onsdag 12 september 2018

Once Upon A Time final season: Operation Pearly Gates, the strange failure of Voodoo Queen and more

Finally, I have my season seven DVDs of Once Upon A Time, and am thus in full legal possession of the facts of what happens in it and can blog about it. Warning for spoilers ahead: as it's the very last Once season, I'm not even going to try to avoid them.

Simply put, I loved this season. Unlike many fans, I really enjoyed the change of setting, from picturesque Storybrooke to the big-city vibe of Hyperion Heights, a neighbourhood added to gritty Seattle as part of a new curse. Although the season didn't quite live up to my highest expectations, it's still the one I've enjoyed most since seasons one to three. As so often with Once, there are so many promising premises set up that it becomes difficult for the series to deliver on them. Nevertheless, you have to learn to appreciate what you get instead of spending too much time pondering how it could have been done even better.

It is a problem that Emma Swan's not in this season. Like Matthew in Downton Abbey, Emma really is the main character of seasons one to six, to whose story the stories of the other characters are tied. When Jennifer Morrison didn't renew her contract, therefore, the show - like Downton - was knocked slightly off-track, even if it did stomach the blow. Still, the whole concept of season seven being a "new chapter" and centering around Emma's now grown-up son Henry worked creditably, and would have felt completely natural had the show been allowed to continue for one or two seasons more, so there'd be more balance between the Emma and Henry part of the story. The absence (except for the final) of Snow White and Prince David aka Charming was less of a problem. Believe it or not, I actually like Snow and Charming even if they are heroes, but they hadn't had a decent story arc since season three (though at least David had a few good side adventures - poor Snow got practically nothing to work with). Knowing they were living out their happily ever after off-stage was more satisfying than watching them being forced into uninspiring plot lines by writers plainly more interested in villain fun.

And so on to said villain fun. As usual, I could go on the whole day long about Once stories and characters, and will have to restrict myself to one or two themes, concerning my favourite (reformed - yes, really!) villain duo Rumplestiltskin and Regina, aka the Evil Queen. They are both present and correct in this season, which means that to be honest, it's got everything I need.

Did season seven expand on the duo's story in a satisfying way, considering that the finale of season six seemed to provide the ideal cutting-off point for their stories as well as everyone else's? Yes, it did. I admit I rather liked the fact that Rumple got his happy ending at the end of season six while still being alive and kicking - I had expected that his story would end in his dying redemptively and was glad when it didn't. Except now, at the end of season seven, it does. However, taken all in all, it's worth it. A long and blissful life with the ones you love, then a happy afterlife, is the best ending anyone could wish for, and Rumple gets there, with the help of a redemption arc that's much better constructed than the bad-good-bad again-good again roller coaster of season six. Personally, I don't understand why immortals always end up wanting to die, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that they do, so fair dues. And somewhere I am a bit relieved about the whole afterlife business - remembering how the afterlife is organised in Once, one had reason to be a tad worried where Rumple's concerned.

Moreover, Rumple's storyline restored my faith in the pairing the fans call Rumbelle. I shipped Rumbelle as much as the next crazy Rumple fangirl in seasons one to three, but I spent most of seasons four to six wanting to choke the shilly-shallying, hectoring Belle, and the romance more or less limped to the finish line in season six with much of the fizz we'd seen in earlier seasons gone. However, the ultra-romantic and affecting episode Beauty in season seven revived the good old days of Rumbelle lovey-doveyness, and while a guilty part of me will always ship Golden Queen (ship name for Rumple and Regina, very unpopular with die-hard fans), it's hard to quarrel with a love interest whose benevolent influence gets one of the most hard-bitten of fairy-tale villains through the Pearly Gates.

As for Regina, I believe this season is the one - with the possible exception of season three - where she works best as a redeemed character. In season six, she often was the "weak tea" version her evil clone accused her of being, but here she is full of gutsiness and temperament while still being a force for good. One part of her story didn't work, though, and that was her love interest, Doctor Facilier.

Yes, you read that right. And I'm puzzled as to why I didn't like this romance, as I should be one of the few people who have no problem with the concept. I think Dr Facilier in Disney's Princess and the Frog is a great villain - actually I believe we haven't seen anything better villain-wise in animated Disney films since. In Once, Daniel Francis is a suitably suave Facilier, and I loved the way he was introduced in the episode Greenbacks. But him and Regina? I didn't buy it. I don't think it's just my bias talking when I say that there's more heat in one of Regina's "Aw, Reformed Rumple - how cute is that?" glances on her old friend/enemy/teacher/rival/crush than in all of the scenes between Regina and Facilier put together. It's a shame because a pairing between a reformed villain and a villain with no current plans for reform is an idea which could spark some interesting situations. Does Facilier fancy Regina as she is now or the Evil Queen? Is it an old Evil Queen part of Regina that's drawn to Facilier, or does she honestly think she can do a Belle on him? If the series had been renewed, my guess is that Facilier would have been kept on and built up as a Rumple surrogate - it might even have worked. As it was, when he is dispatched by an unreformed version of Rumplestiltskin from the Wish Realm just as he's mocking the original Rumple for going soft and becoming the worst version of himself - "Well, I find that really insulting. I mean, I'm the worst version of me" - I wasn't sorry at all but shamelessly cheering on the badass Rumple doppelganger.

