night and I would reference it for ideas.”
It’s definitely a risk, trying to foresee what fans are going to take to when they read the book, what will be vital to carry over. Some difficult choices had to be made as the story for Number Four was developed. “A lot of the early drafts had a lot of flashbacks to Lorien and all that stuff that was happening back on the planet,” Caruso revealed. “At first we tried to work that stuff in but then we realized that maybe we were trying to do too much. So we basically left his backstory on [the main character’s home planet] Lorien, a little bit more of what I call our ‘Chinatown.’ We didn’t really explain it. Something bad happened up there. I think you just have to make some tough decisions about what sequences you like and want to keep out.”
One thing that changed as the book moved into a film script was how each character’s array of powers functioned. Number 6 (Teresa Palmer), for example, has the power of invisibility in the book. In the film it manifests more as “tele-transportation,” as Caruso describes it. Then there’s John Smith (Pettyfer), who in the book develops a power called Lumen that basically allows him to fire beams of light from his hands. In the film, the Lumen serves another purpose: “powering up” Number 6’s abilities when they start to drain her.
“That was actually a Stephen idea,” Caruso said of the power-up angle. “He said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if these Lumen had some other reason, not just for the lights?’ We wanted nine of these kids together to be a perfect fighting machine and so I thought that was a really great idea. I know Frey liked that, too, because he’s going to put that in the next book as well.”
Pettyfer is a critical component in the film, too. Despite the generic name — an assumed identity — John Smith is a fairly complex character. He’s been raised on the run and never really had the opportunity to connect with anyone on a deep level beyond his protector Henri (Timothy Olyphant). He’s finally reaching the age where the usual teenage uncertainties and rebelliousness starts to kick in, and so there needs to be some insecurity despite Smith’s latent superhuman talents.
“He came in fairly late in the process,” Caruso said of Pettyfer. “We read over a hundred guys and we had a couple that we kind of liked. Then when he came in and read, he started reading and stopped right in the middle and said, ‘No I can’t do this, it’s not right. I’m not working.’ I really liked that about him because, for me, I wanted John Smith to be a guy who looks capable but didn’t believe in himself. I liked that Alex really didn’t believe that he could do this movie and I thought that could make a good character trait. To me, it made him more attractive and very vulnerable, and I thought that would be great for John Smith.”
Caruso also spoke a little to the easy comparison that’s been made between Number Four and the wildly popular Twilight series. “You have sort of a love story, a teenage love story, with someone who’s not of this world who falls in love with a regular girl. That’s probably the biggest comparison,” Caruso said. “I get it. But I think our movie has a much more old-fashioned sense of humor. It’s kind of like a gateway science fiction movie for young kids, I think. We don’t take ourselves as seriously as Twilight does. Whatever you think of it, I think it takes itself very seriously. And I think we have a little bit more fun.”
It’s more than that, though. This is hard to talk about without discussing the end of the book/movie, but suffice to say that things change to the point that normalcy and routine are no longer possible for our main characters. As Caruso said, “I Am Number Four will never be in high school again if we’re lucky enough to make another movie. Regular life is over.”