Why We Keep Retelling the Classics

This month’s It’d Lit! is all about stealing your story ideas from others.

I’ve previously discussed how few plots there are and how certain archetypes trace their origins back as far as we have records for. One example of this is the wandering hero, or knight errant, arriving in town to take on the bad guys before moving off for the next adventure. This is a popular genre – think Jack Reacher – and has its origins at least as far back as the Greek myths and East Asian folklore.

So is this recycling or is it about the formula storytellers use as the basic backbone to hang their narrative off of?

I’d argue the latter. This is especially true of the examples of “inspired by” or “fan-fic” from the video (and elsewhere). The storyteller will have been thinking about that awesome story and what they’d have liked to do differently, or set it in a different location.

For example, the best Die Hard sequels haven’t been in the Die Hard franchise. Instead, they have been Die Hard On a Bus, or Die Hard On a Plane, or Die Hard In the Whitehouse. The fact you probably know exactly which movies those refer to shows how the basic premise being adapted doesn’t cut down on the creativity. Well, mostly.

And even if the recycling isn’t quite as overt as Die Hard On a Boat, all stories are inspired by or are a combination of the stories that came before. The storyteller has to start somewhere. Preferably not with Die Hard On a Train, the sequel to Die Hard On a Boat.

From James Joyce’s Ulysses to Bridget Jones’s Diary, you’ve probably read a book that was just a modern retelling of a well-established story. Which is to say nothing of other forms of media and their own obsessions with retellings.

And despite what your Writing 101 instincts might tell you, this is neither bad nor lazy writing—or even a new concept. Because let’s be honest: sometimes a story is just so dang good, it bears repeating. Sometimes more than once. Sometimes multiple times. I’m looking at you, Jane Austen.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

What You Don’t Know About The Father of Sci-Fi – HG Wells

Let’s take a look at the works of HG Wells with this month’s It’s Lit!

A few years ago I read and re-read several of HG Wells’ novels. The thing that I was struck by was just how dry and dull the stories were.

Don’t get me wrong, the concepts, characters, plots, etc, are all good. The problem was how a story would be bookended or be a recounted narrative or some other technique that removed just about any tension or engagement. It was like setting fire to a classic sports car to get insurance money to buy a Toyota Corolla.

But it was a different time. Wells wrote for a different audience. We can forgive him.

Or can we?

One thing not discussed in the video is Wells’ long history of plagiarism. Several of his “big ideas” were lifted straight from other lesser-known authors. The novel that set him up as a professional writer was ripped directly from the unknown Florence Deeks. Not satisfied with having gotten away with the theft, Well’s decided to ruin Deeks.

So in terms of things we didn’t know about Well’s, I think him going against his own socialist values by plagiarising is near the top of the list.

H.G. Wells is a name that is synonymous with the creation of what we now know as science fiction. He effectively invented the subgenre of alien invasion, he coined now-ubiquitous terms “time machine,” “heat ray” and even disputably “the new world order.” But what most people don’t know about Wells is that although today he is predominantly known for his science fiction, his career as an SF author was pretty short.

Wells wrote dozens of novels, most of which weren’t science fiction. But despite the relatively few science fiction works he wrote in comparison to his vast oeuvre, Wells was an influential thinker – not just for the genre of science fiction, but for science’s relationship to the culture at large.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Dune – What’s the Difference?

With the new Dune movie coming soon, it’s time to look at the 80s adaptation’s differences from the classic novel.

On the train to work the other day I noticed that in my carriage half the people reading books were reading Dune – mostly the first novel but some were reading other parts of the series. It was somewhat surprising.

Then about a week later I was in a book store and saw that they had an entire shelf of Dune novels and a new edition of the first novel in piles at the front of the store. It was then that I remembered Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation was coming out soon.

Now of course, I’m so ahead of the game that I read Dune *checks notes* 3 years ago. I even discussed the Dune series’ importance just last year.

For me the main thing about the David Lynch adaptation was that it needed to be a political thriller. Instead it was a drama.

Not that the film isn’t without tension and thrills, like the running across the desert without the thumpers and trying to avoid the worms. But the book needed to be stripped back to that political thriller plot to hang the conflict and civil war on.

I’m not sure what Villeneuve plans to do, but he is a very accomplished storyteller. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds where Lynch managed to find himself crying in the corner he’d painted himself into.