Dearie me, I've run out of time and space for commenting on the Wish Realm, haven't I? As well as for bringing up the alternative (superior) version of Hook (this show loves doppelgangers), the wonderfully catty wicked stepsister Ivy/Drizella, the engaging new Alice in Wonderland and her romance with Robin (daughter of Robin Hood and the Wicked Witch of the West masquerading as Maid Marian - a plot line feasible only in Once), the Cinderella controversy, Zelena getting her happy ending with a surprisingly (given her usual taste in men) tame love interest... Ah, well, maybe another time.

torsdag 30 augusti 2018

The utter pointlessness of the Disney Beauty and the Beast remake

OK. So I know I've voiced my scepticism of Disney's live-action remakes before. But things have reached a point now where I've gone from "hm, not sure about this idea" to "for pity's sake stop making these things - you're strangling your own brand!". I thought Disney was on the wrong track before - now I know it. In fact, I would be willing to bet that we've reached the end of the Disney Revival era and are heading for another "dark age" Mouse-wise.

Catching up with the live-action Beauty and the Beast on Netflix isn't the only thing that's made me worry about Disney's future. First, there were the Wreck-It Ralph 2 trailers where Vanellope meets the Disney princesses on the internet, with various in-jokes ensuing. I normally love all kinds of mash-ups and cross-overs, but the knowingness of the these jokes left me completely cold. It was far too close to the cynical tone of the Shrek franchise for my taste, and the princess cameos show no appreciation of all the good will these girls have brought their brand. Honestly, if the Disney people themselves won't stand up for their princesses, even if they do happen to sing and bond with animals, who will? Compare this with the good-natured fun poked at the princess trope in Enchanted, a film that nevertheless showed that good, old-fashioned magical romance and the rose-tinted world-view of "a real princess" can make the world a little brighter.

Then I saw a video of what to expect of Disney and Pixar in 2019, and would you believe it: just like 2018, the list of upcoming films was made up entirely out of sequels and live-action remakes - three of the latter. Though I am curious about Frozen 2, at this point I would rather have seen something new from my favourite animation studio, just to show their well of ideas hasn't run dry. But no. From Pixar we get Toy Story 4 and from Disney animation Frozen 2 - that's our lot. As for the rest, they are swamping us with their live-action remakes, which I'm more and more convinced are completely pointless.

Which finally leads me to the Beauty and the Beast 2017 remake. First, let me make it clear that I'm not going to compare it to the Once Upon a Time take on Beauty and the Beast at all, as I realise that every version of the story where the Beast turns out to be a mere bland prince - including, um, the original fairy tale - will fall short in my estimation compared to Once's villain-lover's fantasy scenario. The battle here stands solely between the animated classic from the Nineties and the live-action extravaganza of 2017. And the animated film wins hands down.

I didn't hate everything about the remake. The settings were visually stunning - the Beast's castle above all; the musical numbers were neatly choreographed; Kevin Kline's Maurice is the most likeable version of Belle's father I've come across (Maurice in the animated version was nice enough, but too much of a kooky dad stereotype); the villain Gaston and his sidekick Le Fou and their relationship are given some depth, which I found convincing; and Dan Stevens acquits himself creditably as the Beast, with a nice, dry delivery of his grouchy lines, though he has zero chemistry with Emma Watson's Belle. I liked Gaston pointing out to Belle that if she was still a spinster when her father died, she could be reduced to begging on the streets - it was a nice reality-check moment. Finally, including a detail from the original story which wasn't in the animated version - Maurice gets into trouble at the Beast's castle for stealing a rose from the garden for his daughter - was classy.

But the good points don't begin to justify the existence of a remake of the animated Beauty and the Beast, which is superior in every other way. Belle is better in the animated film. Watson has the looks for the part, and did a good job of another bookish heroine, so I can see why they went with her. But her singing, while not as bad as, say Russell Crowe's in Les Mis, isn't much to write home about, whereas Paige O'Hara sang beautifully as animated Belle (and I can vouch for the Swedish dub being top-notch too). Also, animated Belle was a lot more - well - animated than Watson, who doesn't emote much in this film. Moreover, adding an inventor's streak to Belle's character was totally unnecessary. She's bright, she's bookish - character traits which Disney added to her character back in the Nineties and should take full credit for - and that's quite enough to be going on with. Belle's character doesn't have to be "fixed".

