Book to Movie: A Passage to India

Aziz, Godbole, Miss Quested
*Slight Spoilers* (I read the book and saw the movie for the first time this summer--there may be others like me out there!)

Passage to India (1984) is a faithful rendition of the book. It also proves, in passing, that Alec Guinness (as Professor Godbole) never fails a part (one is not supposed to think this--one is supposed to dislike Guinness in the part, but I find dictatorial Ivory Tower "film" analysts irritating, and I think what I think).

Actually, the entire cast is impressive. Plus, they are faithful to the book's characters.

As I mention in previous posts, I don't necessarily view faithfulness to the book as a requirement. More than anything I want the scriptwriter/director (both David Lean in this case) to admire the original text, to care about it, to want to make it work.

In this case, the care and admiration truly begins with the cast:
Victor Banerjee is so perfect as Aziz, I exclaimed on the fact several times during the film: sweet and carefree until the trial knocks him for a loop; extroverted; somewhat guileless; eager to please. Banerjee was 38 when he played Aziz and appears younger. Banerjee's ageless aura makes plausible Aziz's willingness to reclaim his former self at the end of the movie.

Dame Peggy Ashcroft gives Mrs Moore exactly the right combination of free-spiritedness, exhaustion at the follies of humankind, and generosity. She isn't an activist--she could/would never have taken on Dr. Fielding's efforts to help Aziz. But she effortlessly highlights why so many people, from Aziz to Miss Quested, adore her, honoring even the evocation of her name. She is a saint--without being saintlike (not an easy characterization to achieve: Forster based her on a beloved aunt).

Judy Davis as Miss Quested. Based on the picture on the DVD cover, I was a little worried about Judy Davis. Miss Quested is a level-headed, down-to-earth and not beautiful woman. The point of her not being beautiful is not that she is plain but that the trial centers on her gender and her Britishness, not her looks. It also highlights her integrity. Like Elizabeth from Pride & Prejudice, she isn't seeking marriage and/or approval for the sake of marriage and approval. She also isn't being sought after. She is a free agent who acts according to her own reasons. Consequently, the reader (and the viewer) come to believe that Mr. Fielding is right to protect her at the end.

Judy Davis is, frankly, quite lovely. But like Joan Fontaine, she pulls off the girl-next-door look. And she has this stunning husky voice that sells her later testimony. Since the movie is hers (the book belongs to several voices), she is slightly more sympathetic than in the book.

Aziz and Fielding
James Fox as Fielding explained James Wilby (Maurice) to me. There is a definite bromance in A Passage to India, the novel,  between Aziz and Fielding. It is (slightly) toned down in the movie. I thought it would be removed entirely, but David Lean appears to have found it utterly non-threatening (until the final scene, which is unhappily not as sweet and sincere as in the book) to making his point. James Fox is blond, lanky, and refreshingly non-politically-correct in his sincere desire to help Aziz. Three years later when Merchant Ivory went looking for Maurice, it couldn't have found a closer correspondence to James Fox than in the younger James Wilby. Both castings may have been a fluke (as claimed); both were brilliant.

Nigel Havers as Heaslop is the only character who is somewhat unlike his book version. When Forster took against the pompous nabobs of his own class, he really took against them (as he admitted wryly; after all, he was one). Book Heaslop is so chauvinistic, dictatorial, full of himself and his "right" to behave like a condescending Empire builder, it is unimaginable why Miss Quested wouldn't have drop-kicked him off the field of her heart back in England. Heaslop is the type of "good old public school boy" in India that Kipling--who supported the Empire--loathed; Heaslop is also the reason one starts to side with political correctness after too much exposure to the type.

Nigel Havers is more clueless than obnoxious, making the engagement slightly more comprehensible. 
Another aspect of the movie that shows Lean's appreciation of the book is his reliance on the echo--What does the echo mean? More in a later post . . .

The Great Boyfriend: Nick

One of my favorite television boyfriends is Mallory's boyfriend Nick on Family Ties.

Nick is Mallory's modern artist boyfriend. His art is as dreadful and as good as a budding modern artist's would be; that is, the producers actually bothered to create real pieces for Nick that occasionally are quite legitimately artistic.

He is introduced as a biker and does in fact ride a motorcycle. He apparently dropped out of high school (although the implication is that he got to a certain age and was kicked out without graduating--he later gets his GED). He has no desire to go to college, and Alex (P. Keaton) worries about his ability to support a goldfish, let alone Mallory, in the future.

Mallory, Nick, and his art
Since Mallory is as ambitious as Alex in her own way, planning to open a series of boutiques and even, later, start her own line of business clothing for women, I don't think Alex needs to worry. Nick will make a GREAT house-husband/stay-at-home dad (with the part-time job of teaching after-school arts/crafts at the Y).

