Tag Archives: writer

Mrt’sblog: A progress report


It’s about a year since I fully embraced blog writing. I was waiting to start a Gap Year and intended to travel. My friends were about to leave for university. I needed a distraction and I wanted to concentrate on doing something I loved. Hence the growth of this blog.

I didn’t manage to travel. I still intend to and desperately want to. Perhaps I’ll take another Gap Year a few years down the line or have a truly adventurous and globetrotting summer. There are so many places I’m yet to see, from European capitals to America and Tokyo. I’ll get there one day. That’s what everyone says I know but hopefully I mean what I say. If I won the EuroMillions I’d go tomorrow. But I might need to start entering first.

Travel writing would certainly be a new challenge and the idea excites me. Capturing the personalities of people in the crowds, as well as the places themselves, is an appealing task. It requires great skills which I would have to develop. Even if my academic brain has been neglected, I do feel as though I have learnt some things, acquired some skills, over the past twelve months.

I’m not sure how I stumbled into reviewing so regularly. I suppose I followed the old saying about taking opportunities that present themselves to you. Reviewing films, sometimes TV or books, is certainly not all I want to do. I want to create my own stories and sketches, perhaps scripts or plays. I haven’t focused enough on that desire.

If I take a glass half full view though, I have immersed myself in storytelling. Hopefully this has taught me more about it, as I absorb the bad, the mediocre and exemplary films that I review. Some of this may well rub off beneficially when I do come back to seriously contemplating my own writing. And of course I have written a sketch that will be performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in a few weeks. I could never have imagined such a satisfying and exciting end to my year of writing development.

The Fringe sketch is a good example of how much I have achieved.
But it’s probably just human nature that I dwell more often on the negatives. I
have not read enough, of either new fiction or classics I should’ve read, in
philosophy, history or literature. I feel that I have not improved enough as a
writer. I have learned that there are deadlines to meet, even with the room of
freelance work, but too often I make do with something I know isn’t my best
work. I still finish pieces knowing I could have done so much better. I do not
have enough of a personal stamp or brand either.

This probably accounts for the poor viewing figures of Mrt’sblog. Despite the increasing success of sites like Flickering Myth, which I write for, my personal blog continues to remain unseen by most. There was a period when figures rocketed but then they sunk rapidly back to depressing levels. I have over a hundred Twitter followers these days and Twitter certainly has its networking benefits. But it has not had an impact on my blog stats. I can’t help being frustrated by this.

I remain torn between serious articles and funny articles, pieces about film and pieces about literature, opinions on football and opinions on politics. I have struggled to link my interests and to continue all of them separately, resulting probably in average output in terms of quality and frequency in every department. I have, as I’ve mentioned, enjoyed some success writing elsewhere though.

On political issues I have written some of my highest quality pieces, in my view, for Demo Critic. On film I have settled into contributing regularly for Flickering Myth, helping the site’s strong grow in a small way. Football pieces I have written have done tremendously well for Caught Offside and brought in the most traffic to this site. And this week I have started writing for Blog Critics (all of these sites are linked in my Blog Roll).

I couldn’t have imagined doing that well a year ago. But now I want to do better, just as time is running out. I will not be able to write as regularly as I finally head off myself to university. I know I have to get some serious reading done, simply to get back in the groove of devouring books and to exercise intelligent muscles, before the end of September. I will not stop blogging but it may at times have to take a backseat. I certainly won’t stop writing for Flickering Myth but again, it might be less frequent.

Despite my niggling regrets this saddens me. Writing can be incredibly lonely and daunting and disheartening. It often goes without praise or reward, unlike when you do well at school or on a pitch. But I enjoy it more than anything. Watching films and sharing my thoughts on them would be an amazing way to make a living, or even just a fantastic sideline. I’ve experienced the reality of writing and I still love it. I might have failed to achieve certain things on this year out but I have a vague plan for the future. Write, write, write. Move to London, eventually get a satisfying and interesting job. But keep writing. Write articles and all sorts of other stuff. Combine the lot.

