You Can Never Go Home Again: Supernatural, Season 10

Supernatural does create great ambiguous villains!
Somewhere around season five or six, many series start to go off the rails (some earlier, some later). This is especially true of my preferred viewing: seasons comprised of single-story episodes (mostly murder mystery shows). As Agatha Christie admits through her self-portrait, Mrs. Oliver, there are only so many ways to kill a character. Eventually, a writer runs of ideas.

When writers run out of ideas, they retreat to (1) the rubbish bin; (2) the soap opera approach.

Arthur Conan Doyle went to the rubbish bin when the public more or less forced him to continue producing Sherlock Holmes stories. Later Holmes stores are not nearly as well-written--or plotted--as earlier ones. In one of his last, he relies on the body-hidden-beneath-another-in-a-coffin device, a chestnut so established that The Mentalist parodies it in Season 3. (Speaking of parodies . . .)

I don't hold the "rubbish bin" against writers. They must continue to produce! The difficulty of maintaining a high standard (while continually producing usable plots) is one reason I admire Star Trek: The Next Generation so much. As with many shows, the last three seasons' episodes do not demonstrate the same caliber as earlier seasons', and there are a few rubbishy episodes, but the standard never falls too far: the episodes continue to deliver single stories with decent narrative arcs, and the finale is magnificent.

All in all, I prefer the struggle to maintain a high writing standard over solution 2: the collapse into soap opera material. I get immensely tired of shows forcing PROBLEMS, ANGST, LOVE TRIANGLES onto their characters simply so the writers will have something to write about.

There is a third solution.

The third solution is to say, "Who cares if we repeat ourselves? Earlier viewers won't care. And later viewers haven't necessarily seen our earlier episodes. We can do whatever we want."

I admire this third solution--to a point. For one, it keeps the show focused on what the viewers came to love about it in the first place. For another, it enables the writers to stick to one-story-per-episode. For a third, it prevents an excess of soap opera-ness. So it works.

Right until it doesn't.

Buckmaster and Rhodes
Supernatural, Season 10, is a great example of the problem of repeating prior material. The season is, in many ways, a return to classic Supernatural. The brothers are back on the road handling demons and whatnot while one brother decides to lie and sacrifice for the sake of another. We get the army/werewolf/vampire episode with newcomer Cole; we get the parody episode with the musical students (great ending scene: see above); we get the Agatha Christie episode with the possibly murderous butler; we get the Thelma and Louise episode with very funny Briana Buckmaster; we get a fairy tale episode (with young Dean); we get to see Timothy Omundson again, which is always a treat. Hey, we even get to see Bobby!

Generally speaking, the season is classic and lovely--with a fantastic surprise cameo in "Fan Fiction"--so what's the prob?

Well, there isn't one, really, except for all the places where there is.

For (albeit hot) men in their mid-thirties (and nearing forty), the same plot of sacrifice-while-lying begins to pale. It is not that thirty-three and thirty-eight-year-old men don't do this. And it isn't that families don't repeat the same patterns. But television isn't reality. And Supernatural is supposed to be a story. And at some point in a story--a classic one at least--people should learn from the past.

Sam and Dean's mistakes in Seasons 1-5 make sense taking into account the brothers' knowledge, age, and experience at that time. Unfortunately, after awhile, Dean's initial complaint--made, I believe, in Season 3--that his family needs to stop making the same stupid bargains with bad guys . . . turns into the viewers' complaint. Yes, yes, guys, that would be nice.

The Supernatural writers seem aware of this problem, which may explain the Castiel and Crowley story-lines in Season 10. They are, luckily, interesting and well-written. Regarding Crowley, not since Faith in Buffy have I seen a bad guy's downward spiral based so tightly and realistically on feeling "left out" of the gang.

Yet these storylines are filler. The Dean/Sam arc isn't substantial enough to excuse much more writing than it gets. Sam is going to find a solution NO MATTER WHAT! Dean will be DISAPPOINTED when he finds out that Sam WENT BEHIND HIS BACK. Dean will argue his LACK OF WORTH! Sam will ARGUE BACK. Dean will CHOOSE HIS BROTHER OVER DEATH (quite literally). And . . . we've been here before.

To be fair, it's still better than soap opera. To be doubly fair, Sam's end-of-the-season argument with Dean is substantially more interesting than saying, "Well, you're my brother--so of course, I will save you." He actually gets caught up--to a minor degree--in the argument of what constitutes "goodness." Dean is good because of how Dean reacts to things, because of Dean's intentions. It's a middle ground position between Dean's argument (we are good because of what we do) and some of the seasons' earlier arguments (you should be saved not because you are good but because you are my brother).

But there isn't enough there (that hasn't been said before--and better). Since the new big bad appears interesting--I haven't yet seen Season 11--I would personally have timed its arrival for somewhere around episode 18 in Season 10. This would have solved the lack of an arc, cutting down on the far too familiar sight of Sam and/or Dean angstifying about the other's welfare.

Their mutual worries remain endearing but the truth is, one can never go home again--not completely. Repeating the earlier seasons isn't a bad idea. But something sometime somewhere has to change.

C is for Carroll and Cultural Convergence

Tenniel is largely responsible for
creating such memorable icons.
My mother read to me until I was in junior high school. Eventually, I started finishing the books on my own, and the custom waned; however, before then, we made our way through Frances Hodgson Burnett's novels, E. Nesbit's, The Lord of the Rings, Narnia series . . .

