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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?

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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)

LT Summer Reading Challenge: An Alien Genre

August 5, 2013 in Fiction, Film, Science Fiction, Summer Reading

The genre of science fiction, although quite popular among many readers, had until recently remained relatively foreign to me. I had nothing against it, but the subject never seemed to grab my attention. However, despite all protests, my fellow bookworms held tenaciously to their predilections for the oddities that science fiction offers. So, under the influence of others and with the excuse of the LT Summer Reading Challenge, I proved amenable to a change; I delved into the depths of the incongruous as I began Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, surrendering to the vast sea of genres before me. Ender’s Game is only one of two science fiction novels that I have ever read, and I am pleased to say that I am effusive in my praise of the novel, as it was extremely entertaining and endlessly thought provoking.

Card’s novel proved to exceed my uninitiated understanding of the genre, as I imagined the stereotypical Sci-Fi narrative centered around aliens and spacecrafts. In fact, I found that the story ignited many ponderings about deep philosophical questions. For example, one of the main themes that Card toys with is the notion that humans are merely parts to a much greater entity. This makes acts like betrayal or manipulation justifiable under the condition that they benefit this greater being or purpose we humans are serving. Under this idea, we, as individuals, become somewhat valueless. At the end of Ender’s Game, Card confirms that this manipulation is inescapable, for even Ender’s sister slightly manipulates Ender at the end of the book. She argues that he must help her save the “buggers,” and that if he doesn’t, he will simply be following the path set for him by someone else. Therefore, although Ender does end up living his life happily and by his own volition, I was left  with the big question: is Ender really free, or is he merely being used as a tool for a different purpose? And if he is in fact being used, is he free as long as he is happy?

It’s no wonder that Card’s story is considered by many to be among the best Sci-Fi novels ever written. He has a way of effortlessly combining action and adventure with an emotional, moving plot and relatable characters. There is also a flawless balance between fiction and reality throughout Ender’s quest to save the world. For example, the games he plays are fictitious simulation exercises, yet there are often realistic components involved that many readers can easily relate to, such as bullying. In this way, Card is careful to prevent readers from forgetting that Ender is not simply the typical Sci-Fi hero with superhuman strength and intelligence, but a little boy with feelings.

Card has opened my eyes to the potential of the science fiction novel, its limits vanishing along with any previous misconceptions I once had. I will be sure to branch out from my usual book choices to explore other inventive worlds. With high hopes and expectations, I move on to my next journey.

Literary Traveler is LIVE on Kickstarter! (29 Days Remaining!)

May 14, 2013 in Fiction, Film, Kickstarter, Literary News, Special Events, Television, Travel to New York City

Dear Literary Travelers,

We are very excited to announce that we are officially LIVE on Kickstarter! Check out our Kickstarter page and be sure to watch our video for more information on this project.  It is sure to be an exciting month for us and we are so happy to have our loyal readers involved in the process.  We urge you to share the project with friends, family and anyone that you think might be interested in learning more about us!

Please check back here for updates on the project.  Throughout the next month, this blog will be Kickstarter central — a place for us to share our progress, ideas, project news and information on the future of the Literary Traveler series.

We are offering some incredible rewards to backers, including Literary Traveler t-shirts and an original art print by our own contributor, Jessica Monk.  We are also offering advanced access to the finished episode, before it becomes available to the general public.  Also, if you have your own blog or social media account, we are offering backers a special opportunity to be featured on LiteraryTraveler.com.  Check out the Kickstarter page for more on these rewards and other amazing incentives.

 

The Results are In…and the Fauxscar Goes to…

February 24, 2013 in Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies

As the stars begin to primp and prep for the Academy’s big night, here at Literary Traveler we are still sipping coffee in our pajamas as we announce the year’s big winners.  While the results of the Oscars may be kept under wraps for a couple more hours, we won’t keep you waiting any longer.  The fix is in and while some of these adaptations may not be receiving accolades from the Academy, we think they deserve acknowledgment for their spot on representation of some of our literary favorites.

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While Jennifer Lawrence may be cleaning up in the awards department for her portrayal of Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook, our voters have spoken and decided that Bradley Cooper deserves his share of the spotlight for his humorous and endearing portrayal of Pat Solitano, Jr,

Which is why our first Fauxscar, for “Best Character Portrayal by an Actor” goes to Bradley Cooper!


