torsdag 19 oktober 2017

Baffling bestsellerdom

So there we are: another book I've not been able to finish. Finding Drood heavy going, I was looking for a comfort-blanket read to balance it out with and ended up testing an impulse-bought Nora Roberts novel, The Next Always. I've seen two TV adaptations of Nora Roberts books and only remember them very dimly, but I do remember liking them. One I think centred around the classic plot of three daughters and an inheritance, the other was a reincarnation story where it turned out that the hero in the contemporary romance was a reincarnation of the girl in the historical one: a sweet and funny twist. So while I was expecting a fair amount of clichés (and I'm not very sensitive when it comes to clichés in English, which is why I shamelessly use expressions like "a fair amount"), I did not expect to be bored.

Before long, I was stumped. What was going on here? I didn't really think that Roberts would turn out to be "the world's greatest storyteller" as the cover boasted, but I did assume that there would be a story of some kind. But no, not a sight of one. The novel concerns three brothers Montgomery who are renovating an atmospheric old hotel in a small American town. One of the brothers, Beckett, has his eye on Clare, a woman he's loved since they were both teenagers and who has now moved back into town, a widow with three boys. He finds her attractive. She finds him attractive. Eventually, they both twig that they're in with a chance with each other and hook up. There's zero dramatic tension: Beckett's family and Clare's friends are cheering them on from the sidelines. They belong to the same set, they're both unattached, and naturally Beckett is great with the three delightful boys. Instead of introducing any hurdles for the main romantic couple to jump over, the novel is full of pointless conversation concerning the hotel renovation. It's not even all "interior design porn" describing the various rooms, though that part of it is bad enough: we also have to read the brothers' discussions on problems with the building work and suppliers. Elsewhere they're bickering about whose turn it is to buy the pizza and beer. We follow Clare through an excruciatingly detailed account of an evening home with the boys: for pity's sake, I as a reader don't have to be there when she helps one of her sons to pee! At first I thought: "Oh well, I wanted a comfort blanket, and it doesn't get much more comfort-blankety than this". But after more than a hundred pages of meandering plotlessness I'd had enough and gave up. A Nora Roberts novel should not be the kind of book you feel you have to finish out of a sense of duty.

So what kind of genre is this anyway, and what is its appeal? I suppose it falls into the category of "quotidian cosiness". After a long row of grand epics, I myself can long for a narrative where the protagonists can consider stopping their emoting for a moment and making themselves some tea and toast. Seeing characters of a whodunnit or a contemporary romance in an everyday setting, making observations on situations that you recognise from your own life, can be very relaxing and satisfying. But there has to be more to a story than that. You can't just have tea-making scenes, or their equivalents. Roberts captures the tone of easy, everyday dialogue fairly well, but if you want to listen in on these kinds of conversations, you might as well eavesdrop on fellow visitors at a café. Here, there is no drama, and nothing at stake.

It made me wonder whether it's possible for an author to like his or her characters too much. Normally, I prefer writers who have a real affection for their characters. Roberts obviously likes the three Montgomery brothers, and their mother, and Clare, and her three boys, and her best friend. The problem is, she seems to think the readers will like them so much too that they will be happy just to hang out with them, even when not much is happening. And maybe there are a lot of readers who feel that way about the characters in The Next Always, but I wasn't one of them. The Montgomery brothers are the tousled-haired, dog-owning kind of heroes who are good at carpenting, their enthusiastically interfering mother has a sixth sense for what is best for them and the hotel, Clare's sons are charmingly boisterous, everyone gets how great small-town life is (at least everyone nice), and it's all apple-cheeked and homespun and dull.

In my despair, I've started reading The Night Watch by Sarah Waters instead, although with its gentle melancholy it's not what one could describe as a comfort blanket. It's beautifully written and precisely observed, and the characters are just likeable enough to be interested in, but not (so far) so likeable you'll end up heartbroken if things go wrong for them. I think I will actually be able to finish this one. When I will summon enough strength to get through Drood, though, is anyone's guess.      

torsdag 5 oktober 2017

Once Upon a Time season 7 wish list

Well, you were warned. Tomorrow, lucky US viewers will be able to tune into the season 7 premiere of Once Upon a Time, so I had better get my pre-season blog post out there before anyone is in a position to say "nope, that's not going to happen... and not that either". When we Swedes get to see this season of Once is anyone's guess. However, I'm hopeful that it won't be that long, and that either the obscure channel which usually sends the newest Once episodes (and which I only discovered when they were half-way into season 6, hence the long DVD wait) or Netflix will take pity on me.

