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Page and Screen: Are our favourite characters more alive in books or movies?


The idea of character is more complicated than we allow ourselves to realise. Of course put simply they are made up, fictional people in stories. But there are those who wish to challenge such a casual assumption. Some say they are merely bundles of words. Others question their independence, as we can never really know anything certainly about anyone besides ourselves. Therefore are characters simply versions of their creators? Are authors, screenwriters and actors getting it completely wrong when they try to imagine what it’s like to be someone who isn’t them? Should all characters be developed to a certain point? Some crop up as mere extras in a scene of a movie or a chapter of a novel but nevertheless leave an impression on us. Do they count as true characters even when we know next to nothing about them? Do we need to know anything about a character? Can we know a character at all?

Of course it’s sensible not to get bogged down in such questions. It’s pedantic, futile and stupid to waste energy debating whether any character can have true meaning beyond an author’s words. Often characters are simply a fact to be accepted, a vital part of the suspension of disbelief required to enjoy any genre of fiction. But it can also be healthy to think about the limitations of characterisation as well its possibilities. Characters are vehicles that carry us through any story, doors onto worlds of escapism. Writing believable and engaging characters is the most difficult part of creating novels or films. Anyone can have a half decent plot idea or conjure adequate passages of dialogue but very few can mould the perfect characters with which to tell their story.

On the page the biggest challenge is getting a character moving because, as I said, characters are vehicles. Uninteresting, average or amateur writing can start by telling us about motionless characters. Great writers can establish iconic figures with very little information, which is seamlessly part of the narrative. On the screen it can sometimes be easier to get a character “in”, as the motion comes from the medium itself and the viewer can be convinced by things like setting, costume or the glance of a talented actor.

Having said this it is often difficult to transform the subtleties of the written word when it comes to character depth. For example, fictional figures like Jay Gatsby and Jean Brodie make very brief appearances in novels named after them. However the books can still be predominantly about their distant personalities. The Great Gatsby is about the potential rather than the actual, with the central message that “a dream realised is a dream destroyed” according to Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian. She argues that Baz Luhrmann’s forthcoming adaptation, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, is doomed to failure because by its nature the film will try to visually realise the dream of Gatsby and his grand home. DiCaprio will inevitably be more prominent than Gatsby was in the book.

Jean Brodie too is a similarly enigmatic character, observed only from the viewpoint of others. She has her image like Gatsby and she is only ever seen putting on her front. She is remembered for a bunch of catchphrases, such as “you are the crème de la crème” and “I am in my prime”. In Muriel Spark’s novel (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) the perspective jumps around between Brodie’s pupils but we never get to know her, just her influence on the lives of her protégés.

This doesn’t make her flat or two dimensional but it probably means she is not rounded either. This does not make her a bad example of characterisation. We are made to think about the people we know; do we really only know their public performances? And we imagine more than we are told or shown about Jean Brodie. Spark throws in glimpses of her pupils in the future, of their deaths and careers, prompting further questions about the novelist’s power and Brodie’s desire to manipulate. So we know aspects of her behaviour.

The narrative blends of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Great Gatsby are difficult to imagine on screen in quite the same way. Their stories would undoubtedly lose something or become narrowed on a particular aspect. There are narrative techniques that have no cinematic equivalent.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day was adapted for the screen by Merchant Ivory in 1993. It centres on one of the most fascinating characters of modern fiction, Stevens the butler, played by Anthony Hopkins in the film. It might be that the role of a butler is the perfect lens for a multi layered story about class, identity, personality, culture and repressed emotion. Or it might be the talents of Ishiguro and Hopkins. But on the page and the screen Stevens is incredibly lifelike.

Subtleties and methods employed in the novel cannot be replicated on screen. For example the parallel narratives are largely lost and most of all Stevens’ unreliable narration. He is looking back on his career with nostalgia and it doesn’t take long for you to realise in the book that Stevens is deceiving himself about the past, holding back things and regularly revising his retelling. But Ishiguro pulls of the style masterfully. The half truths Stevens tells and the things he claims to forget or confuse reveal greater truths about him to the reader.

On screen Hopkins has none of these advantages to introduce Stevens to us as something more than a servant. But he does have the benefit of the visual. He can communicate with an expression or look in his eye the sort of doubt, regret and reserve it took Ishiguro dozens of pages to build. And whilst Ishiguro’s execution was pitch perfect in The Remains of the Day his preference for the unreliable narrator took some considerable practice to get right. In a previous of novel of his, An Artist of the Floating World, passages like this appear so often at times, almost on every page, that they become extremely cumbersome and annoying:

“These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated retelling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own.”

Here Ishiguro is trying so hard to create a complex character that he is constantly alerting us to his efforts, shattering the reader’s immersion in the story. He is basically overwriting. So screen adaptations can often ditch bad writing to bring out the best elements of a believable character for a good story. But then there are also bad actors.

