Film Review: The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud

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 only. You can read my review of the book on its own here or my comparison of the film with the book 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 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.

You can buy the book here

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 is, 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, as it doesn’t come close to the book in terms of emotional investment, but there are some moments of beauty to it, as well. I would certainly recommend it if you like Zac Efron or are in need of a light-hearted rom-com.

About Charlie Morris

Proofreader and film blogger living in Cornwall.

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