I was excited about this season even before I'd seen the last one. The set-up promises to resemble the one for season 1, which I still think is the best. In season one, hard-bitten Emma Swan was visited by Henry, the boy she gave away for adoption at birth, whose mission was to take her to his home town Storybrooke and make her believe that its inhabitants were in fact fairy-tale characters living under a curse that only she could break. In this season, an adult Henry is visited by a daughter he doesn't remember, who in her turn has to convince him that fairy tales are real and that he and the most of the other inhabitants in the part of Seattle where he's living - Hyperion Heights - are victims of a new curse. Among the cursed Hyperion Heights residents are the three characters who've made it over from the original six seasons: Henry's adoptive mother Regina aka The Evil Queen from Snow White, his stepfather Captain Hook, and last but not least his grandfather Rumplestiltskin. However, the curse has given them new identities, and they don't remember who they really are, nor do they remember Henry (presumably - although with Rumple, you never know).

I really liked the original premise where the series protagonist has to be made to believe in a completely bonkers concept which then happens to turn out to be true, so I'm glad that this plot element is back, as well as the contrast between flashbacks in a fairy-tale realm and life "in the real world" where there's no magic. Once magic entered Storybrooke (not that I think it was a bad move to bring it - of course not) plot-lines tended more and more to hinge on convenient magical objects which could bring about all kinds of wonderful things but which for unknown reasons had never been used before, nor were they used again when the plot no longer required them. This time around, the characters will have to rely on their wits to stay out of trouble - luckily, some characters have more wits than others.

So what are my wishes - which, as they're not magic, I hope won't misfire - for Once Upon a Time season 7? (I wont even try to predict anything with this notoriously unpredictable show.)

More characters from real fairy tales We will see new versions of some fairy tales already covered by Once in this season - like Cinderella, as Cinders is Henry's love interest and her wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine is the new villain (yay - I always thought she'd make a great Once baddie!). Fair enough: as there are countless versions of the Cinderella story, I can see how there can be more than one Cinderella in the Once universe, though how there can be more than one Alice in Wonderland beats me. I do hope, however, that the show will take the opportunity to introduce characters from fairy tales we haven't seen yet. There are so many great fairy tales out there crying out for a Once spin: Frau Holle, The Six Swans, The Wishing Table... Heck, they haven't even done Puss in Boots yet.

What I hope we won't see too much of are fictional characters who have nothing to do with fairy tales. I don't mind the odd Kafkaesque bureaucrat here or Cuckoo's Nest-inspired nurse there, and Doctor Whale in Storybrooke was such a hoot that I can forgive him for turning out to be a Victor Frankenstein whom Mary Shelley would surely not have recognised. But season six went overboard with a slew of non-fairy-tale-related characters like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Count of Monte Christo and Captain Nemo. If they had been included because the writers were great fans of the original novels I'd have understood it better, but the characters seemed to be based on vague, popular-culture conceptions of what they're supposed to be like rather than their actual book counterparts. I know enough of the Count of Monte Christo to be able to spot that the Once version neither had the same back-story nor the same personality as the original. In which case, why include him? I'm not one to object to random Rumplestiltskin scenes, but I'd rather see him get his claws into, say, King Thrushbeard than Dr Jekyll or Edmond Dantes.

A little less Disney ABC studios, where Once Upon a Time is aired, is owned by Disney, which means the series can include plenty of references to the classic animated Disney films. Which is fine - I'm a huge Disney fan - but it can become a bit much. I'm not sure including characters from Frozen and Brave in season four and five respectively was a good idea, for instance: Elsa and Anna are charming in their own film, but they fared rather worse when confronted with the regular Once crew who had three full seasons of character development under their belt. As for Merida, she seemed perpetually out of temper.

It will be interesting to see what Once makes of Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, who will appear in the new season. I actually have no idea what fairy tale The Princess and the Frog is supposed to be based on: not the brothers Grimm's The Frog King, at any rate. In this tale, the princess not only does not kiss the frog, she hurls him to the wall - and that's when the curse lifts. (Which in its turn makes the story ideal for a Once take - who could have cast an impish curse like that...?) I like Disney's Tiana a lot, but I'm wondering how they will preserve her endearing workaholic doggedness in a new, non-New Orleans context. Having said that, since we are going to have Tiana, I certainly hope Dr Facilier turns up too.

Good use made of the Storybrooke squad The original heroine Emma may have left, but as long as Rumple and Regina are still on board, Once Upon a Time lives on to fight another day. For Regina, I would dearly like to see a lasting love interest this season. Yes, I get it: she's a strong, independent woman who doesn't need a man to get her happy ending, etc. It was still a little sad that she was pretty much the only one - OK, she and her luckless villain-fancying sister Zelena - not paired up at the end of season six (not that I thought the death of Regina's bland love interest Robin Hood in season five was much of a loss). Regina could also use a little stronger storylines than she's had past seasons. For much of season six, her bad alter ego the Evil Queen - set loose by Dr Jekyll's serum - got to have more funny lines and meaty scenes than her "weak tea" better half Regina. The Queen even fitted in a sizzling affair with Rumplestiltskin/Gold (Belle was AWOL as per usual and threatening to keep his kid from him, so yeah, he was allowed). The resolution to the split personality plot line was a bit of a muddle: suddenly there were two Reginas, with equal parts of light and darkness in them, when the most satisfying conclusion would surely have been to merge the two halves together again. Never mind: maybe confrontations with Lady Tremaine will bring out the old sass and fighting spirit in Regina. As she said herself at one time: "I get antsy when I don't know who to hate".

