Literature

Because Reading Is Hard

This might be one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. No, it’s not some Womynpriest ranting about the Vatican, or a sportswriter waxing poetic about a “gritty” but otherwise terrible baseball player, or anything written by Thomas Friedman. It’s a list of “six films that improve the source material.” There’s nothing inherently wrong in suggesting that a movie is better than the book it is based upon. For starters, The Godfather movie is arguably better than the book as it doesn’t cut out any of the good parts but it does excise the superfluous and frankly bizarre sublot from the middle portion of the book. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List was much powerful than Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. And though I haven’t seen and don’t plan to see the latest film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, it’s inconceivable that it could be any worse than the source material.

David R’s list, on the other hand, is a bit different.

The Social Network: Didn’t see the movie, didn’t read the book, and I generally don’t care.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: I never saw the movie. The book does drag in certain parts, but it’s still a classic. I’ll let this one go.

And now this is where he just gets nuts:

Pride and Prejudice (2005): 

I’m probably not the target audience for this particular book, what with being a 21st-century twenty-something male. That said, Pride and Prejudice has always struck me as a pretty good story wrapped up in circuitous, indirect writing. It’s light and frothy, and entertaining to an extent, but ultimately presented in a way that prevents me from really reaching out and connecting with the characters. I’m only passingly familiar with the much-adored BBC miniseries, but am under the impression that it more or less transcribes the book verbatim.

The 2005 version with Keira Knightley, on the other hand, does a much better job streamlining the story into a vibrant, energetic romance. It still retains the story’s amusingly frivolous air, but in a way that, for this viewer at least, renders the story both funnier and more touching than the original novel. Side characters are exaggerated, losing complexity but gaining a more tangible sense of fun — particularly in the case of one Mr. Collins. Director Joe Wright manages to make the dancing and socializing so much fun to watch that you can actually understand why so many people would show up to these parties. And the movie is simply gorgeous in a way that only a movie can be.

Speaking as a fellow 21st Century male, this is heresy. As I wrote on facebook, this isn’t even the best film adaption of this story.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: 

While the Harry Potter books are enjoyable for the most part, there are some notable problems with the series. One of the most obvious is J.K. Rowling’s tendency to veer off on wild tangents that derail the forward momentum of her stories. It looks like her editors were able to keep her on track for the first three books (with the third being the series’ best), but by the fourth she had become too popular for that. The Goblet of Fire— which, at 752 pages, is a whole book longer than any of the first three books — was filled with wandering storylines: S.P.E.W., the Quidditch World Cup, and plenty of other bits nearly cripple the already improbable storyline.

Screenwriter Steve Kloves and director Mike Newell took a scalpel to the book, skillfully extracting the core plot and character threads while leaving behind nearly everything that didn’t matter. Gone are the unnecessary distractions, bringing the characters and growing menace of the story to the forefront. And the movie still retains much of the detail that makes up the world, like Rita Skeeter, the Unforgivable Curses, or the eerie world of the Triwizard Tournament. It just never gets so enamored with any of these ideas that it forgets why we came in the first place.

Kloves and Newell didn’t take a scalpel to the book; they obliterated essential sublots and cut out fun little diversions. I recognize that tastes vary, but Goblet of Fire is the best book in the series in my mind particularly because of the fun little side excursions. Yes, I might be one of the few people who doesn’t hate the S.P.E.W. supblot, but that aside the movie just falls flat. Also, as my wife has pointed out, the climactic maze scene in the race for the Triwizard Cup is completely bland, as though they just ran out of money in their CGI budget. Rowling’s description of that part of the tournament is so much more vivid than what the filmmakers came up with.

It only gets worse.

Troy 

This is kind of an apples-and-oranges situation. The Iliad (not The Aeneid, like I thoughtlessly wrote earlier) is an ancient epic poem; Troy, a modern action film. They’re going after completely different things, going about their aims in completely different ways, and generally couldn’t be further apart from each other without being entirely unrelated stories.

That said, I don’t get a whole lot out of Homer’s original. The way the gods act in his text is distracting, particularly when they swoop into the middle of a battle to remove key players from the action. Homer’sOdyssey includes gods and fantastical creatures much better. Then again, the main conflict in The Odyssey is between men and gods (or at least men and fate). The Iliad’s conflict is much more between men; two nations are at war. In the film Troy, the gods were taken completely out of the story, allowing the focus to fall squarely on the war waged over petty revenge and hubris. The human element is much more important, allowing the story to resonate more for its human viewers.

This make me weep openly, as Achilles did at the death of Patroclus. Leaving aside Homer’s epic, Troy was one of the most wretched movies ever put on screen. Troy wouldn’t be  an improvement over a Dan Brown novel, let alone freaking Homer.

And for number one:

War of the Worlds (2005):

Before you burn me at the stake, let me clarify. I’m a huge H.G. Wells fan, and if you remove the different versions from their cultural context I don’t know that one is better than the other. However, War of the Worlds is one of those stories that deserves to be retold every now and then, as it can offer a lot of commentary on different periods in history. The first film adaptation was of reasonably high quality; it (like much of that era’s science fiction) pitched the story against the fears and imagery of the Cold War.

