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Analyzing Adaptation: Why the Source Material is Only Half the Story

December 3, 2013 in Classic Literature, Contemporary Literature, Fantasy Literature, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies, Pop Culture, YA Fiction

In the wake of a recent surge in successful movie adaptations of literature — from classic novels like The Great Gatsby to popular young adult fiction like The Hunger Games — it is often assumed that an adapted film that isn’t faithful to its source material can’t be good. Remaining objective is incredibly difficult, especially for fans of the books who see the story and characters they love represented in a way different from what they imagined.

I’m here to tell you that adapted movies need not adhere to their source material to be “good”—in fact, strict adherence is often just as inadvisable.

We all know significant deviation in an adaptation causes disappointment and backlash. Audiences see the title and expect a certain obedience to the original story, so that when there are missing subplots or characters they feel betrayed. Let’s talk about David Lynch’s Dune (1984) for a second. Lynch hadn’t even read the book when he signed on to write the screenplay. Watching the film makes you feel like Lynch got halfway through the book and then just skipped to the end. Cuts are inevitable when it comes to adapting literature, but in this case, the entire second half of the book is significantly altered.

And what if you haven’t read the book? I actually saw Dune before I read the book myself and I thought it was pretty decent. It’s incredibly weird, but it is David Lynch. All his movies are weird. The biggest disappointment is that you occasionally have to make generous inferences on behalf of the movie due to the fact that it is trying to pack a 412 page novel (or at least 206 pages of it) into 2 hours. Otherwise it was a pretty solid science fiction film.

Strict compliance to what you’re adapting has precisely the opposite effect: fans may be pleased, but those who haven’t read the novel will likely find themselves bored by the experience. Peter Jackson’s recent adaptation of The Hobbit is the perfect example. According to Metacritic, the film earned an average score of 58%, with Rotten Tomatoes reporting that only 65% gave the film a positive (>50%) review. Personally, I had similar feelings. There were some scenes that might have worked on the page, but simply fell flat on the screen. And it’s not like Peter Jackson’s just a bad director, or that Tolkein’s world is unadaptable and doesn’t work in the movies. In fact, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring broke the top 50 of the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies”, its list of the 100 most influential films of all time.

Speaking of the AFI, 15 of their top 25 films are adaptations, and 7 of those are in the top 10. The Godfather was a novel, Casablanca was a play, and Raging Bull was a memoir. Gone with the Wind, Schindler’s List, Vertigo, and The Wizard of Oz were all books first. Even the ones that weren’t based on works of fiction were inspired by a real-life person or event: Citizen Kane was based on William Randolph Hearst, Singing in the Rain was based on Oscar Levant, and Lawrence of Arabia was based on T. E. Lawrence. And in each one of these cases the movie certainly didn’t become successful by strictly clinging to its source material.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the AFI, either. Stanley Kubrick, one of the most influential directors in cinema history, almost exclusively filmed from adapted screenplays. In fact, Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss are the only two of his thirteen feature films which were original screenplays. Kubrick is also famous for not strictly adhering to the original works. His movie version of The Shining was criticized by Stephen King himself as being a bad adaptation, but it has nevertheless come to be regarded as one of the best movies of all time. (It’s #29 on the AFI’s Top 100 Thrillers, its main character Jack Torrance is 25th on the AFI’s Top 100 Villains, and “Here’s Johnny!” is 68th on the AFI’s top 100 quotes.) Ironically, Stephen King collaborated with director Mick Garris to make a more faithful adaptation of the book in the form of a TV mini series which was, to make a long story short, pretty bad.

In the end, books and movies are two separate art forms with their own advantages and disadvantages. Movies are short, but a good cinematographer can create more beautiful imagery than your average reader may be able to think up on their own. Books lack this visual artistry, but their length allows for deeper development of language, character and theme. We should probably just understand that literature can inspire great film and leave the two as separate representatives of their own worlds.

But where’s the fun in that?