This post is not a goodbye but simply a heads up. It will also serve as a reminder to myself. If you do read regularly I thank you wholeheartedly, it means a great deal. Things will wind down here as I head off to read, study and be a student menace to society ( yup don’t worry I will have fun too). But Mrt’sblog isn’t going anywhere and it will still archive everything I write elsewhere.

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Page and Screen: Libraries vs. Cinemas in Fahrenheit 451


In 1966 England won the World Cup. And firemen stopped
putting out flames with water, to start them with kerosene to burn books.

Francois Truffaut’s film version of Ray Bradbury’s classic
20th century novel Fahrenheit 451 was released in 1966. It starred
Julie Christie in a dual role and Oskar Werner as main character Montag.
According to IMDb, Truffaut wanted Terence Stamp for the lead role but the
British screen legend was uneasy about being overshadowed by his former lover
Christie. Truffaut and Werner, with his thick Austrian accent on an English
production, had fiery differences about the film’s interpretation of Montag’s
character. It’s not surprising that there was passion on set because there was
a great deal within the pages of the book.

Bradbury’s book is the tale of Montag, a fireman whose job
it is to burn books. In the world of Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which
book paper catches fire) the state has banned the owning and reading of books.
Indeed in the film Werner is shown “reading” a newspaper or story consisting
entirely of images, without even speech bubbles. Why the ban? Books are “the
source of all discord and unhappiness”. Materialism, based on equality, is
encouraged, as opposed to the competing lies and raised expectations sold by
authors. Montag’s wife is reliant on state sponsored drugs and spends her days
in front of state television. She barely speaks to him and all are ignorant of
impending war.

Bradbury was a master of science fiction and he churned out volumes of beautiful and imaginative short stories, as part of collections like The Martian Chronicles. But Fahrenheit 451 merely has elements of sci-fi. For the most part its world is uncomfortably close to our own.

Truffaut’s adaptation has a fairy tale quality, and indeed
the novel is somehow magical. It is an incredibly intelligent book, packed with
literary references and joining the likes of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous
Huxley’s Brave New World, as one of the great prophetic dystopias with powerful
warnings about society. But it is not at all patronising and far more uplifting
than both of these books. It lays out its moral arguments more passionately and
poetically and tells a breathtakingly absorbing and thrilling tale, laced with
beautiful metaphors. Orwell and Huxley’s books were urgent and thought
provoking but lack the vibrant colour given by Bradbury’s imagery of flames.
Bradbury could also be funny rather than drab and his ideas were grounded in the realities of modern culture.

In short then, Truffaut had an enormous task to match a book
which simultaneously had pace, power, poetry and passion. I was therefore
surprised by how much I enjoyed his adaptation. It lacks the book’s excitement
and indeed many of its qualities but its opening scene, six minutes
uninterrupted by dialogue, is suitably atmospheric. The film as a whole evokes
the experience of reading and the worth of literature through the relatively
new medium of cinema: not an easy achievement. By quoting from great works as Bradbury often does the film benefits from some of the novel’s rhythm and can show the mesmerising effects of fire, leaving pages “blackened and changed”, shrivelling up like dying flowers.

All in all it was an entertaining watch, faithful to the book’s message, even if it was not “the most skilfully drawn of all science fiction’s conformist hells”, as Kingsley Amis described the novel. It was inventively shot and hauntingly scored. And its wonderful final scene got me thinking.

In it the “book people” are wandering in the woods by a lake. They are all reciting or learning a book. The book people commit a book to memory and become that book. So when Montag meets a pair of brothers, one is introduced as Pride and Prejudice Part 1 and the other as Part 2, a woman is Plato’s Republic and a shabbily dressed man Machiavelli’s Prince and so on. In effect the community of peaceful outsiders are a human library.