Dune is coming back to the big screen while Denis Villenueve and Timothee Chalamet crashing a sandworm into your HBO Max as well, so it’s time to take a look back at the adaptation from David Lynch back in 1984. Based on the Frank Herbert epic, Dune is considered to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time. So how did an indie auteur make a big budget Hollywood adaptation out of a dense fantasy epic? It’s time to remember, fear is the mind killer as we ask, What’s the Difference?

Starring Kyle MacLachlan as Paul Atreides, Sting as the space-underwear clad Feyd-Rautha and the soon-to-be Captain Picard Patrick Stewart, Lynch brought together a fascinating group of 80s character actors like Dean Stockwell, Linda Hunt and Jurgen Prochnow to fill out the cast. A critical and commercial failure when it came out, and in light of prior failed attempts to adapt the sci fi fantasy all-timer, which included Jodorowsky’s Dune, the book was long thought to be unfilmable. With the Atreides and Harkonnen rekindling their big screen rivalry in the form of Oscar Isaac, Josh Brolin, Zendaya and a cast as stellar as the one Lynch assembled, we’ll see how 2021’s adaptation fares.

Book review: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David K Johnson

Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as PhilosophySci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy by David K. Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Science Fiction: more than just pew-pew noises.

Science Fiction as Philosophy is a Great Courses series in which each lecture uses an example sci-fi movie or show (plus a few supporting examples) to discuss a philosophical concept. This illustrates both the depth of sci-fi and creates a starting point to draw various philosophical ideas together. David K Johnson presents this broad-ranging series.

The audiobook/lecture series is much like the rest of the Great Courses and includes course notes. The notes book in this instance is presented as a lot of dot points – I don’t remember this being the case in other Great Courses. It was incredibly handy for doing the lateral reading.

This was a fantastic series. The lecturer was able to cover a lot of material in a concise and accessible manner. Johnson also managed to retain a sense of humour that was entertaining in what could have been dry and boring subject matter.

It was great to revisit so many of my favourite sci-fi movies and shows to discuss them with a philosophical eye. This was generally well done and interesting. The deeper insights were not necessarily surprising to sci-fi fans but I generally found a bit more depth to the material here than in the usual pop-philosophy discussions.

That said, there were times where the lectures felt like the cliff notes of philosophy, which isn’t that surprising for something covering a lot of ground. For some topics, I noticed that material was a shortened version of things like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. So this could feel a bit light on if you are familiar with the philosophy being discussed.

Overall, I really enjoyed this Great Courses series and want to dive into some of the other series David K Johnson has made.

Comments while reading:
Lots of great material and subject matter. Highlighted a few of my old favourites, like The Thirteenth Floor.

I have so many issues with the Simulation Hypothesis and 20% chance figure. Personally, I think we should dismiss it in much the same way we dismiss the Devil’s Veil, Brain in a Vat, Matrix, and other similar ideas. Materialism is a much better explanation, as discussed in a previous lecture/chapter.

My main issue with the idea is that the probability matrix and reasoning are essentially Pascal’s Wager (which is predated by several other versions). The problem is that you can use this reasoning to justify just about anything. Replace belief that we’re living in a simulation with belief in magic or god or superman or evil superman or the free market. Nonsense can be granted a “logical” and “rational” foundation which could then be used to justify atrocities – e.g. you could justify killing people because it’s only a simulation.

Pascal’s wager: Believing in and searching for kryptonite — on the off chance that Superman exists and wants to kill you. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Pascal%…

The section on militarism vs pacifism vs just war is a little disappointing. It starts strong with the castigation of militarism. The pacifism is covered reasonably, the best bit being the dispelling of the idea of pacifism being about just rolling over to violence rather than finding non-violent ways to address violence/militarism. But then Johnson kinda falls prey of several ahistorical factors and militaristic ideas in being critical of pacifism. Which leads into just war as some sort of compromise between the two.