What makes Nick such a great boyfriend is that he is utterly supportive of Mallory, even encouraging her to go to college despite the possible distance it may put between them. He is an intuitive thinker, which gives him a kind of objectivity--he doesn't do things or agree to things unless they are good ideas. He is politely guileless, an adorable combination: after the first aborted family dinner, he returns to apologize to the Keaton parents for leaving and to state emphatically that he wants to date Mallory. He is emotionally intelligent, taking his loss in the art contest with mature acceptance. And despite or perhaps because of the "Hey!"s, he is a fairly decent conversationalist--although Alex insists that Nick and Mallory are the equivalent of cave-man and cave-woman, both are quite adept at exchanging views/working things out (Gottman's criteria--not "listening" so much as devising mutual practicable strategies). 
The Keaton parents realizing they were more like Nick
when they were younger than they want to admit.

And Nick is truly tolerant--more tolerant (and more unconventional) than the Keaton parents, a fact that is played on throughout the show. He accepts people as they are, all the way from Alex to the Keaton parents, even if what they are is being not entirely cool with him.

He enters the show in Season 4 and stays the remaining seasons. He was a brilliant addition, providing occasional tension, humor, and a foil to the not-as-bohemian-as-they-thought middle-class Keaton family.

Disney Villains Falling Off Things

I suppose it is less traumatic than shooting or strangling or eating someone: Disney villains always seem to "die" (we don't actually see the corpses) by falling off of things.
Snow White's Witch
Apparently, this movie--the first full-length Disney which owes a debt to European illustrators like Gustave Dore--terrified full-grown adults, especially the final sequences. The classic exemplar of pride and vanity, the witch falls off a cliff. Since a big rock falls after her, her death is pretty much assured. (The watching vultures are very happy.)

Simba returns to reclaim his pride! And Scar falls off a cliff. I believe the hyenas then get him. Actually, Simba leaving Scar to the hyenas may not be excessively noble, but it is a fairly accurate depiction of lion behavior. People who like to feel all warm and fuzzy about the sweetness of nature should watch National Geographic episodes about real animals in the wild. Lions will  leave each other to starve and be eaten by hyenas. There's no such thing as a "clean" death.

In the 1946 Beauty & the Beast, Avenant (the Gaston
character) turns into a Beast at the end.
In both the animated and live-action versions, Gaston causes himself to fall off a tower when he recklessly attacks the Beast. I honestly thought they might leave him alive this time around. I mean, come on, this is Luke Evans (I just rewatched him in The Hobbit, where he is amazing) and he wasn't sooo bad in the beginning at the movie. Why couldn't he be redeemed (like, eh hem, the Beast)?

I actually thought the writers were going to go that route, but . . . no. Of course, we don't see the broken, damaged corpse, so maybe . . .

There are more recklessly-footed Disney villains! But you get the idea.

Why I'm Not Anti-Disney

Although I will criticize Disney, I am not in fact an enemy of Disney.

Here's why:
1. There is no need to choose only Disney:

The idea that Disney is an overwhelming presence in the lives of children/American culture is similar to an idea that I encountered in my master's programs: "underprivileged" (i.e. poor) people are at the mercy of television commercials.

Except all the "poor" ("poor" in America is an extremely relative term) people I've met barely watch television. The argument appears to be mostly a matter of  transference--a bunch of beleaguered, overly educated middle-class folks insisting that everybody else is as obsessed with the media as they are.

I grew up in a house without a television (well, sort of--check out Eugene's "TV Wars"). I also grew up with Disney records, the Wonderful World of Disney (at my friends' houses) and going to see Disney movies. Plus Perrault, Andrew Lang, Cricket Magazine, Lloyd Alexander, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Beatrix Potter, many many many picture books, and a scary set of Grimm fairy tales (which I never read).

Yes, there are parents who only give their kids Disney but is the alternative truly better? No nothing at all? Should children only read literal, legalistic, non-creative, non-fictional tomes? Only watch approved social documentaries or "fiction" that teaches a lesson? (I know parents who would say, "Yes." Scary people.)

Truthfully, one can have it all.

2. Criticism of Disney brings together the left and the right--rhetorically speaking--which is an unpleasant combination.

As social observers before me have remarked, there is a weird combo-pack between the political left and religious right. Complaining that Disney is sexist, for instance, brings together parents who would never be caught near each other at a political rally. Complaining about porn brings together many of the same people: those who want all that salacious nonsense to stop right now! Alongside those who want all that horrible patriarchal, sexist, backwards-thinking to stop right now!

In both cases, "control" is the password.  Underlying it all is fear of non-literal language, which leads me to...

3. People should set aside their fear of communication when dealing with art (and everything else). 

Much of my personal disillusionment regarding the modern world is not the worries of either liberalism or conservatism. It's how people use the fear of language to try to get their way (on both the left and the right). That is, although I get disgusted by the rhetoric itself, I also get disgusted by the "DID YOU HEAR WHAT THE OTHER SIDE SAID!" overreaction to rhetoric. Everybody just calm down!
More than anything, I get irritated with the underlying assumption--which nobody ever challenges (okay, I did here)--that we are the victims of communication (language and images), our environments, rather than free agents.

Decision-making studies indicate that people make choices for reasons that have almost nothing to do with how  other people think they are supposed to react. Advertising, for example, is notoriously problematic. There's a reason advertising firms get paid so much to discover so little about how people actually buy. We are not in fact victims of Hollywood insidiousness or socio-geo-politico brainwashing. (I remembered the above commercial but not what company it was for.)

