Monday, February 25, 2013

Books to Movies: The Hunger Games versus The Hunger Games

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games:

"I enjoyed The Hunger Games book.  In fact, I gave it an honorable mention in my Best Books of 2011 blog post.  I also enjoyed The Hunger Games film quite a bit, and I consider it an excellent example of how to adapt a book into a film instead of trying to put a book on film.

One of my biggest grumbles against the Harry Potter film franchise is that the filmmakers slavishly plodded away at an undesirable goal; to wit, be so loyal to the source material that the films feel more like books than movies.  When I go to watch a movie, I want to see a movie, not a book on screen.  The Hunger Games book, as well as Catching Fire and Mockingjay, are told in the first-person perspective.  The reader lives and breaths Katniss Everdeen.  Sometimes that worked well for the books and sometimes it was overbearing.  It was my single greatest worry going in to watch the film adaptation.  No doubt the love dynamics that exist within Katniss's mind is prime entertainment for a certain demographic, but I think it would have been nigh unbearable to watch on film.  (How could you express it on film?  Through voice-overs?  Stilted dialog?). 

Thankfully, the filmmakers, and to Suzanne Collins's credit since she helped pen the screenplay, chose not to tell the entire story, albeit a large portion is, only through Katniss's perspective in the film version of The Hunger Games.  At various times the audience is taken into the 'control room,' for lack of a better word, which provides the audience some context on the action that the reading audience didn't have.  Furthermore, it created suspense at the appropriate times because the audience knows what harm is to come when the main character does not, a classic film making technique.  Also, the movie audience was treated to glimpses of events that the reading audience wasn't aware of until reading Catching Fire, the second book in the franchise, as well experiencing scenes, characters, and dialog that the reading audience could never have been exposed to due to the limitation of the perspective in the book.  It was the right choice for the film, even if it may not have been for the book.

I could share more examples, but I think this will suffice.  The Hunger Games is an entertaining book and movie, but they are different in their approach and they're better for it.  Hopefully, Catching Fire blazes its own path as a film like it's predecessor, and if it does it will be following a good example."

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reflections: Death Comes to Pemberley

Sarah J. Zern opines on J.D. James's Death Comes to Pemberley:

"I am a huge fan of 18th and 19th Century British Literature.  Even though I prefer Dickens and Bronte to Jane Austen, I would still consider myself a fan of Austen’s collected works.  I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice as much as the next college-aged girl, so much so that I have tried a few spin-off novels revolving around its main characters. My most recent attempt to find a good spin-off of Pride and Prejudice was P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley.

This novel takes place a good 6 to 10 years after the end of Pride and Prejudice.  Elizabeth Darcy and her husband have a well-established life at their estate in Pemberley, with two little boys and a social life quite appropriate for people of their station.  All of this gets thrown into quite an upheaval when a man is murdered on the grounds of their home and Mr. Wickham, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia’s husband, is the main suspect.  If you have read Pride and Prejudice, you’ll understand that there is a very involved history with Wickham, Darcy, and Elizabeth, so you can imagine the repercussions this has for everyone. 

Enough of the synopsis.  Did I like this book?  Not as much as I wanted to.  I wanted there to be lots of scandal, lots of shocking revelations, and above all some truly mushy scenes between Elizabeth and Darcy.  I wanted more mystery and intrigue.  Instead I got the author’s thoughts on how Elizabeth and Darcy feel about Wickham—a liberty I wasn’t very comfortable with her taking!  I wanted more story and less character interpretation.  In my opinion it was up to Jane Austen to tell me the Wickham—Darcy—Elizabeth story, and up to P.D. James to take that story and run, not dwell on how these three still felt about each other 10 years later!

So, call me a purist or call me picky, but this was not the book I hoped to read!"

Reflections: Tinkers

Adam C. Zern shares his thoughts on Paul Harding's Tinkers:

"I didn't have any expectations when I opened the first page of Tinkers.  I found the book on Amazon by accident and put it on my Wish List on a whim.  I can reasonably say I will never forget it. 

