The Gap of Time

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

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This is a modern retelling of A Winter’s Tale. I didn’t like it as much as I wanted to. I think that’s mostly because it’s just really hard to translate Shakespeare to a modern context. The jealous ravings of Leo (Leontes) seem even more crazed and misogynistic when it’s a rich guy in a business suit saying them, rather than an ancient king. And the tonal shift between the first and second half seemed even more jarring in print than on the stage, for some reason. More than the story, I appreciated Winterson’s introduction and epilogue about the importance of forgiveness in Shakespeare’s later works, and how this story is a kind of re-writing of Othello, turning a tragedy into a comedy.

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern’s Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman

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I didn’t love this book as much as I expected to, but I liked it enough. Buttercup never seemed to be more than a damsel in distress, and her relationship with Westley didn’t always seem healthy. She was much less interesting than the side characters. My favorite characters by far were Inigo and Fezzik. Especially Fezzik. He’s very loveable. The over-the-top exaggeration of things like Buttercup’s beauty and Inigo’s fencing skill is a key part of the story’s style, but can get a little grating.

It’s hard to ignore the movie in reacting to this book. The main thing that the movie cuts away is the metafictional aspect where Goldman tells about his process of adapting “Morgenstern’s” text, summarizing the boring parts he cut out and his legal battles with the author’s estate. These passages are cute and funny in a wry way and were obviously impossible to transfer to film, but I don’t think the story loses much without them, especially since the movie retains the “bedtime story” frame, which allows for metafictional observations too. Those metafictional comments are probably the most original and unique parts of the novel/film.

I think the film adaptation of The Princess Bride makes a better film than the novel is a novel. Which makes sense, because Goldman is more famous for screenwriting than fiction. But it also makes me wonder if I’d have felt differently about the book if I’d read it first instead. The best scenes and lines from the book are in the movie, so they were kind of spoiled for me in reading, but the same effect doesn’t seem to happen in reverse. When you’re watching a movie and you’ve read the book, you know what’s coming but you’re still interested to see how it happens and what it looks like. This experience reinforces my conviction that it’s important to read the book before watching the movie adaptation.

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Luhrmann

the-great-gatsby-poster1I haven’t read The Great Gatsby since high school, but I remember enjoying it then, and I love Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic style, so I was really looking forward to this movie. I enjoyed it as much as I thought I would; it was a fun time at the movies. The greatest attraction of the movie is probably the gorgeous, over-the-top party scenes. Fitzgerald wrote the best party scenes in literature, and Luhrmann films the best party scenes in cinema. It seems a perfect match. What I wouldn’t have given to have been an extra on that set!

The movie seemed more romantic than the book, focused more on Gatsby’s longing for the life he could have had with Daisy than on his corruption or the Buchanons’ dissipation or Nick Caraway’s lost innocence in witnessing their drama. The tea party scene where Gatsby sees Daisy alone for the first time is played like a romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant. Gatsby is foppish and clumsy out of adorable nervousness, and it’s played for laughs. Leonardo DiCaprio was surely made for this role. He looked the part perfectly, from his monogram ring to his shiny shoes. My favorite scene of his might have been his innocent, boyish, but sadly deluded insistence that Daisy will call. Carrie Mulligan did nothing to alter the feeling I had from the book that Daisy was utterly unworthy of Gatsby’s devotion, that she is a vapid cipher of a character. I’m not sure what she could have done about this as an actress, though, as giving Daisy depth would have necessitated a lot more revision and change to the story itself.

The film created a frame in which Nick Caraway was writing about Gatsby to explain him to a psychiatrist. This created a literary feel to the movie through words written and typed and voiced over. I liked the literariness of it, but I always wonder about making a character, even and perhaps especially a first-person narrator, into an author figure. Fitzgerald is not Nick Caraway, and Nick is not Fitzgerald, and it seems a little misleading to imply otherwise, especially when you consider that a large percentage of the audience is likely to believe it. My only other complaint about the movie might be that it beats you over the head with symbolism even more than the book does, and that’s saying something. We could have understood the green light without the third explanation, thanks.

Les Miserables movie

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The new film version of Les Miserables is amazing. I was excited about it, and it lived up to my expectations. It’s an incredibly, startlingly intimate film, with many of the major solo songs filmed in extreme close-up with long, uncut shots. They just sing straight at the camera. I’ve never seen another musical do anything like that; singing on set instead of in the studio paid off big time. These moments are balanced with panoramic battle scenes and gigantic sets, showing off the things that film can do and a stage production can’t. It was super smart of the director to focus his energy on taking advantage of his medium that way.

I’m glad I finished the novel before this film came out. There were a few small references to the novel that I’d never seen in a stage production: an elephant statue, Marius’s grandfather, Enroljas’s death. The subplots and history lessons that had been cut from the musical stayed cut, of course, and the show was still almost 3 hours long, so there was no room for them anyway. But it was still fun to recognize those few little items that this film salvaged from the novel. Also, I heard that the actor who plays the bishop was the original Jean Valjean. That seems fitting as well.