The Beast is better in the animated film too, in spite of Stevens's best efforts. He has more character development, and is well-drawn quite literally - if there's one criticism, it's that he looks a little too cuddly for a Beast. Nevertheless, it is better than the freakish CGI Stevens has to put up with, which looks as if the hairy face of a man had been grafted on to the body of an animal of some kind. Animated Beast was all animal (which explains why it was imperative for him to be changed back, cute though he was, just to avoid bestiality).

The romance is better in the animated film. It's quite serious when animated characters have more chemistry than two real actors who aren't exactly rookies, but this is the sad fact. Sparks flew when animated Belle and the Beast danced. There's nothing like that between Watson's and Stevens's Belle and Beast; they look as if they only dance because they know they have to in order to recreate an iconic moment.

The servants are way better in the animated film. There they are charming and full of expression. In the remake, they are odd-looking CGI characters with nothing like the ability to show every emotion they experience during the strange Beast-Belle courtship. A bewildering plot element is added, whereby the servants will not only stay in their present furniture/kitchen utensil form if the Beast fails to break the curse, but will actually become inanimate objects and cease existing as living creatures altogether. This adds gloom to a part of the story that is meant to be light relief, and isn't needed in any way; surely the prospect of becoming human again is all the motivation the servants need in order to encourage a romance between Belle and their master.

There are other bewildering additions in the live-action film, which have been pointed out and criticised elsewhere. One of the strangest were the efforts to somehow make sense of the Enchantress's reasons for casting the curse. This only makes her come across as more of a prize bitch because she is shown to put so much thought into the whole thing. This is a fairy tale (albeit written by a female French author in the 18th century rather than an actual folk tale): an Enchantress is entitled to show up, take a dislike to a prince, curse him and buzz off without giving the incident a second thought, and without having puzzled out whether the prince's servants "deserved" to be cursed along with him. It's what Enchantresses do. Notably, though, these additions don't add up to anything approaching a fresh take on the material. So why, then, make a film which is essentially a rehash of an animated classic, only less good? The live-action Cinderella has a little more reason to exist because the animated version, charming as it is, often pushes the actual Cinderella story to the background in favour of cat and mouse slapstick. The animated Beauty and the Beast, on the other hand, keeps to the story and tells it well.

What bothers me is that now that the remake exists, Disney will probably promote it as the Beauty and the Beast adaptation at the cost of the animated film. I can only hope quality will win out in the end, and that somewhere along the line the Mouse will come to its senses and start making worthwhile films again.    

måndag 13 augusti 2018

Heatwave reading: Sanditon

In some ways, selfishly, I miss the heatwave already. It provided such a perfect excuse for not doing anything too ambitious - like reading anything too heavy, let alone blog about it. Using the heatwave as a pretext, as well as the fact that a TV adaptation of Sanditon by Andrew Davies, no less, is in the pipeline, I cheated when it came to the next step in my Jane Austen Rereading Project. Instead of selecting one of her actual novels, I instead chose to reread her novel fragment called Sanditon, ably completed by "another lady" (publisher: Simon & Schuster New York).

Much as I remembered, I actually enjoyed the other lady's efforts more than Austen's. I recall forming a very dim view of Austen's fragment first time around, and while I was less critical this time, I still could not see any signs that Sanditon would have turned out a masterpiece if Austen had finished it. The plot hasn't really got going by the time her narrative ends roughly 70 pages in. Moreover, most of the characters that have been introduced aren't that interesting. Lady Denham, Sanditon's matriarch (though with no children of her own), seems the most promising from a drama point of view, as long as not too much time is spent exploring her stinginess, which is a tedious flaw for a character to have. Mr Parker, with whose family the heroine Charlotte is staying during her Sanditon holiday, is a perfect dear, but there is a limit to how much fun can be had with his overenthusiastic promoting of Sanditon as the new up-and-coming seaside resort. He is saddled with two sisters and a brother who are hypochondriacs - another character quirk it's less than thrilling to read about, though the friendly officiousness of one of the sisters is a trait more calculated to drive the plot forward. Mr Parker's remaining brother Sidney has only just arrived in town when Austen breaks off, and has Love Interest for Charlotte written all over him. We learn little more than that he likes to make fun of his family, which I suppose singles him out as the sensible one but is not very endearing in itself.

