Subverting a story and falling on your face

When I sat down at my desk to start work the other day, one of my colleagues came to my cubicle to tell me how disappointed they were with the finale of Game of Thrones. They were soon joined by another colleague. And then another. And then another.

It should be noted that I haven’t watched the show since about two-thirds of the way through the first season. But such is the importance of good storytelling to fans. At least my computer was able to install the updates while I heard about a season of TV I might never watch.

So, what did Game of Thrones do wrong?

How should I know? I don’t watch the show.

What I have managed to glean from several writer channels (see below) and from my disgusted work colleagues is that the show painted itself into a corner. The entire series was meant to be a subversion of the usual fantasy narratives and characters. Our archetypal protagonist was killed off. The archetypal antagonist was removed from power. Our ominous threat that drives the overarching plot… actually, that one appears to have been relatively normal. This makes things interesting but it also creates problems.

At some point, you have to try and make this subversive story have a narrative cohesion that feels rewarding. Otherwise, why are you watching other than to see who gets naked and/or dies this week? Many of the complaints come as a result of the show trying to make that switch to a narrative that could give the Game of Thrones a rewarding payoff.

Clearly, the showrunners weren’t able to do this to the satisfaction of the fans.

Non-fans? Meh.

Rex Jameson’s musings on GoTs.

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Book vs Movie: The Little Mermaid – What’s the Difference?

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This month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix looks at the classic children’s story that became a(nother) Disney movie.

My memory of The Little Mermaid story is what you would call hazy. The Hans Christian Andersen tales, from my recollection of them, were a lot darker and nastier than would generally be acceptable for young children these days.

The movie is much easier for me to recall, as my daughter has recently taken a liking to the tale. Except for the bits with Ursula in them, which are far too scary. Fortunately, I’m usually on hand for hugs during those scenes.

The thing that has struck me the most about The Little Mermaid, and Disney kids films in general, is how much they have progressed in the last 30 years as compared to the 30 years prior. Several of the Disney films released in the 70s and 80s (The Little Mermaid, The Fox and the Hound, The Aristocats, Winnie the Pooh) bear a lot of similarities to earlier films (101 Dalmatians, Lady and the Tramp, Bambi*). The leap that was made after Toy Story is profound, such that newer films are just in a whole other league (Tangled, Frozen, Zootopia).

Almost as big of a leap as children’s book have made since Hans Christian Anderson was writing.

The source material behind Disney’s animated classic, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, is a surprisingly metal fairy tale. Let’s take a look at all the ways the filmmakers changed the source material, talking crabs and all! It’s time to ask What’s the Difference?

* But not Dumbo. That film has aged badly. There is a lot to cringe at in Dumbo and the film itself climaxes with a very short scene, so it feels a little underdone.

Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

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Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

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Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

Fan Fiction is Awesome

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I’ve never understood authors, directors, or other creatives who have a problem with fan fiction (and other derivatives). What is wrong with fans showing their love for something you’ve created by creating something of their own? Sure, it won’t be canon, and they might not get the feel of your work right, but does it really matter?

With that, I give you a fan fiction short from Rocket Jump.*

*Yes, this post is just an excuse to share the above video, even if it is only for the Firefly reference.

All movies are unrealistic

With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight for more than a few seconds, especially not if they caught themselves from a fall. Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles, they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

Watch this world-class rock climber hold just over double his bodyweight with two hands, not one hand, for time as another example:

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie conforms to long-held stereotypes of protagonists. This movie stars an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a lithe 55kg, and they totally get naked in the second act for purely artistic reasons. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two supposedly normal adults, which is certainly very relative in movies, are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, the lithe love interest at 55kg isn’t exactly heavy. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy. I’m yet to see any love interests in a movie come equipped with appropriately knurled handles. And when dangling by your fingertips, there isn’t going to be a lot of leg drive happening. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety using the power of his mighty biceps – without a single muscle or tendon tear. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

Book vs Movie: 10 Things I Hate About You – What’s the Difference?

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Do you love Shakespeare and 90s teen romantic comedies? If the answer is no… Well, you’ll probably hate this month’s What’s the Difference? from Cinefix on 10 Things I Hate About You. This is probably not the blog post for you. Maybe read one of my other posts.

And who hates Shakespeare anyway?

Is it just because they forced you to read his plays in school?

Because his stuff is worth revisiting.