Three quarters of the way through the book, which is short, the most I could say about Tinkers is that it was bleak.  (For some reason, reading Tinkers made me feel what I did when I watched The Tree of Life; although, The Tree of Life is far more abstract).  Tinkers seemed for a time to be traveling down the well-trodden paths of most modern literature, broken family, futile lives, etc., but Tinkers became something much, much more.  I stuck with it, just like I do for almost every book I start reading, and I am very glad I did.

The book relies heavily on themes of death but also, and by natural extension, explores themes of life and living.  Tinkers doesn't make you feel 'happy'; rather, I felt sadness when reading it.  However, I did feel something, genuine and real.  That's my greatest compliment for the book.  It got into me, my mind and soul.  I thought about it, wondered over it, debated with myself, and was grateful for the experience.  As I continue to think about various episodes in the book, I start to see it as more life-affirming than I originally believed.

I'm glad I read Tinkers.  It came as a surprise to me, especially since my initial perceptions of it were poor.  In a strange and somewhat unexplainable way, it's a part of me now.  When I discuss books with others, I think Tinkers will be part of the conversation.  It made me feel, which made me feel enlightened, which is why I read."

Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2010.

Monday, February 18, 2013

What I Want from the Ender's Game Movie

Adam C. Zern shares his three hopes for the upcoming film adaptation of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game:

"I am an invested, albeit not a zealous, fan of the Ender and Shadow books. I've written about several of those books on this blog (Shadow Puppets and Shadow of the Giant). I was instantly excited to hear that the Ender's Game book was going to be adapted into a film, although my excitement was immediately mitigated when I learned that the director of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Gavin Hood, was at the helm. However, I'm holding out hope, and my wish is that the filmmakers will make sure to get a couple things right with the film adaptation.

1.) Focus on Moral Dilemmas: One of the brilliant aspects of Card's Ender and Shadow books is their relentless focus on moral conundrums. It is the strongest element of the books. Card establishes characters along with their hopes and dreams, weaknesses and strengths, and then presents them with brutally difficult moral decisions. I was consistently puzzling over how I would behave in the same situations if ever forced into those seemingly no-win scenarios. The film version of Ender's Game should take full advantage of those moral difficulties. Film is the most useful and effective medium in conveying emotion and making the audience feel how difficult those moral dilemmas are would make the film be so much more than just another sci-fi movie.

2.) Focus on Ender: Andrew Wiggin, Card's main protagonist, is a wonderful character.  He is complicated and layered, showing signs of the greatest kindness and the most merciless brutality.  He is a reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless.  His decisions have, quite literally, universal impacts.  The audience needs to care for Ender and sympathize for him.  Science fiction films and books, like fantasy, can easily and often do focus far too much on setting and environment rather than on character.  Card's Ender's Game probably leaves a little to be desired when it comes to setting, but his characters are flesh and blood.  The film ought to follow that pattern.  No amount of production design or special effects can replace good characters.

3.) Focus on the Future: Those familiar with the Ender and Shadow books realize that the relationships between the characters is the beating heart of the franchise.  A great many of the characters have their first contact with Ender in the Ender's Game book and go on to experience their own meaningful story arcs, most notably Bean.  I hope the film is smart about these secondary characters and gives them enough time to develop.  There are few things that Hollywood loves more than a sequel, and if the Ender's Game film is smart about how it handles Ender's peers as well as Ender it could easily have a multi-film franchise.  I would love for that to become a reality.

I'm not a purist and, therefore, I'm willing to accept changes in the nuances of the book's story to ensure a proper film is made.  I may not have much confidence in the filmmaker heading up the project, but I do care a lot about the source material and hope that they're able to showcase on film what made the book so memorable.  Fingers crossed."