Cultures do have their own realities--and perpetuate themselves according to their own time frames. But never make the mistake of thinking that there weren't people in, say, the 1500s, who weren't asking some of the same questions we do. Maybe those questions didn't use the same rhetoric or have the same cultural significance or catch people's attention in the same way: other worries came to the fore. But that doesn't mean nobody thinks anything until some institution says so. People were thinking Protestant thoughts before Martin Luther came along.

Language and images reflect us--they do not control us. For some people, this entails a greater degree of responsibility than they wish to accept (see porn debates).  But is denying one's agency really going to help anyone?
All this is to say, I can appreciate--even if I don't totally support--a parent who decides, "I'm going to monitor what my child watches." I can truly admire parents who deliberately expand what their child consumes. But I cannot agree with or admire those parents who decide that "this thing" is bad and destructive--therefore the whole structure should come crashing down for everyone and how dare anyone think otherwise, you corrupted and corrupting individuals!

Personally, I think Disney sometimes produces garbage. I also think Disney sometimes produces darn good stuff (see Tangled). It is artistry, which means that sometimes it will be great; sometimes not. Artistry also means it is going to reflect our wants and needs as well as the wants and needs and imaginations of its artists. That's what art does.

And living in a world with art is good.

Poirot Movies (David Suchet): Part 3

Appointment with Death

Although the script takes liberties, creating new murderers (from extant characters), I didn't mind so much. For one, this particular story varies considerably between the book version and Christie's own play. For another, the new murderers make sense, given the victim.

The only issue I have is, What is Tim Curry doing in this movie? His part is fairly irrelevant. I can only imagine that he offered, and the Poirot people couldn't turn him down. I mean, would you turn down Tim Curry?

But he is the type of actor who needs to be cast completely correctly and then used completely correctly. He wasn't here.

Murder on the Orient Express

I was somewhat worried about this one. How can any version top the 1974 Albert Finney version? I think Suchet is as good a Poirot--better in some ways. But the 1974 movie is itself a tour de force.

The clever Poirot writers solved the problem by examining the plot from a completely new direction: Are the conspirators justified? This question haunts the narrative, and Poirot is the right character to contemplate it. The result is a rather dark movie, but one that still keeps mostly to the plot.

I will be seeing and reviewing Kenneth Branagh's version, coming out November 2017!

Hallowe'en Party

A surprisingly good production with perfect casting of the Judith and Miranda characters (played by Amelia Bullmore and Mary Higgins). I also enjoyed seeing Zoe Wannamaker again. She has great acerbic delivery.

However, the movie does indicate how/why movies develop completely different tones/auras from their books; it occurs when the movie script fails to take context into account.

The movie stars the remarkable Julian Rhind-Tutt
In the book Halloween Party, there are a number of deaths. They have mostly occurred in the past; there's an almost unreal quality about them (which is part of the ambiance). By constantly showing us the dead bodies, the movie becomes . . . kind of silly. It's one thing to have a cozy village mystery with a couple of deaths; it's another to have a cozy village mystery with people dropping like flies. It's the freaking Black Plague! It is also the reason I had to stop watching Midsomer Murders. I adore John Nettles, but the writers were killing off so many people per episode, there wasn't anyone left to blame or investigate or even care.

The Clocks & Three-Act Tragedy

The 1997 Pale Horse does a great job placing Christie's
story in the era that she wrote it!
I combine my review of these because they are fairly boring books yet fairly respectable movies. The Clocks movie does highlight one of the flaws of the Poirot movies: in an effort  to remain chronologically consistent with the series, the later books are not set in the 1950s and 1960s but in the 1940s. This is very sad since Christie did a great job "modernizing" her novel settings. Miss Marple and Poirot had to adjust (with some success) to a rapidly changing culture. Great fun!

But The Clocks movie, instead of being placed in the 1960s, is placed pre-WWII, creating a bewildering change in tone from the book.

Still, the Colin and Sheila characters are done well. And the basic plot is kept which impressed me. One huge change is made to one particular character, but I'm guessing the script-writers went, "That's WAY too much of a coincidence" and left it out. I don't fault them. 

Three-Act Tragedy is extremely well-done. It is much better than the 1980's version which is so boring, I've never seen it all the way through because I fall asleep, and I am NOT the kind of person who falls asleep watching movies. So Suchet's version is a vast improvement. And Martin Shaw does a magnificent job. Still, although it is not as boring as the 1980's version, it is not that interesting either. I'm not sure why. I think the problem lies in the original plot rather than the script.


Elephants Can Remember: Not bad. Not all that memorable either. A little creepy. Zoe Wannamaker is wonderful again.

The Big Four: Weird book. Weird movie.

Dead Man's Folly: Quite well done. I am also fond of the Peter Ustinov 1986 version. This was Suchet's last job as Poirot. (Curtain, naturally, was aired last.)

The Labours of Hercules: Horrible. But then I thought from the beginning that this book should have been done as a series of 12 one-hour episodes. Suchet claims in his autobiography that the BBC started making movies because "American" audiences preferred them to the shorter episodes. Not me! I far far far preferred the shorter episodes (still do) and suspect that the movies were simply easier to produce/defend. Frankly, only a few of the movies measure up to the craftsmanship and quality of any single 1-hour episode. I would have loved to see 12 more such episodes.