I disagree here. I’d argue that just war isn’t a middle ground but instead a justification for militarism through a pseudo-intellectual justification. Take any of the given requirements of just war and you won’t find a single war (or conflict) that meets the criteria. Even going historically (it’s meant to be used prior and during) you have to be pretty selective in your cherry-picking to get things to fit. E.g. Hitler and the Nazis were bad, so WW2 was all good… well, except the conditions for WW2 were sown at the close of WW1 and could have easily been avoided, the war supplies to Germany could have easily been closed (although that would have stopped the US companies making big $$ from the Nazis), and the Nazis party could have not been internationally endorsed. In other words, the only reason you can meet Just War is if you turn a blind eye for a couple of decades and wait for atrocities to start happening and use those as a post-hoc reason to go to war (they didn’t know about the atrocities until after going to war).

There’s nothing like being reminded of how terrible Robert Nozick’s philosophy was/is. “Rawls was wrong because people earn stuff, even when they cheated or got lucky, and most actually get lucky, BUT THEY EARNED IT DAMMIT!!”

I think Johnson is way off the mark on the luke-warmerism of Snowpiercer. I’m not sure if this is just a really bad take on his part or if he is unaware of the arguments around geoengineering solutions to climate change. Probably a bit of both. Point being, geoengineering is seen by its critics as offering similar unforeseen consequences as the burning of fossil fuels. This means Snowpiercer exists in a world where delay by the powerful required hubristic action that once again disproportionally impacted the poor. Maybe the problem is that Johnson was trying to discuss something fresher, since Snowpiercer has been written about quite a bit from the class struggle perspective, and was trying to fit within his lecture structure.

View all my reviews

Book review: Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews

Sweep in Peace (Innkeeper Chronicles, #2)Sweep in Peace by Ilona Andrews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gotta wonder if magic would also work to stop weapons manufacturers perpetuating war?

It’s been slow for the Gertrude Hunt Inn since Dina Demille stopped an intergalactic assassin in her neighbourhood. But on short notice, Dina is called upon to host trilateral peace talks for groups who would really like to kill everyone. From looking after one guest to hosting feasts for dozens, Dina is under the pump to not only look after everyone but see that the talks are a success. She’ll be ruined otherwise.

There are times when I really love my library. After finishing Clean Sweep, I put my name on the reserve list for Sweep in Peace. The queue was a month long, so I started another novel in the interim. Just as I was debating whether to persist with that far less entertaining novel, Sweep in Peace was available. I can only assume the quick turnaround of only a few days to be due to how fast a read this series is.

This was quite an ambitious novel. The premise of the conflict is not an easy one to navigate. I especially appreciated the peace negotiation as it is almost the polar opposite of what most novels would do with a war. Diplomacy? Surely we can just shoot the diplomat full of arrows and then commit a genocide?*

While successfully achieving this ambitious premise, Sweep in Peace still manages to retain its fast pace, humour, and charm. The emergent humour that naturally fits within the scenes is particularly good.

I’m already reading book three in the series, One Fell Sweep. That should tell you everything you need to know about how much I enjoyed Sweep in Peace.

* If you don’t get this reference to one of the least subtle comments on diplomacy and promotion of war being awesome, then I’m glad. Old Man’s War was bad on many levels.

View all my reviews

Book review: Better Than Life by Grant Naylor

Better than Life (Red Dwarf #2)Better than Life by Grant Naylor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The only time watching snooker isn’t boring is when you scale it up.

The crew of Red Dwarf are trapped in the most addictive game of all time: Better Than Life. Most people become trapped because they don’t even realise they are in the game, but Lister, Rimmer, Cat, and Kryten know it. They’ve even thought of leaving. Can they get out before Holly and the Toaster manage to crash into a black hole?

After reading Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (Red Dwarf #1), I couldn’t help but continue straight into Better Than Life. The former finished with the Red Dwarf crew stuck in BTL, which is something of a cliffhanger. BTL similarly finishes on a bit of a cliffhanger that appears to lead into Backwards (although, Last Human is also a direct sequel to this, because reasons*).

Much like the first novel, this fleshes out ideas and episodes from the first few seasons of Red Dwarf. While it has been quite a while since I watched the show, I think the books do more with the material and rely on less of the banter/insults for humour. And like the first novel, I was pleasantly reminded of just how funny these books (and the show) are.

I’m looking forward to reading Backwards and Last Human soon.

* The reason being that Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had two more books on their contract to deliver and they had decided to separate as a writing team. The exact reasons for the separation are unclear, even to the duo themselves it seems, and Doug Naylor has continued Red Dwarf without Grant.

View all my reviews

Book vs Movie: Doctor No – What’s the Difference?

