Tag Archives: Sarah

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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The House of Fiction: English Stately Homes


http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jun/11/country-house-novels-blake-morrison

The above link leads to a feature piece in The Guardian by Blake Morrison about the relationship between the English country house and novels. It points out a recent trend for both bestsellers and box office hits based upon them, from The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro to Ian McEwan’s Atonement. And the piece is prompted by the release of next month’s The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst.

I don’t have a great deal to say about the subject but urge you to read the article. It does an admirable job of attempting to explain the continuing appeal of a surely overused setting. Costume dramas on television are mostly far too common and predictable, always set in the same beautiful but samey surroundings. I do my best to avoid them unless they standout for some reason. But novels set in such cavernous buildings, stretching on and on, filled with history and possibility, remain surprisingly diverse. Perhaps because they continue to attract the best of British writers.

McEwan used Atonement to meditate on the very idea of storytelling and writing fiction. He explored youth, love, sex and passion. He touches on high politics and decision making of immense importance, as does Ishiguro in The Remains of the Day. I have always enjoyed Atonement less than McEwan’s other novels, but The Remains of the Day is the best of Ishiguro’s I have read so far.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy a book confined to a stuffy setting with the standard conflicts between staff and intrigues between different social classes. But Ishiguro’s book encompasses so many themes, through the narrow lens of his butler’s restrained narration in a grand and important location. Darlington Hall plays host to international conferences but also humorous misunderstandings, battles of professional pride and tender personal affairs.

For me though the crucial features of good novels like Atonement and Ishiguro’s Booker Prize Winner, were not dependent on the setting. Bryony Tallis’ manipulative and naive vendettas could have been as strong and affecting in any home. Stevens the butler could have perhaps worked in a hotel. And indeed it was his job, his life consuming occupation, that made for such a compelling novel, about culture, class and personality. The butler seems to be the perfect mould for a distinctive, humorous and subtle character of great scope and hidden emotion.

Having said this though, the houses and halls did play their vital background roles. It’s difficult to imagine Stevens in any other setting. It’s tough to envisage a symbolic fictional location that could mirror quite as well the themes of appearance, dignity and decay.

There is really nothing wrong with the continued use of stately homes in novels, as long as the story being told is always a different one, reliant primarily on characters, plot and ideas, rather than ready made sets for the drama. You can’t just add water to the stately home to create a bestselling novel. But they provide pretty firm foundations on which the ingredients of a great novel can be built.

 

Lets do Something Different – Weird and Wonderful Places to Watch Films


 “Shall we do something different?”

Yes please. Different is good. Different is a much needed break in routine, a relief from the crushing weight of the same-old-same-old cycle and an antidote to incoming insanity. Different is the much missed friend putting an end to the loneliness, at least for a while. Different is a reminder that life is full of innumerable things to make your heart leap and your mind spin excitedly.

Most of the time though I’m a useless person to ask for something different to do. It might be because I’ll be perfectly content in your company doing something mundane. Or it might be that no matter what we find to do, I’ll be unmoved by your presence and wishing you into someone else.

I’d like to think it’s because I think and dream too big. “Different” whisks my imagination off to alternative, culture rich lives in majestic European cities, seedy exploring and wandering in the downtown sprawl of Tokyo or star gazing from the core of the Big Apple. “Different” means a totally new me, another identity in another world; sitting in sleek sci-fi surroundings or standing at the corner of a glamorous Hollywood set from yesteryear. Maybe a different me would be knuckling down to a novel, screenplay or acclaimed biography.

Whilst I do spend too much time conjuring these far from feasible fantasy scenarios in my head, in reality I am narrow minded and imprisoned by the familiar. We all know what it’s like to be bound to the events of a set cycle and the trick to fulfilling lives is packing your itinerary with interesting and varied activities. Or perhaps it’s not. Perhaps it’s all about character and personality.

Everyone has a carefree friend and they’ll probably tell you to be spontaneous. They’re the ones who come up with the different ideas. My organisation fetish is perhaps incompatible with this zest for life and ability to not just put on a brave face or forget your worries, but forget you have the capacity to worry. These are the people that will pluck two random and achievable everyday things out of the air to create an enjoyable, “different” experience.

And so I come to the point: last night I watched a film with a friend on a laptop on a rural hill. She won’t be offended if I say that she’s not exactly carefree and laidback, so we were both rather surprised when she suggested such a random idea. It was a regular local beauty spot “with a twist”. It was different. Wonderfully and refreshingly different.

