This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at one of the movies that you probably only realised was based on a book when they made a film pointing that fact out: Mary Poppins.
Having not read the books, I don’t have much to say about this month’s What’s the Difference? I would like to segue into a topic that the recent Saving Mr Banks raised. I think there are some interesting points to be made about the differences between mediums when it comes to how and what is remembered.
Truly great books will generally be read by fewer people than the number who will watch a middling film adaptation. Make a great film from a great book and you will still reach more people with the film. I’ve previously mentioned how as many people saw the final Harry Potter movie as there were sales of all of the Harry Potter series of novels. So even if we just go on audience size alone, it is fair to say that a movie adaptation will shape people’s memory of an artwork.*
Of course, it is worth noting that the movie Saving Mr Banks is somewhat revisionist. Tad important to know this as large media companies dominate the landscape of society. I mean, next thing you know Americans will use movies to try and tell us they turned the war by capturing an Enigma machine…
This video essay by Lindsay Ellis talks about the Revisionist World of Disney:
*Further to this point is should this influence the author’s decision to allow a movie/TV adaptation knowing that their writing will take second place to the more popular medium?
I would posit that there are two things that are important to an author when writing with regards to the genre:
That the author enjoys the genre they are writing in;
That the genre suits the story they are writing.
I’d also argue that the first point is far more important than the second. I say this mainly because I want to provide a very superficial argument on the second point.
In a panel discussion entitled Bestsellers and Blockbusters on ABC TV’s Book Club, thriller author Matthew Reilly made mention of some literary authors who had been tempted to try writing thrillers – because money. Always about those big juicy bucks. Those authors didn’t really like the thriller genre and as a result, they didn’t understand how to write them and thus failed to write entertaining thrillers.
I have previously discussed one example of what Matthew raised in the above video. In 2014, the literary award-winning author Isabel Allende decided to dabble in crime fiction with Ripper. No, seriously, that was the title. Allende didn’t enjoy the experience. She was quoted as saying she hates crime fiction because:
It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people.
Allende went further to say that Ripper was a joke and ironic. The response to this was for crime genre fans to condemn her, bookstore Murder by the Book sent their orders back, and Goodreads ratings suggest it is one of her worst received books. Maybe next time she will not make those comments whilst on the promotional tour. Or, you know, not write something she doesn’t enjoy. One of the two.
Authors obviously have to invest a lot of time and energy in creating a novel. If they aren’t enjoying the experience, then that is likely to spill over into the quality of the end creation. So they are likely to invest time and energy in doing something they enjoy so that readers will enjoy it. Or try to grin and bear it as they go after some big juicy bucks.
The second point that authors consider is what genre suits the story they are trying to tell.* Genre can help define and shape the story. So the genre often acts as the stage or setting for the story. Think of science fiction and themes of social protest, or fantasy exploring social constructs, or horror exploring ways to dismember work colleagues. Obviously, some genres will be more suitable for telling certain stories.** As a result, the genre will be an important consideration in the writing process.
In summary, an author is likely to write in a genre they enjoy and utilise the genre that helps tell their story. To my mind, this is how an author thinks about the genre.
*Sometimes the opposite approach is used to give us a space western or sparkly vampires.
**Of course, shifting the usual themes and tropes from one genre to another can be a way to create stories as well. Where would we be without Firefly?
Industry and educators are agreed: the world needs creativity. There is interest in the field, lots of urging but remarkably little action. Everyone is a bit scared of what to do next. On the question of creativity and imagination, they are mostly uncreative and unimaginative.
Some of the paralysis arises because you can’t easily define creativity. It resists the measurement and strategies that we’re familiar with. Indisposed by the simultaneous vagueness and sublimity of creative processes, educators seek artificial ways to channel imaginative activity into templates that end up compromising the very creativity they celebrate.
For example, creativity is often reduced to problem-solving. To be sure, you need imagination to solve many curly problems and creativity is arguably part of what it takes. But problem-solving is far from the whole of creativity; and if you focus creative thinking uniquely on problems and solutions, you encourage a mechanistic view – all about scoping and then pinpointing the best fit among options.
It might be satisfying to create models for such analytical processes but they distort the natural, wayward flux of imaginative thinking. Often, it is not about solving a problem but seeing a problem that no one else has identified. Often, the point of departure is a personal wish for something to be true or worth arguing or capable of making a poetic splash, whereupon the mind goes into imaginative overdrive to develop a robust theory that has never been proposed before.
For teaching purposes, problems are an anxious place to cultivate creativity. If you think of anyone coming up with an idea — a new song, a witty way of denouncing a politician, a dance step, a joke — it isn’t necessarily about a problem but rather a blissful opportunity for the mind to exercise its autonomy, that magical power to concatenate images freely and to see within them a bristling expression of something intelligent.