Curtain: The movie is actually more satisfying than the book (to which it remains accurate overall). In the book, we never "see" the confession--we only hear about it, leading one to hope that Poirot wasn't going nuts towards the end of his life.

The movie is beautifully, lovingly done. Touching to see Suchet and Fraser together again. Perfect tone. A tour de force. And sad farewell.

Poirot Movies (David Suchet): Part 2

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: Not bad. The first-person voice-over differs from the book for obvious reasons. It kind of works. Basic plot points are retained. All in all, an okay production.

Lord Edgware Dies: Extremely well-done. Helen Grace as Jane Wilkinson does a superb job. Plot, murderer, and aura are all retained. The best movie since The ABC Murders.

Evil Under the Sun: Okay movie, but the femme fatale isn't done correctly. I'm not sure the writers understood Christie's character. She's supposed to be THE woman that women-love-to-hate, the bad girl who breaks up marriages except . . . strip away the glamour, and she's actually rather pitiable. For a better rendering of this character type, check out the series episode "Triangle at Rhodes." The movie does use the theme music in a compelling way.

Murder in Mesopotamia: I think I would like this movie more if it wasn't one of my favorite books. The book is told entirely from the nurse's point of view, and the nurse has a distinct voice and perspective. She makes the book live. The movie, however, is told all from Poirot's point of view. I understand this on one level; the writers have to use the guy who is being show-cased. But it is still a disappointment. That said, the movie is worth watching. It keeps the main plot points and the aura.

Five Little Pigs: This is one of the best of the later movies. It is the most artistic of the films and effectively captures a nostalgic aura that works well with the plot. It keeps the plotting of the book as Poirot questions each "pig" in turn. There is a subtle change regarding the Philip Blake character (played by the superb Toby Stephens). However, the change actually makes sense and doesn't play havoc with Christie's text. The actor who plays Amyas Crale isn't how I see Amyas Crale physically, but he captures the character.

Sad Cypress: Overall, the plot is well-rendered. However, a major change between the book and movie tells me the writers missed the point. I discuss that change more in my post "Thoughts on Agatha Christie and Literature".

Death on the Nile: Better than the 1978 version. Plus the 2004 version has JJ Feild! It's such a sad movie, I rarely rewatch it. Plus none of the movies has my favorite line. When Jacqueline is speaking to Poirot at the end of the book, she says, "I followed a bad star," and then she mocks a line given earlier in the book: "That bad star, that bad star fall down." When I read Death on the Nile as a teenager, that line captured the essence of Jacqueline's character for me. [Update: Boy, the plot of this book is utterly ridiculous. No wonder the movies are always soap operas. By the end, so many people have died on the boat, I start thinking of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, my go-to novel for "so many bad things have happened, I've stopped believing in the plot." ]

The Hollow: Quite good. Like with Death on the Nile, it is missing some good lines from the book. Otherwise, the characters and the plot are skillfully handled. Unlike with Murder in Mesopotamia, the main female character is given equal time with Suchet, which is absolutely correct.

The Mystery of the Blue Train: Not bad although I'm not as familiar with this book as the others. There is a romance change that I dislike (this becomes more common in the later movies).

Cards on the Table: Great book. So-so movie. A number of fundamentals are needlessly changed (this also becomes more common in the later movies). The motive for the murder is changed but not the murderer. It kind of works.

Actually, I think the movie would be a dud if it wasn't for the awesome Zoe Wannamaker. She plays Mrs. Oliver; she doesn't look like Mrs. Oliver, but she captures her character exactly (and it's Zoe Wannamaker!). Alexander Siddig makes an appearance as Mr. Shaitana and does a great job (he also reminds you how tall he is; in Deep Space Nine, he is one over-6-foot man among many over-6-foot people--except for Nana Visitor).

After the Funeral: One of my favorite movies though substantial changes are made to Susannah and George's characters. I like the changes, and I don't think they undermine anything. The clever motive and clever murderer are retained, and the clever murderer is done exactly right (by a very good actor).

Taken at the Flood: Surprisingly well-rendered. This is one of Christie's scary psycho pieces, and Elliot Cowan as David Hunter, the psycho, is chillingly good. By the way, this movie captures Christie's ideas of emotional (and sexual) enthrallment (see my comments about Sad Cypress). A romance change is made that I regret, but I can understand why the writers did it.

Mrs. McGinty's Dead: Well-rendered. This movie also retains very funny dialog from the book. One is the argument between Mrs. Oliver and Robin about the adaptation of her books to plays (Agatha Christie used Mrs. Oliver to spout off about writing); the other is Poirot's line to a suspect: "It is amazing to me that you could be hanged because you do not pay enough attention to the things people say to you!"

Cat Among the Pigeons: I admit this is one book I would be tempted to play with if I were the scriptwriters. I have this entire subplot involving Adam and Julia . . .  However, in terms of faithfulness to Christie's vision, the movie is pretty good. The plot and murderer's identity are retained but not, I think, the aura. The removal of one character kind of destroys the original feel. Also, although Harriet Walter does a magnificent job as Miss Bulstrode, I'm not sure she is the Miss Bulstrode of the book, but it is Harriet Walter so ... okay.