But aren’t we all libraries really? We may not have devoted
our lives to the word for word memorisation of our favourite books but our
opinions and outlook on the world are shaped by them. The impressions and
traces of good and great books we read can truly change us, inform us and
enlighten us, as well as entertain us.

Equally us film lovers are archives of all the movies we’ve
ever seen. Some of them will be forgettable but should we get a jolt to remind
us memories of even the poorest film will come flooding back. Others made us
stretch new emotional muscles or were so terrifically dramatic we had never
felt so alive and full of possibility.

The copy of Fahrenheit 451 that I own contains an
introduction written by Ray Bradbury for the 50th anniversary
edition in 2003. He describes how he wrote the novel on a typewriter in the
basement of a library, darting up the stairs now and then to do rapid research
and pick randomly inspirational quotes to sprinkle into the narrative. His love
of libraries is evident and he calls himself a lifelong “library person”. I
couldn’t help but think that a cinema or movie theatre could never give birth
to a work of art or vital piece of culture in quite the same diverse and
autonomous way.

Of course some fantastic films have their beginnings in
great directors being inspired by other great directors in a darkened cinema.
Last year Christopher Nolan’s Inception was seen and adored by millions, with
the director freely admitting influences as varied as James Bond, Stanley
Kubrick and the Matrix trilogy. There’s no doubt that I would prefer to spend
an afternoon in my local cinema than my local library. Both are arenas of
escapism but both are changing.

At the cinema 3D may or may not breakthrough as the next big
wow factor for audiences. Box office figures continue to remain high and
records were broken throughout the global recession. People will always flock
to the multiplex to give themselves up to the immediacy of film. They want to
be transported to another world in moments.

Libraries are undoubtedly in decline. In the UK local
libraries are understaffed, underfunded and short on stock. The coalition
government is happy to snatch away even more support for them for tiny savings, despite promises about getting more children to read from Education Secretary Michael Gove. Children’s author Patrick Ness used his Carnegie medal acceptance speech to launch a stinging attack on the policy.

As a child I got into reading because of the ease and
assistance of a library. Its poor range of choice wasn’t good enough as I got
older but I might still use it now if it were better equipped. In any case
libraries are a vital stepping stone into independent reading and education for
youngsters. The grander buildings full of history and knowledge have the
potential to be truly magical gateways to new novels, screenplays, election
campaigns or God knows what. Libraries empower the imagination and the
intellect. But so do cinemas, just in a different way. Both can keep us
entertained and thinking, as Fahrenheit 451 proves. Both deserve to thrive.

Film review: The Devil’s Rock


On paper The Devil’s Rock has a refreshing and promising setting. I had high hopes of a different and thrilling horror. It is set in the Channel Islands, which is unusual in itself. Its story plays out on the eve of the D-Day landings, giving the film a period background and all the possibilities of Nazis, gloomy bunkers and heroic Commandos. Throw in generous portions of gore and the temptations of mysterious occult witchcraft, and there are enough ingredients in this film to satisfy your average viewer as well as fans of fright fests.

Unfortunately having the beginnings of a good beginning is not enough. The opening twenty minutes of this film are dull and frankly boring. Two Commandos land on a mined beach aiming to carry out a sabotage mission to distract the Germans from the Allied invasion of Normandy the following morning. One almost blows them both to smithereens by stepping on a mine and this moment could have been far more dramatic.

There are also plenty of attempts to establish characters the audience can care about through the dialogue; the lead figure is missing the love of his life and the reluctant/bumbling one just wants to hurry home for medals and the inevitable hordes of adoring women. He’s got a date with a nurse the next day. Yup that’s right, on D-Day. The characterisation is clumsy and tries too hard, feeling far too out of place to be believable. Yes soldiers like anything feminine with a pulse, no elite Commandos probably didn’t discuss tits when negotiating a beach stuffed with explosives.