That’s the motive behind what scholars now call “Big C Creativity”: i.e. your Bach or Darwin or Freud who comes up with a major original contribution to culture or science. But the same is true of everyday “small C creativity” that isn’t specifically problem-based.
Relishing the independence of the mind is the basis for naturally imaginative activity, like humour, repartee, a gestural impulse or theatrical intuition, a satire that extrapolates someone’s behaviour or produces a poignant character insight.
A dull taming
Our way of democratising creativity is not to see it in inherently imaginative spontaneity but to identify it with instrumental strategising. We tame creativity by making it dull. Our way of honing the faculty is by making it goal-oriented and compliant to a purpose that can be managed and assessed.
Alas, when we make creativity artificially responsible to a goal, we collapse it with prudent decision-making, whereupon it no longer transcends familiar frameworks toward an unknown fertility.
We pin creativity to logical intelligence as opposed to fantasy, that somewhat messy generation of figments out of whose chaos the mind can see a brilliant rhyme, a metaphor, a hilarious skip or roll of the shoulders, an outrageous pun, a thought about why peacocks have such a long tail, a reason why bread goes stale or an astonishing pattern in numbers arising from a formula.
Because creativity, in essence, is somewhat irresponsible, it isn’t easy to locate in a syllabus and impossible to teach in a culture of learning outcomes. Learning outcomes are statements of what the student will gain from the subject or unit that you’re teaching. Internationally and across the tertiary system, they take the form of: “On successful completion of this subject, you will be able to …” Everything that is taught should then support the outcomes and all assessment should allow the students to demonstrate that they have met them.
After a lengthy historical study, I have concluded that our contemporary education systematically trashes creativity and unwittingly punishes students for exercising their imagination. The structural basis for this passive hostility to the imagination is the grid of learning outcomes in alignment with delivery and assessment.
It might always be impossible to teach creativity but the least we can do for our students is make education a safe place for imagination. Our academies are a long way from that haven and I see little encouraging in the apologias for creativity that the literature now spawns.
My contention is that learning outcomes are only good for uncreative study. For education to cultivate creativity and imagination, we need to stop asking students anxiously to follow demonstrable proofs of learning for which imagination is a liability.
Is ghostwriting cheating? Well, this edition of It’s Lit discusses just that.
I think the most interesting point raised in the video is around the idea of the solitary author. This is the creative genius whose work you love or the dolt whose work you loathe. All praise and ridicule can be easily directed at one person. But outside of some indie authors, a book (or series of books) isn’t the work of one person. A lot goes into bringing a story to life and placing it in front of us readers for our entertainment. From the cover art to the editing, from the writer’s group feedback to the publisher’s request for a sequel, lots of people are involved in influencing, shaping, and ultimately creating a book.
Now, I have been known to take a dig at authors like James Patterson for their co-authoring ways. And I find it a little unseemly that Tom Clancy is still releasing new books despite having been dead for five years – seriously, half as many as his releases while alive. But that is probably as much about the mass-produced book under a name-brand that we used to associate as the domain of pulp titles. To have that become part of the big-name author stable cheapens the experience somewhat.
That cheapened feeling is probably related back to the idea of the solitary author. Or possibly that I’m not a huge fan of Patterson or Clancy. You know, one of those.
You might being asking yourself– Why do ghostwriters even exist? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t literature supposed to be the result of one person’s agonizing need to create? Aren’t books supposed to be the blood, sweat, and tears of the tortured auteur? Well, the answer is more complicated than you think!
It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.
Whenever I hear about one of my favourite novels being adapted for the big screen, or the moderate screen that fits in my house, I’m wary. Not wary in a “I hope they don’t mess this up” kind of way, but wary in a “They had better not mess this up” kind of way.
Well, one of my favourite novels was adapted for a TV show (again) and I’ve seen the first season. And I have thoughts…
I was very wary of clicking play on the trailer for the BBC America Dirk Gently series. I removed all sharp objects from my immediate vicinity before watching. If you’re a fan of Douglas Adams’ novels, you may want to do the same. Out of wariness.
Well, at least they won’t be butchering Dirk Gently, because I’m not sure that this is Dirk Gently.
This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen a book adaptation with the lead character portrayed by someone who doesn’t physically match the role. I’m talking about Tom Cruise playing Jack Reacher. Twice. Anyway, I’m not sure that Samuel Barnett really fits the Svlad Cjelli (aka Dirk Gently) middle-aged, overweight, poorly dressed, loser mould.
