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Posts tagged ‘Book-to-film’

Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


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Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

Video Killed the Bookmark II

The problem with this topic is that the number of decent book to film adaptations –  since classics such as The Big Sleep and Lean’s Great Expectations were being made more than 50 years ago –  can be counted with alarming rapidity. After Visconti’s version of The Leopard with the wonderfully hirsute Burt Lancaster, the top three have been:

The Silence of the Lambs: this can be explained by any of a number of quotes – not the most obvious:

Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek?
Clarice Starling: He kills women…

The clash of Thomas Harris’s splendid Hannibal with the compelling (but mostly taupe ) Clarice as she states the obvious gives rise to a tense dynamic that propels them across serial killers, the Goldberg Variations, fine wine and of course, her childhood.

No Country for Old Men led to the appearance of one of celluloid’s most malevolent figures: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh swinging a customized stun gun as he slaughters his deadpan way through West Texas after Josh Brolin and the cash perfectly captures the grim relentlessness of McCarthy’s prose that similarly keeps you turning the pages, though you know the news is going to get much, much worse before it gets better.

Apocalypse Now must have been an absolute bastard to adapt. The murky novella, Heart of Darkness, manages to convey the chaos and residual fear Willard experiences as he ventures into the Congo; the fact that Coppola illustrates this with a pared back script and fractious cast set in Vietnam is seriously impressive. Whether you agree that bald fat Brando cuts it or not, if the loss of control at the last American outpost before they get to Kurtz doesn’t get to you, the surfing certainly should.

Graphic novels were broached by the Editors in the first instalment of this discussion, although of course there is a wealth of material to choose from, and the production line does not appear to be slowing. The production companies have long ago optioned the more obvious series for adaption to the screen, and the result is now TV series for the lesser known characters of Marvel and DC as well as mega-Marvel blockbusters.

It has been a tumultuous transition for comic fans. The original X-Men films can now be blotted out by the masterful First Class with the likes of Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence reclaiming the original story with authority. The fact that Wolverine: Origins was so woefully rubbish does not diminish the beast himself, or apparently Hugh Jackman’s bankability. Will.I.Am as Ghost was truly the nadir for the Marvel team.

Or it was until the Green Lantern appeared. The only good thing to come out of it was Ryan Reynolds meeting Blake Lively: who doesn’t like when two attractive people get together to flash some teeth? But the film went straight onto the midden heap alongside Daredevil, both Punishers, Hulks, Fantastic Fours and all initial three Spiderman films – shame for Evil Dead fans that Raimi lacked the sand to make a proper adaptation. No one wants to see James Franco as a broken Harry Gordon sobbing in an ugly fashion at sunrise. Raimi did do one vitally important thing of introducing the swooping, elated shots of Parker swinging along the grid of New York, our stomachs follow the trajectory of the camera in a great way and you can almost forget that Tobey Maguire just isn’t funny enough to play this self-deprecating hero. Without these, we may not have had the version of The Amazing Spiderman last summer that showed how entertaining the story is. Majestic casting with Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May were the perfect support for Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone to bashfully set up the original love story for Spiderman. Marvel films are currently on a role with The Avengers, Thor, the Iron Man Franchise (to a lesser extent Captain America). They are huge, funny, stunning and not yet bloated. Long may it last.

Which brings me to DC. Batman remains the most complex and enthralling character ever to feature in a comic book. A lone playboy, devoted only to his butler Alfred and the various permutations of Robin, there is no permanent love interest or nemesis, and no deviation from his goal: to be whatever Gotham needs to survive, or in good years, improve. Bruce Wayne is often depicted as a massive, scarred figure who appears almost ludicrous in a tuxedo. His calcified joints and scar tissue accumulated over years of letting the city take its frustration out on him is referenced in a great scene in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises when the news that Batman has no cartilage left in his knee does nothing to impede the plot. Phew.  Michael Keaton started what Christian Bale finished, although sadly Val Kilmer and George Clooney did some damage on the way with a lot of help from Jim Carrey and the wonderfully ridiculous ex-governor of California. Anne Hathaway absolutely smashed it as Catwoman to the extent that her other crimes against literature (One Day and Les Miserables, I’m not even starting with her Jane Austen impression) may be forgiven.

People performing extraordinary feats of strength and agility against gloriously unambiguous baddies in this dimension, or the next, will always have appeal. There is now aesthetic satisfaction as well as escapism to be had, and mutants no longer need be hammy. The momentum is such that there is no need for a rueful grin after delivering lines like: “How dare you attack the son of Odin!” as the audience knows a fight scene is coming, and it’s going to be ludicrous, violent, fast, and wonderful.

Next time: Will Dark Horse facilitate a third Hellboy film? Will Man of Steel and Kick-Ass 2 be any good? (Yes) And of course, Iron Man 3 as of April 14th.

The Editors

Video killed the bookmark

The thinking seems to be with a lot of book-to-film adaptations that a popular book will make a popular film.  I suppose it must be true that if you have a guaranteed pool of fans who will turn up to watch the film just out of interest because they loved the book, then you’re probably some way to covering your costs.  Predictably, this often leads to disappointment, and the frequent claims that a film has in some way despoiled the original text.  This is interesting for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the implicit assumption by the reader of the book that because the film is guaranteed a decent narrative (the one it stole from the book), most of the hard work is done for it, the only further ingredient required being a heavy dose of cinematic embellishment, probably in the form of CGI – see Life of Pi and The Hobbit as contemporary examples.

Graphic novel adaptations are the best examples of this because they don’t just lift the narrative; in some cases they deliver a frame-by-frame rendering of the entire book.  This is supposed to be extremely clever, and directors will talk proudly of how they feel they have captured the essence of the original and should therefore be exempt from the criticism of die-hard readers.  In fact, it seems to be the case that a lot of film productions these days enlist the services of the book’s author to help with this process.  This sort of attitude almost always ends in disaster.  Take the Watchmen film – I have yet to meet a reader (not even necessarily fan) of the original who enjoyed the film, and with good reason, because the film is terrible, despite being a literal adaptation of the graphic novel, both visually and audibly (the soundtrack is chosen to match specific lines from the book).

Although the copy-cat approach is most obviously flawed in the case of graphic novels, I would argue that a large proportion of all book-to-film adaptations fail because of overly literal interpretations of the original.  This was certainly the case with the first film rendition of John Fowles’ The Magus, which earned itself this scathing put-down from Woody Allen:

“If I had my life to live over again, I would want everything exactly the same with the exception of seeing the film version of The Magus.”

However, I would argue that The Magus was successfully re-adapted to make The Game several decades later.  Although this connection is not made explicit and the setting and even plot is different in each, the themes are almost identical, as is the central narrative of jaded-bachelor-made-good.  Apparently John Fowles even considered suing the makers of The Game for plagiarism.  For the purpose of this post, though, it serves as evidence of the premise that the more distinct and original the interpretation of the book, the more likely it is for the film to be any good.  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is a great re-imagining of Shakespeare, as is Hook of Peter Pan.  It seems obvious to say but this makes sense given that a work of art, be it film, book or anything else, requires a degree of creativity, and signs that the artist has put something of himself into his work.  Slavishly tracing a book into a screen may make sense from a box-office perspective, but it will almost never lead to anything worth seeing.

The Editors