With a new Bond movie set for theaters, it’s time to look back at the first James Bond adventure and ask, What’s the Difference?

I still haven’t picked up any of the Bond books. Previously I’ve mentioned having vague memories of reading a couple when I was younger. But honestly, they could have been Biggles books.

Side note: as a kid I always thought that Biggles and his friends were gay. I didn’t really know what that was exactly, but they were definitely it. Monty Python agreed. Pity it wasn’t championed a bit more.

Seeing the differences outlined between the Dr No book and film does highlight an issue with plot vs character adaptation. Especially for a series. Change one and you have to change the other.

Although, it would be interesting to see how a cardboard thin character could be slotted into any plot without change. Like say the majority of Jason Statham’s roles.

No Time to Die finds James Bond, Her Majesty’s most infamous double-oh, retired in Jamaica. But we’re going all the way back to the first time Sean Connery as 007 found his way to the Caribbean Island in 1962’s Doctor No. But while it was the first Bond adventure in the film franchise, it was the sixth book author Ian Fleming published. So how did the filmmakers set about adapting the middle of Bond’s novel career for the beginning of his film escapade? Dust off your license to kill because it’s time to ask, “Difference… What’s the Difference?”

Book vs Movie: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – What’s the Difference?

Did you know that Quentin Tarantino had novelised his ninth film? Neither did I. Let’s take a look and What’s the Difference?

As a Tarantino fan since the early 90s – geez, that makes me sound even older than I am – I have to come clean on Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. I didn’t like it.

I’ll even go a step further and say that his previous film, Hateful Eight, wasn’t good either.

Unlike Hateful Eight, which had a decisive moment when the film fell apart (Tarantino’s voice over setting up the third act just ruined everything for me), Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was entirely pedestrian. It always felt like a film avoiding being anything other than a love letter to Hollywood films of the 60s.

In fairness to the movie, Tarantino was clearly trying to subvert many of the usual movie moments and be more about actors making great films. For example, the scene at the ranch was setup for a fight for Pitt’s character (Cliff Booth) and the Manson acolytes. Instead, Tarantino subverts that moment and there is no fight, allowing us plenty more time for DiCaprio’s character to learn about method acting from his child co-star.

That the novelisation is quite different from the film isn’t particularly surprising. It’s pretty difficult to make Brad Pitt into a thoroughly unlikable character in a movie. Something to do with charisma and production credits. But the book is unconstrained by actor charisma, which makes it a good opportunity to throw the character under the bus.

Regardless of Tarantino’s future literary aspirations, I hope his tenth/final film is able to cement his career as one of the greats.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Who is Cliff Booth anyway?

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a celebrated installment in writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre. So when he came out with a book adaptation of the story, we were first in line to read it. But was the book markedly different from the film, and do those differences mean something big? We think so and we’ll explain in this Book vs. Film on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – The New Ending.

The Unappreciated Female Writers Who Invented the Novel

This month’s It’s Lit covers Amatory Fiction.

This is an interesting video for several reasons. I’m always amused when the topic of rethinking “great authors” comes up and people without pearls start clutching them.

The literary canon excluding certain types of authors and books shouldn’t be news to people. But there always seems to be plenty of reactionary debate making excuses for why, for example, Grapes of Wrath got published while Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown (written the same year on the same topic, both using Babb’s notes) took 65 years to be released. Yeah, that was a thing.

I’ve covered this before when calls have been made to increase the diversity of the literary lists for students in the hopes that more diversity of texts will be taught. Getting people who don’t read much to acknowledge that “literary greats” are less about talent than luck (timing, contacts, $$, etc) is a hard task. Trying to get those same people to acknowledge that women, people of colour, and non-Americans might have written books throughout history is often a hurdle they are unwilling to even attempt jumping.

Which brings me around to one of my favourite topics here: snobbery and guilty pleasures. The It’s Lit video shows how snobbery essentially relegated an important part of literature to the unknown and unappreciated baskets of history. Combine that snobbery with a bit of the old bigotry of the pants and you will have people trying to ignore a segment of literature that broke boundaries (e.g. Behn wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery novels).

For more on Sanora Babb’s novel, it is worth watching this video:

The guy typically credited with inventing what we know as the modern novel was Miguel de Cervantes with his cumbersome 800+ page book, Don Quixote. But what if I told you that the real antecedent for the modern novel was created by… ladies.