*

100 Years… 100 Adaptations (or: The AFI’s Top 25 Films and Their Source Material)

1. Citizen Kane (original screenplay; based on William Randolph Hearst)
2. The Godfather (novel of the same name)
3. Casablanca (stage play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”)
4. Raging Bull (novel Raging Bull: My Story)
5. Singing in the Rain (original screenplay; based on Oscar Levant)
6. Gone with the Wind (novel of the same name)
7. Lawrence of Arabia (original screenplay; based on life of T. E. Lawrence)
8. Schindler’s List (novel; Schindler’s Ark)
9. Vertigo (novel; D’entre les morts)
10. The Wizard of Oz (novel; The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
11. City Lights (original screenplay)
12. The Searchers (novel same name)
13. Star Wars (original screenplay; inspired by The Hidden Fortress)
14. Psycho (novel of the same name)
15. 2001: A Space Odyssey (short story; “The Sentinel”)
16. Sunset Boulevard (original screenplay)
17. The Graduate (novel of the same name)
18. The General (original screenplay; based on the Great Locomotive Chase)
19. On the Waterfront (original screenplay; based on “Crime on the Waterfront”)
20. It’s a Wonderful Life (short story; “The Greatest Gift”)
21. Chinatown (original screenplay; based on the California Water Wars)
22. Some Like It Hot (remake of Fanfare d’Amour — which was based on a book)
23. The Grapes of Wrath (novel of the same name)
24. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (original screenplay; based on Spielberg’s childhood imaginary friend)
25. To Kill a Mockingbird (novel of the same name)

Kickstarting your Wanderlust (27 Days Remaining!)

May 16, 2013 in American Authors, Classic Writers, Contemporary Literature, Kickstarter, Literary News, Travel

There are 27 days remaining for us to reach our Kickstarter goal.  We are excited by the process and all that is on the horizon for Literary Traveler.  We are really enthusiastic about this project and dedicated to making it happen, but we need your help. Check out our Kickstarter page and be sure to watch our video, featuring Literary Traveler’s own Francis McGovern, Antoinette Weil and myself.  We had a lot of fun shooting the video in Somerville, MA.  We filmed in our office, as well as at the Prohibition-style bar, Saloon, in nearby Davis Square.

For the video, we hoped to capture a day in the LT office, where we often have collaborative brainstorming sessions and discuss future projects.  You may not be able to tell what we are talking about during some of the shots, but we are deep in conversation about our vision for the pilot episode of our literary travel series. There is something about travel that meshes so well with literature and I can’t believe that there is not already a show like ours on mainstream television.

I have been a long-time fan of the Travel Channel. I will watch almost anything, from Samantha Brown to Ghost Adventures.  Whatever the hook, I enjoy travel shows because they take you on a journey to someplace you haven’t been, allow you to experience the sites, smells and tastes of a place very different from where you are.

Travel inspires, sparks new ideas, surrounds us in new experiences — literature does the same.  Literature can have such an amazing sense of place, with settings chosen purposefully by an author who found inspiration there.  How interesting is it to consider how location impacts writers, how their own personal journeys influence their work and, ultimately, how we can traverse the same journey on a unique trip of our own.

I’ve had the travel bug for as long as I can remember.  As a child, I never played house or planned fake weddings.  Instead,  I played travel agent.  I would fill out the postcard inserts from my parents’ travel magazines, check off all the boxes, and send away for travel brochures for everywhere in the continental United States.  My parents were often confused why they received multiple mailings for Mississippi river boat cruises, but I just smuggled them into my bedroom and hoarded them away in a desk drawer that almost didn’t close.

As an adult, I travel every chance I can and when I am not traveling I still enjoy watching travel shows on television, constantly planning dream adventures, most of which I will someday take.  In the meantime, I’ve been known to pass an afternoon living vicariously through the Travel Channel. But, as much as I enjoy watching Adam Richman go up against the world’s biggest burger, or watching historic haunted locations through night vision, I think there is a place for literary travelers in the genre as well.  There are so many amazing literary journeys to take and Literary Traveler has the passion, the drive and the wanderlust to be your guide.