I've not been a great admirer of Captain Hook (aka Killian Jones - no, I don't know why he's not called James either) so far, on account of his tedious feud with Rumple/Gold, aka "the Crocodile". It feels wrong, though, that there is a version of Captain Hook I don't care for. Also, I can see that the character has potential: he has some funny lines and moments ("My daughter has just lost everything""Well, aren't you mum of the year"), he and Emma are sweet together - though the series wallowed a little too much in their romance for my personal liking - and he sometimes does well out of plot-lines which don't include crocodile-hunting, such as the touching back-story involving his revered older brother Liam. My wish for this season, then, is that Hook and Rumple will finally bury the hatchet in earnest, and Hook will be given something better to do with his time. Judging by one trailer, the two enemies will end up as colleagues in their cursed Hyperion Heights lives. Hook, now a cop, shakes hands with Rumple who purrs "We'll do great work together". They're bound to fall out sooner or later, I guess, but any scene where an oblivious Hook gushes puppyishly over his wonderful new boss would be most welcome.

As for Rumple, I'll take anything I'm given - I'm sure his new cursed persona will be as brilliant as his other incarnations, though I will miss Mr Gold and his natty suits. And surely Lady Tremaine will be the lucky woman who gets dark-sorcerer neck-kissed this season? Come on, she's handsome, she's determined, she's temperamental, she knows her way around a curse - it's bound to happen. It's not that I don't hope that domestic bliss with tiresome Belle still waits further down the line for Rumple when he's de-cursed, but for my money, she can wait a good while yet.

lördag 30 september 2017

Famous authors as characters (and narrators)

I haven’t had much luck in my reading of late, but after 50 pages of Drood by Dan Simmons I’m cautiously optimistic. Perhaps it’s partly due to my low expectations which were easy to exceed. For a long time, I passed Simmons’s novel by on my book-buying sprees, as the reviews had given me to understand that it  1) had horror-story elements  (and I don’t like horror stories) 2) was sneering about Dickens. In the end, though, immersing myself in yet another Dickens-themed tale proved too tempting, and besides the novel is acclaimed and can be seen as an Ambitious Book Project. After a lot of trying out of potentially soufflé-light reads which failed to give the proper comfort-blanket feel, maybe an ABP is exactly what I need.

I wasn’t wrong in my prejudices – Drood does have horror-story elements (though I’ve been able to stomach them so far) and it is sneering about Dickens. The sneeriness is largely a consequence of its narrator, though, who – supposedly – is Wilkie Collins, Dickens’s friend and protegé. Collins in this version is deeply envious of his older and more successful friend, and this colours everything he says about Dickens as a man and as a writer.

I find I can bear attacks on Charles Dickens’s character surprisingly well. Few people would contest that he behaved like a pig towards his long-suffering wife Catherine, for instance (though there are actually those who do). I have no problems in imagining Dickens as a difficult man; I admire him as a writer, not as a wonderful specimen of human kindness and philanthropy. Consequently, criticism of his writing is much harder to take, but in this context we needn’t credit the clearly biased narrator’s musings on the subject.

If anyone comes out of this set-up looking less good than he should it’s Wilkie Collins, and since I really like his books I think it’s a bit of a pity that he has to play the role of “Salieriesque rival” – as the blurb will have it – in Drood. I’d have preferred a fictional, envious sidekick to Dickens. Maybe the real Wilkie Collins’s position as young friend, colleague and reluctantly admitted almost-family member (Collins’s brother married Dickens’s daughter, a match Dickens didn’t care for), as well as an opium addict, is what makes him ideally placed to be the narrator of this book. I’ll take the liberty of seeing  Collins in Drood as fictional in substance, however, as I would like to think that the real Wilkie was a great deal less small-minded than he’s described as here.

One thing that makes it easier to imagine Drood Wilkie Collins and the real Wilkie Collins as separate people is that the narrative style in Drood doesn’t resemble Collins’s style at all. Again, this raises the question of why Collins is the narrator when he doesn’t even sound like Collins: on the other hand, we are spared cumbersome pastiche, which makes the novel a far more interesting read. I like Wilkie Collins’s style when he is the one using it, but I can imagine that it would not fare well in the hands of another author, especially as even the original can become a bit knotty at times when Collins insists on explaining every detail of his plot in order to make sure that there are no holes in it.