I’m still not quite finished with the weaknesses of the beginning. It all gets very predictable very quickly. The pair hear noises and they split up, as is the tendency of daft victims in horror films. They stalk around the echoing corridors of a defensive bunker, presumably while the tension builds to gripping levels for the audience. Well what should be an incredibly suspenseful sequence in an atmospheric environment is actually plodding and uninteresting. Essentially you are watching two men with guns walk very slowly down identical, bare hallways, waving their weapons about needlessly. The score doesn’t affect your mood because the ominous music started ages ago, when they had just landed and there was no immediate supernatural danger.

Eventually, after what feels like an age but what was actually only about half an hour, The Devil’s Rock gets to the meat of its story, which turns out to be some disappointing and mass produced packet ham available from any cut price supermarket. There is nothing fresh or creative about the taste of this film once it shows its hand.

Captain Ben Grogan (Craig Hall) has to deal with a Nazi Colonel who claims to need help to contain a dangerous creature he has summoned on Hitler’s orders. The Devil’s Rock is a production from New Zealand, so one of the key limits on your immersion in the story is Matthew Sunderland’s terrible German accent. Blood, intestines and guts are splattered around the walls. The fate of the world and the war is at stake, etc, etc. When the monster is shown in full view it looks ridiculous and laughable and any final hopes for the film fade away.

Having said all that The Devil’s Rock is still a film capable of satisfying some horror fans with some distinctive features. Its finale is intense and reasonably well executed, even if I was no longer invested in the story and everything seemed a bit silly by then. If the words “sexy devil with an appetite for human flesh” appeal to you, then this might be worth a watch.

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.

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.

DVD Review: Sliding Doors


What if? It’s a big question in all of our lives. What if I’d told her? What if we’d stayed together? What if I’d got that promotion? What if I’d worked harder in school? What if I had had just one more day with her and the chance to say goodbye? If we’re not careful we can get snowed in by “what ifs”.

 We have to keep our heads down to escape drowning in never-meant-to-bes or choking on could-have-beens. The possibilities that we spotted passing by out of reach haunt us as regrets. The second chances we never even noticed are too numerous to contemplate and tease us occasionally in our dreams. Let the “what ifs” talk too loudly and their chatter overpowers the everyday routine. Let them grow too tall and even the little things are given dark significance in their shadow.

Sliding Doors is a film about the little “what ifs” bunching together in mundane ordinary life until they have enormous individual consequences. When it was released in 1998 it was greeted by a mixed critical reception but it has since gone on to gain a dedicated following. It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as fashionable young Londoner Helen, complete with believable English accent, who is fired from her job at a PR company. She heads for home via the tube. The film follows two separate paths through her life; one in which she gets the train and one where she fractionally misses it, unable to squeeze through the sliding doors of the title.

The actor Peter Howitt wrote the script and directs a very grounded take on the idea of parallel universes and an alternate reality. The concept could have been lifted straight from sci-fi but Sliding Doors watches more like a meditation on the nature of fate, albeit with an uplifting rom-com tinge. One Helen, the one that gets the train, finds her boyfriend shagging his ex in her bed, only to fall for a handsome stranger. The other is delayed again and again until she arrives home late and unaware of the affair. She therefore carries on her life as normal, working flat out to support him as he “writes a novel”.

The plot is not all that clever, despite the engaging concept of two storylines running in tandem, and the dialogue is not especially witty or sharp. The real strength of Sliding Doors lies with the overlapping lives of rounded, likeable characters, well realised with accomplished performances. Paltrow is accessible rather than whiny in the lead role. John Hannah is convincingly charming and funny because of the way he says things, rather than what he says. John Lynch is a great actor, as he proves in the upcoming Ghosted, and he doesn’t come off badly here despite playing the cheating Gerry, who is often just left to look bumbling and British on the end of a full on feminine bollocking. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays mistress Lydia as a caricature but she serves a purpose and Gerry’s mate Russell (Douglas McFerran) down the pub is hilarious as the sensible one.