Best Character Portrayal by an Actor: Bradley Cooper as Pat Solitano Jr. (Silver Linings Playbook)

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Luckily for Jennifer Lawrence, the acting nods at the Academy Awards are split into “Leading” and “Supporting” categories, because audiences can agree that Anne Hathaway’s Les Miserables‘ performance, however brief, was the ray of musical sunshine in the adaptation of the popular classic.  Here at Literary Traveler, we believe some of the best characters written are not necessarily the main protagonist in the work, which is why we chose not to split the category in two.  Sorry Jennifer! (Editor’s Note:  Good luck, Jen, fingers crossed for you!)
The Literary Fauxscar for “Best Character Portrayal by an Actress” goes to Anne Hathaway as Fantine!
Best Character Portrayal by an Actress: Anne Hathaway as Fantine (Les Miserables)
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The selection of Literary Love Stories portrayed on film this year has been wide ranging and dare I say, epic.  From an unrequited high school crush, a sweeping nineteenth century extramarital affair, an unbeatable team forced into a dystopic death match, a couple crazy kids vampires living happily ever after and a couple facing tragedy and finding humor and each other.  We couldn’t choose just one if we tried, and turns out neither could anyone else.  We have a tie!  It all comes down to the ill-fated affair portrayed in a long-loved classic and our favorite baker and badass, joining forces in a contemporary young adult juggernaut. (Which is sure to be a staple in the Fauxscars for the next couple years)

So we are excited to award the Fauxscar for  ”Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story” to Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky  AND Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark!  May the odds be EVER in their favor ;)

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Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story: Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky (Anna Karenina)
AND with a tie!

Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story: Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games)
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As Literary Traveler contributor, Antoinette, put it so eloquently:  ”Every scene [of Life of Pi] is a visual indulgence. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I could have watched the thing on mute like a 2003 Windows Media Player sound Visualizer (you remember those right?)… It was, in addition to being a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, a display of artistry.”  It appears that voters agreed!

Therefore, the Fauxscar for “Best Visual Representation of a Novel’s Setting” goes to Life of Pi.
 Best Visual Representation of a Novel’s Setting: Life of Pi
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While the movie captured (a little too well) the expanse of time and space Pi felt on the open sea, the movie is almost an acceptable alternative to reading the book…after all, author Yann Martel, is in the movie, playing the interviewer who becomes friends with grown-up Pi, played by the amazing Irfan Khan.

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The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Almost as Good as the Book’ Film” also goes to Life of Pi.

Best “Almost as Good as the Book” Film: Life of Pi
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 Beating out the final installment of Twilight  to take this award would be a huge feat, had this been an MTV award show… but here at Literary Traveler, it was no contest.  The Hunger Games may be a YA series, but it is thought provoking, exciting, and presents a female protagonist that we can all be proud of.
The Fauxscar for Best “Young Adult” Adaptation goes to The Hunger Games.
  
 Best “Young Adult” Adaptation: The Hunger Games
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The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Family Fun’ Adaptation” goes to The Lorax.
Best “Family Fun” Adaptation: The Lorax
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We love ourselves some Tolstoy, and reading his original masterpiece, Anna Karenina,  is a commitment all bibliophiles should make at some point in their life, but alas, pushing 800 pages, it is a commitment.  In the meantime, check out the 2012 film version as a teaser — it seems that our readers agree that it is one of the best adaptations of the year.
The Fauxscar for “Best Adaptation of a Classic” goes to Anna Karenina.
Best Adaptation of a Classic:  Anna Karenina
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Sweeping the first annual Fauxscars like Katniss with a cross bow, The Hunger Games is a force to be reckoned with.
The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Guilty Pleasure’ Adaptation” goes to The Hunger Games.
Best “Guilty Pleasure” Adaptation: The Hunger Games
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Literary Traveler contributor, Amanda, would not stop gushing about this film until the entire staff agreed to see it.  It appears that voters are on her side (or she is somewhere maniacally stuffing the ballot box — just kidding, this film definitely stands on its own merits!)
The Fauxscar for “Best ‘Stand Alone’ Film” goes to Silver Linings Playbook.
Best “Stand Alone” Film: Silver Linings Playbook
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Looking forward to the fabulous adaptation coming in 2013, from a new YA favorite, Beautiful Creatures, to a Helena Bonham Carter led Great Expectations reboot.  While both sound fabulous, this award was nearly unanimous and it seems that we are not alone in our uncontainable excitement over the 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age masterpiece.
Without further ado, the Fauxscar for “Best Anticipated Literary Adaptation of 2013″ goes to The Great Gatsby.
Best Anticipated Literary Adaptation of 2013: The Great Gatsby
On that note, until next year… Let us know in the comments section if you agree with this year’s winners, or if your favorite was snubbed. Thanks for joining us and we will be tuning in to the Oscars tonight to see how our favorites fare with the Academy!