Fauxscar Nominee: Cosmopolis

January 6, 2013 in American Authors, Contemporary Literature, Crime Novels, Economy, Fauxscars, Literary Movies, Pop Culture

By Antoinette Weil

When I chose to watch Cosmopolis as part of our Literary “Fauxscars” segment, I went in with a clean slate. That is, I had never read the book it’s based on by Don DeLillo. I didn’t know the story. As such, it could have qualified to be in the running for the sought-after “Best Stand Alone Film” category. But it won’t get my vote.

The film follows Eric Packer, played by Robert Pattinson, a 28 year old billionaire/finance wiz throughout his stretch-limo-capsuled journey across Manhattan to get a haircut. Most of the film, including a sex scene, a doctor’s appointment, a loss of millions (or more) of dollars resulting from a risky financial bet against the Chinese Yuan, takes place inside the comfort of Packer’s over-the-top custom stretch limousine.

What happens inside the car is what matters to Packer. He meets with his finance manager, his physician, his tech guru. The dialogue is intensive, thick, unwelcoming. While watching you’re wondering (at least I was) what the characters are actually saying, what it means, and whether it’s all very interesting or just jibber jabber.

And what happens outside of the car is the world; all of Packer’s encounters with his young wife (played by Sarah Gadon), a traffic jam in the city caused by a visit from the President, a charged anti-capitalism street protest, a massive funeral procession for a fallen rap star, who happens to be beloved by Packer, and eventually a potentially deadly encounter with a disgruntled former employee.

David Cronenberg’s direction on this film was impeccable. There is something to be said for shooting almost an entire movie inside of a car with hardly any action or changes in scenery. And his dark, psychologically introspective style fit perfectly with Don DeLillo’s original novel. Should we have a “Best Director” category, I will vote Cronenberg for Cosmopolis.

Pattinson was believable, vivid, and genuinely good in the role of Eric Packer. He has a certain smoothness and a dark quirkiness that made him well-suited for the part. That said, the character is a dry, jagged, unpleasant pill to swallow. He seems to be a morally damaged, self-centered, downright bad human being. He has sexual encounters with two women in the film, neither of whom are his wife. He tries to persuade his art consultant (played by Juliette Binoche) to bid on not a single painting but on on the entire museum, so that he can lock it up in his apartment and keep it from the public. He calls one of his employees to an emergency meeting in his limo on her day off, and kills another in cold blood. All around a pretty loathsome guy.

And yet, I didn’t hate him. I ended up having so little emotional investment in this movie, and in Eric Packer, that even his most shameless sins didn’t produce the type of dislike one typically has for a “bad guy”. Perhaps this is because none of the other characters were “likable” either. Perhaps the beauty in it is that the audience feels for him exactly what he feels for every human in the film (yes, including himself): nothing.

I found myself looking for the real world political/socioeconomic parallels easily apparent in other movies (V for Vendetta, Avatar, even Hunger Games) but ended up, instead of relating, wondering if those parallels were there to be found, or if this was to be taken at face value: a movie about the fall of one arrogant, brilliant, young billionaire.

Cosmopolis is not for the lazy viewer. Simply processing the dialogue is an intellectual achievement  But it’s not enlightening, or, by any means, a “feel-good” film. Quite the opposite in fact; you may, as a viewer, find yourself feeling low when it’s over, scratching your head and wondering what exactly just happened.

But here’s what it is: smart. So while I didn’t like the film, I couldn’t help but respect it.

The original article is featured in the Books section of Literary Traveler!