When it came time for Alice in Wonderland, my mother turned the reading aloud duty over to my father. A fan of the books, he read me Alice in Wonderland plus Alice Through the Looking Glass. He could recite several of Carroll's poems and together we performed "You Are Old, Father William" at a church talent show (I took the part of the questioner).

In many ways, Alice in Wonderland occupies the same place in the English landscape that The Wizard of Oz occupies in the American landscape, a cultural phenomenon that has infiltrated television, books, radio, and everyday conversation (and other cultures!). Both texts crop up in my folklore course when I discuss how ideas don't remain locked in categories: high culture with high culture, low culture with low culture, verbal culture and written culture in discrete categories. In reality, ideas move, blend, alter, get taken up in commercials, thread their way through people's lives from deliberate performances to everyday conversation.
Richard III squashed together with
a band, solo number, and vampires
--which was really, you know,
very Shakespeare!

The following are examples from a handout I use in my folklore course. I recently used it in a Composition course to discuss cultural literacy--it isn't that everyone must "get" the same references but that "getting" the same references creates cultural convergence (I was present during the first example).

Meeting where a member of the meeting brought gingerbread men for a snack. What movie are they quoting?

Meeting member 1: Not my buttons
Meeting member 2: Not my gumdrop buttons.
Meeting member 3: They ARE gumdrop buttons.
Meeting member 4: Do you know the Muffin Man?
The Matrix: What's the movie/book reference?

Morpheus: This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
 Castle: What's the movie/book reference?
Beckett: [The body is] melting.
Castle: Maybe we should be looking for ruby slippers.
Beckett: Yeah, while you're at it, why don't you look for some flying monkeys? Maybe they left [the body] here.
In more mystery shows than I can count: What literary hero says the famous underlined statement?

"You will not apply my precept," he said, shaking his head. "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?"
 Star Trek: First Contact: What classic is Captain Picard quoting? (This book is often quoted by Star Trek heroes and villains.)

Captain Picard: And he piled upon the whale's white hump, the sum of all the rage and hate felt by his whole race. If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.
CSI: What American poet is Grissom quoting?

Grissom: Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore . . . Quoth the Raven, only this and nothing more. **********************************
House: What great hero is Wilson referencing?

House: Why do you think the world will end in chaos and destruction if you're not there to save it?
Dr. Wilson: Because when my parents put me in the rocket and sent me here, they said, "James, you will grow to manhood under a yellow sun."
From Mythbusters: What playwright is the narrator parodying? (It isn’t who you think!)

Narrator: Hell hath no fury like a ninja fan scorned.

Lizzie Borden in Context

Check out the adverb "frightfully."
Joseph Conforti's insightful and delightfully wry book Lizzie Borden on Trial answers several questions I have long had about the Lizzie Borden case:

Why did so many newspapers support Lizzie while one of her hometown newspapers did not?

Despite what Lizzie supporters--and Bill James--may try to tell you, there was a decent case against Lizzie for the murders. Conforti does not tackle Lizzie's guilt or innocence; he is more interested in context. His objective relation of events consequently carries more weight than popular books which attempt to solve the case. As a subjective reader of popular texts, I have long considered Lizzie guilty of the murders (although I would agree that proving her guilt absolutely is somewhat problematic; where's Gil Grissom when you need him?).

I could be wrong. My point is that Americans love a good murder mystery and they love crazy killers! So why was Lizzie defended by newspapers like The New York Times? Nowadays, the pundits would be climbing all over each other to speculate as to Lizzie's extreme innocence AND extreme guilt (see JonBenet Ramsey case). Why were the newspapers outside of Fall River so consistent in their defense of a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady?

According to Conforti, I've answered my own question. Lizzie's class and gender--the perception of how a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady was supposed to behave--largely protected her with the jury. After all, if a middle-class, Protestant, Yankee, Victorian lady could go off the rails and murder the head of a household (alongside his second wife), who amongst the owners of American's newspapers would be safe!?

The local newspaper was operated and written by non-Yankees, the Irish, who had a political investment in gaining precedence over their Yankee neighbors. And had no very high opinion of said neighbors who controlled (though that control was fading) the city's major industries.

Why wasn't Bridget Sullivan, the maid, accused of the murders?

Apparently, she was suspected. And there was little affection between her and the Borden sisters, who insisted on calling Bridget "Maggie" after their previous servant (a standard if distasteful practice). Bridget clearly preferred the Borden dad and stepmom (whom Lizzie loathed) both of whom called Bridget by her real name.

Yet Lizzie never accused Bridget. In fact, it is evident that Lizzie told exactly as much truth as she needed to and no more: her class and gender, she believed, would protect her (Lizzie was right).

Despite Lizzie's silence regarding Bridget, I have always pondered why she didn't come under more suspicion, not because I believe her guilty (I don't) but because she was Irish, a member of the lower working class, an immigrant of ambiguous status. The Irish got blamed for so much. Why not this?

Turns out, Fall River had immigrants of even lower status than the Irish. The first scapegoats weren't the Irish but the Portuguese. Bridget herself initially blamed a Portuguese worker for the murders.

And the case was investigated by Irish cops.

As mentioned above, Joseph Conforti is not concerned with innocence or guilt as much as with the social underpinnings of the event. He recommends the following article by Cara W. Robertson, "Representing Miss Lizzie: Cultural Convictions in the Trial of Lizzie Borden." I double that recommendation. It is fascinating.
I refer to this ballet, Fall River Legend in a paper
that I wrote for the ANES program.
Yes, there really is a ballet about Lizzie.