A Review of Best Picture Nominee, Beasts of the Southern Wild

February 23, 2013 in Fiction, Film, Literary Movies

By Antoinette Weil

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is based on the one-act play “Juicy and Delicious” by Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin, the latter of who also directed the film.  It follows a father (Wink) and daughter (Hushpuppy) living on an island off the coast of Southern Louisiana through the hit and aftermath of a fierce storm. The film hearkens back to Hurricane Katrina, and the fictional setting, Zeitlin has said, was inspired by Louisiana’s Isle de Jean Charles.

The inhabitants of “The Bathtub”, as the island is referred, live in poverty and seem to have their own society completely separate from the main land. The houses are shacks made of scrap metal and wooden boards or an old boat converted with canvas and tarps. They are a tight-knit community, a tribe of sorts.

The local teacher, of questionable qualification, tells the school children about a species of giant ancient beasts called Aurochs, that apparently froze in the polar ice caps. These extinct creatures become our narrator’s vision of real-world struggles. Natural disaster, the subsequent “end of the world” and the necessary shift to a new way of living, broken family, illness and death are all displayed in the film. And in each case, not far behind is the Auroch, stalking, charging, or retreating, depending on scenario. It is in the context of these intangible beasts that Hushpuppy, our young narrator, is able to make sense of the world around her, with all its messy twists and injustices.

They touch upon the real world issue of climate change here when, with the innocence and ignorance of a child, Hushpuppy says “Sometimes you break something, so bad that it can’t be put back together.”

In fact, this scrappy little ragamuffin is full of coarse grains of wisdom.

“The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

“Strong animals know when your hearts are weak.”

All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting, and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop. …but sometimes they be talkin’ in codes.”

Young Hushpuppy has an extraordinary way of putting things that are far too complex for her to understand into concepts which make perfect sense to her, and to us. She really is a remarkable character, and it seems a shame, when watching, that her stubborn alcoholic father doesn’t realize it.

The relationship between Hushpuppy and Wink is sad, but interesting. You hate him for not taking her out of the Bathtub before the storm. For living with that beautiful child in filth. For drinking instead of nurturing. For yelling instead of hugging. But by the end he’s not quite so bad. Dying men always seem more tolerable.  Yet, I think it is less about the actual impending loss of life, and more about the interim.  The life he has left.  He becomes vulnerable. You see his weakness, his illness, his desperate attempts at denial, and the utter terror he feels about his way of life, his people, becoming extinct.

In a scene towards the end, the whole tribe is taken to a hospital/shelter on the mainland. Wink, who is more sick than we realized, finds himself in a room alone, hooked up to IVs and machines, his family and tribe nowhere to be found. He makes a break for it, and the rest of the group follows. It is in this moment that we see the true intense care that Wink has, not only for Hushpuppy, but for his home. We begin to see that perhaps Wink was being more heartfelt than originally assumed when he said, “My only purpose in life is to teach her how to make it.”

You see, for Wink, the Bathtub is not just a place, and the people around him are not merely neighbors. They are a separate species. The only one he has ever known. And much like the Aurochs, they were on the brink of extinction. In the back of his mind, being hard on Hushpuppy was not merely an icy way of getting through his mandatory parental duties. Don’t get me wrong, he was cold and mean and unkind and certainly less than nurturing. But the more I examine this relationship, I begin to believe that Wink’s behavior was a demonstration of his most basic, beating parental drive: ensuring the survival of his offspring.

Could he have been more affectionate? Yes. And I still wish that little girl had someone to hug her and say “I love you” and protect her from the storm. But she didn’t.  And she was a strong enough animal to survive.

