Before you read on: Spoilers sweetie.
The Guardian series blog, written by Dan Martin, has been my first port of call as soon as the credits roll after every episode of this series. The story arc is so layered and baffling, with the hints and in jokes so carefully hidden, that even after a second viewing it’s difficult to pick up on everything. Thankfully the Guardian blog has been there whenever I’ve really struggled to get my head together and form some thoughts of my own. And the comments section is the perfect breeding ground for theories about where things are going.
This week’s mid-series finale gets a rather bruising verdict on the Guardian website. Very rarely do I disagree with it but this week I definitely do. I see where they’re coming from. It’s certainly true that not a lot happened despite the build up and the scale. And the cleric characters on Demon’s Run, particularly the token gay couple, the thin/fat marines, are chucked into the mix briefly and rather pointlessly. It was undoubtedly disappointing that the Cybermen were waggled before us in the pre titles sequence and that the Doctor’s dark side, whilst brilliant, did not plumb any seriously shocking new depths. But I think Dan Martin is missing the point of A Good Man Goes to War.
In many ways it matters little that the standalone story element was lacking this week because this was an epic conclusion to the first seven episodes. Rather than a war, this was the climactic battle. After the weaknesses of the flesh based double bill, I actually thought the story was improved to a much greater level and it was a joy to get Moffat’s writing back. The Doctor’s dialogue was so much wittier, cleverer and funnier.
Indeed the most surprising thing about A Good Man Goes to War was just how funny it was. The variety of the humour on show really added to the cinematic and epic feel. Besides the usual comedy deriving from Smith’s performance, for example in the scene where he’s trying to work out how Melody came to have Time Lord DNA, there are laughs from the other characters Moffat brings in as the Doctor’s allies.
The Sontaran nurse was absolute genius and perfectly in keeping with what the Doctor would do. When he tells Colonel Runaway to keep his back straight so as not to damage his posture, I laughed, during my first and second viewing. However it was only on my second viewing that I noticed a filthy lesbian tongue joke between the mysterious Silurian detective and her female sidekick, after the Silurian asks “why do you ever put up with me?”. I can see an adult spin-off show, with the potential to be far better than Torchwood, for those two. There was also a jolly fat blue thing that we’ve seen before, who was a delightfully wise presence.
With all the grim seriousness and concentration required to keep up with the secrets and twists of the story arc, the laughs were absolutely essential to making A Good Man Goes to War enjoyable. After the endless tension that has been coiling and tightening over the preceding weeks, I thought that this seventh episode actually had merits of its own, by leaving the ongoing secrets for the dramatic and emotional final ten minutes. Even if it didn’t go as far as it could’ve done, this episode was a fascinating exploration of the Doctor’s character.
We get to see the theatrical, arrogant side of the Doctor as he pulls off his genius takeover of the base. Matt Smith is in his element here and the impact of his performance is all the greater because Moffat kept him off the screen during the beginning as the team assembled, using the TARDIS alone. Moffat has previously said he wanted to put the “who” back into Doctor Who, and he’s done that with his confused, overlapping timelines and references to off screen adventures. But in A Good Man Goes to War he asks the question more directly and the Doctor ponders his own legacy, just as he did at the end of the last series when the monster sealed within the Pandorica turned out to be him. River Song then delivers some home truths. This episode may have been light on story but all of the key characters are explored in greater depth than before.
To River then. Finally we know who she is! And at last we have substantial answers to big questions looming since the beginning of the series. I was genuinely more satisfied by the big reveal than I thought I would be. But at the same time I am left craving more. I want to see the next episode. Moffat has, predictably, left an awful lot of questions unanswered. With a title like “Let’s Kill Hitler” my mind is already in a whirlwind of excited anticipation about the next episode itself too, let alone the answering of more secrets.
People tend to focus on the big question of this series: the Doctor’s death. But I am still waiting for the unresolved events of The Big Bang at the end of Series 5 to be explained. Who manipulated the TARDIS? Who organised the coalition of baddies to imprison the Doctor? Surely they must have some sort of connection to this year’s big enemies? Why are the clerics anti-Doctor now after working with him against the Weeping Angels in the last series? Who is Madame Kovarian?
So many questions and so many throwaway lines I can’t dwell on, partly because it would be useless and dull for you if I asked questions forever and also because I am falling asleep. Stevie Wonder performed in 1814 London. Just remembered that. But we mustn’t tell him!
See you in the Autumn.
EDIT: Blimey forgot the Headless Monks completely. And not because they were bad. A good idea but underdeveloped. Worth it just for having new monsters and that wonderful moment when the Doctor disarms all the clerics.
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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