Before the rise of what would become the modern novel, there was Amatory fiction. Amatory fiction was a genre of fiction that became popular in Britain in the late 17th century and early 18th century. As its name implies, amatory fiction is preoccupied with sexual love and romance. Most of its works were short stories, it was dominated by women, and women were the ones responsible for sharing and promoting their own work.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs movie: Invincible – What’s the Difference?

This instalment of What’s the Difference? comes from Wisecrack and looks at Invincible.

I have to admit to having given the Invincible TV show a miss. Firstly because it is on Amazon, whose billing practices and worker treatment are terrible. Secondly because I read Irredeemable first and kinda felt I’d been down this path already.

It is interesting that several recent superhero adaptations have looked for material that explores the idea of “What would superheroes really be like?” Probably not surprising given the fact that comic book movie fatigue has started to hit.

Invincible: Does it have an attitude problem?

In a year full of comic adaptations, Invincible stands out as one of the best. But how do its 8 episodes compare to the 144 issues of the original comic? And what does attitude have to do with it? Let’s find out in this Book vs. Film: Invincible.

Jane Eyre: Why We Keep Reading It

This month’s It’s Lit! is all about Jane Eyre, even some of the fan-fic it inspired.

Having not read Jane Eyre, after watching this video I’m even less motivated to do so.

I’m fickle I guess.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte was there for the weird girls, the quiet ones who watched and listened, the ones who pined away for someone to accept them in all of their weird, dark glory.

But in the nearly 175 years since its publication, the collective definition of what it means to be “a woman on the outside of society” has changed and expanded dramatically—and yet here we are, still dissecting Charlotte Bronte’s words and gravitating towards Jane as a protagonist.

For those of you who have never read Jane Eyre or enjoyed one of the 8000 films, television, stage, or radio adaptations not to mention countless literary retelling here we go.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Good Shows, Bad Endings

As a science nerd, I love graphs. So this post is an excuse to share the work of Bo McCready.

So who doesn’t love having their favourite show suffer under the inability of the creators to care enough about finishing it properly? Whether it be show runners wanting to do something else, off-set controversies requiring massive changes to the show, or the writers being told they have 8 episodes to wrap up all the intricate characters and plots in a satisfactory way as they join the dole queue, show endings can suffer as a result.

If you go to the Tableau page you can interact with these graphs. You can see the version I’ve saved includes The Simpsons and its slow decline since seasons 5 and 6, that has you questioning how it is still on air 25 seasons later. But you have the ability to add any show.

You can also look at Good Shows with Good Endings. It’s interesting to browse through the list to see several of my favourites: Banshee, Justified, The Wire, Leverage, and Person of Interest. In this graphic I’ve added The Expanse, which has the interesting trend of getting better with each season and finishing at its peak.

As with all data, it is important to take onboard the limitations of this presentation.

Take for example the widely loved mediocrity that was Friends. A highly rated show with a highly rated finale whose entire run could be described as middling entertainment. You can see that largely unchallenging, unengaging, inoffensive entertainment has more of a chance to keep its audience happy.

Another example is Game of Thrones. Hey, remember that show? It was only two years ago. Remember how this pop culture phenomenon died and hasn’t been spoken about with anything other than derision since? I’ve gone into how the final season and finale didn’t manage to meet fan expectations, but worse than Baywatch, How I Met Your Mother, and [insert literally any sitcom ever here]?

I think the takeaway from these graphics is that people need to watch an episode of According to Jim or Big Brother to remind themselves that even at their worst, your favourite show was a well crafted gem.

Film genre popularity

As a science nerd, I love graphs. So this post is an excuse to share the work of Bo McCready.

The first is a graphic of film genres over time. As you can see, some genres are niche (sci-fi and fantasy), some have become less popular over time (westerns and musicals), while some have become more popular (horror and documentaries). Meanwhile, comedy has been dominating since the 1930s.

It should be noted how the films are classified. Obviously, very few films are purely one genre. Westerns would often be (hugely problematic) action movies as well. Some westerns were also romances, and there are at least a few famous musicals in that genre too. More recently, sci-fi could be more accurately termed comic book/Marvel movies. But they also tend to be comedies, action, and box-office gold.