Now..

Beyond feeling like I was one step closer to Katrina, the film also held another point of reference for me. For anyone who has ever read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, this work has some striking similarities in theme. I know I’m not  right now reviewing The Road, but it was all I could think about after seeing this picture.

The Road follows a father and son on their journey through the destitute streets of what used to be planet Earth. Some untold catastrophe occurred, destroying society and most of the inhabitants of the land. The father and the boy travel a long journey on foot, making their way south in order to survive the harsh winter. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic and dystopian story lines, so, while the book was slow going, the theme kept me involved.

The stunning similarities to Beasts of the Southern Wild are multiple:

  1. Father and child. In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the mother is nowhere to be found. Hushpuppy says that she left and often sees her through flashbacks. In The Road, the boy’s mother committed suicide shortly after he was born, unable to cope with the aftermath of the disaster.
  2. Nameless children. Throughout The Road, the son is never named and is referred to in his father’s thoughts as “the boy.” In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the main character, narrator, daughter is called by her nickname—Hushpuppy—by everyone in the community. (I suppose her parents could have actually named her Hushpuppy, but come on, let’s be serious.)
  3. Disaster and aftermath, “Us against the world”. The father and son in The Road must walk on through treacherous landscapes, scouring for just enough resources to last the night, knowing the next night will be just as cruel. In Beasts, Wink and Hushpuppy survive the storm, but are soon faced with the real struggle, the aftermath. The subsequent isolation, illness, and lack of resources threaten the survival of Wink, Hushpuppy, their community and their way of life. They trudge on, and fight the uphill battle to make it to a dryer day.

While I may have went off on a tangent, ultimately they are both intriguing, depressing, and ultimately moving works.

The acting was fantastically convincing. Nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (who was only five at the time of her audition) deserves every accolade she receives, including the her nomination for Best Actress. And Dwight Henry, the Louisiana bakery owner who played Wink gave a professional performance. Maybe more directors should take a cue from Zeitlin and go with amateur talent.

And that is Beasts of the Southern Wild — Poignant. Simple, yet complex. Harsh, insightful, and emotional.  Watch it if you haven’t.

A Review of Best Picture Nominee, Amour

February 23, 2013 in Fiction, Film

by Antoinette Weil

PLEASE NOTE: This post contains spoilers.

If the emotional response evoked by a film is any measure of greatness, then Amour wins.

After seeing the film, I cried most of the car ride home from the theatre, and then once in the bathroom when I got home. My eyes are welling up right now thinking about it. I am so incredibly sad.

I was thinking, with the title being Amour, that I might see more of a traditional love story, albeit a senior citizen love story. I thought perhaps the suffering of one would bring them closer together, they’d fall more deeply in love, “still the one”, all that jazz.  But this was a different kind of love story.

Amour shows us the depth, the brutality and beauty, of a love that has withstood time and joy and pain and just about everything in between. Both terrifying and admirable, this portrayal is perceptive and sincere.

Amour follows husband and wife, Anne (played compellingly by Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), through their struggle with Anne’s deteriorating health. She goes slowly, first suffering one stroke that leaves the right side of her body paralyzed. Wheel-chair bound and utterly vulnerable, she needs Georges’ help for the most basic tasks like washing her hair, pulling up her pants after going to the bathroom, or getting in and out of bed.

While Georges is out attending a funeral one rainy afternoon, Anne tries to kill herself by jumping out of the courtyard window of their apartment. When George walks in earlier than expected and finds her, she shrugs that she was only sorry that she was too slow. She very seriously tells him that she doesn’t want to live any longer, doesn’t want to wait around for things to get worse. But she lives, and they do.

The second stroke leaves Anne completely helpless and utterly unrecognizable from the person she once was. Unable to speak or move on her own, Ann continues down the slope. And Georges stays the course, stating Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.”

The movie caused me a cascading pendulum of emotions that swung from benevolent sympathy to gut-wrenching depression. At one point I recall thinking to myself in the theater I could have gone my whole life without seeing this movie. And been happier for it.

I’m not unhappy that I saw the film. But the aftermath is severe and I think the feelings that the film has left me with will be long-lasting, or at the very least, will again well up inside of me when I recount the experience. Michael Haneke, Amour’s writer and director, must have known what he was doing.