Anthony Hopkins is undoubtedly a fine actor. With roles like Stevens and Hannibal Lecter, he has established himself as a respected and acclaimed “character actor”. This term usually refers only to eccentric or developed individuals in a story. Our favourite characters can be just as alive on the page or the screen; they are simply represented in different ways. But they also need not be eccentric, developed or rounded to be alive and touching. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

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Mock the Week Reborn


 Certain programmes on television are compulsive viewing. Over the years the number of these programmes has decreased considerably, for me at least. With the advent of BBC iPlayer and other catch-up services (although I only really make regular use of iPlayer, with the exception of the occasional trip to 4OD) I rarely submit to the schedules for something I like to watch. But the odd show, live or not, will tempt me to watch at the scheduled time like an obedient puppy.

One of these programmes, as “regular readers” may know, is Doctor Who. I get ridiculously excited as that time comes round every Saturday and then I’m practically clapping my hands with glee as the theme music plays. I employ nurses to mop the saliva from the sofa as I sit there drooling. I hire security staff to hold me down should someone make a noise akin to a whisper, as I am liable to absentmindedly throw sharp objects at the offender or simply laser their soul with killer evils.

Mock the Week used to sit atop the comedy pile on my shelf of sacred TV treasures. Literally nothing could beat it for a good rib tickling chortle. It was easily king of the panel shows. Consider its rivals. QI is quite interesting, quite funny at times but it hardly goes for the comedy jugular. Have I Got News For You is hilarious but largely dependent on the guest host doing alright or being a good enough target for Merton and Hislop. Never Mind the Buzzcocks has lost its two best assets; Simon Amstell and Bill Bailey and was always about music, which somehow just ain’t as funny as everything else in the news.

I could keep listing inferior panel shows but essentially Mock the Week was the best. And why was it the best? Because it grouped together the best surgeons of hilarity in the land (commonly called comedians) and simply let them compete for comedy points by cracking gags about the news. The fact that it was topical was funny, the rivalry and chemistry was funny but it basically boiled down to sticking good comedians in one place.

The best of the comedians became regulars on the show, with Frankie Boyle, Russell Howard, Hugh Dennis and Andy Parsons joining jolly accented Irish host Dara O’Briain, every single week. I was glued no matter what was going on in my insignificant life. When balaclava wearing burglars stole all my worldly possessions, petrol tankers exploded outside my bedroom window and piss accidentally seeped out, I was oblivious. So hungry was I for the feast of LOLs.

Then something strange happened. The magic began to fade. I found myself watching on iPlayer, then only the occasional episode on iPlayer. I wondered whether this was just another phase of my viewing habits, passing by like Postman Pat, Loose Women and the others. How was it possible that I wasn’t dying in pain from my spasm-ing muscles when Frankie Boyle made a joke?

The rivalry was killing the show. The fierce competition for jokes that made it into the half hour final cut of the programme was spilling over to such a degree that it was noticeable, in a detrimental way, after the edit. Frankie’s superpower, the ability to creatively and imaginatively shock the laughs from you, became obsolete. His unpredictability became predictable. He dominated and stifled the talents of the others.

And so he left. But this didn’t tempt me back to watch every week. As much as I loved Russell Howard, I wasn’t a big Andy Parsons fan. Dara was limited by hosting duties and the guests could be good but were often disappointing.

Then, whilst at a recording of Russell Howard’s Good News by the Thames earlier this year, he answered an audience question with a bombshell. He wouldn’t be doing anymore Mock the Week. And he has moved on I suppose, with a successful BBC3 show that really suited him. He had a far more enduring quality than Frankie Boyle; genuine humanity. Boyle’s act was just that, a put on sham of offensiveness. His Channel 4 sketch show caused a brief stir and passed into the shadows. I don’t remember what it was called, just that he crossed a line of decency at some point. And I didn’t watch it.

So with perhaps my favourite comedian left on Mock the Week leaving it, you’d think I would have given up on the show for good. But I decided to give the first episode of this series a watch on iPlayer. I thought that maybe some new blood would be good. And I was right.

Chris Addison is turning into something of a new regular but he’s not set in stone; he doesn’t have his own seat. He is very funny mostly, despite his tendency to wear loose shirts that show off his thin chest and glimpses of hair. Seann Walsh, who I’ve seen live at Michael McIntyre’s Comedy Roadshow in Bristol, sat between Greg Davies from The Inbetweeners and Andy Parsons. Walsh was terrific, really confident what I think is his first appearance, or at least he hasn’t had many. An impression of Michael McIntyre during “Scenes we’d like to See” had me in stitches. Davies is not afraid to be silly to get laughs.