Another author whom you pastiche at your peril is Jane Austen. I’ve lost count of the times I wished that an Austen-themed novel – sequel, prequel, retelling, you name it – was not written in a supposedly Austenesque style. Austen managed to be pithy and amusing in spite of the regency feel of her prose. Modern authors, however, seem to use regency expressions in order to make the prose more genteel and circumspect than it need have been. This, in my view, is to misunderstand what makes Austen such a good writer – and it often makes for a boring read, too.

I’ve had mixed experiences with Stephanie Barron’s series of crime mysteries where Jane Austen is the narrator and sleuth. I remember enjoying Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor as a cosy manor-house mystery, and I liked the salaciously gossipy Jane and the Barque of Frailty (what it blithely presents as a known fact about Castlereagh even Wikipedia finds hard to credit). On the other hand, I can’t remember anything about Jane and the Wandering Eye except that I found it surprisingly heavy going, and recently I felt the same about Jane and the Man of the Cloth. In the latter case, I was also irritated by Jane’s crush on mercurial man of mystery Geoffrey Sidmouth, whom I found eminently resistible and notably underwritten, as if the mere idea of a moody squire with his own code of honour etc. should be enough to set hearts a-flutter. The books are written as pastiches on Austen’s style – it’s supposed to be extracts from her diary – and this simply weighs the narrative down, as do the faux-scholarly footnotes. Even if the real Jane Austen’s family does play a part, I was still left wondering why the heroine had to be Austen. There’s not much about her writing in the “diary extracts” (admittedly, what there is I enjoyed). The characters and plot of the book don’t connect to Austen’s novels in any interesting way. Surely, any plucky regency lass would have done just as well as protagonist, and would have been more likely to be susceptible to crushes than the level-headed Austen.

I’ll give this series a couple of more chances – after all, I’ve already purchased a few of the books in it. Man of the Cloth and Wandering Eye are early books, and maybe the mysteries pick up pace as the series moves along. But on the whole, I wonder if famous authors may have one thing in common with villains – they’re better off being depicted in novels at one remove, by someone close to them rather than supposedly in their own words.       

torsdag 21 september 2017

19th-century classics that would make good TV drama

Poldark series four. Victoria series two. The Crown season two. Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Les Misérables and Howard's End. No newly-scripted ensemble drama/family saga in the Downton mould in the offing that I've heard of - perhaps viewers like me, who failed to take The Halcyon to our hearts, are partly to blame, but even so. And no news of The Gilded Age, which Julian Fellowes is supposed to be scripting for American television. Hmmm.

As you may have gathered, I'm not all that excited about this "safety first" line-up of costume dramas, though I do enjoy watching Poldark, Victoria and The Crown. But instead of whining about the costume drama turnout as I usually do, I thought I'd be more constructive and actually give a few suggestions as to which novels would make good period telly. I'll not be broaching the Dombey and Son subject again, as I've already gone on about it here and here. And elsewhere.

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens  I've never actually seen a TV adaptation of Barnaby Rudge, not even an old and dusty one. It must be ages since they did it. It's true, the novel has its faults, but they could easily be ironed out in an ace adaptation by, say, Andrew Davies (cut John Grueby, for one). There are many points in favour of Barnaby Rudge as a TV drama: an engaging title character, dramatic riot scenes, and an at least partly strong supporting cast including Maypole Hugh, Sim Tappertit, sharp-tounged Miss Miggs and the delightfully ignoble blind man Stagg. Not to mention Grip the raven (an animal trainer would be needed).

V for villain factor: High. This is the novel that includes Gashford and Sir John Chester - the latter even made my top ten male Dickens villains list. These are parts which I think top-notch British actors could do much with. Charles Dance could still work as Sir John, surely?

Armadale by Wilkie Collins Just about anything of what I've read by Collins would make great television - excepting perhaps Hide and Seek. I'll limit myself to mentioning the two books which I think are his best (apart from The Woman in White, which has been adapted, though not very well). Armadale takes a while to get going, but again this is something a skillful adapter would know how to deal with, plus watching the back-story acted out rather than narrated would be sure to add interest. It's a novel full of both incident and intrigue, and there are plenty of meaty parts as Collins knows how to take care of his secondary characters.

V for villain factor: No worthwhile male villains as I recall, but what a villainess! The flame-haired temptress Lydia Gwilt is so determined and intelligent she would be sure to appeal to male and female viewers alike - and you certainly can't say that for many femme fatales. One very likeable thing about her is that she remains completely unimpressed by the novel's ostensible hero, popular but dim-witted Allan Armadale, and instead falls head over heels for his loyal friend Midwinter, who is the far superior man. But Allan has the cash... What to do?

No name by Wilkie Collins  Anti-heroine Magdalen's efforts to regain the family inheritance she and her sister lost by unfortunate legal circumstances are another instance of exciting Collins plotting. She is wrong-headed and highly-strung to be sure, but needless to say a lot more interesting than her virtuous sister Norah. With new twists at every turn, this would make a thrilling mini-series, and whoever played Magdalen would have a show-case part which could bring her an award or two.

