Tag Archives: Jean

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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Films that remind you of people – Amelie


Sometimes you really wish you could forget someone. Not because you want to but because you feel like you have to. People are forever telling you to “move on” from them, as if they were a shifty beggar in the street wasting your time. They have condemned you to the rubbish dump of their lives, so you should do the same. Whatever you manage to salvage from the wreckage of them will only remind you of the way things were before the crash, in a time you cannot travel back to. It’s time for a new stage of your life, minus them.

There are days when it feels like you might be able to do it. There are loads of things to live for, more pluses than minuses dotting the horizon of the future. But the thing is life has a knack of throwing reminders your way that jolt you back to her, to him, to them, to there. Oh look, memory sneers in a stage whisper from the shadows, it’s the bar you spent all night talking in, the river bank where you first kissed or the station she used to get off at. Even when you’ve succeeded in blanking them out from familiar places, their memories surprise you in other ways.

“This was our song” is a phrase you often hear from the devastated dumpee, just before their face melts in a cascade of noisy tears, possibly years after the breakup itself. Then there’s the novel that becomes ostracised on the book shelf because of a strange connection you are suddenly seeing these days within its pages. Even their favourite paper or magazine can give you a slap in the newsagents occasionally.

Some of the worst offenders are films. There will be the trashy romantic comedy given inexplicable significance because it happened to be your first date. There will be films that divided you and films you wished them to see. And there will be some favourites of theirs you never found the time to watch.

This was the case for me as I finally watched Amelie in its entirety. I had seen bits of it but never the whole thing. I knew that the music was fantastically whimsical and enchanting. I had watched an uplifting scene via YouTube in which Amelie spirits a blind man along a street, vividly describing everything in a whirlwind of sensuous movement. I knew it was French and starred Audrey Tautou. And I knew it was one of the favourite films of someone I wish I could forget.

In a way I was desperate to hate Amelie. I knew what it would be like because I knew the people that liked it. I was hoping that it would try too hard, alienate me with its quirkyness and annoy me with its arty farty simplifications. There were times I felt a little like that. But mostly I loved it.

Why did I hope that I wouldn’t? It was hard at points to be enjoying it so much because they enjoy it. How much easier it would have been to be repulsed and to have found another tiny reason to take another minute step forward and away from the past!

Amelie is about being alive, feeling alive and dreaming. It’s about the smaller things, so particular and peculiar that they must be real, containing a touch of magic that makes life worthwhile. It is extremely funny and eccentric, fresh and unique.

It’s the eccentricity that I thought might annoy me. I thought that Amelie might have been quirky for its own sake, as so many films of its ilk are. But Amelie’s comedy is crucial to its success. It is almost self mocking at times with the ridiculous and random nature of its details.

In the opening twenty minutes I fell in love with the narration. Normally voiceover is catastrophic and awful. Perhaps Amelie’s is so charming and intoxicating because it is French. Or perhaps it is that at once meaningful and light hearted tone, which doesn’t take itself too seriously. Amelie feels like a novel throughout its enjoyable beginning which explains her tragic yet amusing childhood. Characters are brought to life instantly because of their odd habits and Amelie herself has baffling, childlike musings about the world which add to her appeal.

I was disappointed when the narration became less frequent throughout the film, which is extraordinary given my usual distaste for voiceover. I loved the musicality of the voice, the specific details it would come out with and the telling but mysterious insights we’d instantly learn about characters. Most of all I loved the way it seemed to mock any work of art trying much too hard to stand out.

But the retreat of the narrator brings Amelie herself to the foreground. The wonderful lines from the narrator are replaced by some witty and surprising scenes of dialogue. The visuals and sounds of the film grow and grow until modern day Paris seems like a wondrous place, with deserving and interesting souls to be saved on every corner.

I expected Amelie to be preachy, perhaps patronising or too desperate to be different. I wanted to dislike it for my own good. But in the end I am glad to have seen it. I liked it because it’s good, not because of any associations it has with anyone. I thought it was unique and it made me feel alive and full of possibility, regardless of what others think. It’s a beautiful and beguiling film that reminds us how life can be so too, with dreams coming true, big or small, out of nowhere.

