India Today

Living the Fantasy Life

With Netflix adapting his popular fantasy series, author Soman Chainani is campaignin­g for a darker and edgier fairytale

- Aditya Mani Jha

Netflix recently released the trailer for its upcoming fantasy film The School for Good and Evil,

directed by Paul Feig. In it, we see Sofia Wylie and Sophia Ann Caruso star as Agatha and Sophie, best friends who are whisked away to the titular school for a series of magical adventures. The two young actresses are backed up by several A-listers: Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Yeoh, Charlize Theron, Ben Kingsley et al.

The film is based on the eponymous 2013 novel by American author Soman Chainani, 43, which sold millions of copies and spawned five sequels (and a prequel earlier this year). These books were written in part as a response to the fairytales (and their Disney versions) that Chainani read while growing up, narratives he felt were far more ‘squeakycle­an’ compared to their medieval forebears. During a video interview, Chainani said: “When I was at Harvard, I took a fairytale class. Up until that point, I knew only the Disney versions of these stories, but now, week after week, we would read the original, darker versions of these fairytales, written hundreds of years ago. Ultimately, I felt like there was room to bring back some of these older versions.”

Through the course of Sophie and Agatha’s adventures, their equations with the Schools (there’s a School for Good and a different School for Evil) keep changing; these schools are not ‘safe havens’, like Hogwarts is for Harry Potter and his friends. Chainani says, “It is funny because a lot of what I was writing initially was based on my reaction to the Harry Potter series. Though I loved the books, I felt they were structured in the familiar Disney way where the good guy always wins. I wanted to create a middle school where the experience felt a little edgy, a little dangerous, like one actually does feel in middle school!”

Chainani came out as gay during college and he feels strongly about the role of fantasy fiction in the lives of young queer people. “Fantasy fiction has always helped queer people realise their true selves. My world is not a world with labels or constricti­ng identities.”

The author, whose parents come from Mumbai, grew up in Florida, reading a lot of Indian folktales. “I went to Gita classes,” Chainani recalls. He still visits Mumbai frequently and, at one point, was supposed to direct an English-language movie shot in India. “After that project kept getting delayed, I started work on what would become The School for Good and

Evil.” According to the author, Indian folktales and myths have “a quality of mischief and playfulnes­s that stories from other parts of the world often do not”. He says, “I have a character called ‘Ravan’ in the first book. It is a younger version, but everybody knows who it really is!” ■


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