Speaking as someone who IS concerned with Lizzie Borden's guilt or innocence, after reading Conforti's objective analysis, I am impressed--all over again--by my entirely subjective feeling that the police and the establishment would not have proceeded at all if Fall River had not felt very, very strongly that Lizzie was in fact, to borrow a non-academic term, super-guilty.

Of course, because people feel strongly does not mean they should find a member of their society guilty (and Lizzie was acquitted). But Lizzie being brought to trial supports what Victoria Lincoln argues: Fall River believed Lizzie was guilty across class lines; the establishment knew more than it said yet closed ranks around Lizzie; the Borden family situation was such that no one was really all that surprised by the possibility of Lizzie as a murderess--despite what was proclaimed out loud.

FYI: Joseph Conforti was one of my professors in the American & New England Studies program at USM although my paper on Lizzie Borden was written for a different professor, Professor Ryden. Professor Conforti was my advisor on my thesis. One of the best writing/research courses I took as a college student (B.A. and M.A.) I took from him.

B is for (Scary) Frank L. Baum

I feel positively un-American writing this but I don't really care for The Wizard of Oz.

I am NOT arguing that the book is bad or that the movie isn't a classic (it is). I'm talking about "taste" here, not literary judgment.

For this post, I reread The Wizard of Oz (last time, I was much younger) and . . . I still don't care for it. I was able to appreciate its cleverness, its tight prose, its constant action, its internal logic. I was also able to appreciate why Baum, preceding C.S. Lewis and Tolkien's admittance to American culture by several decades, would be heralded as the creator of the first fully realized fantasy world (Lewis and Tolkien were preceded by many but the arrival of their books on American soil jump-started the fantasy/sci-fi-for-adults resurgence that still influences readers today).

I can even see myself taking a few more Oz books out of the library. But I won't be starting a collection--or buying them for youngsters.

I'm not so much scared of the flying monkeys.

It's the creepy things that Dorothy and her companions encounter beforehand. Shoot, it's the ultra-creepy Tin Man's story (not included in the movie, I believe) about how he became a Tin Man because he kept chopping off parts of his body--that's what sends an unpleasant shiver up my spine.

Not to forget, animals in the book are constantly being throttled, decapitated, and mashed up--the massacres would remind me of Grimm (real Grimm) stories except the violence in Grimm has some kind of horror movie logic behind it and Grimm tales were told to adults as much as to children (they were the original slasher films). But Baum was writing to kids and he's so . . . cheerful about all this destruction!

To clarify, again, I am speaking entirely personally. I don't propose banning The Wizard of Oz. The truth is, a lot of kids love decapitations. And poop jokes. And poop jokes WITH decapitations.

I was just never one of them.

Having said all the above, The Wizard of Oz movie is a GREAT introduction to the classic image/concept of the witch. Margaret Hamilton takes the part by storm (ha ha) and more than deserves the accolades poured on her since. In fact, the casting choices collectively were inspired (see above).

Mrs. Harris meet Mrs. Harris: the Movies

Mrs. Harris with Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley is based on the book by Shana Alexander (reviewed here). It is an HBO movie, which means it brings with it the attendant semi-salacious content and the cast of television regulars (Frank Whaley, Bill Smitrovich, Mary McDonnell, Michael Gross, Michael Paul Chan, Lisa Edelstein, and Ellen Burstyn making a guest appearance as one of Tarnower's "ex-es"). 

The overall approach is a tongue-in-cheek look at the woman-scorned motif from a feminist viewpoint. The script utilizes the multiple perspectives of Alexander's book. Alongside the Strictly Ballroom use of "interviews" interspliced with action sequences and awesome big band music, it captures the nouveau riche crassness of Tarnower's world, the world that seduced Harris against her better judgment.

Kingsley and Bening do their usual respectable acting jobs. Kingsley conveys the necessary jerk charisma ("What a jerk! Eh, I guess I see why women were attracted to him.") while Bening conveys Harris's complexity with an emphasis on her increasing mental and physical strain. The movie details Harris's self-destruction--she is a willing participant in her own debasement--but less her level of self-delusion.

The television movie The People versus Jean Harris isn't really a movie. It's hard to say what it is. I'd like to say "docudrama," but it isn't even that. If anything, it comes across as a training video for lawyers. It is ONLY the trial with no flashbacks or recreations of evidence provided in testimony. The testimony is verbatim.

The "film" focuses on the personal testimony rather than the forensic testimony, which was highly confusing. Both lawyers spent WAY too much time on forensics, assuming--erroneously--that the right expert would sell the right version of the story. But every expert will be forced to qualify his or her response at some point. The end result was that the jury tried to replicate the experts' testimonies. Finding it impossible, they went with the more comprehensible prosecution's version than the complicated--though very human--defendant's version. (Mrs. Harris begins with the defendant's version and ends with the prosecution's version.)

Though pointless to watch, the television whatever-it-is is interesting to listen to. Since it is based on verbatim testimony, it provides insight into the problems of the case and backs up Alexander's and Trilling's analyses. Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Harris does a magnificent job delivering Harris's quick wit as well as her feeling that the prosecution was "lying" (it wasn't) and taking things out of context (every lawyer does this). As Alexander points out in her book about Harris (building off a point made in her earlier book Anyone's Daughter about Patty Hearst), Harris came from a background that had no real experience or understanding of the adversarial system. In Harris's mind, she was supposed to be able to sit on the stand and explain things entirely within (her own) context, answering exactly those questions that would bring out the "truth" (according to her). She was utterly ill-prepared for Prosecutor Bolen's relentless questioning and his insistence that she provide yes/no answers.

