My blogger friend Thingy mentioned reading and enjoying Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63 awhile back.  I’d never read any books by him, so I decided to give it a try.  I’ll try not to spoil it here, but it’s about time-travel and the unintended side-effects thereof.

It’s quite good, all in all.  You can tell he made an effort to research the styles and vernacular of the 1960s, and he also does a pretty good job of presenting  both the good and the bad aspects of that era.  There was also a lot of the hint-don’t-tell kind of cosmic horror in certain parts that I really liked.

The ending was a bit weaker though still good.  Again, without giving away too much, there was a part of it that reminded of the book A Clockwork Orange, and that felt kind of cliched.  The ending was… I guess, “bittersweet” is probably the best word for it.

I might analyze it more in-depth later, but for now, I just want to recommend reading it.

Poster for stage version of “It Can’t Happen Here”.

My previous post set me thinking about various alternate history and dystopian future fiction where real places and countries are depicted.  I think the authors of the Tea Party Insurrection article referenced in the last post should have presented it as a short story or novella or something instead; it might have been less controversial that way.

I thought about the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.  It was a “what-if” kind of book based on the idea of a Fascist takeover of the United States government.  The dictator who rises to power in the novel was based on the Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long, who tried to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination.  Many accused him of harboring dictatorial ambitions and of creating a cult of personality.

I admit I haven’t read the whole book, just the first chapter or so.  I found the writing style irritating.  The satire was very heavy-handed, to the point of making Ayn Rand look subtle in comparison.  Also, the characters’ names were so comical as to make the whole thing ridiculous.  The dictator is named “Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip”, for example.  I’m sorry, but in my opinion someone named “Buzz Windrip” wouldn’t get elected mayor of Podunk, let alone President.  (No offense to the mayor of Podunk.)

But that said, it was a pretty interesting concept for a story, although I suppose Huey Long and his supporters were not huge fans of it, any more than the Tea Party are fans of the Benson and Weber article.   But I can’t find much evidence to suggest it was very controversial at the time.  Not surprising; like I mentioned the other day, Marxist philosophy cropped up in the middle of a major Hollywood movie at the height of the Red Scare, and nobody cared.  I think Benson and Weber’s article would have been less upsetting and offensive as a work of fiction than as a creepily matter-of-fact strategy paper.

Oh, wow, I had never heard this before.  Studio executives had wanted the Harry Potter movies to be set in America.  I didn’t like the Potter flicks much–certainly, all except the last two installments were but pale shades of the books–but if they’d messed around with them even more they could have been an outright disaster.  That article kind of makes me more forgiving towards the filmmakers’ general disregard for the stuff in the books.  The fact that they couldn’t be bothered to make Tonks’s hair look like the book describes seems minor in comparison to the prospect of seeing Hogwarts relocated to the outskirts of Los Angeles.

As an American, I am vaguely insulted by the idea that people suspected Americans wouldn’t be interested in a movie that wasn’t about them.  Do they think we’re that ignorant and narcissistic?  Man, that would have been an awful series of movies.  I mean, in my eyes, the major draw of the movies was the chance to see skilled British actors plying their trade.  Take that away and they would be nothing.

Famous scene from the 1922 film “Nosferatu”. The shadow is scarier than the actual monster (see below) because your imagination fills in the details.

Saw the movie House of Dracula on TV the other night.  It’s a 1945 Universal Monsters flick that contains three of their most popular monsters: Dracula (duh) the Wolf-Man, and Frankenstein’s monster.  It was fairly well-done for what it was.  John Carradine is great as Dracula.  Also, the film features the stereotypical hunch-backed assistant to the mad scientist, but for a change the character is female, and fairly attractive apart from the hunch-back. It’s an unusual role, and the actress, Jane Adams, does a pretty good job.

But what was especially notable about the movie was that it falls into the awful horror movie pitfall of trying to explain the source of the horror scientifically.  So, it turns out that Dracula has a blood disease, and that the Wolf-Man can be cured by brain surgery and some kind of weird fungus that the aforementioned scientist grows in his castle.

Folly!  I’ve blogged about this before: horror movies should not rationalize or explain the horror in any way.  When they do, it becomes less frightening.  They make this mistake all the time in horror movies.  It’s much better when the scientifically-inclined are skeptics and shown to be wrong, and the monster is an inexplicable violation of the laws of nature.   The intelligent, scientific  types being wrong is how you know you’re in trouble.