V for villain factor: It's not easy to say who counts as a villain, as you rather want Magdalen to succeed in her intrigues, though not at too high a cost for herself (and I don't think that's just me). The cousin who got the inheritance and whom she intends to ensnare, Michael Vanstone, I remember reminded me of the Disney cartoon version of Prince John in Robin Hood (it's been a while since I've read the book now). Not very impressive villain material then. Captain Wragge on the other hand, the swindler who helps Magdalen out and can be classified as either a high-prestige villain or a villain surrogate, is very entertaining, and his battle of wits against the equally intelligent Mrs Lecount, who tries to protect her master Vanstone from a woman she's convinced is up to no good, would surely be telly gold.

Villette or Shirley by Charlotte Brontë One is well-plotted, has an interesting setting and a memorable female antagonist. The other has two likeable heroines and a happy ending. Both have at least one worthwhile heroine love interest (irascible Paul Emanuel in Villette, somewhat Napoleonic mill owner Robert Moore in Shirley). If you could combine elements of these two novels, you'd have the perfect costume drama. As it is, it's hard to choose which one would work best on the small screen. My vote would, I think, go to Villette, as I remember it as being the better read. The heroine Lucy Snowe may not be a charmer, but she's not entirely without potential, and besides, they can't all be sunny, witty Lizzy Bennets. The ending poses more of a problem, but although Lucy almost certainly loses the love of her life she is successful professionally, so maybe it wouldn't have to be all bleak. One could do a "tomorrow is another day" spin on it.

V for villain factor: On the male front, zilch. Charlotte Brontë may give us brainy and interestingly flawed heroes as well as quite a lot of power play in the various love relationships, but there's a cost: she feels no need to introduce worthwhile male villains as other characters have already covered the cleverness and power-hungriness angle. And no, Brocklehurst still doesn't count. (Though wasn't there someone quite tasty in The Professor?) Madame Beck, the female antagonist mentioned above, is a great character, but the question is if she really counts as a villainess: she has nothing personal against Lucy, and when she opposes her you entirely see the Madame's point.

Lost Illusions by Honoré de Balzac or something else by Balzac, maybe? Colourful characters, attractive Parisian settings, lots of love entanglements, plotting that may sometimes surprise you, vivid language that would surely prove inspirational to an adapter - what's not to like? (All right, in this case, the appalling hero, or rather anti-hero, Lucien.) Not to mention...

V for villain factor: ... absolutely marvellous villains! The best in this novel are found in Lucien's provincial home: the two businessmen brothers Cointet, especially Boniface aka "the tall Cointet". He enlists the help of lawyer Petit-Claud (a good, solid minor villain) in order to pinch a valuable patent, and in return furthers his associate's career by arranging his marriage to the bastard daughter of a local nobleman. "She's so ugly", Petit-Claud complains. "Do you think you'd be allowed to have her if she was pretty?" Boniface coolly responds. There's a lot more in the same pleasingly cynical vein. Given that Balzac's villains can be so enjoyable, it's a wonder my interest in them never quite erupts into a long-lasting villain crush - with the exception of Frédéric de Nucingen, whom I did not fancy but felt a great deal of sympathy for in A Harlot High and Low, they are maybe somewhat lacking when it comes to leader of the pack appeal. But they're certainly good enough for a fictional villain fling.

onsdag 6 september 2017

Redemption Once Upon A Time style: villains do get happy endings (if they reform - kinda)

Well, where to begin? As regular readers may be aware, Once Upon a Time is my new series poison - displacing Downton up to the point where I almost don't care anymore if there's a film or not - and last week I finished watching the emotional rollercoaster that was season six. The series will return with season seven, but we're told it will be a "new adventure", and that season one to six can be viewed as an entity - viewers are able to sign off here if they please. So, no more wanton destruction of happy endings then, thankfully. Which is just as well, as season six - after an unpromising start - gathered momentum about half-way through and then delivered the most satisfying dénouement imaginable for everyone concerned. Yes, everyone (well, the series regulars anyway).

I make no apology for my obsession, since if ever there was a series designed to entrap villain-lovers like myself, it's this one. I could go on and on about it, but will limit myself for now to one theme - one relevant for the subject of villains and happy endings, namely redemption and how it's handled. At a later date, I will come back to my hopes and wishes for season seven. There's no space to go into the complicated premise of the series: my reflections on the first one-and-a-half seasons here will give you a general idea.  