There was one character's main flaw that I found interesting: Lady Denham's poor relation Sir Edward is revealed to be much taken with the rakish characters he reads about in novels by authors such as Richardson, and he's dead set to emulate them. In other words, he's a villain-lover, wilfully ignoring novel writers' attempts to set up rakes as an example of how not to behave, and instead siding with the seducers. It's interesting to see an author aware of the fact that readers will sometimes not react to a novel's characters the way the writer intended. Austen is scornful of Sir Edward's "perversity of judgment" and puts it down to his not having "a very strong head", but at least she has taken note of the phenomenon. Though rakes aren't the kind of villains I have time for, my sympathies in the case are rather with Sir Edward. Nevertheless, as he is "downright silly", he doesn't make for much of a villain himself.

The other lady who completes the novel does her very best with the starting point she's given. She doesn't dwell too much on such things as the Parkers' hypochondria, and she puts a lot of effort into making Charlotte - who in Austen's fragment comes across as little more than an observer, and not a very charitable one at that - into a likeable heroine. Charlotte's pining for the lively Sidney raises the novel's stakes just as it threatens to become too much of one seaside excursion after another. Nevertheless, there were times when I still found the novel a little dull. Perfect reading for a heatwave, though.

Andrew Davies will probably be making his own completion of Austen's fragment for his TV adaptation. It will be fun to see what he comes up with, though I do wonder why a star-quality scriptwriter like himself would want to adapt something as slight as Sanditon. Then again, maybe I'm overly harsh. Perhaps there is something inherently unsatisfying about novel fragments, at least for me: I'm no big fan of Dickens's The Mystery of Edwin Drood either. You sort of expect the novel a first-rate writer is working on when he or she dies to be among the best things that author has written, because you assume their skill to develop with every novel they write. But it doesn't always work that way: I can't be the only one to think Great Expectations is a far better novel than Our Mutual Friend. With my expectations of a half-finished masterpiece disappointed, I'm probably more critical of passages I find uninteresting or clumsy (Sapsea in Edwin Drood! Oh dear, oh dear) in a fragment than I would be had they been part of a finished product.

Also, it's understandable if Davies wants to try his hand at something more relaxing after War and Peace and Les Misérables, like a regency romp which can somehow be linked to Jane Austen. And it's not as if I'm not looking forward to watching it. 

torsdag 19 juli 2018

Game of Thrones season three: Shipping Jaimienne

I never came across the phenomenon of “shipping” until I became a Once Upon A Time fan – this particular kind of fan behaviour is pretty big in connection with Once. For those as ignorant as I, to ship two fictional characters is to really, really wish for them to end up in a relationship (hence “ship”). If the two characters are already a couple, you root for them to stay together and be happy. You go “aaah” over their romantic scenes, get upset over their break-ups and view any threat to their relationship with hostility. My delight when I found out that there are others like me, who obsess over the love life of their favourite fictional characters the same way or even more than I do, has been tempered by the circumstance that shippers, apparently, have something of a bad reputation among other fans. They can start “shipping wars” and turn the fandom “toxic”. I can readily believe that plenty of shippers go completely overboard, but crazy fan behaviour (confusing the actors with their characters, harassing writers etc.) tends to be the same whether it’s shipping-based or not. I see no reason for not indulging in some shipping, as long as it’s done responsibly and without becoming a complete pest about it. For my own part, my obsessions tend to be less with a particular couple and more with individual characters (i.e. villains), with whom I am prepared to ship practically anyone as long as my favourite’s getting some.

I will give sceptics of shipping and romantic relationships in drama in general one thing, though: if romance is to be made an important part of the story, it has to be done well. It is generally done well in Once: even if you might not be entirely convinced by all the show’s pairings, a lot of effort is put into the relationship side of things. Now in Game of Thrones, on the other hand…

Which finally brings me to the topic in hand. At long last, I have finished watching season three of Game of Thrones (at this rate, I will never catch up with the rest of the world with my GoT  viewing), and yes,  I’m still interested enough to want to continue with season four. There were times during this season, though, when I was prepared to give the rest of the GoT saga a miss. There are characters who annoy me (Daenerys Targaryen, a soulfully pretty, slave-liberating, somewhat self-righteous contender for the Iron Throne) or don’t interest me at all (principled, pouty Jon Snow), so whenever the story centres on them I’m tempted to twiddle my thumbs. Then there’s the excruciatingly drawn out, deeply unpleasant storyline centring around Theon Greyjoy – already the unluckiest bastard in all the seven kingdoms – being held prisoner and tortured in scene after scene by a sadistic captor who seems to be doing it just for kicks. This was the plotline that nearly made me give up on GoT altogether, because the writers seemed to be torturing Theon just for kicks as well. His sufferings in no way bring the story forward, and yet (to judge from some stray comments on the Net) they are apparently expanded upon compared to what happened in the original novels. For pity’s sake, why? It really bugged me, and I don’t even like Theon very much.