If you try to explain everything, it is less scary.  This applies not only to trying to give explanations for the monster’s origin or condition or whatever, but to every element in any scary story.  Just give people a few hints of the monster, and  let them piece together the rest, that’s what I say.

See what I mean?

 

I tried to read the first book of the Hunger Games series awhile back, and although I thought it was well-written and had a good setting, it was hard for me to get into it because it was fairly predictable.  I’m sure that’s partially because it was written for a younger audience, but I think it also is a just a little too cliche filled.  I’m not saying it’s bad.  It’s a decent book, but I pretty much knew where it was going from a very early point.  This is a problem I have with a lot of dystopian fiction–it all seems cut from the same cloth.

You know, I had an idea for a dystopian movie once.  It would be set at an undefined place and time, in a country where a totalitarian, fascist government had taken over.  The main character would be some kind of violent goon for the government who went around suppressing all dissenters.  And the whole film would present him as the hero–he’d be played by a “leading man”, the camera angles would present him heroically–the whole film would seemingly approve of the dystopian society.  Then, at the end, there would be some kind of title card or something telling the audience that this was a propaganda film approved by the fictional government, perhaps even detailing some of the techniques involved.

The point of this would be to pull the rug out from under the audience; see how many of them would have found themselves being subtly seduced into rooting for the main character–and the society he represents–by the film’s technique.  The “plot twist” would actually be a test to see how much people would start to buy into something awful because of good cinematography. Then they would have to re-evaluate what they had just watched.

The trouble is, this is more of a science experiment than an entertainment movie.  The trick of the movie is that usually, in dystopian stories, the protagonist begins to question his society, and through him, the audience is told about the society’s problems. (e.g. Winston Smith in 1984, Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451)  There would be none of that in this movie.  He’d be 100% behind the society, and looking to maintain it.  It would be kind of like 1984 from O’Brien’s perspective.

The thing about my idea–and I’m not saying it’s a good idea–is that it plays with the tropes of the dystopian genre.  Dystopian stories give the audience some character they can turn to to see the dystopia’s flaws; or at least the “tone” of the piece, or the “voice” of the narrative give it away.  Here, there are no societal outcasts or anything like that for people to turn to. (The main character takes care of that.)  I thought this up largely from noticing that every dystopian story seems to rely on the same devices, and that makes them pretty predictable.

“And have you a pale blue dress on?” “Jane Eyre” illustration by F.H. Townsend. Via Wikipedia

So, it seems Jane Eyre is being re-written as a trashy romance novel.  Or should I say, a trashy romance novel for our time; as I believe the original Jane Eyre was a trashy romance novel by Victorian standards, as indeed are all books that are any good.  But times change, and audiences seem to go less and less for subtlety.

The author of the new version, Eve Sinclair, said:

I think that readers through the ages have appreciated the smouldering sexual chemistry between Jane and Rochester and I have changed very little of Bronte’s original to retell the timeless story of a young girl falling for an unattainable older man and getting out of her depth in a sensual world she cannot control.

Well… it seems like she would have had to change rather a lot of the story, since the plot hinges on Jane not wanting to, ah, “live as Rochester’s wife” without actually being Rochester’s wife.  And that only happens at the end of the book.  And if she didn’t change it much, then… what was the point of this again?

You know, I think this is the same problem I complain about in the horror genre: nothing gets left to the reader’s imagination anymore.

Check out this BuzzFeed article about a Scholastic Books series called Survive Anything!  The article claims that the books are “misogynistic” because there is an edition for boys and an edition for girls.  The boys’ edition teaches things like “How to Survive a Tornado”, “How to Survive a Broken Leg” and, perhaps least usefully, “How to Survive a T-Rex”. (Oughtn’t they at least teach how to survive time-travel first?)  The girls’ edition, on the other hand, teaches stuff like “How to survive a BFF Fight”, “How to Show You’re Sorry” and “Top Tips for Speechmaking”.

This, the writer at BuzzFeed says, is not right.  Why do girls get tips on emotional, domestic-type stuff when boys get tips on how to survive in the wild?

Well, I agree it’s not right, of course. But I don’t think it’s misogynistic.  It’s really just sexist. But if you must use a stronger term, it’s misandrist.  Surviving a tornado is a useful skill, although frankly, unless you already have tornado shelter built, it’s purely a matter of luck.  Most of the Indiana Jones-like scenarios the boys’ version seems to cover are situations that (a) probably will never happen and (b) would be decided mostly by chance if they did happen.