So what does this data actually tell us?

Well, I think it shows a couple of things. The first is that one one genre ever really dominates, despite what we may think. The second is that most films are rarely able to fit neatly within one genre box, no matter how hard reductionists wish they would. And the third is that a bit of humour is always welcome.

How Manga Took Over American Bookshelves

Who likes Manga? And more importantly for the smoking jacket wearing class, is it literature? This month’s It’s Lit! discusses.

Okay, let’s just ignore the American-centric aspect of PBS videos. I’m sure one of their bylaws is about having to do cultural imperialism.

It’s quite interesting how Manga and Anime have percolated out into the mainstream. Most people will have been exposed to at least some of the Anime of various Manga. For myself, I can remember watching Astro Boy as a kid and discovering comics of it at the library. This lead to questions about why they would make a comic of a perfectly watchable TV show? Wouldn’t it make more sense to write something new that could be made into a TV show? Is there some reference in this card index that will help 9 year old me understand this issue better?

At the same time, Manga still has a fringe quality to it. This is partly due to it being (scare quotes) FOREIGN (/scare quotes). But it is also related to the comic format.

You see, comics are made for kids – puffs on pipe whilst leaning against mantle next to log fire, monocle helping me peer down my nose at those Lesser Works.

This tide is slowly turning. People are now able to recognise the merits of comics and Manga. And at some stage we might even get a decent live-action movie based on a Manga.

Astro Boy, Dragon Ball, Akira, Sailor Moon, Demon Slayer, Death Note all these interesting, iconic anime have something very much in common they started off as: manga.

Manga, by its most simplistic definition, are comics or graphic novels originating from Japan, which became extremely popular in the United States starting in the 80s and 90s. We’ve already touched on Western Graphic Novels and Comics, but you know we couldn’t just leave it at that (not with this t-shirt). So today we’re discussing manga as its own rich literature, reflecting the complicated political history of Japan.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: Shadow & Bone – What’s the Difference?

Screen Rant have broken down the differences between book and Netflix show for Shadow & Bone.

I’m about half-way through the series on Netflix. It didn’t exactly wow me out of the gate, but I did think it had potential. A few episodes in and I’m entertained.

I really appreciate the differences between the book and the show. It elevates the show about generic YA and gives us Inej Ghafa earlier in the series.

Although, still generic enough to have me laugh at the super obvious love triangle.

Book vs Movie: The Queen’s Gambit – What’s the Difference?

This month’s What’s the Difference? looks at The Queen’s Gambit.

On my Netflix profile there are a couple of types of recommendation categories that keep popping up. One is “Because you watched John Wick shoot 400 people in the head” and the other is “Movies based on books”. Both are obviously bound to have good recommendations in them.

Needless to say, I became aware of The Queen’s Gambit because of the fact it was based upon a book. That I’d never heard of the book is probably telling you a lot about how many chess thrillers I read.

The changes mentioned in the video above were intriguing. The one that stuck out to me was the mother being turned into a rich woman with a PhD. In the 1950s. This really feels like some lazy shorthand by the screenwriters.

Often in movies you’ll have super-smart characters described as having a number of PhDs. Because smart people obviously feel the need to have multiple PhDs rather than doing postdocs, climbing the corporate or academic hierarchy, and becoming world renowned. It used to be that these smart characters would have a large IQ, but that is falling out of favour. I’m hoping it is because authors realise that IQ has limited utility, but realistically it will be because it has become a cliche.

The idea that the mother had to be rich is something I’ve noted with a lot of films and TV shows of late. There appears to be a fetishisation of wealth happening in our media. Sure, Snowpiercer, Parasite, etc., have all been popular of late. But look at how many protagonists are billionaires (or millionaires). Think about the revision of characters like Spiderman from working class to being wealthy or having wealthy benefactors.

Maybe I’m just having selective memory. There is a noted phenomenon of movie and TV show productions displaying an utter failure to understand what things cost or what poverty looks like. Like having the Friends cast living in apartments that none of them could afford. Maybe I’m just hung-up on the Spiderman example – since a big part of his character was struggling financially whilst being a hero. Or maybe having poor characters makes product placement – like a lime green Alpha Romeo in Michael Bay’s 6 Underground – really hard.