Talking of daft the final guest, another one turning into a new regular, was Milton Jones. Wearing a loud shirt he produced his usual volley of surreal one liners but each time I see him on Mock the Week his weird, snappy humour seems to make more and more use of topical material.

I will be watching the episodes of this series, whether it be via iPlayer or more old fashioned methods. The show seems to have re-found its mojo by finding the best comedy performers and stand-ups around. Its lost much of its bitter competition, with all the competitors regularly laughing at Milton’s odd jokes. The key to success seems to be avoiding absolute regulars and bringing back a mixture of different talent of week. Keep the guests fresh, like the topical material.

I laughed. A lot. Watch it.

Are video games making kids fat? No, that would be food…


It’s a familiar theme in the news and it only needs the slightest of sparks to get going. If there’s a murder it means that the killer has been honing his skills on Xbox Live, amassing headshots of spotty American teens on Call of Duty. If there’s a horrifically tragic car crash then the kid’s obviously been getting ideas from the mindless traffic weaving, crude language and pedestrian skittles of Grand Theft Auto and the like. If a young girl is sexually harassed by a young guy, he’s been spending too much time working through the levels of Teach that Girl a Lesson: The Titillating Adventures of Spankatron Part II, or something.

What’s even more infuriating than the casual asides of blame in news stories though, is the supposedly in-depth and professional advice columns on the sort of parenting that can banish the evils of the games console. This type of thing is inevitable written by Dr Terri Praisebut Dontsmother or Professor Lilia Mollycuddleova of the Belgrade Child Tantrum Institute. These Gods of infant psychology will proceed to patronisingly explain the dos and don’ts of video gaming, which will ultimately turn out to be common sense.

Rather than appeal to such things as maternal instinct or the law of the bleeding obvious, these articles will be stuffed with lots of studies about the effects of gaming. Profound insights will stem from their findings, such as the fact that gaming immediately before bed might make it difficult for your child to sleep and that too much button bashing might cause inflammation and conditions like RSI in their hands.

Of course the really contentious question is: do games cause aggression? Our helpful Agony Aunt will usually start by admitting what a hotly debated topic this is, before laying out briefly the two views in the debate. The anti-games view will normally be presented with greater weight of evidence and any postives will be qualified, with phrases like “limited evidence shows that they can improve children’s willingness to co-operate”. Wrapped up somewhere in the waffle, will be the admission that the effect of games depends on the child’s environment, i.e. they don’t do any harm in a healthy and stable home, and it’s the badly behaving parents doing the damage in the poor environments, not video games.

Once in a while a reasonably interesting point will arise from one of the numerous studies being quoted. For example, that playing football based games increases appetite. However rather than seeking any positives in this, like, I don’t know, interest in playing ACTUAL football and getting regular exercise, a new evil shall be swiftly created. Football games = fat kids. So no shooting because that makes murderers and no scoring because that makes gobblers.

Some studies will just be frankly ethically dubious. They’ll casually mention that a group of children failed to do as many sit-ups as they once could. Who is making our primary school kids do sit-ups? Who is callously tracking their progress, as if we were breeding an army? I didn’t do any sit-ups in primary school, at least I won’t have thought of them as sit-ups. Forcing painful and sweaty exercise on our young, as if we were training race horses, sounds a lot worse than letting them dabble with escapism that isn’t The X-Factor or In The Night Garden, now and then.

It should be obvious that video games, like anything else that came before it like TV or comics, should be used in moderation. By anyone, not just kids. It should also be said more often that the greater immersion of video games has its developmental benefits as well as drawbacks. Increasingly experimental and quality narratives and technology, like that in LA: Noire, is simply an advancement in storytelling, not an untameable, corrupting beast to be feared.

Holy Rollers Film Review: Are stories “inspired by real events” killing creative cinema?


Waiting around on plush leather sofas with the nibbles before the screening of Holy Rollers, one of the laidback critics said; “this must be a young person’s film”. A few of the other veterans nodded and chirped their agreement through mouthfuls of crisps and gulps of Coke. They surveyed us seated young’uns; youthful writers and bloggers seemingly suited to this tale of wild, animalistic New York and Amsterdam abandon, starring modern rising star and Best Actor nominee Jesse Eisenberg. They began a conversation about The Hangover, prompted by Justin Bartha’s role in this movie.

It was a one sided debate that continued as we took our seats; a small posse of expert cinemagoers agreeing that they did not see the appeal or comedy in the outlandish drunken antics of middle aged Americans. For them its garish humour seemed emblematic of the sort of mainstream bile lapped up by the youth of today. Hollywood studios continually plump for safe, unintelligent films and when one of them catches on, they pounce on the premise to produce sequels. The Hangover 2 is on the way this year of course, spiced up with rumours of increasingly daft cameos.