And then there are the romances, which for the most part are unengaging. Several of them follow the same template, too. Tyrion Lannister falls in love with a beautiful slave girl with a mysterious past who doesn’t appear to be very wedded to the Lannister cause. Robb Stark falls in love with a beautiful female medic from another realm who isn’t very wedded to the Stark cause. Jon Snow falls in love with a beautiful “wildling”, i.e. a girl who belongs to the tribes which The Black Watch (which Jon forms part of) is always driving away from the northern border, and who – understandably enough – has no truck with his cause whatsoever. These love interests are little more than horizon-widening plot devices. There’s no interesting dynamic between the characters in the couples in question. The men love the the women because they’re hot. The women love the men, because… they just do. The relationship between Jon and Ygritte the wildling girl takes a potentially interesting turn, but mostly, whenever one of these pairings are on screen, even I find myself longing for some derring-do instead.

There is, however, one potential relationship that shows promise. Jaime Lannister isn’t a character I’ve mentioned before, as I regard him as more or less a waste of space. I suppose I should give him points for trying to be the witty villain who tells his enemies unpleasant truths about themselves, but the fact is, he’s just not very funny, which makes his attempts at wisecracking more irritating than anything else. In this season, the imprisoned Jaime is entrusted to the female warrior Brienne, whose mission it is to engineer a hostage-swap where he’s traded for the Stark family’s two daughters. All sorts of things go awry, however. After having showered insults over Brienne for a long part of the way – mostly on the theme of how unattractive she is – Jaime finds himself minding when she stands in peril of being raped, and comes up with a stratagem to save her. Brienne, for her part, feels herself honour bound to fight Jaime’s corner when the soldiers who pick them up viciously turn on him. Throughout Jaime’s and Brienne’s subsequent adventures, they start looking ut for each other, and come to respect each other.

It might not lead to romance, but I’d love it if it does. If not, at least we’ll have a properly built-up relationship of some sort between a man and a woman which doesn’t hinge on the woman’s sultry charms. The Jaime-Brienne dynamic isn’t the only reason I’ll persevere with Game of Thrones – there are other things to admire, such as the overall first-class acting, the deft plotting which juggles a large number of characters and storylines skilfully, and the no-expense-spared production values which make all those grim fortresses and wealthy slave cities look so convincing. But I confess, at the moment, I’m kind of shipping it.

onsdag 11 juli 2018

Tales of wonder

I have always felt rather sniffy about “Young Adult” (YA) novels, because I’ve not seen the need for a specific category of books aimed at young adults. If you’re a teenager, you’re old enough to tackle novels for adults, including the classics – perhaps especially the classics, as they are often more focused on telling a good story than modern prose. When I was a teenager myself, we were given a couple of examples of teen literature to read at school, and I wasn’t impressed – I especially remember a “realistic” teen romance which took place in just the kind of dreary school environment I  wanted to escape from.

Since I was a teenager, though, a lot has happened, and YA literature has boomed. Also, nowadays authors of these books tend to recognise that their young readers may be more interested in exploring new worlds than being reminded of the most humdrum aspects of their own lives. On the other hand, why should this need only be acknowledged in young readers? Part of me still believes that if storytelling was promoted more and escapism less frowned on in modern novels for “grown-ups”, then there would be less call for YA fiction.

However, if writing novels in this category helps authors to release their inner storyteller and expand on flights of fancy which they wouldn’t have dared include in their work otherwise, then I must admit that YA fiction has a purpose. Here’s hoping, though, that we adults who are no longer young will also be able to find our way to the best of these books. We need magic too.

What has prompted these reflections was my finding and consuming Stephanie Garber’s Caraval and Legendary (I bought the latter as a hardback, which only goes to show how engrossed I became with this book series). They turned out to be absolute page turners, and reminded me of an aspect of fantasy fiction which has fascinated me from girlhood – the different “stages” of a journey in an imaginary land where the hero or heroine faces challenges which they overcome by calling on different aspects of their personality. Though I’ve never read Pilgrim’s Progress (it sounds off-puttingly preachy), as a girl I loved how the concepts of places like Vanity Fair and Valley of Humiliation were woven into the story in Little Women. The moral lessons were and to a great extent are lost on me, but the places themselves fired the imagination. There was a similar feel when I watched the film The Neverending Story (no, I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read the book) as a kid or read about the forest in Howard Pyle’s Arthurian stories which you couldn’t enter without experiencing an adventure.