Netflix made chess sexy again with its limited series The Queen’s Gambit. With Anya Taylor-Joy as orphan turned chess prodigy Beth Harmon, writer director Scott Frank created a cinematic portrayal of the mind of a chess genius through substance abuse, struggles with mental health and even the Cold War. But Walter Tevis wrote the novel in a simple, unadorned style that’s a far cry from the stylish and sexy version of the story that wound up in your Netflix queue. So with no restraint on spoilers, it’s time to ask, what’s the difference?

While Anya Taylor-Joy is a more glamorous version of Beth Harmon in the Golden Globe winning awards season darling, the story follows a lot of the same beats. Following her from orphan and prodigy to eventual chess master and world champion, Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Game of Thrones and Harry Melling from the Harry Potter franchise play more complicated versions of their book counterparts. But many of the changes, while seemingly small, have sneaky wide-ranging implications on the Beth’s journey from learning the game from the janitor at an orphanage, to developing an addiction to pills and ultimately her victory over a Russian Grand Master. It’s an interesting and sometimes frustrating collection of changes!

Misunderstanding George Orwell and 1984

Have you heard people refer to us as currently living in 1984? Has someone said to you that data tracking is very Big Brother? Then you might enjoy this video from Dr Tom Nicholas.

I am routinely amazed at the vacuous, superficial, and cherry picked references people make to George Orwell’s novels, particularly 1984.

In some respects, I understand. 1984 is quite a lugubrious read. It and Animal Farm are often read during high school as compulsory texts, a time people are noted for being at the peak of the intellectual prowess. So it is understandable that people remember little, if anything, about Orwell’s books.

But it is frustrating to run across many “appeals to Orwell” by commentators (like Jordan Peterson). These people will present themselves as having read and internalised Orwell’s writing, and are now helping us understand its significance. Yet even just reading the SparkNotes should have people seeing through these commentators.

If there is any one line from Orwell that can dispel the misunderstandings more thoroughly than any other, it is this one from the essay Why I Write:

In this month’s video, we’re looking at the work of both Jordan B. Peterson (author of Maps of Meaning, 12 Rules for Life and Beyond Order) and George Orwell (author of 1984, Animal Farm and Homage to Catalonia).

Professor Peterson has a video on his YouTube channel titled “On Free Thought and Speech in London” in which, inspired by seeing a statue of Orwell, he suggests that one of the aspects which separated the capitalist west from the communist east during the Cold War was an ability for journalists to “say what they think”.

Taking this as a starting point, I seek to dig into uses (and abuses) of George Orwell’s work by Peterson and the political right more broadly. Through contextualising Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm within Orwell’s own life, I seek to draw out the deep critiques of Peterson’s beloved “Western culture” which are contained within those books.

Towards the end, I also consider whether 1984 might provide an interesting lens for unpacking Peterson’s own work and the Cold War view of the world which underlies it.

What’s in a (Pen) Name?

This month’s It’s Lit! discusses author names and why they are often pseudonyms.

One of the things not discussed in the video is just how ancient the idea of pen names are and how they are/have been used to denote multiple authors.

Homer’s works were probably written by many people, making Homer a pen name. Lao Tzu was also likely to be an attribution for the Taoist collection Tao Te Ching, based upon a semi-mythical founder of the philosophy and religion. The author favoured by business and military leaders, and people with aspirations to being serial killers, Sun Tzu, is believed to have never existed. Instead, decades or centuries of knowledge was collected under the name.

More recently, we see pen names being taken for collaborations. James SA Corey of The Expanse fame is the pen name of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. Grant Naylor of Red Dwarf fame is actually Rob Grant and Doug Naylor. Ilona Gordon and Andrew Gordon write under the name Ilona Andrews for their adventures in urban fantasy. And Tom Clancy is famously half-a-dozen homicidal monkeys taped together.

In all these instances, you can see why a pen name was utilised. Having two authors on the cover of a book is reserved for franchises, like James Paterson and Clive Cussler. The name that will sell the book is at the top in bold, and the flunky who actually wrote it is attributed somewhere they’ll be missed. So writing teams need a pen name. The more historical examples appear to be about attribution to a progenitor or (semi) mythical figure, either to honour the inspiration for later works (particularly from more oral traditions), or to collect work under one banner.

This makes pen names very interesting. Particularly as knowledge of the author/s fades into history. The art outlives the artist. Yet we still try to figure out who they were and how they came to entertain and influence us long after their passing.