Burstyn's part of the movie-thing IS worth watching. Burstyn embodies Harris's dumb-smartness. Harris was a highly educated, exceptionally bright and intelligent woman (I appreciated that for the first time while listening to the transcripts) with a deep chasm of naivety between her and reality. Lots of smarts. Not a lot of common sense--or the ability to comprehend how thoroughly divisive viewpoints can prove (when people gave differing versions of events on the stand, she was convinced they were lying, not that they were humanly forgetful or humanly different from herself). She was worldly and sophisticated but with no attendant animal instincts. All head and heart, no peasant appreciation of the physical. She was ill-equipped to survive in a milieu where people did exactly what they wanted when they wanted with thoughtless mental and physical confidence.

As the character Arthur Schulte says (based on what the real Arthur Schulte said at the time):
I was asleep. You never expect one of those wee-hours phone calls informing you that... that your good friend's just been shot dead. When Lynne hung up, I said to Viv "Well, if he's dead, why couldn't she have waited until morning?"
That's a level of indulgent self-assuredness that Harris was simply incapable of matching.

Jerry Orbach as lawyer before he became police.
Both movies do a decent job trying to elucidate the story's protagonist (despite being the murderess), Jean Harris. Both, however, skimp on Harris's natural grievances regarding money. The Law & Order episode "The Wages of Love" provides that side. While not directly based on the Jean Harris case, it bears striking resemblances: the older wife abandoned for a younger woman; she apparently commits the murder in a rage but tells changing and inconsistent versions of the event while professing great affection for the dead man--even though her motive is clearly also mercenary.

Library Poetry

To celebrate April, National Poetry Month, one of my local libraries, South Portland Library, is doing a "lines for fines" program--write a poem, you get your fines dismissed (for April, at least). 

I wrote the limericks and haikus below. One of the Interlibrary Loan poems was sent out in an email to all Maine libraries!

To My Sister Ann

There is a librarian named Ann
Who shelves books by a plan.
She’ll weed them if she must,
So don’t make a fuss.
Just check them out when you can!

Many Years Ago . . . In a State Far Far Away . . .

There once was a worker named Kate
Who checked in books by the crate.
She needed to work with speed
But she had to pause to read,
So the books piled up on her slate.

Satisfaction (Haiku)

Picture books in a pile:
Sendak, Keats, Mercer Mayer--
Everyday moments aglow.

Interlibrary Loans (Haikus)

Why be limited
When catalogs beckon,
“Read this—this—and this!”

Worldcat, Amazon:
Tempting titles whisper,
“You’ll find the time.”

Minerva, MaineCat.
Presque Isle, Auburn, Scarborough.
Watch the truck zoom by.

Blue bookmarks, pink slips:
Different policies, deadlines.
Be safe—check the dates!

Ambiguous Villains: Dr. Harrison Wells

*Spoilers for Season 1 of The Flash*

The Flash's Harrison Wells, played by Tom Cavanagh, is the best ambiguous villain I've encountered since Supernatural and the primary reason Season 1 of The Flash is so good (I haven't seen Season 2 yet).

What makes Harrison Wells, the character, such a good ambiguous villain is that his ambiguity is built into his motivations. Unlike many such villains, his ambiguity isn't the result of being pulled in two different directions (Crowley rather hilariously wants to be a respected king of hell, hang out with Dean Winchester, AND impress his nutty mother, somewhat incompatible goals).

Harrison Wells' desire to protect Barry Allen pulls him in the same direction as his villainy. He needs to preserve Barry's life for a certain period of time; that goal entails keeping Barry safe; keeping Barry safe involves getting to know Barry which entails a certain degree of affection.

Impressive Jesse L. Martin as
remarkable Joe West
All this is helped by Tom Cavanagh being legitimately charming and charismatic. He has the necessary villainous creepiness (and he has it from the beginning; it isn't tacked on as a "oops, I guess he is the villain" quality in later episodes). For instance, Cavanagh's Wells demonstrates a subtle yet persistent lack of empathy around the good guys; he almost can't help himself. But he is genius enough to cover these "off" moments. When Joe West raises an eyebrow over Wells' desire to "help" Barry, our ambiguous villain quickly realizes that he needs to play the father figure to calm West's suspicions.

I understand that Cavanagh reappears in Season 2. I am very pleased. Usually, I'm a fan of paying off problems within a single season, but I spent most of Season 1 thinking, "Oh, man, I hope the writers don't get rid of Wells in the end." Well, they do reveal his villainy, which disappointed me. But at least he isn't gone for good.

I have to give a shout out to two totally fun, over-the-top, non-ambiguous Flash villains: Wentworth Miller and Dominic Purcell pairing up again together as Captain Cold and Heat Wave. What a hoot!

Verne and Wells: the Two Sides of Sci-Fi

Verne's Wonders
Jules Verne (1828-1905) and H.G. Wells (1866-1946) are both sci-fi writers, the earliest serious writers of that genre. They represent two sides of the sci-fi equation: nineteenth century sci-fi travelogue and twentieth century sci-fi story.