Monday, February 11, 2013

Reflections: Rhetoric

Adam C. Zern offers a few thoughts on Aristotle's Rhetoric:

"Reading Aristotle's Rhetoric was a good idea that ended up being far more painful that I would have liked.  It is common for me to read the recommended or referenced books of intellectuals that I admire.  Although I don't quite remember where I heard or read Rhetoric referenced, it did find it's way on my Amazon Wish List.  I can now say I've read it, but I wouldn't say much more than that about it.  (Word of warning: Rhetoric is extremely referential to Aristotle's other works, and I learned the hard way I should have provided myself a better foundation before jumping into this treatise).

The biggest problem with Rhetoric is that it's not all that much about rhetoric.  At least, not in a way that a modern reader would expect.  It doesn't provide a litany of do's and don't's for public speaking, something that a reader could get by reading Dale Carnegie's The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking or the myriad of other self-help books on public speaking, but it provides surprisingly little information on rhetoric and the skills involved.  The largest portion of the book is taken up exploring the varying traits and characteristics of a speaker's audience and why they are what they are.  What makes someone noble?  What makes someone a friend or an enemy?  What are the idiosyncrasies of youth?  Aristotle apparently felt that his interminable discussions on all things human would make his reader better at the use of rhetoric; I just felt it was unnecessary.

Like most things, it's not all bad.  There are a few gems of true wisdom and some fascinating insights into rhetoric and the human experience, but it wasn't enough to sustain my interest.  I made several notations and may use it in future writing, but Rhetoric won't be a treasured book on my Thousander list.

Read Rhetoric if you're like me and want to be able to say you have.  (I'm on a quest to read as many 'foundational' books as I can).  No doubt there are better books out there that relate to rhetoric and its uses and purposes.  I enjoy the topic and will be on the look-out for other alternatives to Aristotle's Rhetoric."

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Books to Movies: Jaws vs. Jaws

Adam C. Zern discusses the film adaptation of Peter Benchley's Jaws:

"There are very few things that loyal fans of a book love more than to see their beloved book adapted into a film.  (There are exceptions to every rule, of course, as we shall see).  Normally, the response to a film adapted from a book is that the book is better.  It provides more exposition, more character, more detail, more of what readers love.  However, every now and again, an adapted film surpasses its source material in every way, and I cannot think of a better example than of Jaws.

Peter Benchley's Jaws is one of the few books that I confidently tell others to never read; it's just not worth anyone's time.  Jaws the book is overly complicated and consistently gratuitous, including a repulsive sex scene between two characters, Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody, that have no business having an affair, as well as one too many scenes of blood and gore.  After all, unless I care about the characters, I don't frankly care who gets eaten, no matter how terrific and bloody the encounter is.  The shark in the book is more of an afterthought, albeit Benchley does make an honest effort in using it as a symbol of corruption in the town of Amity, instead of the main conflict.

Steven Spielberg's Jaws, on the other hand, avoids making every mistake the book made.  It simplifies the story to a man vs. beast conflict without abandoning character development.  It's violent, yes, but the violence is intermittent and relies more on suspense than blood and gore.  The shark, for example, doesn't make a full appearance until near the end of the film, although it is a constant, ominous presence throughout the film.  Best of all, when the final showdown happens, the story and characters are developed enough so that you genuinely don't want to see certain people get harmed or, in the worst case scenario, eaten.  It's entertainment at its finest and thank goodness the filmmakers borrowed only the idea and the title from the source material and not much else.