In one scene, Georges tells an anecdote about a film he had seen as a boy that touched him so deeply that he found himself distraught afterward and ended up crying in front of the first person who asked him about the movie.

Georges: I started to tell him the story of the movie, and as I did, all the emotion came back. I didn’t want to cry in front of the boy, but it was impossible; there I was, crying out loud in the courtyard, and I told him the whole drama to the bitter end.
Anne: So? How did he react?
Georges: No idea. He probably found it amusing. I don’t remember. I don’t remember the film either. But I remember the feeling. That I was ashamed of crying, but that telling him the story made all my feelings and tears come back, almost more powerfully than when I was actually watching the film, and that I just couldn’t stop.

Yeah, I see what you did there. Projecting exactly what’s going to happen to me once I am finished watching your film. Well played, Haneke.

The struggles that these two characters face—the humiliation, the power-shift of extreme dependence and responsibility, losing a partner, and facing death head on—are intensely painful and difficult to watch. But that’s not what makes it so hard, and it’s not what makes this movie so emotional.

We, the audience, we’re not crying over Anne and Georges. We’re crying over our grandmothers and grandfathers who we watched lose mobility and shrivel down to half-size and suffer the confusion and maddening frustration of not knowing who they are. We’re crying thinking about our parents falling ill, the hard decisions we’d have to make, and whether we’d make the right ones. We’re crying about the prospect of being so completely dependent on others, of someday not having control over our own bodies, our own minds. We’re crying over the time we should have spent with the people who are gone when they were still around. We’re crying, during Amour, about the terrifying prospect that we’ll be Anne or Georges one day.

And just like the film that afflicted George so profoundly, this film will stick with you long after you’ve exited the theater.

A Quest for Best Picture

February 23, 2013 in Fauxscars, Fiction, Film

By Antoinette Weil

Before I begin, let me first give the disclaimer that I have never done this before. I like movies, but I am by no means a film critic. I am not trained in film at all, other than my Australian Film class I took while studying abroad. But I have been seeing a lot of movies lately, and I had a lot of fun with my Cosmopolis  review.  Alas, movie reviews I shall write.

Compiled below are my thoughts on some of the films. Check out my more thorough reviews of Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour.

PLEASE NOTE: Some of these reviews do contain spoilers.

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Zero Dark Thirty

The beginning of Zero Dark Thirty was difficult for me to watch. Wincing, shifting my eyes to the side, and thinking this was going to be tough to get through, I felt immensely uncomfortable watching the torture and complete vulnerability of a human being.  Interestingly enough, by the end of the film, Jessica Chastain sitting alone in the back of a plane, a single tear rolling down her cheek, overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the fact that an intense eight-year chapter of her life had closed, you kind of forget about all that torture in the beginning.

Chastain’s character is young and confident to the point of borderline naivety. But she is smart, she is dedicated and outspoken, and eventually she completes her mission. Chastain really makes this movie. Her sweet looks and demeanor coupled with the no-nonsense attitude of her character and the grim and grueling ranks of her work, create an intriguing and believable protagonist.

Seeing the background story, that was happening all around us and right under our noses, of the hunt for Bin Laden was sort of haunting. I like seeing the behind the scenes stuff, “what really happened”, and it was certainly fascinating to watch through the lense of this film. But it was incredibly dark, and at the end it left me feeling a kind of emptiness (much like Maya experiences in her plane ride home.)  Zero Dark Thirty displays the answer of how we got Bin Laden, but the questions is provokes are far greater.

Django Unchained

Django Unchained was one of the most entertaining of the Best Picture films, and who doesn’t love a good Tarantino film?

The combination of humor and badassery that Tarantino brings to his films keeps you watching and wanting more — and makes the extreme violence seem like background noise so that the bigger issues shine through.  The acting was near perfect. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Leonardo DiCaprio seriously brought it. I think I formed a crush on Waltz through this movie and am probably going to be looking to see all of his previous films. Because, as the kind-hearted killer Dr. Schultz, he was SO incredibly engaging. The character was brilliantly written, so I’m sure that is part of my bias. A German doctor-turned-bounty-hunter who kills for a living but draws his moral line at slavery? I’ll take two.