In the case of Once Upon A Time, the common complaint of series viewers is actually true: the first season really was the best. Season two was almost equally good, though, and although season three had its longueurs, it also had some satisfying emotional pay-offs, plus the first three seasons as a whole form a near-perfect story arc, not least for the original villain duo. Regina Mills (Lana Parrilla), aka the Evil Queen from Snow White, was the main antagonist in season one: she had her own weighty reasons for hating Snow White that had nothing to do with which of them was fairest of them all, and her warfare against Snow, her prince David aka Charming (initially an ironic nickname given to him by his later loved one) and their daughter Emma was relentless. It was hard not to be impressed by all that passion, not to mention the cutting one-liners. Then there's my reigning villain crush (and not just mine, happily): Mr Gold, aka Rumplestiltskin - Rumple to his friends (if he had any), to his lovers, occasionally - confusingly - to his enemies, and to online commentators everywhere. If IMDB is to be believed, the part was expressly created for the Scottish actor Robert Carlyle, and boy does he make the most of it. Initially I preferred the more understated Gold to the outré fairy-tale version of Rumplestiltskin, but as I got used to the mannerisms of the latter I got to appreciate them equally. The trademark flippant callousness of fairy-tale Rumple can be just the tonic when Gold is having a hard time in the Storybrooke part of the plot, and besides he's such fun. So, to borrow an old tag line from a trailer of Dempsey and Makepeace: "He's mean, she's moody, together they're magnificent", and without this strong villain pairing (more than occasionally working against each other) I doubt the series would have been such a hit.

All of which meant that a "despair and die" ending for these two characters would hardly have satisfied the fans. Neither of them showed much inclination for reforming in season one - we gathered from their powerful back-stories that they hadn't always been bad, but also that if they were nicer in pre-dark magic days they were also completely miserable. In season two, however, both Regina and Gold came under pressure from their loved ones to mend their ways, and tried to do so - interestingly, though, they found it a hard slog and far from instantly rewarding, so progress was shaky to say the least. Season three nearly got them there, as redemption started to look as something worth striving for for its own sake, not just to please demanding sons/love interests. With a little tweaking - the removal of an unnecessary complication in Regina's love life, the inclusion of Gold's moving speech at his son's graveside from the first episode of season four - the perfect end point would have been reached in the season three finale.

But the show had to go on, and there's little you can do dramatically with a reformed villain. Cue Problematic Season Four, where Gold fell spectacularly off the redemption bandwagon and saw his happy ending unravel as a consequence, simply because the plot demanded it. There were great Gold/Rumple scenes in this season, but this villain magic certainly came with a price. As for Regina, she stayed on the road to reform - more or less - but it didn't do her much good plot-wise, and it took away some of her glamour from the days when she was wicked. This was even more apparent in the less harrowing but decidedly muddled season five, when she became almost dull. 

I had hoped that season six would manage to answer some of the questions thrown up by the previous five seasons on the subject of redemption in a convincing way. Like "change": it's not possible to have a personality transplant, so if you're a villain and happy to be one, how is reform even possible? Can someone who makes "change" a condition of their love be said to truly love you, or do they simply love the idea of what their wonderful rehabilitative powers could mould you into? And what's the point of redemption anyway, besides being the only way those bastard script-writers will give you a happy ending? The series makes many a compelling case for going dark, but it's less convincing when arguing for doing good: even (for the moment) reformed villains aren't much good at this. "Don't make the same mistakes I made" is the brunt of their argument. Why not? You had a blast, didn't you?

One concept touched upon in season two but never developed is to become "the best version" of oneself - which would mean that villains wouldn't have to change their personalities in order to better themselves, merely to give good qualities that they've always possessed a chance while toning down their crush-your-enemy's-heart-into-dust side. I'd have liked to have seen this reasoned out in season six, but I'll have to be content with the fact that they managed to get the redemption part of the story right in practice, even if there weren't many explanations attached to it. The villains are still recognisably themselves: Regina is still a sharp-tongued boss lady, and Gold still doesn't really care a button for anyone but his nearest and dearest. Elsewhere, Captain Hook (Emma's love interest) is still a hothead with a piratish swagger, and one senses that buried hatchets could in certain circumstances be unburied at a moment's notice. Regina's half-sister Zelena aka the Wicked Witch of the West won't be putting herself up for charity work anytime soon either. In different ways, though, they have distanced themselves from their villainous pasts and acknowledged that the way forward lies in another direction. And if that isn't enough to earn you a happy ending - along with keeping the show entertainingly on the road for six seasons - I don't know what is.

onsdag 30 augusti 2017

Why the idea of a new Pride and Prejudice adaptation is so provoking

They must be joking, right? A little while ago, BBC announced that they were going to do a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, and like - I suspect - at least 80% of the costume-drama viewing populace I reacted with profound scepticism. The Beeb completely nailed it last time they adapted P & P back in 1995 - the series, penned by costume drama supremo Andrew Davies and starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth as Elizabeth and Darcy, was an instant classic. I have even heard it referred to by die-hard Pride and Prejudice fans as "PP2". So why on earth, when they've already got it right, would the BBC consider doing another?