Another filmmaking trend of recent years is the success of “inspired by true events” storytelling. Half of this year’s Best Picture nominees at the Oscars were based on actual events or adapted from existing works. Of the genuinely original creations born specifically for the big screen, one of the most impressive was an animated sequel in the shape of Toy Story 3. The Social Network, The King’s Speech’s only serious rival, represented another growing pattern; the events that inspire filmmakers are in the increasingly recent past. Historical drama like The King’s Speech is an age old staple but the reimagining of stories that were in the news not so long ago is a fresher phenomenon.

What an ever swelling chorus of commentators bemoans about this is that it’s lazy storytelling. The Social Network was undoubtedly excellent and an absorbing piece of art as a whole that captured something of the essence of our time. But it was so dramatised and adapted that it was almost a work of fiction, built upon very loose foundations of fact. Wouldn’t energies be better spent on new stories rather than the complicated and potentially offensive fictionalisation of recent history?

The trouble is that as the Oscars went someway to demonstrating, when films are based on something real and interesting they can prove to be more skilfully crafted and lucrative. I certainly wouldn’t want to miss out on films like The King’s Speech and The Social Network; they are a valuable, enriching and enjoyable part of culture. But they should not stifle the flowering of completely different and new tales. They should not be made at the expense of thousands of undiscovered, productive and powerful imaginations. They mustn’t kill off the storyteller.

Wow what a rant. You’re probably waiting for me to start talking about Holy Rollers. But this is the overwhelming thing that struck me about the film, and at once the key and limit to its success. It takes a mostly unknown true story from the recent past (1998) of Hasidic Jews in New York smuggling ecstasy into the States from Europe. It should be applauded for shedding light on this remarkable tale and this is one of the pluses of adapting the truth I suppose; otherwise forgotten personal histories are preserved on film. However when aiming for a reasonably faithful retelling, as the filmmakers do here, their execution is constrained and drama can be minimised. Holy Rollers was unavoidably predictable and failed to engage as a result.

For Eisenberg, playing real people is becoming something of a habit. The comparisons between his character here, Sam Gold, and inexplicably likeable Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, are there from the start. Gold is bright but trapped in the unfulfilling monotony of study, much like Zuckerberg, only here he’s training to become a Rabbi. Like Zuckerberg Gold craves an immediacy lacking from his life and is clearly reluctant to embrace his lifelong fate in the prime of his youth. There’s something geeky yet rebellious about him. On the other hand he wants to succeed in the way expected of him. He wants to rise through the community and avoid losing face by truly impressing the beautiful wife arranged for him by his parents.  

His best friend and neighbour, Leon (Jason Fuchs) is more dedicated and accomplished at his studies. Now and then Gold seeks to rebel against his failings rather than stick at it, and eventually Leon’s brother, Yosef (Bartha) is there to offer him a way out and considerable extra cash to impress his family and prospective spouse. He works for an Israeli drug dealer importing merchandise from Amsterdam via above suspicion Jews. At first Leon and Gold go together on the understanding that they are bringing back important medicine. When the truth comes out Leon is appalled and knuckles down to study. But Gold has got the taste for both the money and the lifestyle.

He starts to show his knack with numbers and profit to drug dealer Jackie, becoming more and more integral to his operation. He is intoxicated and confused by the teasing sexual charms of Jackie’s girlfriend, played by Ari Graynor. There are some awkwardly hilarious scenes between Eisenberg and Graynor where both really show their comedy credentials with pleasing subtlety. Gold’s religious upbringing collides with this new world and prevents him from fully embracing the hedonism and the drugs and the sex. His naivety leads to the breaking of whatever bond he had with the girl.

Aside from this intriguing relationship and sub-plot, the unravelling of the narrative is far too clearly signposted. The visual style of direction in the film remains unchanged throughout, becoming bland, dreary and uninteresting. Eisenberg’s performance on the whole is solid and he does his best with some big emotional moments, but they never really ignited my interest. His transformation from a young man stifled by his surroundings into one embracing an illicit freedom, and calmly instructing new smuggling recruits to “mind your business and act Jewish”, doesn’t quite sit right or convince. Having said this despite the similarities to his performance in The Social Network, he does show a slightly broader range and give a good account of his talent. The failings probably lie more with the script.

Bartha’s believability as the volatile Yosef is strong and there is something charismatic and mysterious about his character. But once again the limitations of the true story format prevent us from seeing him develop into anything that exciting. The premise and setting of Holy Rollers may be initially interesting but ultimately the trajectory of the story is all too plain from the beginning. It might be a faithful reconstruction and it has its worthwhile moments, but this is a film that feels sanitised and seems to only scratch the surface of issues that could be explosively entertaining with greater imagination and drama.