I have to confess that I’m not a fan of the original Shakespeare play, Taming of the Shrew. For me, it has not dated well. But I am a firm fan of the adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You.

For me, this is where adaptations shine. A contemporary adaptation of older works can not only offer novel takes on the original story, but they can also cut the dated material. I’m not sure too many contemporary romance stories would appeal to an audience if the women were essentially treated as property.

Another thing I enjoyed about this adaptation was seeing Heath Ledger in his first major film role since seeing him in his first play – Peter Pan – several years earlier. It was exciting to see him make that successful career transition.

Vale Heath.

Barbie My Birthday Party – Too Serious

Somehow, we have managed to acquire a Barbie storybook which our daughter inexplicably enjoys. While I privately suspect that the interest level is driven purely by the immoderate amount of pink the book is composed of, she is still fascinated by having us read it to her at bedtime.

For those who aren’t aware, Barbie is a feminist icon early childhood reinforcement of patriarchal beauty standards much-beloved kids’ toy. It has expanded from a tool of societal indoctrination line of fashion toys into a multimedia empire of animated films, television shows, video games, music, and books; and I’m left with some very important questions.

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The eponymous protagonist’s story starts with her need to celebrate her birthday by buying lots of stuff and having her friends do the same. There are decorations, cake, sparkly jewellery, and dresses to buy. And lots of butterflies for some reason. I’m not sure if the butterflies are attracted to the inordinate amount of sparkly jewels Barbie and her friends adorn themselves in, or if they are a hallucination due to overconsumption of shrooms, or if the butterflies are actually Death’s Head moths and Barbie’s Fun House is in need of an FBI raid.

This brings me to my first question: how is Barbie funding this lavish lifestyle. I know that Barbie has had many jobs during her life but she never seems to hold them down for any length of time. A lot of those jobs weren’t particularly well paid, and given the number of technical and professional degrees she would have had to obtain, her student debt levels would have to be crippling.*

To my mind, there are three possible explanations for this lavish lifestyle. Barbie is either:

  1. A trust-fund baby living a life of vapid luxury;
  2. A white-collar drug dealer supplying her rich friends with cocaine and party drugs;
  3. Or she is a consumerist wracking up mountains of credit card debt to finance a lavish lifestyle to impress her equally facile friends.**

The drug dealer explanation would certainly explain her impossible body proportions; the amphetamines and cocaine keeping her thin, and with plastic surgery padding the other areas. But another career? That seems a bit far fetched. The credit card funding similarly doesn’t seem likely due to her 30-jobs-a-decade career habit.

The job-hopping would, however, fit with the trust-fund baby explanation. Bored rich kid decides to change careers for the third time this year: not a problem. It would also explain many of the other story inconsistencies. Which brings me to the next issue.

In the story, Barbie is throwing a party for herself. She could have been throwing a surprise party for her friends, or she could have been holding a fundraiser for impoverished people who can’t afford to eat let alone accessorise for their catered birthday party. Instead, we are treated to pages of exposition detailing her choice of dress, make-up, jewellery, hairstyle, and matching her shoes and handbag. Then to top it all off, we see her matching presents to the friends who gave them, as though she is judging the friendship upon the quality of the gifts received.

I’m concerned that in a world of growing inequality that Barbie’s message is one of vapid selfishness that seeks to teach young girls a nasty and mean lesson. This trust-fund image-obsessed wealth flaunter is not an ideal that young girls should be exposed to. The very least Barbie could have done is host a charity fundraiser, although even that is somewhat problematic. Has she learnt nothing from Bill Gates and Warren Buffet’s examples?

Maybe I’m judging Barbie too harshly. This was, after all, a short Barbie story. It is quite possible that in further adventures many of my above concerns and questions will be addressed. I only hope that those stories have satisfactory explanations and answers.

* I’m also not convinced that she has actually had all of the jobs she has claimed. There is a sense that she is padding her resume for some unknown reason. I mean, how do you manage to be a paratrooper and the US President in the same year and then throw the towel in to become a Spanish teacher the next year?

** There is a fourth option that I don’t wish to include in the main list as I hope it is untrue. Pretty girls like Barbie can make good money escorting and that would certainly explain her expansive wardrobe; her sugar daddies making sure she is always looking pretty. This is a very poor message to send to young girls. Encouraging such a dual-exploitative career as a means to accrue meaningless objects of vanity normalises everything wrong with the sex-industry whilst marginalising its positive aspects.

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