Caraval taps into the sense of wonder that such fantastical tales convey, as it concerns a magical game, staged each year in the imaginary world where the novel takes place and overseen by the mysterious master of the game known as Legend. Scarlett, the novel’s heroine, is the daughter of a tyrannical governor of one of the outer islands of the empire and has longed to participate in the games of Caraval since childhood. When she finally obtains tickets for herself and her sister, though, it looks as if it’s too late, as Scarlett is about to marry in a week’s time and hopes her marriage will free both her and her sister from her father’s oppression (she has never met her husband-to-be, but he writes nice letters). It is up to her younger sister Donatella to engineer an escape from their island and make sure Scarlett is taken away against her will. By the time Scarlett reaches Legend’s island where the Caraval takes place, though, her sister is nowhere to be found.

Scarlett’s fears for herself and her sister are well-founded, but while one understands her risk-adversity it is a relief when she is finally within the confines of the place where Caraval plays out and ready to play the game (it turns out to be the only way to find her sister). I loved the magical treasure hunt aspect of the plot where Scarlett searches for clues in various wondrous places and meets mysterious characters who can either help or hinder her in her quest (or both). While there’s a Caraval game in Legendary as well – this time it’s the risk-taking Donatella who plays – the game itself didn’t feel as thrilling as in the first book as there are a lot of other things going on at the same time. But while Caraval was my personal favourite, Legendary was also very hard to put down, and it’s vexing to have to wait almost a year for the final part in the trilogy, Finale. But of course it has to be written first.

The YA aspect of the novels is most apparent when it comes to the romances: both girls are in their teens, and their love interests are a little on the teen-swoony side, though Donatella’s is better than Scarlett’s. In their defence, they aren’t clear-cut heroes. The novels are aware of the allure of villains: Donatella says at one point that the best kind of villain is one you secretly like, which shows a nice spirit. In Caraval, Legend himself seems to be a villain, though he could also be the girls’ ticket to freedom. In Legendary, it appears that Legend may not be as black as he’s painted, and in fact a mere baa-lamb compared to a great threat to the empire which he helps to contain. The new villain introduced in Legendary is fairly promising, though the predictable development of an age-old plot device connected with him is a disappointment, as is the anti-climactic revelation of Legend’s identity. Nevertheless, this book series takes its villains seriously. But ah, what shall I do for pretty boys…

onsdag 27 juni 2018

The Newsroom post-mortem

I’ve finally watched the final (third) season of The Newsroom, which turned out to be a mere six episodes long. I can’t say I was particularly sorry that the series was cancelled, but cancelling it midway through a season – which appears to be what happened – does seem a bit harsh. If anything, this season annoyed me less and was easier to get through than seasons one and two – I actually found myself mildly looking forward to watching an episode of an evening. On the other hand, that might be because subconsciously I knew that there were only six of them.

Given all my complaining over this series, why did I bother watching it at all? The answer is the script. It’s comforting to see that Aaron Sorkin can still deliver on the wisecrack front. Watching The Newsroom made me curious to see if he’ll create a new TV series anytime soon which might fare better, and I’ll certainly be checking out Molly’s Game. However, in pretty much all other aspects, The Newsroom fell short of The West Wing, which has been its problem all along.

It may seem unfair to keep comparing The Newsroom to The West Wing, but it’s hard to forget the latter series when watching, because you recognise elements in The Newsroom which were also present in The West Wing but worked better there – or if they didn’t work, they didn’t weigh down the quality of the series as a whole in the same way. There was already a tendency to preach in The West Wing, but more often than not it was balanced out by counter-arguments, and what’s more, The West Wing took the opponents of the Bartlet administration seriously and neither demonised nor belittled them (except that one Republican candidate who came across as somewhat dim-witted). The Newsroom doesn’t even present the other side of an argument. Most of the main characters have exactly the same views on the media, American politics and moral questions overall. There is no real debate.

I realise that I may have misconstrued what the series was trying to do by showing what a “good news programme” could be like. I grew up with Swedish news programmes whose brief was to strictly record what was going on in the world, without supplying any particular angle on it. They didn’t always succeed with their objectivity goal, but at least they tried, and any bias shown was subconscious rather than part of an effort to sway public opinion. Any political discussions on Swedish TV are still relegated to specific debating programmes. So this, then, to my mind, was what news should be: to the point, objective, and deadly dull. The Newsroom’s take on good news reporting seems rather to be to push a certain angle on the news in a clever and entertaining way. My spluttering over the obvious bias shown in the process may quite simply be down to cultural differences.