Maybe one day our descendants will be arguing whether James Paterson was a real author or just a marketing brand for blooding new authors. Maybe by then the Clancy monkeys might have mellowed out a bit.

To some people, the idea of a pen name seems kind of weird. If I, a writer, am going to put countless hours of hard work and thought into my masterpiece, why wouldn’t I want to put my own name underneath the title?

But from Stephen King to Ben Franklin to …., who had their own secret aliases, to Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss, whose pseudonyms became so famous that they are remembered by their pen names and not their actual names, the nom de plume has a long and proud history in the literary world.

Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes, It’s Lit! is a show about our favorite books, genres, and why we love to read. It’s Lit has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Book vs Movie: How Themes Changed in Lord of the Rings

It’s been 4 years since the last post about Lord of the Rings. Let’s do this!

This is a slightly different take on the differences between the book and the film. Wisecrack have looked at the major themes rather than diving into all of the changes made in the adaptation.

When I last discussed the Lord of the Rings series (see here, here, and here), I heaped praise upon the adaptations. They were able to trim down the waffle and create possibly one of the best trilogies in film history.

I hadn’t previously given a lot of thought to the changes in the themes between the book and the films. Now that it has been mentioned, the character arcs in the film should have been more obvious to me. I also find the idea that the movies were (accidentally??) made to be more secular is interesting. Perhaps that change is as much to do with when the book was written versus when the films were made.

Given the desire to reboot and remake every intellectual property in the cupboard these days, maybe the next LOTR movies will be given an Avengers style makeover. Lots of quippy dialogue, everyone has lots of money, several of the lead characters spend time with their shirts off and arms bulging, and somehow there will be product placement everywhere.

Covid Writer’s Blockdown

Something I’ve been musing about for – checks calendar – YOU’VE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME, IT’S ONLY BEEN A YEAR???

Sorry, anyway, something I’ve been musing about is writing during a pandemic. At the start of lockdowns, I remember hearing the buzz about how there would be a rush of book submissions to agents and publishers with everyone having lots of time to write. All those people who believed they had a novel stuck inside them now had enough time to pull out the scalpel and repeatedly stab themselves until they realised they should have taken their doctor more seriously.

But now we’re coming out the other side of that sunny optimism. Articles are starting to appear discussing how lockdown has equalled blockdown.

Punny terms aside, the article in The Guardian touches on much of what I’ve been thinking about without really understanding the issue. It hints at the problem without really spelling it out.

It all comes down to how the creative space works. You need to be able to let your mind wander off to the plains of [insert metaphor here, something really wankery that fits with us creative types] where your story can take shape. To let your mind wander requires a lack of interruptions, a level and type of noise that isn’t distracting, and you have to not be stressed (see my posts on these topics).

Now, what could possibly be getting in the way of creativity during Covid-19?

This is why the original articles talking about how lockdowns would lead to a splurge of novels always seemed optimistic to me. There were only superficial conditions for creativity, not the actual conditions for it. Just having kids in the house all day would be distracting enough to turn the best of times into the blurst of times. Add in working from home and the noted work creep that has had. Add in not working. Add in working on what is called the front-lines in a great reference to trench warfare – and how far away the generals are holding their tea party. Add in home-schooling. Add in stress, financial or existential. Add in feeling crowded in your workspace and then not leaving that workspace for weeks/months on end.

These aren’t the conditions for writing. These are the conditions for sitting on the couch, huddled under a blanket, mindlessly scrolling through social media in search of that sweet sweet shot of endorphins. Is it any surprise that baking sourdough bread, watching terrible Netflix original movies, and tidying the house became popular in 2020?

I recognised this early on and didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write. Sorry, rather, I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to write quality material. Writing wasn’t the problem. Having it resemble something that wasn’t a desperate cry for help or a tirade that would be combed over by profilers wondering why I’d committed such an unspeakable act was the problem.

I’m sure there are writers out there who haven’t had a problem with lockdowns and creativity. From what I’ve seen, dedicated workspaces for writing and a history of consistent writing habits (and being an empty nester) are helpful. But for the rest of us, creativity has been given all the wrong conditions to thrive, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

Or do be hard on yourself. Maybe we could have learned how to be creative under pressure. Maybe we do suck!