Verne writes the sci-fi travelogue, a sub-genre that has largely gone out of style (although Arthur C. Clarke could be similarly classified). Verne is the heir of proto-sci-fi writers Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels) and Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe). Both books have problems and characters but no definitive narrative arc.

Verne likewise focuses more on "stuff happens" than on a problem followed by rising action followed by a climax. The first part of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea establishes the problem which is then shelved for approximately thirty chapters until the very end. Stuff definitely happens! But the stuff is almost entirely disconnected from the problem. And hints about Nemo's extracurricular activities are never really paid off, probably because Verne didn't care (this explains why every director feels compelled to give Nemo some type of backstory).

Journey to the Center of the Earth is so devoid of a narrative arc that the 1959 film resorted to throwing in a villain (who eats Hans's bird! really, who does that?!). Oddly enough, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D (the most recent version) backs off from a narrative arc for a series of adventures. Although I generally deplore this type of approach in modern movies, it is touchingly close to the original (the one arc that I was sure was going to be paid off in Shirley Temple maudlin fashion wasn't, which was more than slightly impressive).

Wells's narrative has a modern theme: under duress,
individuals may depart tragically from their normal behavior.
In comparison, H.G. Wells is writing story. War of the Worlds is related entirely as a narrative. There is no objective narrator--or even objective scientist character--to stand outside the action and inform the readers of its meaning or purpose. The reader is caught inside a point of view, including a problem that may or may not resolve itself. The distinction may appear subtle but relating an event from a point of view is radically different from relating a series of events as they happen to people. For example, although the reader knows how this particular event ends (germs kill the Martians; yes, it is a spoiler, but really, everyone should know that!), actually experiencing the result is awesome--in the biblical sense of the word--precisely because it is seen through the character's eyes.

Consequently, the book War of the Worlds is nearly impossible to render on film. The 1953 movie does a fine job. But it fails to capture the story (this event is happening to someone). The big picture (What is happening around the world? What is the military doing?) is too tempting to pass up. (Independence Day attempted to solve this problem by getting the audience to invest in multiple characters).

The end sequence where the hero searches desperately for Sylvia comes the closest to matching the book's unnerving tone and pace. But only a book could deliver the final sequence in which the hero, wandering seemingly deserted London, hears the far-off, monotonous cries of the dying Martian and does not yet understand what they mean. Even when he stumbles across a dead Martian, he fails to comprehend the "why?"--no third party steps in to explain what he is seeing in that exact moment.

I don't fault any movie for not being its book, by the way. The requirements of the medium dictate that a deserted city be shown from an aerial vantage, an omniscient (and non-story-like) viewpoint used to devastating effect in the 1953 film. The point is that STORY provides a differing approach to travelogue. And Wells delivered story while Verne delivered travelogue.

Not only do the two authors highlight changes in sci-fi, they highlight changes in fiction generally. Defoe gives us travelogue (Robinson Crusoe). Richardson gives us polemic mixed with story (Pamela). Austen gives us story with a semi-omniscient, wry narrator (Pride & Prejudice) as does Dickens. Conrad comes along and shatters the world with prose delivered from a single viewpoint.

But Wells got there first (barely).

Another Verne Movie: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) is a strange movie. Generally speaking, I am an advocate of movies NOT being like their books. And I would seriously cut/par down/alter Verne's book to make a movie. But Disney's changes bewilder me (I am writing this as someone who quite enjoyed Journey to the Center of the Earth, 3D, starring Brendan Fraser; it is surprisingly close in vision, if not detail, to the original text):

Regarding 20,000 Leagues, here are two odd script choices:

1. M. Aronnax, who should be the protagonist, isn't. 

Aronnax is much younger in the book (forty) than Paul Lukas's respectable if unimpressive rendering, and there was no good narrative reason to make him older (other than Disney's discomfort with bromances).

Aronnax is the quintessential nineteenth century explorer-scientist, the mirror version of Phineas Fogg: a geek who is willing to risk life and limb for a hypothesis though Aronnax demonstrates far greater investment in noticing his surroundings. He focuses on expanding his knowledge not out of some tired inability to run away from natives but from choice.

The book provides multiple opportunities for Aronnax to satisfy his curiosity as the Nautilus sinks beneath the South Pole, hides inside a volcano, parks next to sunken Atlantis, and takes a roller-coaster ride through an underwater passage connecting the Red Sea to the Mediterranean (quite literally a "ride"--it would make a great special effect!). It is Aronnax who witnesses Nemo knifing the shark and communicating with a possible confidant (the diver) near the Greek islands. Yet all the impressive scenery and mysteries of Verne's novel are lost to the fighter (Ned Land) at the expense of the explorer. Aronnax is portrayed as a bookish gentleman whose age presumably explains his refusal to beat up people with his bare hands.

The result is that the 1954 Disney movie lacks an emotional arc since the hero, Ned Land, never changes. In the book, not only does Aronnax have to choose between Nemo and his friends, he is the only character to suffer true internal change--from respect to disillusionment (Nemo's possible internal change is only hinted at). His behavior, however lightly conveyed, is far more interesting than Ned Land's antics and his story should have been the primary arc, not the, uh, tertiary one.

Woody's dilemma mirrors Aronnax's.
2. Kirk Douglas's Ned Land is utterly annoying.

The Ned Land of the book is far more rational. Consequently, his arguments against Nemo to Aronnax towards the end of the book carry weight. Aronnax has to chose between continual exploration (satisfying his passion) and escape for himself and others. In sum, he is Woody from Toy Story 2: Do I chose the life of the museum where my value/accomplishments will be admired by future generations? or Do I escape to a life in the real world?