The girls edition teaches all sorts of things that might actually occur.  I’m a man, and I’ve never needed to know how to survive my parachute failing, but I have had to give speeches and say “I’m sorry” for things.  But these books merely assume that men would never be concerned with such things.  Well, enough of that prejudiced thinking, say I!  I resent the notion that we fellas are only good for feats of brute strength and endurance, and that the civilized arts of diplomacy are closed to us!

I only ever read two things by him: Fahrenheit 451, which I frankly didn’t think was very good, and “The October Game”, which was well-written but way too dark, even for my tastes. He also seemed, at times, like something of a luddite.

But Bradbury liked the atmosphere of the fall and Halloween, apparently, and that’s definitely true of me as well. Someday, I’ll have to give Something Wicked This Way Comes a try.

And another thing I’ll say for the man: he came up with some awesome titles. I may not have liked Fahrenheit, but it’s a good title. Scanning his bibliography on Wikipedia, I see tons of titles that I know nothing about, but which intrigue me quite a bit.

Last week in Scotland, there was an academic conference on the Harry Potter series. The Guardian reports:

Billed as the world’s first conference to discuss Harry Potter strictly as a literary text [as opposed to what?–MM], almost 50 lectures are lined up, with academics taking on issues including paganism, magic and the influence on Rowling of CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and Shakespeare. Seminar titles range from “Moral development through Harry Potter in a post-9/11 world”  to “Harry Potter and Lockean civil disobedience”.

The article goes on to quote Prof. John Mullan of University College London as saying: “[The participants] should be reading Milton and Tristram Shandy: that’s what they’re paid to do.”

Well, I’m sure the world will manage to struggle on despite some professors not reading their Milton and Tristram Shandy for a few days. Somehow, I don’t think those works will change much over that time frame, so I don’t think there’s a lot of urgency.

It is not that literary analysis is a useless pursuit–I have often engaged in a bit of it myself, in my amateurish way–it is just the rather odd, almost arbitrary mechanism by which things are deemed worthy of it (or not) that annoys people.

Why shouldn’t our friendly neighborhood professors spend a little time reading the adventures of Harry Potter, in lieu of another go-round with Paradise Lost? Is it because they are not as good as the works of Milton? Perhaps they are not. But how can you claim that, without first having subjected them to the same scrutiny that has been applied to Milton’s work? They could give their profession a much greater reputation for academic rigor if they did that, I think. Prof. Mullan’s idea is somewhat akin to astronomers continually proving to this day that the Earth does in fact orbit the Sun, and smacking down any loose talk about this “Sloan Great Wall“.

Not that Potter is as good as the classic Great Works–it isn’t, in my opinion, but who is to say that they won’t one day come along with something that is better than those old books? It could happen, you know, but academia won’t find out about it unless they analyze them. And even if they never actually do get surpassed, you don’t need to keep reading and writing about them over and over to be sure.

This conference is, nevertheless, a bit ridiculous. I know I sound like a Tea Partier saying this, but there is a vague touch of elitism about the whole thing: “We are academics! We can discuss this book series better than you (dare I say it?) ‘muggles’ can.”

I don’t mean to imply it isn’t worth doing, because they’re professional critics. The ridiculousness of the situation derives less from the fact that they’re discussing Harry Potter and more from the fact that academic literary criticism in general is fairly ridiculous. It is for this reason that so many people think the entire profession is useless and stupid, when in fact it is only that they are using the wrong techniques. And the reason they are using the wrong techniques, I suspect, is that they are mostly analyzing old texts, and consequently have to reach further and further for new topics that haven’t been addressed before. There are only so many ways you can say “Hamlet is really quite interesting.”

Unfortunately, the techniques honed by critics for doing this are the only tools available to those critics who would write about something slightly newer such as Harry Potter. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s assessment of the United States: “critical analysis of Harry Potter went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” (There was, I am sure, a “Golden Age” of Shakespeare analysis. It was probably in the 1700s.)

I don’t really know why it’s such a big deal, all told.  Amateurs on fan sites were analyzing the Harry Potter books well before this and will continue to do so. Academics may join in if they like, or not. It doesn’t much matter.