Third Girl: Tremendous disappointment! The movie destroys the book. The book is extremely well-plotted and very clever; the resulting movie-mess is just that: a mess. Things happen for no good reason. The new motives are slender and convoluted. The double-identity (a Christie special) is disregarded. Mrs. Oliver is misused. Doctor Stillingfleet, a very important character, is discarded. The entire ambiance as well as the book's time period have been thrown out. Jemima Rooper, whom I quite like, is completely wrong for the part of Norma. The movie is a huge wreck.

I can only assume the recent Miss Marple people took over. Please, if you don't admire Christie enough to reread her books several times, savoring her plots and characters and recognizing her for the incredible craftswoman she was . . . if you are arrogant and blind enough to think you can "improve" on her plots, stop producing Christie movies!

Poirot Movies (David Suchet): Part 1

Peril At End House: The first Poirot/Suchet movie keeps the order of events and the identity of the murderer. It also retains the aura and theme. It isn't the best out of the first set but worth watching.

Mysterious Affair at Styles: This is one of the few movies that actually makes more sense than the book. Mysterious Affair was Christie's first book, and it is rather difficult to follow. In general, although Christie produces lots of red herrings, her novels' denouements are always crystal-clear. If you have difficulty following the clues in this book, check out the movie: it helps. The movie is faithful to the original plot, and the meeting between Hastings and Poirot is sweetly done.

The ABC Murders: The best of the first set, really excellent. It demonstrates a great appreciation for the book--everything is spot on. The music is excellent!

Death in the Clouds: Okay, but surprisingly boring. Well, its setting revolves about tennis, so what do you expect? Doesn't play havoc with the book at least.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe: Pretty good, but then it has the amazing Eccleston and the equally amazing Peter Blythe. It also has one of Christie's better double-identity tricks; even if you figure out the double-identity, you can't be sure what it is being used for immediately.

Hercule Poirot's Christmas: Okay, but something of a disappointment for me. This is one of my favorite books, and although the murderer's identity is kept, a missing character changes the overall aura of the piece.

Hickory Dickory Dock: One of the few movies I think is more interesting than the book. It does an excellent job retaining the aura of student life explored in the book plus it uses Miss Lemon absolutely correctly. Colin Firth's brother, Jonathan, stars. Yeah, that's right, the brother who WASN'T Darcy. Still, he's managed to have a fairly successful career, and there's something to be said for NOT being the typed-cast brother. For Life fans, Damian Lewis also stars and does a great job.

Murder on the Links: Well-done if a little dull. Retains both the plot and aura of the original.

Dumb Witness: Well-done if a little dull. The dog is cute.

This concludes what I think of as the first set although I believe the above movies are sold in two sets. However, there is a four-year difference between Dumb Witness and the next movie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Reviews of the later movies will follow.

S is for Slote: Cloning for Kids

Speare, Stoltz, Seredy, Keatley Snyder, Streitfeild, Sutcliff: S was a difficult author to choose.

I settled on Alfred Slote who wrote one of my favorite (and first) sci-fi reads, Clone Catcher.

Told from the point of view of a clone catcher, the slim novel narrates the investigation of Arthur Dunn, who is commissioned to chase down the clone of a wealthy businessman. Dunn is portrayed as a Bogart-type P.I. with slightly less angst and no bad addictions. But he is wry and skeptical with a detective's instincts (my favorite books, even as a youngster, always circled back to mysteries!).

The future--which takes place in 2019--involves the creation of clones as walking, talking, breathing, thinking extra body parts for their originals. And yes, it is totally unlikely. Should cloning reach such a stage (amazing how all these scientific advancements have occurred without our noticing!), there would be zero need to produce sentient people who would then need to be fed and housed, protected and guarded. The organs could be stored in containers. Or the cloning material could be stored until the organs needed to be produced.

What interests me more is how contemporary attitudes changed to reflect the end of the book: clones deserve rights. When Star Trek: TNG tackled clones in the 1989 episode "Up the Long Ladder," the clones were treated as, well, a collection of body parts. Riker is offended that his genetic material might be used and everyone assumes that another "him" would be destroyed if he so wished it.
Bashir watching the clone grow.

Only 4 years later in real time (1993), a man who kills his own clone on Deep Space Nine is accused of the legal crime of murder while the remaining clone is treated as a fully independent being with rights.

In other words, as the science progressed--cloning becoming more and more of a possibility--the ethical treatment of hypothetical human clones advanced.

Slote should be given credit: he tackled these issues for kids in 1982.

Ethics aside, Clone Catcher is a good story with well-dropped hints/clues and a riveting climax. It isn't always easy to track down; it is worth the effort. 
Slote should be applauded for producing
three strong female characters, any one
of which could have been played
by Lauren Bacall.

Doubting the Bad Guy: What Flash, Season 1 Does Right

A typical--and arguably necessary--ploy in genre television episodes is for the good guys to instantly know whether or not they should trust a newbie.
In NCIS, Bellasario cut down on time by having Gibbs'
"gut" be an ongoing (and useful) plot device.