Kirk Douglas's Ned Land, in contrast, is emotional, histrionic, preachy, and unreliable. He is so annoying, in fact, one begins to wish that Captain Nemo would (finally) fulfill his threat and throw Ned off the boat.

Speaking of Nemo . . . 

The saving grace of the 1954 movie is James Mason. 
The most interesting outcome of the book and the movie is that the underwater world and the man responsible for showing it to us become too fascinating to throw away. The story is, in sum, Beauty and the Beast; by the end, the audience has come to care more about the Beast than either the problem or the solution. Okay, so Beauty is a prisoner, and the Beast might be tired of having to file down his teeth, but come on, make us happy and stay the way you are!
Mason to the left. Then Lorre and Douglas.

So it is easy to see why Captain Nemo became the remembered part of the movie (as he is of the book) rather than the Scooby Gang. Like the eponymous villain of Dracula, the supposed villain of 20,000 Leagues, once visualized, outstrips the lesser characters. It helps that James Mason's Nemo is far less creepy and more charismatic than book Nemo. It also helps that he captures both book Nemo's aloofness and passion. And, well, you know, that voice! 

It additionally helps that Mason spends about half the movie running around in a white turtleneck and getting wet. Which makes him look even sexier than usual--if that's possible.

Nemo is so enthralling that the movie's end (which I won't give away here) leaves one dissatisfied in a way that the 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth--equally radically changed in many ways--does not. James Mason shows up again and doesn't disappoint. He still has that wonderful voice. He demonstrates excellent comedic timing. And he continues to look good disheveled. Plus the writers have no wariness of bromance--perhaps because they supplied the story with a female protagonist.

(Back to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: Okay, I confess, I like the seal.)

A is for Lloyd Alexander: A-Z List 3

For the first A-Z list I picked a fiction author I hadn't read before from each letter of the alphabet. For the second list, I  listed fiction authors I have read from each letter of the alphabet (as many as I could remember, at least).

For the third A-Z list, I am selecting a single child's author from each letter of the alphabet.

A is for Alexander

I fell in love with Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Series when I was in elementary school. The honest truth is I took out the first book because Taran, the main character, looked like Luke Skywalker.

Yup, back then, I was a HUGE Star Wars fan. I was Luke Skywalker for Halloween one year and Princess Leia the next. And Taran was wearing the right type of clothes (see cover below).

It was the first fantasy series--actually, first series of anything--that I collected. I ended up with the entire set and even took the books with me on our cross-country family vacation. I rode in the back of our gray station wagon with my stuffed animals (the ones privileged to come on the trip) and Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Series.

I still own it.

In some ways, if you have read a fantasy series, you have read the Prydain Series. All the expected motifs are there: the boy who journeys from naivety to mature understanding (see, it IS Star Wars), the wise mentor, the lovely princess-queen, the poet-warrior, the great battle.

And yet, Alexander's use of Welsh mythology grounds his fantasy motifs in a unique milieu (and he delivers the mythology consistently). Plus his characterizations make the story a story, not merely a collection of fantasy motifs. As I've mentioned elsewhere, a good fantasy novel/series involves more than putting a hero, wizard, elf, dwarf, princess, and bad guy into a bag and shaking them up.

The Prydain Series is a good series! And one that I predict will continue to last.

Updated Thoughts on Jean Harris: The Books

Diana Trilling
This is a repost of a post I wrote back in 2008. I recently reread the books listed below (both of them fall into the genre of literary journalism: fast-paced writing with $3 words and decent analysis: quick but not shallow reads). Below are my initial thoughts followed by  revisions/addendums.

Mrs. Harris by Diana Trilling and Very Much a Lady by Shana Alexander are true-crime books (although Mrs. Harris is really more a memoir of Trilling's experience at the trial of Jean Harris). I urge reading both books together; they produce a multi-faceted and fascinating view of Jean Harris who killed her lover Dr. Tarnower.

Shana Alexander
In sum, Jean Harris was in love with Dr. Tarnower. At one point, he offered to marry her but changed his mind. She accepted the situation. She accepted his mistresses. She continued to go on trips with him and to stay at his house despite him having, towards the end, a serious (younger) mistress, who also spent nights at the house (and kept her things there). Harris accepted her lover's coldness, his indifference, his rudeness, his blatant degradation of her.

During this time, she was taking a massive amount of "uppers," prescribed to her by Dr. Tarnower. I consider these prescriptions (made out in various names to avoid problems at the pharmacy) to be Dr. Tarnower's major contribution to his own death although I question the so-called integrity of a woman who doesn't balk (and later claims not to notice) taking prescriptions in other people's names for nearly 10 years. [I also question the so-called independence of a woman who doesn't get her own doctor or a second opinion; unfortunately, "my boyfriend the doctor" could do no wrong in Harris's eyes.]

When Tarnower was killed, Jean Harris was in massive withdrawal due to the doctor absentmindedly not refilling her prescriptions. If she had meant to kill herself and had succeeded, her family could have sued the doctor for malpractice (and won a bundle).

The night of the murder, Harris drives up to Tarnower's house in Purchase, New York, goes in, sits on the bed next to his, tells him she needs to talk and waits for him to . . .