In conclusion, Jaws the film is one of those exceptions to the rule that the books are always better than the movies they inspire.  It certainly is an exception, but I'll discuss the testaments to the rule another day."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Reflections: Freak the Mighty

Brad Howes shares his thoughts on Rodman Philbrick's Freak the Mighty:

"Freak the Mighty is a feel-good story of a unique 'opposites-attract' friendship. Max and Kevin are on different ends of the intellectual and physical spectrum. Kevin, the Freak, is a small-statured, big-word-using genius. But he suffers from a disease that causes his 'insides' to grow, but not his 'outsides.' Max the Mighty, on the other hand, is a giant. In fact, his shoe size, fourteen, exceeds his age, thirteen—and he is L.D. (as he calls it). L.D. stands for learning disabled. Neither of the boys fits in, but they fit together. The two spend their days on 'quests' seeking 'damsels in distress,' an idea Kevin got from his love for reading. In fact, Kevin's imagination is the thing that seems to keeps each boy's troubled past from ruining their time together.  'Freak the Mighty,' which is what the boys call themselves as a pair, is a genuine companionship, full of vulnerability. Max carries Kevin around on his shoulders everywhere they go. They stick together.

Overall, the book is great. I found myself smiling at several points while reading. Charming is a good word to describe it. It made me feel like I need to lighten up—and that is why I read. But perhaps the best thing about the book is that Freak the Mighty is full of fun moments and scary moments, moments that make you laugh and moments that make you cry. Rodman Philbrick balances these moments wonderfully throughout the book."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Her Name is Scout

Adam C. Zern shares a few thoughts regarding his daughter's name:

"Scout is an unorthodox name, as my wife and I have been told by many, many people.  In fact, the name Scout for a little girl has produced bright smiles of approbation as well as incredulous grunts of disapproval.  Thankfully, my wife stayed firm on the name not only because we both find it exceptionally cute and unique but also because of what the name brings to our minds.

Our newest daughter's full name is Scout Harper Zern.  Both her first name, Scout, and her middle name, Harper, were inspired by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  Obviously, her middle name, Harper, comes from the author's first name and her first name, Scout, is the endearing nickname given to the book's narrator, Jean Louise Finch.  (For a long time I have wanted to name our boy, if Sarah and I ever have a baby boy, Atticus, but Sarah was less keen on that).  To Kill a Mockingbird is, I think it's safe to say, universally considered a classic of modern literature—not to mention adapted into an Academy Award winning film—but it's the ideas that To Kill a Mockingbird presents that inspire me to give my own child a name which is a constant reminder of the book.

Justice, mercy, integrity, family, among other eternal ideals, are presented in To Kill a Mockingbird.  It's a book that strikes a beautiful balance between presenting the injustices of reality and the prejudices of mankind but also the potential of individuals to be good and honorable.  Atticus Finch is a man our culture should uphold as being as close to the ideal of manhood as one can get.  It's fiction, of course, but all fiction is teaching something, and To Kill a Mockingbird is teaching all the right lessons.  It was common among ancient cultures for parents to give their children names that was intended to remind them of the good deeds of revered ancestors.  Scout Harper is intended to do just that."

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Reflections: The Devil's Arithmetic

 Brad Howes shares his thoughts on Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic:

"The Devil's Arithmetic provides readers with yet another look into concentration camps of the Holocaust. However, I don't know if I got to experience anything other than what I learned from Anne Frank or other documentaries I've seen that recount the most horrific event in human history. Yolen's novel is not based on a true story; rather, The Devil's Arithmetic is based on true events. She explains that it is a combination of several accounts passed on to her from family members who spent time in some of the concentration camps. While probably accurate, the details are quite graphic and gruesome—much too gruesome for the late-elementary school children for which the book claims to be written.

To be fair to Yolen, I personally do not enjoy reading about torture and death—not even to gain historical perspective. I am comfortable with my current knowledge of the Holocaust. That being said, it was a book that I didn't want to put down, and the conclusion, though in hindsight seems quite predictable, blind-sided me. Another struggle I had was the use of Yiddish throughout the novel. I know that adds to the genuineness of a novel with a Jewish narrator, but I was left guessing a lot. And it happens far too often to look up translations along the way.

I'll leave my recommendation open here. If you're into based-on-true-events historical literature, (and know a little Yiddish yourself), you'll be pleased with The Devil's Arithmetic."