The film, inevitably and in true Tarantino fashion, turns into a bloodbath. But the fantastical shoot-em-up spectacular towards the end was a cake walk when compared with the more thematically disturbing scenes, which offer less blood and less gore, but make up for it in the unnerving vision of pure unfiltered evil played out on screen.

Here’s what Django does: It gives us an exciting and entertaining excuse to take a look into our Country’s most shameful history.  But putting into context the brutality of small day-to-day events, and the fact that the entire black American experience was formed out of this treacherous circumstance, creates an opportunity for one to think critically and in depth about slavery and the need for repentance that never came.  I hear the criticisms that have been voiced, but overall I’m a big fan of this film.

Les Miserables

While I haven’t read Victor Hugo’s classic and I have never seen a theatrical performance of Les Miserables, I was in chorus in high school and one year we performed all of the songs. So while the music was familiar, the details of the story were pretty blurry to me before seeing the most recent film adaptation.

That being said, I was SUPER excited to see the film. And let’s be serious, that trailer starring Anne Hathaway was awesome. As a matter of fact, Hathaway’s performance in general was phenomenal. In stark contrast with the rest of the cast, I cannot say one negative thing about Hathaway’s portrayal of Fantine. Her singing was haunting and lovely. She was beautiful and wretched and desperate and hopeless. Believable. The silver lining of this uninspiring film.

As for the rest of you…

Russel Crowe’s singing voice is nasally and unpleasant to say the least. His singing sounds strained as if each note in each song were a struggle. (I once heard a singing tip that it should never sound like you’re straining and that the audience would hear it and be turned off. This was in the back of my mind the whole time listening to Crowe.)

I can’t (or won’t) hate on Hugh Jackman in the same way. His singing wasn’t great either (by any means) but I suppose his character had more emotion and more life. I felt more compelled to like him. NO, not because he’s the good guy. I have no problem liking a bad guy (hence my strange affection for Billy Bob Thornton—real life!) BUT where Crowe’s portrayal of Javert felt flat and boring, Jackman got across the emotions that he was hired to display and incite.

Am I alone on this one? Did anyone out there see this movie and seriously love it? There were people crying in the theater I was in. I’m not some kind of emotionless robot, I cry a lot in movies. All the time! So why wasn’t I crying? Should I have seen the show first before seeing the movie? Is it one of those things you have to have background knowledge of to really get into? But…but…I know the songs!

Life of Pi

Much like the title suggests, Life of Pi is the story of a big adventure, and the life leading up to it, of a boy named Pi. He dubbed himself Pi in grade school because of the target that his full name, Piscine, made him for torturous teasing. He declared on the first day of school that he would be “known to all as Pi”, explaining the significance of the mathematical figure and writing the number out in its entirety (almost), impressing students and teachers alike and becoming a school legend. Which turned out to be a theme of his life.

I can’t let this go. Because I don’t remember a lot of mathematics from school, but I remember Pi. Everyone does. IT is a legend! And Pi is an irrational number and also a transcendental number. I would argue that Pi, our protagonist, is also both of these things. Here is a quick Wikipedia article on all the different forms of “transcendence” (religion and math are the top two, go figure.) Anyway, I thought this was pretty rad and tied in nicely with the film. (And don’t we all love feeling we’re somehow smarter because we’ve picked up on the significance of clues the artist gives?)

Pi recounts the story of his great adventure to a writer: “It’s a story that will make you believe in God.”  And I suppose it could. But at the end there’s a little gotcha moment and I was left wondering who was right.

Let’s get to one of the best things about this film: I need to talk about the magnificence of the cinematography. Every scene is a visual indulgence. It is breathtakingly beautiful. I could have watched the thing on mute like a 2003 Windows Media Player sound Visualizer (you remember those right?) I mean it was completely synthesized and computerized and edited and whatever other terms apply….I don’t even know if a single scene was shot with real people in a real location or if it was all done on a green screen in a studio. But I DON’T CARE. It was, in addition to being a thoughtful and thought-provoking film, a display of artistry.

The Siberian Mammoth: An Unexpected Guide to Cuba’s Revolutionary Past

January 14, 2013 in Cuba, Film, History, Movies, Political History, Politics

The title of the documentary about the making of I Am Cuba doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue: I am Cuba, The Siberian Mammoth seems to bear an especially obscure relationship with the country. For the puzzled traveler or movie fan, it’s enough to be aware that this Italian film explores a culture clash between the Soviet film-makers who went to the country to make a propaganda film on behalf of Castro’s new regime and the Cubans who were their audience.