Lynn Tryforos is behind the doctor.
Trilling, Alexander, and Harris herself correctly diagnose that Harris expected a confrontation with some accusations, some tears, and finally, some tenderness. She probably played and replayed the scene in her head as she drove the five hours to Purchase. But Tarnower didn't respond. He knew she was coming and didn't leave the light on. He was grumpy when she woke him up. Even after he was fully awake, he didn't want to talk, closing his eyes and hoping she would drop the whole thing and go to bed.

So Harris wanders into the bathroom, sees his other woman's stuff, and all hell breaks loose . . . in a terribly literal way.

Both Alexander and Trilling fault the doctor for not responding to Harris' distress that night. Okay, so she woke him up, but once he was awake, he should have responded as he would to a man friend; he should have noticed her condition was worse than usual. The murder could have been averted if . . .

Alexander and Trilling have the honesty to admit that, well, that wasn't the guy's modus operandi, was it, and how stupid was Harris anyway? But I think they both miss another factor, the thing that gives me some sympathy for Tarnower.

Only cats belong on pedestals. 
Harris didn't leave Tarnower despite every instigation to do so. He made her happy, she claims in letter after letter that she sent him after their jaunts abroad and to Florida. She can't live without him. Alexander correctly perceives that Harris needed to believe she was wasting (oops, spending) her time on a worthwhile person. Trilling more perceptively points out that Harris would have had to re-evaluate her own taste and choices (and supposed high ideals) if she'd accepted Tarnower as he actually was. In any case, Harris's actions before and after Tarnower's death tokened an almost pathological need to keep Tarnower on a pedestal; subsequently, she invested everything he did with pedestal-quality meaning.

Alexander points out that if Tarnower said five mean things to Harris in a conversation and one nice thing, she remembered the nice thing: the nice thing became the only thing the conversation was about. And while I'm sorry Harris felt the need to do this, I'm also sorry for the guy. Because living on a pedestal can be tiring. Having one's every action, whim, bad temper, passing comment, minor thought invested with THAT MUCH MEANING would be unbelievably exhausting.

I'm not saying Tarnower is an innocent here. When he was younger, I'm sure Tarnower enjoyed Harris' adulation. He was an arrogant, self-involved person, and it gave him a thrill to have a reasonably intelligent, well-read, pretty woman think he was "all that." As he got older, it began to tire him. It is notable that the two women he went back to (without dumping Harris) in his later years were women who accepted him as he was. The first woman accepted him as he was and walked away from the romantic side of their friendship because, well, she saw him as he was. The second woman, the direct rival to Jean Harris, Lynne Tryforos (the only person involved in the case who behaved like a real lady and kept her thoughts to herself), saw him as he was and worshiped him. No matter what he did, she thought he was wonderful. No matter how few the crumbs he scattered, she gathered them up. He never had to meet her half-way.

And sure, that's sexist, and no self-respecting woman should put up with it; still, the guy never pretended he was anything other than a role model for narcissism. In fact, I got the impression that towards the end, he was trying to force the notion of his self-involvement down Jean Harris' throat: This is who I am, I'm not going to change, nothing is going to be different; let it go, let me go.

Jean Harris at trial.
Unfortunately, Jean Harris was just smart enough and just proud enough and just besotted enough with her "script" (as Alexander calls it) to need more than crumbs and indifference. The relationship had to have meaning: meaning to her, meaning to him, meaning to her sense of self, meaning to her past, her future, her life, her career, meaning, meaning, meaning.

The guy was nearing 70; can you blame him for being tired of it all? I don't think Tarnower noticed anything different in Harris when she showed up that night. Based on Alexander's excellent, detailed summary of their relationship, Harris was throwing off the usual "I want you to play a role for me" signals. And he didn't want to play. And he ended up dead.

As the dominatrix on CSI points out, in a domination/submission relationship, the submissive party does have power. It's no bizarre mischance that the supposed dominant party in the Scarsdale murder ended up dead. The woman who made the relationship out to be something it wasn't triumphed; she killed the disillusionment and hence, enabled herself to live forever in her delusion. And though he may have been a jerk, and he may have brought it on himself, his family at least didn't deserve his demise. (Although from a Freudian point of view, if one puts an Electra complex into motion, one should hardly be surprised by the result; still, despite reading Herodotus, I don't think Tarnower was prepared for Greek myths to re-enact themselves all over his bedroom.)


I still mostly agree with my views stated above. However, I do hold Tarnower more responsible than I did after my prior reading. It is so difficult to like Jean Harris (as Alexander and Trilling point out, people tended to have polarized responses to Harris: one either loved her or couldn't stand her), my sympathy slid off her self-delusion towards the doctor.

He doesn't deserve it. As a prior commenter pointed out, Tarnower not only was responsible for Jean Harris being on drugs and for her massive withdrawal, he was responsible for prescribing contraindicating drugs and the WRONG drugs in the first place (the family truly would have won a civil lawsuit). He was blithe, indifferent, and lazy in his doctoring and largely responsible for creating Harris's state of mind the night of the murder.

He was not only an irresponsible doctor, he was an irresponsible lover. I feel even more strongly now that he was trying to get Harris to dump him in their last year together (it wouldn't have worked); if I expect a woman to take responsibility for calling things quits, I should expect the same of the man. If five years earlier Tarnowner had said, "I am breaking off with you completely" (rather than trying to get Harris to guess that he wanted to break things off), he would . . . likely be dead by now. But he wouldn't have died that night.