In the early 2000s, Spielberg came to a realization, “I thought that this story’s time had come again.” It was a stroke of brilliance to deal with 9/11 through H. G. Wells’s century-old classic. The images in the movie arise very organically out of the story, but the specter of 9/11 hangs over the event. Missing-person posters, victims covered in dust, military trying to keep the peace. This allows Spielberg and writer David Koepp to use the text to examine the paranoia and weaknesses of our current society, and as a member of that society, this is somewhat more compelling and noticeably more relevant today than Wells’s book, while still retaining the lean structure and addictive concept that make up the core of the story.

It’s not as bad as favoring Brad Pitt’s version of Achilles over Homer’s, but it’s still pretty silly. Spielberg is a great director, but his inability to constrain his own innate Spielbergness fails to do Wells justice.

The frustrating thing is that the author doesn’t appear to be some high school kid who really hates books. He seems fairly literate, and he’s a decent writer. Yet his reasoning for most of these selections is that he just can’t deal with the long slog of reading books that have plot points he can’t relate to. Or, as one commenter put it:

This is less a post about movies that improve the source material and more about the author’s inability to enjoy a complex novel.

I can understand, and as I said, tastes vary. That being said, David R should be banned from public commentary for the rest of eternity.

Oh, I do need to address one of the comments to the linked article:

Just wanted to say that the Lord of the Rings movies are worlds better than the books for a number of reasons, but the one most worth mentioning being the total excision of Tom Bombadil from the screen.

Not only should this person be banned from public commentary for all eternity, he should be shunned by polite society and forced to live in seclusion with nothing but the Twilight books to keep him company.

Tolstoy’s Theory of History

I’ve been really enjoying listening to the unabridged War and Peace (I’m listening to a reading by Neville Jason) as a commuting book. It’s episodic enough to be good when listened to in half hour increments, and it’s good enough to be a pleasure to hear while not so stylistic in its prose as to be make one feel as if one ought to be reading it rather than listening. However, this morning I hit one of Tolstoy’s chapter long theory-of-history sections, and was startled at how little sense it made. This is a chunk of Book 9, Chapter 1:

From the close of the year 1811 intensified arming and concentrating of the forces of Western Europe began, and in 1812 these forces—millions of men, reckoning those transporting and feeding the army—moved from the west eastwards to the Russian frontier, toward which since 1811 Russian forces had been similarly drawn. On the twelfth of June, 1812, the forces of Western Europe crossed the Russian frontier and war began, that is, an event took place opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes.

What produced this extraordinary occurrence? What were its causes? The historians tell us with naive assurance that its causes were the wrongs inflicted on the Duke of Oldenburg, the nonobservance of the Continental System, the ambition of Napoleon, the firmness of Alexander, the mistakes of the diplomatists, and so on. Continue reading

Ten Books

Weighty Subjects

Judging from our posts, I believe it is safe to say that we at The American Catholic are a bookish lot.  I think this applies also to most of our learned commenters.  I have always loved books, a trait I inherited from my sainted mother who had a deep passion for the printed page.  If I were not married to a fellow bibliophile, and a librarian of course !, I can imagine my love of books perhaps having been a sore point in my marriage.  “Another bookstore?”  “Can’t we go anyplace without you dragging me to a dull bookstore?”  “You paid what for that history of the Peninsular War!?!”  “The books are in the dumpster.  Say a word and you may end up there too!”   Instead, both I and my bride of 27 years view bookstores as homes away from home, to the vast amusement of our kids.

In this post I am going to list ten books I would recommend.  These ten books have all had some impact on my life.  I invite everyone who is interested to also give their book recommendations in the comments.

1.   The Bible-Since my parents gave me my first Bible, at my request, on Christmas Day 1970, I have attempted, and usually succeeded, in reading a chapter from the Old Testament and a chapter from the New each day.  The varied type of literature in the Bible I find endlessly fascinating:  novels, court chronicles, proverbs, otherworldly prophecies, military history, gospels, letters, an endless literary and intellectual feast.  Aside from the spiritual benefits of the Bible, which of course is the main reason for reading the Bible, no one in our civilization can be considered to be well-educated if they are bone ignorant of this book.  Continue reading

Book Review: The Death of a Pope

Out today from Ignatius Press is The Death of a Pope, a new novel by Piers Paul Read, a mainstream novelist (his survival novel Alive about a rugby team whose plane crashes in the Andes topped the New York Times bestseller list when it came out 25 years ago, and was later made into a film) who has also written both fiction and nonfiction on Catholic themes. He wrote a popular history of the templars a few years back, and On the Third Day, a thriller about the discovery in modern Israel of a crucified skeleton that some allege to be proof that Christ did not rise from the dead.

I had not read any of Read’s previous books, but when Ignatius emailed me and offered me a review copy, the premise of the novel sounded interesting and I could not resist the lure of a free book. However, I did not initially expect much of it, my idea of modern “Catholic thrillers” having been formed by the likes of Pierced By A Sword, whose prose style treads that delicate line between incompetent and downright laughable.

However, I need not have feared. Read’s prose is deft and indeed literary, though the modern device of using present tense narrative to convey immediacy is not necessarily my cup of tea. Those inclined to literary snobbery will not find themselves holding their noses as they read this novel by any stretch. The less pretentious reader will enjoy the fast-paced plot, which whisks him from a terrorist trial in London, to the refugee camps of Uganda, the chemistry labs of Cairo and at last to the 2005 papal conclave.

Continue reading

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