The 2005 documentary The Siberian Mammoth opened up the processes behind the making of the mysteriously beautiful propaganda film I am Cuba, after it had been rediscovered by directors such as Francis Ford Coppola. In a time before Cuban tourism had become an option for the offbeat traveler, I am Cuba was a brochure of a political rather than commercial kind. In the 90s, it was easier for hip audiences to enjoy it for its unreal beauty rather than its uncomfortable revolutionary propaganda. The film was directed by a well-known Soviet film-director who ended up alienating Soviets and Cubans both. Kalaznov had worked for Soviet authorities who were impossible to please for long. Before making I am Cuba, he had been banned for several years by the authorities from film-making due to “negativism.” Given these competing demands it’s difficult to know what audience this film was really aimed at. It was described by the film critic J. Hoberman as a “Bolshevik hallucination”. For the contemporary viewer, its beautiful imagery is confusing. Each shot wistfully points to some greater ideal, so that the pace is both slow and hard to follow, like melting ice—first static, then rapidly slipping into the sublimated, altered reality of the triumphant people’s revolution. The inevitable revolutionary sacrifice portrays Cubans as suffering idealists drawn towards action in a dreamlike state. This is a film that shows a Cuba of great natural beauty, but just like an advertisement, it has no real use for the reality of the place and its inhabitants. What’s stranger still is how the actors conform to its artificial purpose. The explanation behind this is that they were untrained Cuban actors selected by the Soviet Directors.

Cuba is a place that has been draped in romantic mystery for many reasons; often literary and cultural, but mostly political. Now that the country is open to tourists, it would be an interesting piece of homework for a traveler to watch this film along with its documentary counterpart as preparation for a visit. At this point the writer has a confession to make: I have seen I Am Cuba, but I have not seen The Siberian Mammoth. Nor have I seen Cuba. If I’m ever lucky enough to visit, I’d like to sharpen my memories of that beautifully shot propaganda film with this documentary about the culture clash between the foreign film-makers and their subjects.

Fauxscar Nominee: Silver Linings Playbook

January 11, 2013 in Comedy, Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies

The Mad Hatter:  Have I gone mad?

Alice:  I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers.  But I’ll tell you a secret.  All the best people are.

After seeing Silver Linings Playbook, I left the theatre in a really good mood.  One of those moods where, if life had been a musical or I had any rhythm or dexterity, I would have jumped up and clicked my heels together as I skipped down the street.  Instead I took to telling anyone who would listen how amazing and uplifting the film is and how they must drop everything they are doing and see it immediately. (Seriously, stop reading this and go see it.)  A couple people, intrigued by my insistence, asked me what it was about. A feel-good film about an emotionally damaged man, whose bipolar disorder is only discovered after a violent outburst brought on by his wife’s infidelity lands him a court-ordered stint in a mental health facility, you say?  They looked at me like I was the one who might be crazy.

Bradley Cooper plays the protagonist, Pat Solitano, Jr., in David O. Russell’s film adaptation of Matthew Quick’s 2008 novel, and the film begins with his release from the hospital.  He has lost his job, he lives with his parents, his neighbors think he has gone off the deep end, and a restraining order requires him to stay 500 feet away from his wife.  But he has a plan: stay positive; be stronger; and find the ‘silver lining’ in his situation — doing so, he believes, will surely bring his wife back to him if he works hard enough.

The problem, however, is that the ‘silver lining’ isn’t always what you think it should be.  For most of the film, Pat is too close to the situation he’s in, and too stuck in his ways, to see this. In one scene, for example, he has an outburst over Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms – He wakes his parents in the middle of the night with a tirade about the unexpected tragic ending that befalls the characters, raving, “They were happy.  You think he ends it there? No. He writes another ending.” — Hemingway’s novel provides a parallel to Solitano’s own story, in which he believes his ‘ending’ will find him back together with his wife.  Yet, as John Lennon once sang, “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Pat soon meets his match in Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), a brazenly unapologetic young widow, who is equally as broken.  Thus, Pat and Tiffany make a deal.  Tiffany will help him get a letter to his estranged wife and in return Pat will be her partner in a dance competition.  The film culminates in their final dance, two well-matched individuals performing a fun, choreographed mash-up that paints with painstaking clarity the humor, trust, and genuine admiration between the two.  Their performance is made even more endearing by contrast to the competition, a line-up that resembles the professionals from Dancing with the Stars.  We know they won’t win, but in this moment we also know (and so does Pat) that sometimes what you originally thought was the silver lining may have actually been the cloud.

