Film & Book reviews: Struck by Lightning

Basically, everyone who has ever met me knows I’m a touch obsessed with television. I go through phases with various television shows. Currently, one of my biggest obsessions is “Glee.” Once again, not a shock to anyone who reads this blog or has ever talked to me in real life. There are two actors on the show who I absolutely adore: Chris Colfer and Darren Criss. They are two of the most talented young people currently working in Hollywood.

Chris Colfer is 22 years old. He has won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Kurt Hummel on “Glee.” His debut children’s novel “The Land of Stories” was a New York Times bestseller. He recently wrote and starred in his first feature film “Struck by Lightning,” which he then turned into a novel. Seriously. He’s three months younger than me and I feel like the biggest slacker in the world when I look at his list of accomplishments.

The basic plot of the story follows a high school senior named Carson Phillips (Colfer). His sole mission in life is to get out of his hometown of Clover. He dreams of attending Northwestern University and eventually becoming the editor of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, he has to put up with the general close-mindedness so commonly used in portrayals of small towns. All Carson wants is to be a writer. He is the editor of his school’s newspaper. The other members of his staff don’t care about getting the paper published. The one exception to this might be Malerie (Rebel Wilson, Pitch Perfect), who really tries but just doesn’t quite get it. When he finds out that just being editor of a school newspaper isn’t enough to impress Northwestern, his guidance counselor (Angela Kinsey, The Office) gives him the idea to start a literary magazine.

The literary magazine is a great idea, but the problem is that it can’t just feature Carson’s work. He needs to have submissions from other students. Carson doesn’t necessarily get along with his classmates…or people in general. He tries to get submissions by just asking for them, but pretty much insults them in the process. He gets a submission box full of garbage, literally. After catching two boys making out in the bathroom, he essentially blackmails them into writing for the magazine. Carson realizes that there are surely more people with secrets at the school and picks out a select few to extort. His targets include the cheerleading captain, football coach, class president, and a few other very popular students.

The quest to get the literary magazine up and running is pretty much the sole plot of the novel. Colfer writes it as a series of journal entries documenting the school year, so everything is from Carson’s point of view. The novel and the film are almost exactly the same, but there are a couple noticeable differences.

The novel spends some time going into the interactions between Carson and the people he’s blackmailing. Carson tries to inspire them in his own way by getting them to write. He has a couple meaningful conversations with these students. However, in the film, we only see the conversation between Carson and cheerleading captain Claire Matthews (Sarah Hyland, Modern Family).

The film also develops the relationship between Carson and his mother Sheryl (Allison Janney, The West Wing) a lot more than in the book. In general, Sheryl is far more developed in the film. She is an extremely compelling character, mostly because Janney is such an amazing actress. After divorcing her husband Neal (Dermot Mulroney), she spirals out of control and becomes a non-functioning alcoholic. She is addicted to basically every prescription drug. She is hateful towards Carson at every turn and takes every opportunity to remind him that dreams don’t come true. Colfer and Janney were fantastic in their scenes together and their relationship was the most interesting of both the film and book. Neal’s new fiancee April (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men) is also a character that is hardly mentioned in the novel, yet plays a much bigger role in the film. Janney and Hendricks play off each other so well and their scenes together are beyond fantastic. They basically represent the before and after of what a stressful relationship can do to a person.

The final piece of the puzzle is the relationship between Carson and his senile grandmother (Polly Bergen, The Caretakers). Bergen doesn’t have a huge role, but every scene she shares with Colfer is memorable. The film really needed this relationship. Carson is incredibly sarcastic with everyone else and would easily come across as an acerbic asshole without this relationship.

The balance between the sarcastic wit and the more sentimental moments make the novel and film magical. I was bawling by the end of the film. The major shortfall of the film is that it is so short. At only 84 minutes, it would have benefitted from maybe another 10 minutes to better flesh out Carson’s relationships with the other students in his school. Currently, the film is only available on demand or iTunes. It will be released in a small number of theaters January 11 and will hopefully be in wide release by the end of the month. The film is directed by Brian Dannelly, who also directed Saved!, another fantastic film about high school.