Fauxscar Nominee: The Hunger Games

January 2, 2013 in American Authors, children's literature, Contemporary Literature, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies, Movies, YA Fiction, Young Adult Literature

I will clear the air right away and say, I was a fan of Twilight.  It seems that this question has been on the tip of bibliophilic tongues everywhere and a pro-vampire stance confessed to the wrong person will have you ostracized to a community of lowbrow lepers doomed to wander the colony with a scarlet V on your chest.  Many a debate has been had amongst readers over the merits of these now iconic young adult novels.  Are they literary? Are they well-written?  I typically shy away from this line of questioning the same way I shy away from talking politics or religion on a first date.  Nothing good can come from it.  Maybe they aren’t literary, but they are addictive and a fine guilty pleasure.  Actually, my only problem with the series is its protagonist Bella. A hormonal teenage girl mooning over the emotionally unavailable bad boy is nothing new to literature, film, or life for that matter, but to have said character mope about for the span of an entire novel, acquiesce to Edward’s every overbearing whim and ultimately sacrifice her human life to be more compatible with him? As a role model for the novels’ target audience, Bella is lacking in a seriously unhealthy way.  Regardless to say, I was “Team Jacob” and doomed to be disappointed.

Despite my obvious bitterness over the outcome of the series, however, there were more important things at stake. If Twilight was to be indicative of today’s youth, I felt that we were certainly in trouble. How do we reconcile a world where girls look up to a character like Bella, who spends most of New Moon despondent, only prying herself away from her armchair to attempt personal injury in hopes that she might glimpse a hallucination of Edward?  My friends, don’t fret, the future of female empowerment in not doomed. It can be found in a dark corner of a distant post-apocalyptic universe. Enter Katniss Everdeen.

Katniss is powerful, responsible, knows her way around a bow and arrow, and doesn’t need protection from either of the strapping gentlemen who make up her very own Twilight-esque love triangle.  The difference between the two young women: Katniss doesn’t really care about hers.  Not initially, anyway.  She has bigger things to do, like save her sister…and save the world.

Suzanne Collins’ novel is set in a dystopic future where the United States has become the twelve districts of Panem.  There were originally thirteen, but a failed mutiny left District 13 to serve as a cautionary tale to those remaining.  As a punishment and reminder, each year the districts must send two children to “The Hunger Games” – a Survivor type reality show where only one victor comes out alive.  While the subject matter is disturbing, the story quickly grabs hold of readers.  It is almost impossible to stop reading until you have gone straight through to the end of the third book.  And despite its morbid undertones, it presents a powerful story of hope.  As the evil President Snow states in the filmic version: “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”  The viewers quickly learn, as does the villainous Snow, that Katniss’ fire cannot be contained.

Her male counterpart in the Hunger Games, and one third of the aforementioned love triangle, is Peeta Mellark. I loved the character of Peeta for every reason I loved Jacob, and every reason I couldn’t stand Edward.  Peeta might not sparkle, but he also won’t climb through your bedroom window and hover over you while you sleep.  He compliments Katniss in the best ways, and their relationship is one of genuine adoration and respect; it’s believable, real, and something we can all aspire to, whether we are 15 or 65.

For these reasons and more, I was ecstatic to find out a movie was being made based on the books. While adaptations can cause the original material to get lost in translation, this was not the case for The Hunger Games.  This book, full of eerie landscapes, futuristic inhabitants, and an arena where no one is safe, was begging to be adapted for the screen.  Between the elaborate costumes and the incredible settings, the faultless casting was the cherry on the sundae.  Jennifer Lawrence easily slides into the role of Katniss, a strong, capable character whose healthy body is a refreshing alternative to the stick-thin waif.  (Bella, just because Edward can’t eat food, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t).  The role of Peeta seems as though it was written especially for Josh Hutcherson; his flawless blend of self-deprecating humor, charm, and authenticity is unparalleled.  But the absolute scene-stealer of the movie has to be the unexpected, yet perfectly executed performance, of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, the alcoholic former Hunger Games victor-turned-mentor.  Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and Stanley Tucci round out an ensemble cast that cannot be beat.