Well, it has been 22 years, hard as that is to swallow. I realise that adapters can't be expected to keep their mitts off certain classics indefinitely only because they've once been done well. And considering that we watch the same plays over and over again with new casts, why are things so different when it comes to TV and film adaptations of the same material, which will after all not be identical to each other? Why shouldn't there be twenty Oliver Twists, if there are twenty good Fagins to be had?

I think that part of the reason so many of us are irritated when TV channels or even film-makers churn out yet another version of a work that has already been done to death, and where there exists a near-flawless adaptation already, is that the budget for new period drama is bound to be limited. TV spokesmen don't tend to be over-fond of "bonnet dramas" anyway - the new P & P is already billed, absurdly, as less "bonnet-y" and more "dark" (honestly, what's next? A "dark" Winnie the Pooh?). They will tolerate a few of these dramas per year, but if one costume drama project goes ahead, it is safe to assume that it is at the expense of others that do not. And there are so many books that would make wonderful costume dramas, where adaptations have not been attempted for ages if ever. Dombey and Son is an example I keep coming back to: the 1983 adaptation is so creaky that, in spite of Paul Darrow's delectable Carker, I feel unable to recommend it to anyone but the most nerdy and patient Dickens nut. The most aggravating thing is that a Davies adaptation of this novel in the same vein as his Bleak House and Little Dorrit was actually commissioned, then axed (I have already whined about this at length). There are other examples of neglected adaptable novels, closer to Austen in genre, as mentioned in this Telegraph article (though I admit I couldn't get through Evelina myself). However, if a novel's title isn't already known to the public, then it's far less likely to make it to production. But a new Pride and Prejudice? That they can do.

Which leads us to another irritant: that it actually seems as if it's more likely that a novel will be adapted if a good film or TV version already exists, because then it will be more well-known - thanks to the already existing adaptation. I doubt that the 2002 Forsyte Saga TV series would have been made if hadn't been for the classic 1967 version with Eric Porter, or that they would have done a film of Brideshead Revisited if it hadn't been for the practically perfect TV series with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews (especially as the film showed none of the understanding for its source material that was apparent in the TV version). It's a game of ever decreasing circles. And honestly, how do you think they came up with the idea of doing Poldark? Because the novels are so great? Somehow I doubt it - I may be underestimating their literary qualities, but I suspect the reason for the new Poldark TV series is - the old Poldark TV series.

Some novels can bear over-adapting better than others, because there are so many dimensions and perhaps previously neglected sub-plots to bring to light. I can't pretend I'm wildly excited about the prospect of yet another Les Misérables adaptation (by Davies - surely his time could be better used?), but at least there is a wealth of material there which couldn't be addressed at length in either the latest film versions or the musical, and the French TV version with Gérard Depardieu was frankly a bit hit and miss. But the plot of Pride and Prejudice isn't that complex, and the existing TV adaptation covered most aspects of it. True, Mrs Bennet could do with being less ridiculed, seeing as her fears of a penniless future for her daughters if they do not marry are entirely realistic. But we had a less caricatured Mrs B in the latest film, as in Lost in Austen which played around with the P & P plot... Yep, Darcy and company have already had a lot of outings.

The trend for British newly-scripted costume dramas seems to have stopped of late, and what with these unimaginative new projects on the go, I do wonder what the future will bring. Still, last time I was really despondent about period dramas, Downton showed up on the horizon, so no need to fret yet. Maybe the Yanks will come up with something juicy for us? I mean, if they can do other genres so well (and import Brits for the all-important villain parts)...

onsdag 16 augusti 2017

The negative virtues of Game of Thrones (first look)

All the hype finally got to me, and finally I felt I had to give Game of Thrones (the TV series, that is) a go. So, years after everyone else, I've now watched half of the first season - and I feel strangely pleased that it's not better.

I had a lot of acknowledged fears about Game of Thrones - that it would prove a complete waste of time, that it would be impossibly grim and gory or that I would be fool enough to fall for one of its universally hated villains. But one unacknowledged fear, that I only admitted to after it was done away with, was that it would actually turn out to be a masterpiece of a series, and unquestionably superior to Once Upon A Time quality-wise. I would then be in the same position as with Great Expectations vs David Copperfield or Upstairs Downstairs (the original series) vs Downton Abbey: I would have to admit through gritted teeth that the first alternative is better objectively speaking, while in my heart of hearts preferring the second alternative because of its more satisfying villain content.

Luckily, Game of Thrones isn't that great. The plotting is often clichéd, the characterisation (so far) crude and the dialogue heavy-footed. What's more, a comparison with Once isn't really a given - the two series may both belong to the fantasy genre, but they have little in common otherwise. Game of Thrones concentrates on political intrigues; yes, there be dragons (not that I've seen any yet), and probably magic too, but the fantasy trappings are peripheral to the story, and you get no fairy-tale vibes at all. GoT actually has more in common with slightly ponderous period dramas than with most fantasy yarns Ive seen. It's like The Tudors, but with made-up characters - which some would argue makes it exactly like The Tudors.