I cried twice. Fantine had never made me cry before, but Anne Hathaway’s performance was so powerful that I couldn’t help it. I’d seen an interview with her where she talked about how it would be wrong and dishonest to try to be pretty while playing this character who was just falling apart and suffering so terribly. She was right, and deserves the best supporting actress Oscar without a doubt for that humility, for putting her performance ahead of her image. My second sobfest was at the ending, of course. That line, “To love another person is to see the face of God” gets me every time.

Les Miserables

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

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For several months now, I’ve been reading Les Miserables a little bit at a time on my Kindle. I don’t think it was the best translation (a free version), but I was glad to have the chance to read it a bit at a time without carrying a 1400-page book around!

In grad school, I took a class on contemporary novels in which we read Mason & Dixon, Alias GraceUnderworld, and several other books, doorstoppers all. Many of these books described some real historical events, including lots of documents and encyclopedic information that seem irrelevant, sometimes even footnotes. We also discussed the books themselves as monsters to be conquered by their readers, and their ultimate precursor in that way is Moby Dick, of course. Les Miserables belongs in this same category as these American novels. It is a complete education in French history, full of digressions on the battle of Waterloo, monasteries, the sewers of Paris, slang, and several other topics. The encyclopedic digressions give information related to or at least tangential to the plot, and also give Hugo space to voice a few interesting opinions. While in the midst of one of these mini-lectures, I often did long to get back to the characters, but I also was aware that I was learning a lot, so I didn’t mind too much.

I’ve always loved the musical Les Miserables, and one of my favorite things about reading the book was that it always somehow put one of the songs in my head to play on an infinite loop. I’ve seen it three times live, in Cincinnati, New York, and Nashville; each time I cried (in New York I cried twice). The musical does a good job of capturing the mood of the book, especially with songs like “Look Down” and “One Day More,” and it also creates a good Cliff Notes version of the plot. Several important characters are cut, including Marius’s family and backstory. He’s the son of a colonel who died at Waterloo, estranged from his grandfather, a rich man who disdained his daughter’s husband for his politics. When Marius discovers his origins, he leaves his grandfather’s mansion and lives the life of a poor student. He has a strange debt to Thenardier, who saved his father’s life after a battle. There’s an entire episode of Jean Valjean getting a job as a gardener at a convent school through sneaking in inside a coffin. Crazy stuff like that. The kind of stuff that didn’t fit in the musical, but which gives me a fuller understanding of the characters and the world of 19th century Paris.

I’m incredibly excited about the movie adaptation coming out this month. The cast looks great, and the previews blew me away.  I get teary just from this clip:

The only point of adapting a show like this for the screen is to do things that you can’t do in the theater, put things on the screen that won’t fit on a stage, and it seems like they have. The scope looks bigger; everything is just surrounding you on all sides and sweeping you away. Also, I’ve heard that they filmed this movie in a way that has never been done before: instead of recording an album in a studio and lip syncing on set, the songs in this movie were recorded on the set, so the acting should be more natural.

The Opal Deception

The Opal Deception by Eoin Colfer

As I promised myself I would after attending Eoin Colfer’s reading and talk at the library, I picked up the fourth book in the Artemis Fowl series. This volume had all of the things I remembered from the first three books: a lightning-fast action plot, seemingly inescapable predicaments, prickly heroes sniping at each other. In this volume, villain Opal Koboi, fueled by obsession, breaks out of the asylum where she’s supposedly in a coma, and tries to start a war between the fairies and humans. On my audiobook she had a hilariously evil baby-talk speaking style. She exacts revenge on our heroes, and there’s even a death of a major character in the beginning, which serves to prove that things have gotten serious now. I think that pretty much had to happen, sad as it is, because it’s hard to sustain a series like this over so many books without having several major characters die. After the bloodbaths in Harry Potter’s last three books, no one can write a long adventure series in which no beloved characters die anymore and be taken seriously (I’m looking at you, Stephenie Meyer, with your over-hyped battle-that-never-happened in Breaking Dawn. You didn’t have the stomach to kill a single Cullen, but Fred Weasley had to die?)

One reason I like the series, and one thing that made me quit it for so long after the mind wipe at the end of book 3, was the moral development of Artemis. I appreciated how he learned and grew and became more selfless through his adventures, and it seemed such a shame to lose that through a memory reboot. At the beginning of this book, though his mind had been wiped, Artemis hasn’t totally reverted to where he was at the beginning of the series. He still enjoys stealing and doing bad, daring, risky things, but it’s somewhat tempered by his love for his family. It takes only one life-threatening episode for him to learn to trust Holly again, and his memories come back quickly once triggered. He comments on how he feels warring impulses inside him, pulling him between good and bad, and says with surprise that good seems to be a stronger motivation. At the end he’s even musing about becoming a sort of Robin Hood figure. It seems clear that this moral development is something that’s intended to spread over all 8 books of the series. One of the things that attracted me back to the series is that I heard that in book 8 Artemis truly becomes a hero. I’m interested to see what that will mean. He’s already pretty heroic in that he makes smart decisions that save everyone just in the nick of time, often risking himself in the bargain.