I recommend the books to anyone with a taste for well-written YA Fiction—I recommend the film to anyone, period.  There isn’t much from the book left on the cutting room floor, and the plot is easy to follow without any prior knowledge of it.  Male, female, teen or adult, The Hunger Games has something for everyone and will surely provoke discussion about our culture’s disturbing fascination with reality television, among other topics usually reserved for the second date.

As we begin to choose nominees for our 2013 Fauxscars, I say to The Hunger Games: “May the odds be ever in your favor!”

Post originally published here on the Literary Traveler website, in the Books section.

Ann Patchett and the Battle for the Bookstores

December 13, 2012 in Bookstores, Contemporary Literature, culture boundaries, Economy, Literary News

As I was driving into work, I heard an unnerving story on the radio. It was about Amazon, the largest corporate book retailer in the world. I listened with trepid curiosity as a caller in support of the company’s expansion went head to head with an owner of a local bookstore. The callers made the age-old arguments that arise when technology challenges the continuance of tradition; one vigorously vying for the convenience of a digital future while the other nostalgically recalled the advantages of our papery past. The latter spoke with some desperation, as if this was her final stand, her last chance to tell her story. She spoke of things beyond the joy of feeling the weight of a book, the smell and feel of paper. ‘The culture is what we’re losing, bookstores have always been what bring readers together.’

I thought about that for a minute. She was absolutely right. Bookstores did bring readers together. Books were not the only casualties of Amazon’s flood into literature; there was a culture at stake. The heart-felt words of the distressed caller made me realize how I had always taken bookstores for granted. I began to mourn the loss of something I had hardly known, and I decided that it was time to visit one before it was too late.

Porter Square Books is one of the most well known independent bookstores in the Boston area, and this is where I began my search for the endangered book culture. The first thing I noticed was the dog bowl at the front door. I had read that dogs were welcome inside the store, and I wished I had brought mine along. Inside, the place was buzzing. Casually dressed employees sorted books and chatted with customers. There was a coffee bar in the corner, and the smell of fresh espresso underscored the vibrant pace of book browsing. Customers filtered into their sections of interest, which were each divided into coves of booked walls. The spaces were so small that people seemed to be bumping into each other all over the place.

Two woman in the Cooking section were discussing recipes they had both found in the same Japenese cook book. In the Travel section, a young man pointed to pictures in a book of ancient ruins and told his mother stories of his experiences abroad. In Classic Literature, an employee was describing Thoreau’s majestic sketches of a New England Fall to a man who seemed to be salivating for such a literary feast.

I wandered around haphazardly, eavesdropping and browsing the shelves. Though it wasn’t quite a library, everybody kept their voices down and smiled at each other, like they were all in on the secret. They seemed very much a small society of booklovers in their place of worship, and I felt like a welcome guest.

I bought a few moleskins and a map of the United States. It wasn’t much, but it felt good to make any contribution. On my way out, I noticed a calendar marked with events. Every week had three or four authors coming in to lead discussions and sign books. I scribbled down a few dates and names and told myself that next time I’d bring my dog.

Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder, has recently opened up her own bookstore and taken advantage of her publicity to uphold the cause. After losing an independent bookstore she had cherished since childhood, Patchett decided to take matters into her own hands and recreate a literary sanctum for her community in Nashville, TN. She recognizes that the value of a bookstore is embodied in the community it creates (and visa versa).

Patchett wrote an article for The Atlantic, in which she tells us just how badly bookstores have suffered, and why there is still hope for them. “Now that we could order a book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm.”

I agreed heartily before, but did not understand her distress until, like the woman I heard on the radio, Patchett began to wax prophetic. “I promised whoever was listening that from those very ashes, the small independent bookstore would arise.”

My experience in Porter Square was brief, but it was enough to make me understand why bookstores might be worth fighting for. Patchett finishes the interview with a plea to the consumer, and a resounding cry for book people to unite and make their voices heard over the cranking of Amazon’s assembly lines. “Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves.”