So, how does it hold up as a Tudor-esque drama in its own right? I find it has other negative virtues, apart from the important one of not being better than Once:

It's not orcs-vs-elves fantasy: I have some problems with the fantasy genre, which is why I haven't really read that many books belonging to it, though I'll gladly watch a film or TV programme with a fantasy theme. Fantasy so often ends up as a fairy-tale with all the fun somehow sucked out of it. I think the trouble may be that fantasy writers, in their eagerness to impose some sort of order and method into the lawless lands of fairy tales, oversimplify matters and divide their imagined world into good, beautiful magical creatures like elves and unicorns vs bad, ugly magical creatures like trolls and orcs. In the frequent battle scenes, it's not hard to spot which is the army supporting truth and light. This is a lot less interesting than fairy-tale figures, who tend to have their own agenda and aren't lined up in some larger, overblown fight of Good vs Evil. Some of them may be more mischievous than others, but there's no fail-safe rule as to whether you'll end up better or worse for encountering them. I bet the poor girl who was left coughing up toads as a punishment for being rude didn't think the fairy who cursed her was particularly "good".

All of which has absolutely nothing to do with Game of Thrones, and that's one of its advantages - it doesn't use the plot setup of The Lion, the Witch And the Wardrobe, Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. Its protagonists are humans - not the most complex you'll encounter, true, but at least not impossibly noble harbingers of light or confusedly motivated minions of evil.

The characters aren't too engaging: In GoT, apparently, you have to be prepared for key characters being sliced and diced at a moment's notice. I've heard it argued that this is a big point in favour of the series: it adds real jeopardy to the scenarios played out. I can see where this argument is coming from. The fight scenes in The Musketeers would have been more exciting if there had been any chance that one of the Musketeers might actually cop it. Also, there are times, in my favourite TV programmes, where I've sighed a bit over "miracle saves" where characters who should be gone geese climb back from certain death or even come back from the dead because they're too popular to kill off (though sometimes, of course, this plot device feels completely justified...). To pick a fairly uncontroversial example, bringing Clara in Doctor Who back after she'd faced a suitably heroic and affecting death in "Face the Raven" was unnecessary in my book - we would have been able to handle the loss, and so would the Doctor.

Here's the thing, though. When you really, truly care about a character - when they may, in fact, be one of the main reasons you are watching a TV series in the first place - your first reaction to a random killing off of this character won't be "oh, what fresh and daring storytelling". It will be "sorry, what?!". Blood sacrifices are necessary sometimes in a TV series, for plot reasons or absconding actor reasons. But adding deaths simply to add "edginess" and a "who lives and who dies" factor? I don't know.

Happily, I don't much care whether the characters in GoT get sliced and diced or not. They're not interesting enough for that. Tyrion Lannister's likeable enough - you can see why he's a fan favourite, as he's what passes for a fully-rounded character in this story. But much of his appeal is down to Peter Dinklage's laid-back cynicism in the role, and even Dinklage struggles with a script that could have done with being a whole lot funnier. Other clever characters, like Lord "Littlefinger" Baelish and sort-of-spy-chief Varys, also lack a certain bite in their banter. Elsewhere, you see familiar tropes like The Noble Outsider Youth or The Girl Who Wants To Fight, Not To Marry. They're nice, I suppose, but if they get killed off, I won't be heartbroken.

The villains are decidedly not seductive: I would usually not count this as a virtue, but I have my reasons not to look for a new villain crush right now - I'm quite happy with the one I've got, thank you very much. And even if I were on the prowl, I would not like to fall prey to someone who risked making a "Top Ten Hated Characters in Television" list, which tends to be the case with GoT baddies.

No fear, though, because boy are the villains one-note so far. Prince Joffrey's a whiny brat who can be relied upon to behave in the most reprehensible way imaginable in any given scenario - because that's what his plot function is. A Draco Malfoy haircut can't save him, nor can comely Harry Lloyd save Viserys Targaryen from being anything else than the pathetic shit who pimps his sister to a savage war lord in order to get an army and then spends the rest of his time being spectacularly ungrateful. (Granted, the sister is tiresome.) True, I've not come across Charles Dance in armour yet - here's hoping he won't test my resolve.

I know all this is damning with faint praises, but I'll say this much for GoT: I enjoy it more than The Tudors or The White Queen. But guys, don't think we straight women viewers don't notice all those gratuitous brothel scenes and bare-chested lovelies. I'm not averse to objectifying myself - villain snogging scenes are always appreciated (though not in a GoT context) - but it hardly makes a series a grand work of art, now, does it?