The characters in this series are cartoonish, but not necessarily in a bad way. They all have certain qualities that are exaggerated, played for laughs, and used strategically in the plot and as fodder for witty banter. Mulch Diggums is one big fart joke. Opal’s vanity and devious plotting are deliciously over-the-top. At the reading, Colfer said that the first book is finally being made into a movie by Disney. I wonder if it’ll be Pixar, or more traditional animation, or live with tons of CGI, or what. I think a somewhat cartoonish art style would be fitting to the humor and tone of the story, and there are certainly lots of story elements that could not happen in real life. So I guess I’m rooting for Pixar to handle this one. And after meeting Colfer and seeing how hilarious he is, I say he deserves a part or a character to voice, or at least a cameo. I could see him as Artemis’s dad or as the voice of some fairy beaurocrat.

Overall, it’s a fun book and a fun series for action-packed adventure and humor. If you ever have to buy a book for a boy age 8-13, this series is a good bet.

One Day (film)

One Day, starring Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess

In general this was a very faithful adaptation. That’s always where I begin when I think about assessing a movie whose book I’ve read first (and I vastly prefer to read the book first). Some of my favorite lines from the book were kept, but one of my favorite episodes was gone: Dexter’s drunken letter inviting Emma to India. The movie did a good job of showing the banter and rapport and understanding that Dexter and Emma share, even when they are at their worst, and that makes you really root for them. Their humor is British and dry, very fun. Movie Dexter is somewhat less of an asshole than Book Dexter. His sometimes repulsive inner thoughts are gone, of course, and some particularly assholesque scenes are cut. More than anything he just seemed whiny, always calling Emma drunk from a pay phone in the rain, begging her to pick up or meet him or console him.

There are far too many moments of Emma putting on a strong face, pulling a close-mouthed I’m-so-happy-for-you-breaking-my-heart smile, blinking back tears over Dexter’s shoulder as she hugs him. I don’t really like the picture of a woman heroically suffering for the happiness of the man she loves, while he’s blissfully unaware. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I see that more than its gender reverse, so it just strikes me as unfair.

One pleasure of the film is watching the outfits get better and better as Emma’s personal style evolves. In the opening scenes, set in the early 90’s, she wears a lot of floral dresses with combat boots. Her dress in Paris is to-die-for, and she rocks a short haircut better than anyone since Audrey Hepburn. Anne Hathaway is pretty much known for geek-to-hot makeovers in movies, so when you see her in big glasses in the first scene you know by the end she’ll be rocking a new hairdo and a full-skirted dress.

I had a deep personal appreciation for Dexter’s hair in this movie, mostly because he’s wearing the style that I found most attractive on a guy when I was about 13: short in back and longish on top, but not quite long enough to fall into his eyes, kind of framing the forehead in a floppy, boyish way. Other notable wearers of this haircut are Rider Strong (Shaun from Boy Meets World), Devon Sawa in Casper, and Dmitri from the animated Anastasia.

Seeing this story on film made me somehow put it into a context I hadn’t before. It reminded me of Made of Honor, a bad romantic comedy starring Patrick Dempsey that I saw when it came out. I don’t like it when a guy is “just friends” with a girl, but sleeps around all he wants himself, but you know the “friend” is who he’s supposed to be with. And of course the girl is totally in love with him, except she’s being cool and independent and not commenting on his sex life. Maybe she’s even moved on, but he decides at the last minute not to let her. It’s like he refused to have sex with this one girl to keep her pure and save her for when he’s ready to commit, like she’s a bottle of wine he’s aging on the shelf while he drinks tons of crap from a box. Except really he’s the one that needs to mature. And the dehumanization of the other faceless women is really problematic. I wrote about this stud trope two weeks ago. I really should have included One Day in the post on the trope, but I guess some of the plot’s complications distracted me from seeing it. Emma and Dexter’s different careers and their different politics are important factors in their relationship dynamic, as well as this stud trope. And I thought in the book they had sex in the beginning, but for some reason in the movie they didn’t. Taking away the early sexual contact makes it seem more sexist to me for some reason.

In my review of the book, I said the ending seemed kind of sappy, and the movie only made it more so. The flashback to the first day Dexter and Emma spent together, after they’re parted forever, is pure hankie-bait. The music really adds to the sentimental tone, of course. Overall, I guess I’d recommend the movie for anyone who’s in the mood for a romantic comedy that turns sad at the end.