About the Novelist: Leonardo Padura

November 11, 2012 in Caribbean Writers, Contemporary Literature, Crime Novels, Cuba

Cuba’s crime fiction has effectively captured the gritty struggle of Cubans through the end of the twentieth century. The genre provides an unfiltered lens for viewing the Cuban way of life. In a country where the black market is the only market, shady deals and lawlessness become the norm. Cuban crime fiction delves into this world of delinquency and explores the Cuba that only Cubans truly understand.

Cuban novelist, Leonardo Padura, ventures into the shadows of Havana and invokes the mystery in which the city is shrouded.  Havana Fever, Padura’s most recent novel delves into a crime that is a microcosm of larger trends. During the height of desperation in the nineties, Cubans sold their valued belongings to survive. Literature is one of the greatest achievements of the Cuban culture, but during the crisis, precious books were being sucked out of the country at an alarming rate.

The protagonist of the book, Mario Conde, an ex-cop and book trader, is a proponent of this process even though he hates the idea of exporting his culture. Conde is the consummate Cuban trying to compromise a slew of contradictions. His character is animated, flawed, and distinctly human.

When Conde stumbles upon an old private library worth millions, he once again experiences the stabbing pain just under his left nipple. This pain “accompanied every hunch he ever had” and, sure enough, Conde soon becomes obsessed with a mystery that will drag him through the generations.

Havana Fever is a journey from the smoke filled jazz bars of the Batista days to the decaying mansions of Vedado in a time of desperation. Through it all, Leonardo Padura’s tone is as smooth and warm as a glass of aged rum. He paints Havana with the dark shades of an old romantic without illusions.

According to the author, his novels are like windows into his own world.  Conveying the Cuban reality is not easily done, but Padura feels a sense of artistic duty to create a sincere portrait of his home. “As a Cuban writer,” he concludes, “I have a certain responsibility because our reality is so specific and so hard for many people. I have a responsibility to reflect something of my world.”

The Literary Traveler Book Club – State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

August 29, 2012 in Contemporary Literature, Literary Traveler Book Club

Dear Literary Travelers,  

Our book club has become a much-anticipated monthly event and we would love for all of you to join the conversation this September!  We are excited to announce that our next book club will take place on Tuesday, September 25th and we will be discussing Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder.  Patchett is perhaps most well known for her 2001 novel Bel Canto, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction.  Ten years later she published State of Wonder, a novel that takes readers from a pharmaceutical company in Minnesota to the Amazon jungle of Brazil.  Place plays a vital role in the novel, as Patchett transports her protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, along with the reader, to the lush Brazilian rainforest, where Singh must track down the secretive Dr. Swenson, whose research into the (fictional) Lakashi tribe is at the center of the text.

In its review of the book,  The Guardian  writes: “State of Wonder  is heavy with literary parallels (to Henry James, to Greek myth), but in this respect the strongest links are to Heart of Darkness, a novel that Patchett substantially rewrites, with Conrad’s male text repopulated with female characters (Swenson is this book’s Kurtz). It…is her most mature work to date, a novel that tries to be more alive to the nerve ends of philosophical life than to the simpler machinery of character motivation.”

Mixing adventure and suspense with a trip to the Amazon made from the comfort of your own armchair, Literary Traveler is excited to discuss Patchett’s novel this September.

For those of you in the Boston area who would be interested in taking part in the Literary Traveler Book Club, please e-mail Amanda@literarytraveler.com to join, or for more information.  We hope to see you at our September 25th Book Club meeting, which will take place in Somerville, MA at 7:30 PM.