If the good guys are supposed to trust the ambiguous character, they never ask themselves the most basic questions, like, "Why are we accepting what this person tells us?" If the good guys are supposed to be only temporarily fooled, at least one of them will have a "feeling" that the ambiguous character is up to no good.

This instant-knowledge is arguably necessary since time is a factor: television characters don't have much longer than 50 minutes to figure out exactly how trustworthy a new character might be. Still, the instant-knowing gets a tad too convenient after awhile--and makes mincemeat of plot tension.

Flash, Season 1, handles the trust/mistrust of the ambiguous character, Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh) quite well because the writers take their time, allowing the characters' reactions to develop organically. The at-least-one character-with-the-uneasy-feeling is Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), and his unease is believable and appropriate to his character. It doesn't feel tacked on; it is part of what makes him who he is.

Detective West, like many people in Central City, doesn't trust Harrison Wells, the man whose lab blew up, damaging the city. If not for Barry's condition, he would never have associated voluntarily  with Harrison Wells at all. He reluctantly but desperately hands Barry over to Wells' care. It turns out okay (at least, apparently) but West never loses his initial reservation.

So the mistrust is there from the beginning.

What keeps the mistrust from becoming "THE GOOD GUY ALREADY KNOWS!" syndrome is that West fights his distrust. Rather than growing into a state of distrust--the arc used for Caitlin, Barry, and Cisco--he starts with distrusts but tries to suppress it because he is a civilized, fair-minded man. For a civilized man, a "bad feeling" isn't enough, and West can't help but noticed that (1) Wells saved Barry's life; (2) Wells was cleared by a formal investigation yet eventually took personal responsibility for the events leading up to the lab explosion; (3) Wells apparently lost his wife, explaining why he moved to Central City; (4) Wells fights metahumans; (5) Wells has prevented Barry from making mistakes . . .

West occupies the interesting position of almost wanting to disprove his own doubt. Consequently, his verbal confrontations with Wells--before Wells' true identity is revealed--contain Die Hard-like tension. Nobody starts screaming; instead, both men are very tactful as they hint at the possibility of extreme suspicion. I half-expect them to start speaking with level, British accents: the ultimate sangfroid.

Stretching out the doubt can be quite effective--unless, of course, it becomes an endless lack of resolve.

Young Versions of Characters

Television and movies struggle with the younger-version-of-the-older-character. The struggle is the same one that haunts Beauty & the Beast: we get attached to the actual tone and sound and look of a beloved character. Replacing that tone and sound and look with someone else is going to disappoint.

There's only so much suspension of disbelief an audience can exercise.

Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Rascals" is a perfect example: the acting is high-grad across the board yet the belief that these kids are truly Captain Picard, Keiko O'Brien, Ro Laren, and Guinan proves something of a struggle.

With exceptions: Isis Carmen Jones is so magnificent as the young Whoopi Goldberg/Guinan, she should have won an award. On the other hand, David Birkin is a fine actor but he doesn't quite sound like Picard.

Of course, he couldn't muster up a baritone--that's the whole point of the episode. But "sounding like" is more than pitch (though that helps): it's cadence, speech patterns, body language, lilt, word choice, facial expressions. Without these, there is no recognition: "Ah, yes, here is the same person."

Likewise, on Stargate, Michael Welch IS the perfect replacement for Jake--who could possibly be better?--yet doesn't quite pull it off (though he comes close).

Aaron Pearl and Don S. Davis
Keep in mind that in both cases, the younger versions aren't the characters reverting in age but the characters remaining themselves whilst in younger bodies.

Perhaps it is easier to produce the younger-in-age versions. The younger version of General Hammond in Stargate's "1969" is so good, I always check to see if the two actors are related. They aren't. And yet!

Playing with time: Bea Arthur playing
her character's grandmother while
Lynnie Green plays her character and
Estelle Getty plays the 2nd generation.
I have the same reaction to Lynnie Green as the young Dorothy Zbornak. Are you sure she's not Bea Arthur's daughter?

Speaking of sons and daughters, in the NCIS episode "Broken Bird," W. Morgan Sheppard's character is seen as a young man in a series of black and white video clips that last about 3 minutes and mostly play in the background. The producers actually bothered to use Mark, his son, who is uncredited. I was mucho impressed.
The Sheppards

You Have to Laugh: Character Actor Patrick McKenna

Patrick McKenna is a talented Canadian actor/comedian. He appears on Stargate SG-1, playing the hapless but sweet Dr. Jay Felger alongside the equally funny and magnificent John Billingsley (the attached clip is classic; I also enjoy a scene from the same episode where Felger darts down an enemy ship's corridor by hugging the sides, spy style, while Billingsley's character strolls casually down the middle of the corridor behind him).

McKenna also shows up in a Due South episode, starring fellow Canadian Paul Gross, and naturally on the Red Green Show as Red Green's nephew, Harold.

Canadian television is . . . impossible to describe. It's like British television, only more cynical or laconic or something. And it's like American television, only . . . it's not.

The Red Green Show successfully crosses the American-Canadian border. Harold is the quintessential British-type canny dope with a dollop of Al from Home Improvement. He is utterly geeky and sometimes the butt of an episode's jokes, yet he is also often the character who call others on their impracticality, pointing out the extremely ridiculous nature of what they wish to attempt.