None of it is sublime, even the characterisation is simply above average for the genre. The acting is very good but not career defining. That said I really liked Sliding Doors. Its commonplace tone makes it all feel like it could happen to you. There are some slightly surprising twists in the climax and I was a little moved and amused in places. Its parting message is somehow both more resonant and bearable than most romantic comedies. Some things are inevitable. And there’s always hope.

Page and Screen: Flaubert’s cinematic Madame Bovary


Gustave Flaubert’s mid nineteenth century novel Madame Bovary might not appear all that remarkable if you read it today. At the time its focus on the limitations of marriage, along with its abundance of controversial ingredients like frequent and shameless adultery and suicide, made it a scandalous work of fiction. No doubt it would have been derided as deliberately explicit and shocking filth, masquerading as art, as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover would be around a century later. But today Flaubert is seen as the first truly modern novelist because with Madame Bovary he composed a recipe of ingredients that would be followed by countless storytellers, both on the page and the screen.

Read the blurb of Madame Bovary and its plot will resemble that of a lot of Victorian era fiction. The story follows Emma, a country girl living a simple life, whose charms captivate the young doctor who comes to treat her ailing father. The doctor is Charles Bovary, already a widower from an unsatisfying marriage. He and Emma marry and she becomes Madame Bovary. They move to the provincial small town of Yonville, where Charles takes a job. Holding such an important position in the intimate community, Charles and his wife become the centre of attention, be it from the atheistic chemist across the street with a high opinion of himself or the regulars at the inn. Emma quickly feels stifled by the rural and dreary existence, as well as her husband’s doting. She conducts two affairs, one with young clerk Leon and another with experienced seducer Rodolphe.

One of the ways in which Madame Bovary became a blueprint for the modern novel was its focus on the character development of Emma. It is often hailed as the first psychological novel because of this. Flaubert uses free indirect style to explore and articulate both Emma’s emotions and thoughts, be they gloomy, gleeful or giddy with romance. The technique allows the author to zoom in and out, at once using his own words and those that the character might use. Already we can see how this book not only inspired the form of later works but foreshadowed the methods of the filmmaker; sometimes sticking close to a character’s viewpoint, sometimes offering a broader overview of their actions and sometimes not seeing their actions at all.

Madame Bovary is cinematic in other ways too. Its entire structure is epic in the way that films often are, telling the story of a whole life, beginning at Charles Bovary’s school. In the early chapters we form an opinion of Charles as an ordinary but kind enough man, only to have this interpretation contrasted with Emma’s later bitterness towards him because of that very unsatisfying and indifferent kindness. This is another way the book is cinematic; it is constantly changing viewpoints amongst an ensemble cast. Despite the often intense focus on Emma’s romantic desires for meaning suppressed by bourgeois convention, we also regularly view Emma from the perspective of her lovers or the town chemist or some other figure. Cinema is constantly showing us how its main characters are seen by others to broaden our understanding of them.

Emma’s outlook on life is unquestionably romantic, some might say naive and neurotic, but it’s certainly passionate. However Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s masterpiece of realism, written to atone for what he saw as the excesses of his previous work The Temptation of Saint Anthony. One way in which the book achieved this realism was with its down to earth subject matter. Flaubert based the story on a marriage breakdown of the time and peppered it with themes from everyday French life, many of which still resonate today.

This was a novel about reality in which the main character read novels of escapism. This was a novel set in a simple setting that climaxes with Emma’s debts spiralling out of control, as she drowns in the luxuries purchased to sustain a dream life and fill the black hole left by her emotional emptiness. The ingredients are recognisable from everyday life but Flaubert ramps up the drama, just as producers, writers and directors do with films today, and storytellers have done for years. Grand language such as “she awakened in him a thousand desires” may match Emma’s desires for romantic fulfilment but is always counterbalanced by Flaubert’s realism. Throughout the novel, whenever Emma reaches a peak of ecstatic fulfilment, the decline begins shortly afterwards.