It some ways it hardly matters what the film was. The novelty was the important thing. Even having a laptop in my car, combining two things that I use everyday for the first time, provided inexplicable satisfaction. It might have been simply that a portable computer was truly mobile and that in theory we could watch a film or play solitaire anywhere my petrol tank could take us. I think I overcame most of the technological thrills to be gained from a laptop a while ago now though, so all I can really say, once again, is that it was different, it was new, and that this is what was so pleasing.

We watched Flight 93, a drama about the fourth plane to crash on the 11th September 2001 and the only one not to hit its target, due to the bravery of the passengers onboard. It was a rather heavy and “emotionally harrowing” thing to watch in the dead of night on a blustery hilltop. But we’d been meaning to watch it for AGES and maybe the delay deserved a grand, a different, setting.

I’m not going to review Flight 93. It has its faults, from dodgy CGI to flimsy characterisation, and felt like very melodramatic TV drama, but its aims in telling such a story were admirable. If this is a review it’s a review of a location.

So transforming a sweeping vista of a countryside valley into a personal cinema experience was easy – but was it worth the relatively minimal effort?

Well the “wow factor” of having stunning scenery casually in the background to the action of the story, was almost non-existent, because it was pitch black. We both agreed, obviously, that it was a more beautiful and stunning sight in daylight. However the dots of light twinkling below, decreasing in number as the film progressed, were a more interesting backdrop than the usual living room picture or bedroom clock.

What about the atmosphere? I think this was definitely enhanced in some ways by our elevated location. Given the film’s subject matter, the height of our position went a tiny way to making us feel in the air on a plane, certainly more than sitting at home. I guess we were also in a vehicle and the handbrake groaned a couple of times, so we may have felt a fraction of that helpless dependency on machinery.

The most atmospheric thing was probably the howling wind. Wrapped in darkness, I could feel the isolation of the people on Flight 93, separated from their families and loved ones by deadly danger. I felt I could imagine their intense loneliness a little better, filtering it through my own memories and the solitary surroundings of my car. And the sound of that wind rocking us was just a hint of the noises that would have terrified them.

Perhaps the best thing was the privacy. It’s great to watch films as part of an audience, each person reacting in their own individual way and passing on part of their experience to those around them, but films like Flight 93 are built on the personal. Our very different auditorium allowed us to digest our own reactions to Flight 93 in comfortable darkness, whilst also sharing our thoughts with the very best company, not just strangers or any old popcorn muncher.

I live in England and the drive-in cinema is an American phenomenon but even stateside it’s something that has largely become cultural heritage. What I learnt this weekend though is that getting out there to watch films definitely has its merits, particularly with the right friends.

Forgive me if I got overexcited about this. I’d love to hear the best and strangest places you’ve watched films. I know it’s possible to take the cinema anywhere these days, so go on, surprise me. Or surprise yourselves with a cinematic excursion.

DVD Review: Zombie Undead


This is one of those films with a Ronseal title. There are lots of zombies and zombies are dead, but also sort of lively in a sleepwalking sort of way, hence the “un”. The marketing material continues the no nonsense approach, showcasing a tag line of “RUN.HIDE.DIE!”. Tellingly a footnote informs me that “this disc contains no extra features”. I say tellingly because you really don’t get anything more than a bunch of shirts smothered in red paint and lips sticky with jam.

Sarah has survived a “massive explosion”. She is rather distraught though that the blast has peppered her Dad with all manner of fatal wounds, from bites to paper cuts. Desperately she tries to stop him from bleeding to death in the back of paramedic Steve’s small car, ideal for students or the elderly. Steve tries to calm Sarah as they drive away from the city to an “evacuation centre”. When they get there, Sarah passes out after the doctor plunges a needle full of adrenalin into poor old Dad from a great height.

Sarah comes round to find no one about, apart from a wheelchair parked shoddily and at a skewed angle in the middle of a typical hospital corridor. Perfectly logically she starts to warily shout “hello” at no one in particular. Finally some bloke turns up, tottering towards her, but Sarah can’t quite make him out because of some lingering concussion and a random cut that’s appeared on her forehead halfway through the scene. Her vision clears up just as he’s right in front of her. Unfortunately for Sarah this fella is in a right state; he hasn’t moisturized for weeks and he’s horny as hell.

Thankfully the first of a few fat men in Zombie Undead picks precisely this moment to turn up with a randomly acquired blade (other conveniently placed objects will star later such as torches and a bottle of pills). He swiftly slices the sex pest’s skull like a melon. Then Sarah’s female failings kick in. Instead of showering her rescuer with gratitude she wails and whines, inching herself away from our chubby chopper. It takes him ages to explain that there are a load of “things” like the sex pest, with awful skin and serious body odour issues, staggering about the corridors leaking goo and munching flesh. Sarah slowly accepts the situation, a bit, and vows to help Jay (for that is our hero’s name) find his little brother if he helps her find her Dad.