The below dialog is one of my favorite exchanges from the episode "Moving House." McKenna as Harold delivers the perfect combination of hysteria and pointed sarcasm. Note the "it's not a covered bridge anymore!" line.
RED GREEN: Well, the good news is, that old building is out of the way forever.

HAROLD GREEN: Beautiful, old, pioneer log cabin. I thought you guys were gonna save history, not make it! I can't believe you didn't call the phone company! When you move a building down the street, where it has telephone lines on both sides, you gotta call the phone company! Because what they do is they take down the phone lines, and once you're past, they put the lines back up.

RED GREEN: Well, we did half their job for them, then, didn't we?

HAROLD GREEN: Well, I'm glad I had that chimney to hold on to, at least. I got, like, telephone line burns all over my thighs. Oh, that's another thing, too. Yeah, you gotta phone the power company! What about the power lines?

RED GREEN: Well, no, that was bad.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, that was bad! That was real bad! I mean, what'd you-- [and] I suggested that you pre-measure all the bridges on your route to make sure they're all wide enough.

RED GREEN: Yeah, especially that covered bridge.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, that poor old covered bridge. Covered bridge that the Historical Society worked so hard to preserve. Well, it's not a covered bridge anymore, is it? Oh, just a bridge now! Bridge surrounded by lumber! You should have pre-measured! [Pause.] Or at least slowed down.

RED GREEN: Yeah. Oh, come on, Harold, we couldn't slow down, because once the power lines set the cabin on fire, we had to pretty much haul it. That's what I'm saying. And the irony there is that we couldn't call in an emergency because the phone lines were down, so we actually had to– we had to drive the fire to the fire station.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, poor old fire station. Fire station that the Historical Society worked so hard to preserve! Fire station stood there for a hundred years taking everything Mother Nature threw at it. Of course, that's not including, you know, a flaming log cabin coming at twice the speed limit!

RED GREEN: I know, I know. But, y'know, in fairness, for a fire station, it was pretty darned flammable. And you know, you know, full marks to Buzz Sherwood, who realized that the fire trucks were actually trapped inside the burning station. So what he did was he filled up his water bomber plane, and he dropped water right onto the fire.

HAROLD GREEN: Yeah, well, he tried.

RED GREEN: He tried, yeah.

HAROLD GREEN: He got the Baptist church. Poor old Baptist church! The one the Historical Society tried so hard to preserve!

RED GREEN: Yeah, that church didn't have a prayer.

HAROLD GREEN: Did you learn anything? Any--any little thing? Did you learn anything from all of this?!

RED GREEN: Well, I did, Harold. I think I learned what "ironic" means. Y'know, I never really got it before, but I think I'm there now.

* * *

HAROLD GREEN: Just a quick announcement from the Historical Society. Due to the fact of all the recent losses to the historical buildings in the area, seems the Historical Society will be no longer declaring buildings as historical sites. They'll just be labeling them targets as opposed to buildings.

What is the Narrative Need for Secrets? Thoughts on Merlin

For Arthur to find out about Merlin's magic, I think, again, it has to happen in a way that suggests that Arthur can think for himself. And I think, by accident, and without Merlin knowing, I think Arthur has to witness something or just have something click. So that he knows before Merlin knows that he knows. So that there's a time period where Arthur has to decide what to do.
--Bradley James (Arthur)
This is an absolutely brilliant idea! So why didn't it happen?

I only started watching Merlin, and generally, speaking, I like it. However, about the 2nd or 3rd disc of Season 1, I began to experience deja vu. So I did some research. I'm not sure that gratified is the word to use--it is terrible to be proved right when the right is so utterly disappointing:

Merlin was influenced/inspired by Smallville.

Which means that for no particularly good reason--except the inability of the writers and the mistaken belief that lack of knowledge pushes a narrative forward--the main characters will endlessly circle each other and the main issue for season after season after season.

The issue of "the characters must keep information hidden!" is similar to the problem of "the audience mustn't find out the identity of the big bad antagonist!" Both suffer from the insistence that the SECRET is of so much worth in its own right that revealing it will cause the narrative arc to fall to the ground. I suppose this is true when dealing with pedestrian writing. But it is far from the truth when the writing is strong.

Merlin using magic in Season 1 to help Arthur: how much
more interesting if Arthur guessed the source of his help,
yet decided not to confront Merlin until he understood
Merlin's intentions better. And how much more intelligent!
Revealing the secret early on can propel a narrative forward, producing interesting conflict and profound character development. Elias as a BIG BAD in Person of Interest (revealed a third of the way through Season 1) became far more interesting than anything that ever happened surrounding The Mentalist's Red John. And Sherlock's knowledge of his father's illegal acts re: getting Sherlock reinstated as a consultant to the NYPD solidifies Joan and Sherlock's knowledge of Morland's character.

There is an intelligent reason why Stoker's Dracula moved literally center-stage when the book became a play (and then a movie). In the book, he can hover in the wings, scaring the snot out of readers (Jonathan Harker's diary is some of the scariest stuff I've ever read--the rest of the book isn't so much). But in the play, he had to become the main character.