For those of you who cannot attend in person, we would still love to hear from you.  If you have read Patchett’s book, or would like to read along with us, we would love to hear what you think.  E-mail us  your comments or post them on Facebook or Twitter.  We will be compiling readers’ comments for a feature on our blog, so don’t be shy and tell us what you think.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Thank you!
The LT Team

 

Hugo: A Boy Destined for the Screen

December 30, 2011 in American literature, Contemporary Literature, Literary Traveler Book Reviews, Travel to Paris France

from theinventionofhugocabret.com

Lovers of machinery – masters of cogs and wheels – enjoy the knowledge that every little piece is essential for a device to work. Hugo Cabret belongs to this mechanical school of philosophy. While he hides in the churning spirals of a giant clock, he relentlessly works on his secret project. If he stops, it seems, so will time.

I first discovered Hugo’s story in the fall of 2008 when a good friend was writing a review and insisted that I read the book. Not so much reading was necessary because the pictures drive the tale. Until that moment, I had not quite warmed to the graphic novel phenomena. I enjoyed crafting the visuals of a story in my own imagination versus seeing them outright. But The Invention of Hugo Cabret changed my mind. Hugo’s story had to be told with a certain amount of quiet suspense, like a silent film. I was not surprised to hear that a movie was on the horizon.

Martin Scorsese effortlessly translates The Invention of Hugo Cabret to the screen with the cinematographic dexterity that he is praised for time and time again. Brian Selznick’s illustrations, dark and fraught with anticipation, and his elegantly crafted story provided the kind of visuals and pacing that any filmmaker would be thrilled to reanimate. The movie, although a bit slow-paced, is to me a perfect execution–a stuck landing after a swirling gymnastic feat.

Selznick says the story was a film to him all along. He described his delight at Scorsese’s adaptation in a  San Diego Union-Tribune interview this past September: “People on the set were walking around with copies of the book. It was really a thrill to see how respectful everybody was.” The son of David O. Selznick, a well-known Hollywood producer of the classics “Rebecca” and “Gone With the Wind,” Selznick’s style of storytelling is intrinsically suited to the screen.

still promotional shot from the movie Hugo

The movie, like the graphic novel, is an homage to a once-forgotten pioneer of cinematography. The digital medium is able to precisely demonstrate what Selznick describes. Scorsese recreates clips by the magical Georges Méliès and educates the audience on his brilliance. The dreamlike story as a whole is irresistible. Despite only rare moments of what’s-going-to-happen tension, I sat on the edge of my seat in the theater, not wanting to blink for fear of missing a minute of the magic.

Selznick, 45, released his second book, Wonderstruck, earlier this fall. The story is of a girl who feels drawn to a famous actress–her story told entirely in pictures–and a boy who longs for a lost father–his tale told only in words. The two weave together in the end. So far, reviews have been sparkling, and I cannot wait to see where Selznick takes us next. With any luck, Scorsese will bring Wonderstruck to the big screen as well.

The Best of the Best of 2011: A List

December 24, 2011 in American literature, children's literature, Contemporary Literature, Fantasy Literature, Literary Books 2011, New Writers

Artwork by Dan Park

Jeffrey Eugenides, Artwork by Dan Park

There are a heck of a lot of “Best of 2011” lists coming out this week. There’s the best music, the best films, and, of course, the best books. But with so many “best of” lists, put out by practically every blog, magazine, and newspaper around, it’s hard to tell which books really came out on top.

But fear not! After combing through some well respected sources’ “best of” lists, it was clear which books were the real winners. The lists consulted included those compiled by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review, National Public Radio, Barnes & Noble, The Economist, Paste Magazine, Slate Magazine, Goodreads, the Washington Post, the Washington Examiner, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Public Library, The New Republic, Amazon, The Horn Book, Esquire, and The New York Times.

