The ongoing and increasingly shocking twists and turns of
the News of the World hacking scandal has prompted a complete rethink of the way we all think about the media. The public’s fury has rightly been fuelled by disgusting revelations exposing criminal practices that targeted ordinary
people or even the likes of vulnerable missing children. Prior to the game
changing news stories of recent weeks though, we were not all that bothered
about the odd tabloid listening in on the occasional romp or row between
footballers or actresses. An intense debate about privacy raged amongst some,
closely linked to the super injunction headlines from earlier in the year, but
for the vast majority of us the underhand tactics of the press were a given
that thankfully didn’t affect our daily lives.
But the momentous events of the past week have shown that
bad habits in an industry as far reaching as the media have to be taken
seriously. No one can avoid the press or the news in the modern world. Even if
you don’t buy newspapers you will blindly consume headlines or leave some bland breakfast show on in the background to help you acclimatise to the new day.
Morning Glory’s critical reception was lukewarm when it was
released in January of this year. It was universally dubbed a thoroughly ok
romantic comedy, riddled with flaws and sprinkled with just a smidgen of
appeal. In the light of the never ending phone hacking saga though, its message
is given far greater relevance and urgency.
One aspect of our relationship with the media highlighted by
the scandal, but buried under an avalanche of corruption and foul play, is
whether or not news has become too fluffy and meaningless. Defenders of certain tactics employed by the paparazzi say that the private lives of celebrities are only ruthlessly analysed because paying readers demand it. Whatever happened to “real” news items about ethical, humanitarian or political issues? It might still be possible to find some hard stories on the likes of Newsnight but in
the mainstream press, and on popular breakfast shows, the bulk of the content
focuses on fluffy items about rescue dogs or a woman who miraculously lost
weight by eating nothing except bacon.
Morning Glory is set in the world of breakfast telly. It follows Rachel McAdams as Becky Fuller, whose (somewhat strange) childhood dream is to make it to a big network as a producer of a news show. She loses her job at Good Morning New Jersey, where she was hoping to get promoted, and applies
everywhere until Jeff Goldblum calls her up and offers her the job at the
failing Daybreak, America’s least favourite start to the day. Becky ignores the
negatives like the bickering anchors and the nonexistent budget, choosing
instead to work as hard as she always has to make her dream a reality now she’s
finally at a network.
It doesn’t take long for Becky to stumble on, in her own bumbling way, the solution to Daybreak’s woes. She vows to get Harrison Ford’s legendary newsman Mike Pomeroy to replace her terrible male presenter, proving
in the process that you should never meet your heroes. The film follows her as
she sets about boosting the awful ratings of the show, which is just six weeks
away from being axed.
Morning Glory definitely has a whole host of things wrong with it, chiefly an uneven script with some dreary dialogue and pointless subplots. But it glides along averagely enough, throwing mostly unsuccessful cheap gags in your face. Its opening scene is a bafflingly awful way to start a film, which takes a sledgehammer approach to establishing that Becky is a busy
and clumsy character. Such weaknesses in the script let down Rachel McAdams, as she is for the most part a capable and attractive lead.
This is also a rom com with its fair share of positives however. It’s refreshing to see Harrison Ford having some fun on screen and most of the cast are good; even Patrick Wilson does alright with his underdeveloped love interest. There are also some belly laughs in the middle when the, far from sophisticated, physical humour is undeniably funny as the weatherman is put through his paces on a rollercoaster, all in the name of ratings. Then there’s the message behind it all.
The climax of Morning Glory sees Harrison Ford’s Pomeroy
trying to prove that there is a place for real, breaking news on morning
television. It is genuinely inspiring to see some substance injected into all
the ridiculous antics in the kitchen or out in the field. The hacking scandal
has given journalists and readers a much needed wake up call, hopefully in
terms of content as well ethical behaviour. Of course there’s a place for
entertainment and light chat, especially in the bleary eyed early hours, but
there is also always a place for enlightening fact and information. One need
not be sacrificed for the other. A great news story can also be great
television and great entertainment.
Morning Glory is far from faultless but when the credits
rolled it had won me over. It has an uplifting soundtrack, filled with songs
from the likes of Natasha Bedingfield and Michael Buble, and music from Bond
composer David Arnold. It may leave little time for subplots or romance to
develop but this does for once realistically show the all consuming day to day
life of a career focused protagonist. Above all this it is a fun romantic
comedy with something worthwhile to say, which is a rare thing these days. In
this way it mirrors what successful breakfast TV should be about (take note
Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakley from ITV’s own Daybreak).
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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