As Stephen King explains cogently in one of his non-fiction tomes, saving the scary big bad monster for the end works in novels because the audience can always imagine something darker and more troubling than what the text states. But in a movie (or television show), the monster that jumps out of the closet will inevitably be kind of ridiculous since it will never live up to the build-up. (Buffy's Season 5 episode "Fear Itself" plays cleverly on this inevitability.)

Likewise, the long-held secret becomes more and more pointless the longer it is held. In the excellent commentary for Finding Nemo, the writer explains why he removed the flashbacks. The secret of how Nemo's fin got damaged was never going to live up to the hour-long waiting period. Better to simply stick the information in the prologue.

A little tension in the friendship works well--as it does in 
Season 1 when Merlin's willingness to argue intrigues
Arthur as much as it irritates him; he was clearly bored 
out of his skull before Merlin came along.
Additionally problematic, characters who don't guess the narrative's secret become dumber and dumber for not tumbling to the obvious. How much more interesting (and smart) would it be for Arthur to have guessed Merlin's secret in Season 1. He could exercise a kind of deliberate not-knowing for another season, finally confronting Merlin with it in the 3rd. Consider how much further that would push the friendship and eventually solidify it. Consider the problems that could arise that both Merlin and Arthur would now be forced to handle separately, together, or at cross-purposes ("Why can't you . . .?" "This time you shouldn't . . ."). Consider how many Smallville-like pieces of dialog it would avoid. Consider how grateful the viewer would subsequently be.

Handling problems/secrets is always more interesting, narratively-speaking, than putting them off.

Camille Paglia's Free Women Free Men

Camille Paglia's Free Women Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism is a typically readable collection of chapters and essays spanning Paglia academic/public life from 1990 to the present (Paglia proves, as no one else does so well, that academic writing does not have to be indigestible). As an overview of her views, this is a great place to start! Readers may feel that they are being rather forcibly reminded of her seminal work Sexual Personae--but that is only because essays/articles/speeches appear back-to-back which in reality spanned years. (To be fair, Paglia may forcibly remind people of her seminal work within minutes of meeting them!)

The reader may also feel that Paglia is gleefully reliving her "glory days" in which she went head to head with some of the nastiest so-called feminists on record but that's because . . . she is! However, unlike the high schooler who can never break away from his or her "glory days" of football star/prom queen, Paglia is perfectly capable of tackling present-day issues. She occasionally come across as "oh, these kids these days," but I found that refreshing and real: as Paglia herself maintains, the wise older woman has a place in many societies. Stop trying to be 20, aging American women, and own your crone-dom.

Paglia, whom I encountered around the same time that I read All the Trouble in the World by P.J. O'Rourke and Kate Roiphe's The Morning After, has always represented for me a commonsense, grounded approach to the realities of being female. As Paglia declares (and I mention in my post about my mother's experience with the ERA), the face of 1980s feminism turned many young women--including myself--against feminism.  Paglia enabled me to find my way back, or at least to realize that my beliefs re: feminism could be more than what I'd heard and seen in the public arena: I could respect the tough feminism of my mother and grandmothers (that pioneer heritage!) while admiring expansive variations, such as lipstick feminism. I could be thankful for the modern era which widened my choices and freedoms without despising the great women of the past.

Despite my conservative upbringing--or perhaps because of it--and my own valued singleness, I could never conceive of supporting any ideology that despised sex, men, or the body. Like the Christian C.S. Lewis, I am a pagan at heart. Human nature is complicated! Families are complicated! People are complicated! Anything that avoids those realities or tries to blame them on a single system external to hormones and aging is seriously deficient.

In a footnote to my master's thesis, I stated, " If there is a place in this universe for a heterosexual, Mormon, Christian, non-Freudian, Anglo-Saxon version of Camille Paglia, I would happily take it."

While reading Free Women, Free Men, I remembered my statement. Is it truly possible to be the terribly bourgeois, terribly middle-class, morally conservative (albeit more politically libertarian than I was in my youth) Camille Paglia?

Not really. I am not edgy or psychologically-oriented enough to fill those shoes. However, there is a point of contact. Paglia, a pro-abortion advocate (a legal position I support on purely libertarian grounds since the woman "owns" the fetus), defends the pro-life position of my religion and others as having the moral high ground; she also admires and defends women who learn to maneuver within their societies. One of the first essays I read by Paglia extolled the mature behavior of a female tennis player with steely resolve. Paglia commended the woman's discipline, which she related back to the player's heterosexuality--by learning how to deal with men, she had learned how to master herself. I was grateful to Paglia for establishing an iconic image other than, on the one hand, the missish girl who is supposed to flirt and be pretty but not admit/own her own sexuality/earthiness and, on the other hand, the victimized girl whose lack of sexual commonsense leads her into remarkably stupid behavior.

I have gone on to admire conservative women who survive their cultures and make their marks from the inside. More than Anne Hutchinson, I admire Anne Bradstreet--that finesse of achieving one's goals WITHIN the orthodoxy rather than pouring scorn on the orthodoxy.

Well, except when the orthodoxy is comprised of lecturing, unappeasable, and joyless feminists: in that case, Paglia, scorn away!