There were, of course, books that made it onto just one or two lists, but to really be the best of the year, a book’s got to make a bigger splash than that. Therefore, the books that made it onto three or more of these lists are posted below on this compilation of what may as well be called “The Best of the Best Books of 2011”:

The Top 15 Fiction Books:
1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
2. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
4. Open City by Teju Cole
5. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
6. A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
7. Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
8. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
9. The Submission by Amy Waldman
10. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
11. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
12. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
13. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
14. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
15. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

The Top 13 Nonfiction Books:
1. Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
2. Blue Nights by Joan Didion
3. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt
4. Bossypants by Tina Fey
5. Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III
6. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
7. Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson
8. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick
9. Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
10. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
11. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
12. 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart
13. Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin

The Top 11 Young Adult Books:
1. Divergent by Veronica Roth
2. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater
3. Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
4. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
5. Blink & Caution by Tim Wynne-Jones
6. Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
7. Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
8. The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
9. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
10. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
11. Chime by Franny Billingsley

The clear favorite of critics is The Marriage Plot, which shows up on seven different lists. Additionally, 1Q84, Divergent, and Blood, Bones, and Butter all made it onto six. It goes to show how diverse readers’ (and editors’) tastes are across America. Clearly, though, there’s still common ground, and if you’re looking for a good book to devour this holiday season, chances are you’ll find plenty of worthwhile material on this list.

The Key West Writers Guild: Writing Key West’s Literary Future

December 2, 2011 in Contemporary Literature, Key West Travel, New Writers, Writing Advice

From Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams to Elizabeth Bishop, Key West is steeped in literary history.  You can see Bishop’s house on White Street, have a drink at the bar where Hemingway was a regular and attend a show at the theatre named in Tennessee Williams’ honor.  Key West has as much to offer literature aficionados as it does beach bums, but, you may ask, what can Key West offer the contemporary writer?  The literary scene in Key West is far from a thing of the past.  In fact, Key West has much to lend aspiring writers hoping to follow in the footsteps of their literary predecessors who once called Key West home.  In addition to the annual Key West Literary Seminar, The Key West Writers Guild, a non-profit organization founded in 1995, has been supporting local writers since its inception.  According to their website, the Guild “provides a friendly forum for authors to share their writings and receive encouraging and helpful feedback.”  They meet twice a month and provide an inclusive community for all writers of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and prose, both published and unpublished.  In addition to providing a forum for discussing their work, the Guild also holds an annual short story contest.  The winning submissions have subsequently been compiled into anthologies, which are available for purchase locally in Key West. The latest edition, Voices from Key West, is available on Amazon.com.  In conjunction with the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, they also honor one writer annually with an award for the best work in progress.

While it is not a requirement, many members of the Guild are published, and their works run the gamut from thrillers and children’s books to romance novels and literary fiction.  Although not a prerequisite, it is no surprise that many of the Guild’s members are creatively inspired by their surroundings.  Joanna Brady Schmida, a member since 1998 and the Guild secretary, won the annual award in 2009, and her self published novel, The Woman at the Light, is praised on Amazon.com as “a wonderful ‘trip’ to Key West’s past.”

The members of the Guild come from all walks of life, bonded together through their love of writing.  The Guild president, Diana Reif, is an attorney, and the members’ day jobs cover as wide a spectrum as the genres in which they write.  Dorothy Francis, music teacher and mystery writer extraordinaire, has written books for both children and adults, and her Key West mysteries include the aptly titled Conch Shell Murder and Pier Pressure Mike Dennis, musician and professional poker player, also found inspiration in his surroundings.  His second published work Setup on Front Street is the first of a trilogy of noir novels set in Key West.  Peg Gregory, a retired nurse turned romance writer, penned Starfish, a piece of romantic fiction inspired by the city’s past.

Whether historical fiction, romance novel or psychological journey through the region’s darker side, local writers cannot help but be fascinated by the rich culture and breathtaking beauty of Key West.  I think sometime-Key West-resident Hemingway would agree. After all, his only novel set in the United States, To Have and Have Not, is set in Key West, where he began writing it. Strangely enough, although Hemingway and Tennessee Williams resided in Key West simultaneously, they reportedly only met once.  Providing a community of intellectual nourishment and mutual admiration, it is safe to say that if Key West is to ever again see the likes of two such literary greats, they will have met more than once… perhaps even twice a month at Guild meetings?

 

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