Much of Flaubert’s realist genius, diehard critics argue, cannot possibly translate from French to English without acquiring an air of clumsiness and familiarity. As James Wood points out in How Fiction Works, a sentence with magnificent and finely crafted rhythm in Flaubert’s native French, loses much of its magic in English. And if the translator tries to replicate the essence of the original too hard, he creates something laughable. “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait” becomes “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him” or if trying too hard “The notion of procreation was delectation”.

However Flaubert’s talent for precise and detailed description does translate and this is perhaps the most cinematic element of his realist style. Chapters will often begin with snapshots of detail or even lengthy passages really setting the scene of a particular room or place, sometimes incorporating a character’s mood and sometimes not. It might seem like an incredibly basic rule of storytelling, almost a childish one, to “set the scene” in this way, but Flaubert does so much more than just describe something. By selecting his details with the utmost care and deliberation, but seemingly effortlessly, he tells us everything we need to know about a scene.

At times he can do this incredibly concisely, with just a few telling details. One chapter, in which Emma has slipped away from Yonville to begin a love affair in the larger town of Rouen, begins like this:

They were three full, exquisite days – a real honeymoon.
They were at the Hotel de Boulogne, on the harbour; and they lived there, with drawn blinds and closed doors, with flowers on the floor, and iced syrups that were brought them early in the morning
”.

From our 21st century vantage point it’s very difficult to understand what upset the French so much when Flaubert was so tactful about his descriptions of sex and affairs. Very rarely does he resort to even explicitly describing a kiss.

Elsewhere he uses detail to paint lifelike pictures of minor characters, some of which, like this one, are never seen or mentioned again:

There, at the top of the table, alone among all these women, stooped over his ample plateful, with his napkin tied around his neck like a child, an old man sat eating, drops of gravy dribbling from his lips. His eyes were bloodshot and he had a little pigtail tied up with a black ribbon. This was the Marquis’s father-in-law, the old Duc de Laverdière, once the favorite of the Comte d’Artois.”

We can imagine a camera passing over a character such as this in a film, picking out the specific details Flaubert highlights, adding life to a scene and then moving on. Such descriptions have a quality James Wood terms “chosenness” whereby the author picks out a bunch of details that, together, give the most accurate and lifelike feeling of a person, place, object or action. This process is artificial, sometimes combining details from different time registers but writers like Flaubert make it appear natural. And film directors and editors do exactly the same thing. For example, when establishing the feel of a carnival, the editing process will cut together things happening at different times into one easily digestible chunk for the audience to swallow the best impression and mood of the scene.

Flaubert laid the foundations for new types of writing and storytelling that could marry the intentions of a realist and a stylist. It paved the way for novels that felt more journalistic with almost completely passive descriptions of people and places, from Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin to Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, packed with lists of brand names. Isherwood even makes this statement early on in Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” Then later on this passage mirrors even more closely than Flaubert a reel of edited film:

The entrance to the Wassertorstrasse was a big stone archway, a bit of old Berlin, daubed with hammers and sickles and Nazi crosses and plastered with tattered bills which advertised auctions or crimes. It was a deep shabby cobbled street, littered with sprawling children in tears. Youths in woollen sweaters circled waveringly across it on racing bikes and whooped at girls passing with milk jugs”.

The children cannot be “in tears” all of the time. Isherwood has perfected the technique that Flaubert pushed out into the open, for all writers to follow as a guide. James Wood sums up the passage far more succinctly than I could: “The more one looks at this rather wonderful piece of writing, the less it seems a “slice of life”, or a camera’s easy swipe, than a very careful ballet.”

It’s easy to forget that films too are intricate, vast and complex operations. Action scenes that burst into life spontaneously in shopping centres or even a stroll down a street in a rom-com are intensely choreographed. The plan laid out for the modern novel in Madame Bovary, and for writing detail in particular, has left us with as many terribly overwritten books as good ones. And even awful films are carefully managed. But the artificiality of cherry picking the best moments in life and stitching them together can be art at its best; art telling little white lies for a grander, more meaningful truth.