Pat and Tiffany are portrayed as outsiders, looked at by their families and friends as off-kilter, damaged goods, possibly a few cards short of the deck.  And it is true that Pat and Tiffany may be ‘crazy,’ but they aren’t the only ones.  Pat’s dad, a phenomenal Fila track-suit-wearing Robert DeNiro, spends football Sundays in obsessive compulsive mania masquerading as old school superstition. As Pat Sr. rearranges the remote controls so that the Philadelphia Eagles will win, Pat’s best friend Ronnie has his own stress and anger issues that find him punching walls in his garage to let off steam.  The story manipulates our perception of sanity.  After all, Pat and Tiffany may be nuttier than fruit cake, but they admit it.  And how does the old adage go about crazy people?  If you think you’re crazy, you are probably sane enough?

Cooper is flawless in his portrayal of Pat.  With memorable roles in classic comedies such as Wedding Crashers and The Hangover, he doesn’t get the credit for his acting ability that he deserves. With a Best Actor nod in the Oscars (and the Fauxscars!) maybe that will change.  Lawrence of The Hunger Games fame is hilarious as Tiffany, a character that comes off as a less stable, yet equally kick ass (albeit R-rated), Katniss.  Robert DeNiro is Robert DeNiro, enough said.  Yet, as the OCD Solitano patriarch, his performance is both comical and touching.  Chris Tucker rounds out this dream cast as the loveable, questionably unhinged, Danny, a fellow patient Pat meets during treatment, whose random drop-ins add an extra helping of comic relief to the already very funny film.

Simultaneously witty, intelligent, poignant, and heartwarming–there is something universal about this story.  Like Pat says in the end, “life will break your heart… and I can’t begin to explain that, or the craziness inside myself and everybody else.”  Maybe the moral of the story is in acknowledging that, and being better for it.  And if, like Pat, you are lucky enough to surround yourself with people whose ‘crazy’ is compatible with your own, then maybe that is the real ‘silver lining.’

And the Nominees for The 2013 Literary Fauxscars are…

January 10, 2013 in Fauxscars, Fiction, Film, Literary Movies

After much debate, multiple trips to the movie theater, and frequent log-ins to our Netflix accounts, we have researched our way through classic novels, young adult favorites, and everything in between, to choose the best film adaptations of 2012.

Did your favorites make the cut?  Find out below!

And don’t forget to cast your votes via our PollFacebookTwitter, or in the comment section below!  If you’d prefer a ‘secret ballot’, then send your selections by e-mail.  Make sure your voice is heard!

Unless you’re a member of the Academy that other  award show may be out of your hands, but the Literary Fauxscars are up to you!  Check back often for new features on our nominees and Literary Traveler staff predictions.  Then, come February 24th, when the stars are don their best dresses and tuxes, join us (in sweats, we don’t judge!) to see who takes home a shiny new “Fauxscar”.  It’s an honor just to be nominated, though, right?  Happy Awards Show Season!

And the Nominees are…

Best Character Portrayal by an Actor: 

  

Best Character Portrayal by an Actress:
  
Best Portrayal of a Literary Love Story:
  
Best Visual Representation of a Novel’s Setting: 
    
Best “Almost as Good as the Book” Film:
  
Best “Young Adult” Adaptation:
  
Best “Family Fun” Adaptation:
  
  • John Carter
  • The Lorax
  • Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days
Best Adaptation of a Classic:
  
Best “Guilty Pleasure” Adaptation:
  
  • Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II
  • The Hunger Games
  • Total Recall
  • The Lucky One
  • The Bourne Legacy
Best “Stand Alone” Film:
  
Best Anticipated Literary Adaptation of 2013:
  
  • World War Z
  • The Great Gatsby
  • Great Expectations
  • Beautiful Creatures
  • The Hunger Games: Catching Fire