He is portrayed as a pudgy man who normally wears a heavy old light brown suit, red checked shirt with a green striped tie, long leather coat, red hat and thick metal-rimmed spectacles. Source
And after viewing the first season, I’m even less convinced this was a portrayal of Dirk Gently. Okay, so clearly Max Landis and his team are going for more of a “youth” vibe. Landis obviously thinks that the only way to write a quirky character (quirky being code for annoying bellend) is to have them bounce off of the walls with manic energy. Which is not something a pudgy middle-aged guy in a dirty suit does.
Then we have not-MacDuff. Elijah Wood is portraying a character named Todd. He’s meant to be more of an everyman for us to relate to (see video below for discussion). So no symphony of nature, no Susan, and no hallway couch. Todd’s relationship to “Dirk” is the typical cliched odd-couple, with the non-quirky character being inexplicably fond or loyal to the person ruining their life.
So two characters that aren’t that great* who get up to weird adventures. Right? Well, the adventures are… kinda… dull. Douglas Adams had Dirk save the world from a ghost of the people who created life on Earth, and the Norse Gods who are a bit peeved about not being admired anymore. Landis has Dirk investigating gifted people swapping bodies… and stuff.
I’m really not sure what Landis was going for. But then again, I’ve watched Bright, which leads me to conclude Landis probably doesn’t know what he’s trying to do either.
After watching this panel discussion you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone involved had a good grasp of the material they were adapting. Landis professes to being a big fan of Douglas Adams’ writing… Yet his takeaway from Dirk Gently is manic energy guy running around being weird. The panel discusses capturing the essence of Dirk Gently, but I didn’t see the loser conman and his intricate adventures that really were holistic.
It often baffles me why screenwriters diverge so far from the source material – it feels as though I discussed this recently. Do they buy the rights but forget to buy a copy of the book for the screenwriters? In this instance that doesn’t appear to be the case. Is it just that they aren’t usually looking to do a direct adaptation but more of an “inspired by” screenplay? In which case, why buy the rights and use the character names? Landis did moan about the lack of original ideas in cinema – but this is also the same guy who talks up sequels to films nobody wanted to see. Are writers trying to avoid a direct comparison between book and adaptation? Again, why buy the rights, since the screenwriters clearly have an idea for a movie/TV show and the source material is essentially made irrelevant?
In many instances, a direct adaptation would make more sense. Beloved books would often be best served by being faithfully adapted to please fans and appeal to new fans. The source material has proved itself already: so use it! Some changes are necessary, either for run-time, or translation between mediums, but this can still be done faithfully. So why doesn’t it happen more often? I personally suspect that the screenwriters aren’t being asked to do faithful adaptations for a variety of reasons, including having bosses who don’t care about the source material. In the case of Landis, I question his abilities… I sat through this adaptation, his movies Bright and American Ultra, and think it is fair to conclude his abilities are lacking.
Maybe one day we’ll see a good adaptation of Douglas Adams’ work.**
*The characters aren’t that great, but the acting is on point. So can’t blame the actors.
**Yes, I am aware of his various radio plays and the old Hitchhiker’s Guide TV series. I can’t even remember what the latter was like it has been so long since I’ve seen it.
If you have a lot of naked adventures, wouldn’t you move to a more agreeable climate?
Henry “library boy” DeTamble is unstuck in time. He visits moments from the past and future unbidden and with a lack of clothes. Claire is his wife. She has loved him since she met Henry as a little six-year-old girl and he was thirty-six. This is the story of their complicated life together.
I’ve been meaning to read The Time Traveler’s Wife since I saw the movie on our honeymoon. Achievement unlocked before the tenth anniversary! This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally read as it is a relationship focussed story with a heart-rendingly sad conclusion. Yet I really enjoyed it.
There were two things that let the novel down for me. The first is that this book runs long. There isn’t any needless rambling or overuse of exposition, but it felt like the story had a lot of filler. None of that filler was bad, per se, but I couldn’t help but feel this novel was about a third longer than it needed to be.
The second thing was the slightly uncomfortable relationship between Henry and Claire. While I was reading there were only a few moments that felt “wrong” and that those moments were handwaved a bit too much (e.g. teen Claire and adult Henry having the hots for one another). But those moments tie to the larger issues with the relationship being fated to mess with Claire’s whole life, and to a lesser extent Henry’s. If this had been discussed more directly and given more weight I’d have been happier.
Overall, I enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife and would recommend it.
We don’t often think of fantasy novels as being mysteries. And yet, in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, the mystery elements are cornerstones of the plot.
Mystery isn’t easy to do well, either, as we will see in the two videos below from Just Write. In the Harry Potter novels we see the elements Rowling used to great effect, and in the new Fantastic Beasts movies, we see how Rowling bungles those elements.
I suppose the big takeaway is that even a master writer* can mangle the craft.
*Feel free to disagree with this assertion and point out to me Rowling’s various flaws as an author in painful detail that assumes I’ve never read the Potter books. That’s why they invented the comments section.