Even so. In this season, we had – among other plot lines – an alarmist story about the world coming to an end because the highest percentage of carbon dioxide on record was measured… on top of a volcano. Seriously? The show flirts with a Snowden-like plot about a government whistle-blower, but this was shut down (because of the cancellation, presumably) in over-quick time with the unexplained suicide of the whistle-blower in question. We never get to know what her agenda was, nor is there much discussion on the pros and cons of government leaks. To me, the last preachy straw was when Neal (high-minded idealist), back from being on the run over the whistle-blower story, berates the guys (couch-potato troll types) who have been managing the news station’s web site in his absence. They were just about to post an item about “the 10 most overrated movies of all time”. Why, Neal asks rhetorically, is this considered more interesting than the 10 most under-rated movies? Um… because it’s funnier? Is Sorkin, who habitually places rants doing down phenomena he has an objection to in the mouths of his characters (the luckless couch-potato troll 1 had already had a dressing-down from Sloan on air in the very same episode), really the right person to lecture us about negativity?

The Newsroom is, incidentally, consistently snobbish about “new media”. I can understand it in a way – some stories you hear about, say, social media getting out of hand are genuinely scary – but the constant idealisation of the “old media” (which traditional TV news programmes are a part of, apparently) does start to grate after a while. There have been ruthless hacks operating and character assassination going on in media circles ever since the printing press was invented.

If the characters in The Newsroom had been as likeable as the main cast in The West Wing, these gripes would probably have mattered less. Watching The Newsroom made me realise how hard it must be to create a top-notch series with a largish set of main characters. It becomes important that you care not only for one or two of them, but for most of the ensemble. But how do you do that? It’s not as if the characters in The Newsroom are disagreeable in any way, and they’re well acted. (Olivia Munn as Sloan is so good it took me a while to realise she isn’t given much to work with personality-wise.) They just never manage to be much more than Sorkin mouth-pieces. Bartlet’s crew were nicely indivualised – supremely competent yet human C.J., glamorous Sam, Eeyore-ish Toby, arrogantly boyish but self-deprecating Josh etc. – and the cast was stellar. They managed to engage my sympathy, in spite of there not being a hot villain in sight.

Even in series where there is a hot villain, like in my favourites Downton Abbey and Once Upon A Time, I much prefer it when I can feel sympathy for most, if not all, of the other characters besides my darling one, and at least not actively begrudge those I don’t like a prospective happy ending. Downton and Once mostly deliver on this score, and at times when I have been out of temper with every character except my villain fancy (which does occasionally happen) it has saddened me. A strong ensemble of recurring characters is a big plus, then. But what the magic formula is for creating one for a TV series beats me.

onsdag 13 juni 2018

The Woman in White adaptation wariness

I could blame the heatwave for the long blog pause, but truth be told it's more a matter of dearth of subject matter. My reading these last weeks has included a) Once-related fan fiction (for the most part sadly Rumple-free) b) a pedestrian historic crime novel, which is neither good enough to merit a recommendation nor bad enough to merit a rant c) a YA novel which was actually very good indeed - but in Swedish (as the author, Sara Bergmark Elfgren, is one of the writers behind the successful The Circle, it may be translated soon - so even if you're a non-Swedish speaker, keep your eyes open for an atmospheric ghost story set in an old Stockholm school). As for TV viewing, it has been bitty and unambitious. And not even Han Solo - especially when he's not played by Harrison Ford - can get my lazy self to a cinema at the moment.

So we're back to the theme which has occupied me for a while now, which is: has costume drama abandoned me, or have I abandoned it? My last "what has happened to me?" pang came when I found out, via Amazon, that there was a new TV adaptation of The Woman in White available. I'm on record as approving of Wilkie Collins and recommending that his work should be brought to the small screen. Like everyone else, I consider The Woman in White to be his best novel. And yet, when I saw this adaptation advertised, my spontaneous reaction wasn't "Yes, finally!" but "Do I have to?".

There is, I know, a fairly new Moonstone adaptation out as well, but I feel on safer ground ignoring it as I have never pretended to like The Moonstone. The previous BBC adaptation from the Nineties was made bearable by containing some of my favourite then-living British thesps, albeit wasted in non-villain roles. I don't feel obligated to try another one, though. But The Woman in White? Count Fosco? Marian Halcombe? Charles Dance as hypochondriac Mr Fairlie? I should be excited, shouldn't I?

Grasping for other explanations for my lack of enthusiasm than the possible Macra-devolving of my mind, I can really only think of one - that adaptations of The Woman in White I've come across in the past haven't been that impressive. Again, there exists a Nineties adaptation, with Tara Fitzgerald - no less - in the pivotal role of Marian, Ian Richardson as Mr Fairlie and Simon Callow as a surprisingly svelte and comparatively low-key Fosco. You'd think it couldn't go wrong, but in spite of its stellar cast, it failed to thrill. What I remember best about it was my irritation over the fact that they changed the nature of "the Secret" which the woman in white of the title, Anne Catherick, claims to know. "The Secret" concerns Sir Percival Glyde, baronet, who also happens to be the person who keeps Anne locked up in an asylum (though to be fair, she doesn't seem altogether sane).