Sadly for Jay Sarah never quite embraces the survival instinct, always trying to save the zombies and people they encounter when they are beyond redemption. What are women like hey? Jay also isn’t helped by fellow porker Steve, who was the paramedic with the little car from earlier. Weirdly he is the slowest to come to terms with the blood billowing monsters. They find him cowering in a toilet cubicle, in an awfully amateurish immensely suspenseful scene with Jay crashing open the doors one by one, and despite his medical training he’s prone to chucking his guts up at the sight of other’s guts.

There are an awful lot of innards on show. If our fat protagonists could man up a little and acquire a taste for it there are feasts to be had, indeed zombies are regularly shown gobbling up intestines with grunting delight. One scene in yet another toilet (either funds were tight or the director loved the aesthetics of Condom machines and urinals) has what looks like a shrine to Lidl’s chipolatas, drizzled in organically sourced tomato ketchup and served on a bed of recently devoured homo sapien.

Even the gore lacks any variation or quality, despite unhealthy splutterings of it. The direction and editing is clunky, predictable and poor, but its imitation of handheld horror is competent compared to the script. The dialogue essentially has two levels, sounding either like cliché regurgitations of previous films or as if the shockingly bad and evidently inexperienced actors are improvising in a beginner’s drama class. As for the plotting a half hearted attempt is made to make things modern, with vague and contradictory allusions to a biological terrorist attack. It was obviously decided that to leave everything unexplained would be classier, thus depriving the audience of any satisfaction whatsoever from Zombie Undead’s 86 minutes.

Some answers surface from the pools of irritating disappointment as soon as the credits roll however. Why the unusual and implausible fat hero, with the weird undertaker/security guard costume? The film’s writer, Kris Tearse, was also its male star. The primary location was Leicester’s De Montfort University, which explains the extremely low budget feel. So a bunch of students are living the dream with this film it seems, no matter what its failings, some will be ecstatically excited when the DVD is released on the 30thof May. It has nothing new or engaging at all to recommend it. But to help justify the dream I will admit I flinched like a child at one point, and was genuinely surprised, although after the zombies had gone.

Angelina Jolie gets the boot for Tomb Raider resurrection


It seems certain that Angelina Jolie will not reprise the role of Lara Croft, the voluptuous pistol wielding archaeologist from the successful Tomb Raider video game franchise.

The writers behind the script for Iron Man, Mark Fergus and Hawk Otsby, are attached to a project to reboot the character with an origin story. Earlier this year GK Films acquired the rights to the series, with producer Graham King (The Departed) set to take charge for a 2013 release.

Despite proving a perfect fit physically for the role, almost precisely realising the impossibly busty  figure from the game to the delight of many, Jolie’s two films as the gun toting heroine left both cinemagoers and gamers cold. The new writers are aiming to put this right with something more than a passable action movie with appealing eye candy. In an interview with Variety they set out their high hopes for their reinterpretation of the character: “We aim to write an origin story for Lara Croft that solidifies her place alongside Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor in the pantheon of great female action heroes.”

The casting rumour mill is inevitably churning already. The writers may want to rework Lara’s colossal cleavage into a critically acclaimed cinematic icon but the filmmakers are unlikely to depart from the expectations of a seriously hot chick as the lead. Hence the whispers a while back of Megan Fox of Transformers fame taking over from the equally lusted after Jolie. Such a casting would stick to the current formula and guarantee a decent box office return, but given Fox’s performance record her casting would probably also tarnish the writers’ high minded vision.

Jolie’s English accent wasn’t exactly authentic during her time as Lara, prompting some to call for a young English actress to take over for the origin story. Harry Potter’s Emma Watson has been a surprise candidate mooted in some quarters, with other Brits speculated about including Rebecca Hall and Gemma Arterton. Of course there are the usual Hollywood names such as Scarlett Johansson in the mix too.

The casting of a relative unknown is a possibility, especially with the serious approach the writers appear to be taking. The Tomb Raider brand itself would give the film clout in theatres but it seems unlikely the production company would risk it without a big name star.

Whoever is picked for the role will need the flexibility to portray Lara’s transition from aristocratic, carefree heiress to globetrotting adventurer and adrenalin junkie. The plot is expected to draw on the plane crash that stranded the character in the Himalayan Mountains for two weeks and inspired her to give up a comfortable and luxurious existence.

Who do you think can step into Jolie’s shoes? Where can the franchise improve? And is this a film finally capable of giving the world a female action hero for the 21st century?