22 Bullets


What’s the most painful thing you’ve ever experienced?  That grazed knee in the playground? A bit of cramp? A broken bone? Childbirth? You’d probably rather not share it or dare to relive even a slither of the agony. I’m male (so no excruciating deliveries of life) and I’ve never broken a bone. Not so much as chipped one. I cannot even imagine the pain of 22 adequate punches and seriously doubt I’d be able to stomach it; let alone 22 Bullets. That’s 22 pieces of pointed, sharp, solid metal thumping through your flesh at unfathomable speed, decimating the building blocks of you.

Now, off the top of your head, pick a tough nationality; the country most likely to breed the sort of superhuman capable of withstanding multiple gunshot wounds. Some of you probably instinctively pictured Arnie’s hard-as-nails, naked and battered frame in Terminator. I’m willing to bet none of you conjured the image of a Frenchman. France is a nation famed for its culture, its cuisine and its romance. In Britain members of a certain generation will think of the French as nothing but well-groomed surrender monkeys. It’s not a land known for its grunting and formidable bad-asses.

And yet one of their number is an internationally recognisable action-man. Playing key figures in big films like The Da Vinci Code and Ronin, Jean Reno is a Frenchman with attitude, as comfortable with a semi-automatic in his hand as he is with a single red rose or cloves of garlic. He gives 22 Bullets, aka L’Immortel, bags and bags of globally acknowledged gravitas.

Out on DVD and Blu-Ray on the 31st January, 22 Bullets is a French gangster film set in Marseilles with the occasional drizzle of style. It’s fast paced and hard-hitting but rarely anything exceptional. However there are easily enough thrills and plot twists to have your eyes locked in a constant frenetic dance between the subtitles and the action set-pieces. At times you won’t have a clue what’s going on and the ending, for me anyway, came from nowhere and was somewhat inexplicable, but surprising at least.

The filmmakers clearly value the plot, despite there being nothing that remarkable or beguiling about it. The only details accompanying my disc of the film explained that Reno’s character is shot in an underground car park 22 times, and left for dead, despite abandoning his old life as a feared criminal in favour of family. “Against all the odds, he doesn’t die…” Apparently based on a true-story, the film skips fairly quickly over the shooting so important to the title, even if it is the catalyst for later events. The tag-line above had me imagining a bleeding and dying Reno, stumbling from the car park like a zombie to engage in an immediate shoot-out for revenge. What actually happens is slightly more plausible. Reno’s character, Charly Mattei, recovers in hospital. He then still vows to return to his peaceful family life and only takes up arms again when his trusted friend and aide is attacked.

For the most part 22 Bullets succeeds at being more than a good vendetta movie. There is some very funny dialogue between Reno and other gangsters, and Reno and the police. There are some luxurious shots of the French Riviera and locations are contrasted well. The golden lighting in the scenes in the hills with family works well against the harsher, urban and shadowy light during criminal scenes in the city. The majority of the action scenes have a compelling, realistic edge. The initial shooting is shocking in typical slow-mo. An exciting motorbike chase climaxes with Mattei deliberately hitting a police car head-on to evade his pursuers. Gun-fights and retribution assassinations are generally satisfying and suitable.

Sadly for fussy viewers like myself, little details in 22 Bullets really start to grate and diminish the enjoyment factor.  I was willing to suspend my disbelief at the remarkable recovery from 22 potentially mortal wounds. But it’s not long before the signs of Mattei’s ordeal are non-existent. And an atrocious scene, in which Reno endlessly crawls through unfeasible amounts of barbed wire, as if more proof were needed of his invincible credentials, climaxes equally annoyingly. A car he’s thrown himself onto careers to a halt in an almost slapstick fashion as the film is needlessly sped up. It’s a shame that such corner cutting, shoddy shots made it into a largely well executed film.

On the whole 22 Bullets is an essentially harmless, enjoyable experience. The bouts of annoyance induced by some lacklustre moments and large helpings of cliché were not enough to spoil my day. A continual message about the importance of forgiveness and family runs through the film, which I get the feeling would resonate more with a continental audience than us Brits, or I could just be cold hearted and lifeless. It’s basically a decent action movie with a refreshing foreign flavour. But not one I could recommend buying.