Now, I'm going to have to be spoilery about the book here. Sir Percival Glyde's secret is that his parents were never married: therefore he is illegitimate. Presumably, someone thought that modern viewers wouldn't be able to understand why anyone would go to great lengths to hide what, in most of the western world, no longer constitutes a moral stain on a person's character. But the point of Sir Percival's secret was never that he was ashamed. Wilkie Collins himself didn't think illegitimacy particularly shameful (see No Name), and not even Dickens - who could be infamously high-handed in moral matters (on paper, at least) - thought it fair to blame a child for the marital status or lack of it of its parents (see Bleak House). Victorians aren't necessarily as fusty as we imagine. What made "the Secret" so harmful for Sir Percical was its legal implications. Were it to be known that his parents were never married, he would lose his claim to both title and family fortune. It's actually an elegant twist that "the Secret" which Anne makes so much of isn't what makes Sir Percival a villain - it's the steps he takes to cover it up. I'm sure modern viewers are perfecly able to grasp that Sir Percival isn't a bastard for being, well, a bastard, but instead, Collins's intricate plot building was scrapped in favour of a child abuse story (this being a modish plot device in dramas at the time).

Then there was the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Like Love Never Dies, it contains some first-rate musical numbers, but is let down by its plot (and, in this case, sometimes by the lyrics). At the time I saw the Woman in White musical, what bothered me the most - as I was deep into my James Carker phase - was that B-list villain Sir Percival Glyde died in the same way as Carker, i.e. he was smashed under a train. I thought this was distasteful villain-death-snitching, and anyway, wasn't a burning church (which was how Sir Percival copped it in the book) dramatic enough? Now I understand the musical's references to  The Signalman better I can more readily understand the change of villain death, but there are three other changes to the story it is harder to forgive.

One, in the musical, Marian Halcombe is in love with Walter Hartright, the hero who swoons over her half-sister Laura Fairlie. This isn't the only place where this silly theory has been aired. I remember a sequel to The Woman in White that I read once - the main plot concerns how Walter (who's a painter) becomes obsessed with Turner - where Marian is also in love with Walter. I also seem to recall a theory that Collins, who himself had two women on the go, imagined a kind of ménage à trois consisting of Walter, Laura (the pretty one) and Marian (the clever one). But there is no indication whatsoever in the book that Marian is in love with Walter. It's unfair to give her selfish reasons for discouraging the Walter-Laura romance, like the musical does, when she sides one-hundred-per-cent with her sister throughout the novel and is downright annoyed when they can't find any obvious fault with Sir Percival which would justify Laura in breaking off their engagement. The man Marian frankly admits being attracted to (though of course she never acts on it as he's chummy with Sir Percival, married to Laura's aunt etc.) is Count Fosco. When it comes to classic novels, a heroine who admits to seeing the appeal of a villain (of the brainy kind - the worthless cads are doing all right) is a rare thing. And yet there are people who would have her pining after Walter!

Two, in the second part of the musical there's a cringeworthy scene where a tarted-up Marian flirts with Fosco and catches him off-guard so she can search his rooms for clues about Anne. The musical's Count Fosco is in fact far from a dead loss, though he's played too much for laughs. His lyrics are witty, and his big number "You Can Get Away With Anything" contains some worthwhile tips on how to be a successful (fictional) villain: "You can get away with anything, it all comes down to style... Yes, you can have your cake and eat it, the love of those whom you betray...". But the scene with Marian in seduction mode is degrading for them both. The novel's Marian, who wants to fight like a man, not a woman, would never stoop to such a stratagem, and Fosco would never fall for it.

Three, they changed "the Secret". Again. Granted, the musical's version is better than the TV adaptation's (Sir Percival has an affair with the thankfully just-about adult Anne Catherick and then drowns their child), but it's still so unnecessary. In the novel, when Walter hears Anne railing against Sir Percival he suspects that the baronet has "wronged" her in the usual, that is sexual way. When he hints to the girl that this could be the case, however, she is utterly bewildered. It's a fun way to up-end the reader's expectations - and it seems that the Victorian reader's expectations in this regard weren't that different from ours.

All the same, all these adaptation faux-pas should make me more inclined to see a new version which, perhaps, does better, not less. I have dutifully ordered the new adaptation and will watch it in due course. Reviews indicate that it may actually be faithful to the original story this time. The cover does look cheap, though.