But he couldn't be bothered to break things off. He was an entirely indolent man when it came to moral decision-making (and a blowhard, if that matters).

And yet, as Trilling points out, it is Harris, not Tarnowner, who holds one's attention. I think both Alexander and Trilling were attracted to Harris's story by the same inconsistencies that strike me: the bizarre cognitive dissonance between Harris's perception of herself and her actual behavior/choices. She resented being seen as Tarnower's kept woman, insisting that he never bought her clothes. Yet she went on trips where he paid for the tickets and the hotels. She insisted that she was happy, yet she was constantly embroiling herself in sordid arguments with Tarnower on how his other mistress had supposedly treated her. She claimed to be his intellectual equal (she was actually a cut above him intellectually), then insisted on helping him edit his trite diet book. She claimed she didn't want credit for editing the trite book; she only wanted to express her affection. Yet the Scarsdale Letter* revealed that she was keeping a careful reckoning of who got what.

I don't fault her for the last; it's very Jane Austenish (yes, money and love are linked!). What is so unnerving is how far Harris went to persuade herself that she wasn't concerned with things that she was obviously concerned with.

Harris was granted clemency 11
years into her 15-year sentence.
The oddest, and most untenable, was her claim before, during, and after the trial that she wasn't jealous. She was upset because Tarnowner's association with Lynne Tyrforos denigrated the doctor. Both Trilling and Alexander see through this; Harris was incredibly jealous not only over for the loss of affection but over her reputation. Tarnowner choosing a woman so different from her sent the message that she was interchangeable; any woman would do.

Since the doctor actually SAID as much outright, an objective outsider finds Harris's avowal of unconditional love and lack of jealousy unbelievable. The jury rejected it. Faced with uncertain forensic evidence, they might have acquitted. Faced with a woman who could lie so thoroughly to herself, they had to ask, "What else is she lying about?"

Voluntary manslaughter would have been the correct verdict. Harris's lawyer offered Murder in the Second Degree or Acquittal ("Go for broke!"). The jury could not in good conscience state that Harris hadn't had murderous feelings towards SOMEONE that night: the Scarsdale Letter* belied any other interpretation. Yet her lawyer--and Harris--refused to entertain the more useful defense of killing while emotionally disturbed.

Everybody in the world said, "Are you kidding me? Of course she killed him in a rage!" And Jean Harris went to jail.

 LATER: I review the movies.

*The Scarsdale Letter, a ranting screed of accusations and resentment, was written by Jean Harris the day before the murder. She sent it certified mail to Dr. Tarnower. The day after she mailed the letter, Harris called the doctor and told him to ignore it because it was "whining." Both Trilling and Alexander make exceedingly wry comments about Harris's description.
"[Calling it a whiney letter]," writes Alexander, "is rather like calling the Book of Revelations 'a very downbeat yarn.'"
"For all of its complaints," writes Trilling, "it is a tearing scream." 
Twenty years later, Harris would have written an email. It's that kind of letter--the one that someone writes late at night at the end of his or her rope and then wishes, "Oh, I shouldn't have sent that!"

Harris's lawyer retrieved the letter from the post office before it was delivered (to the dead doctor). Whether the letter should be produced at trial went to the State Supreme Court. Harris's lawyer ultimately decided that it would help Harris by revealing Dr. Tarnower's horrible treatment of her (something he wasn't allowed to do directly in court due to his client's wishes). He was mind-blowingly wrong. As insight into Harris's jealousy and emotional imbalance, it would have been quite effective. In the face of Harris's denial that she never meant the doctor harm, it created exactly the opposite impression.

XYZ is for XYZ

Contains a short story by Yolen. Often shelved in
children's or YA sections, this book struck me as
a good transition to the next list: Kids' books.
For the first A-Z list, I read Xenophon, Yancy, and Zama.

I have, perhaps not surprisingly, few authors to add to this second list:

Yolen, Jane: She may belong in the children's list, but she writes everything, so I'm including her here.  Mostly, I have encountered her as an excellent collector and editor--along the same lines as Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling--of fantasy, science-fiction, and folklore short stories.

Generally speaking, I see writers/editors like Yolen, Datlow, and Windling as the second generation of artists who restored fantasy as a legitimate genre--after the revolution caused by writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in the 1960s.

Yeats, William Butler: I haven't been including poets in this list, but hey, I was desperate! And Yeats is a great one. He produced, among others, the poems "Leda and the Swan" and "Second Coming," the latter with the provocative and (intellectually overused but still stunning) phrases, "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

And there's the end of the second A-Z list. What this list taught me is that I've forgotten more books than I would have thought possible--which means I've read more books than I realize and yet, there's SO MUCH MORE out there! Altogether, a comforting thought.

The third A-Z list will tackle Children's Books.

W is for Wild, Wacky, and Woodbury

Walsh, Paton Jill has written several Sayers' tributes. The first based on Sayers's notes, Thrones, Dominations, is quite good. The others are . . . okay. I don't agree with her interpretation of Charles Parker, so I mostly don't read them any more (to me, Parker IS the reason to read the novels). But they are well-written and reasonably well-structured if not quite the same as reading Sayers.

Wells, H.G.: I recently started War of the Worlds and good grief, that book is violent with some of the most memorable imagery I've encountered in any book. I never thought I would say that of a nineteenth century text (I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and didn't blink an eye). I'm not sure what I think yet . . . Verne is much easier to handle.

Westlake, Donald: I've read a few Donald Westlake novels. He tends more to the action rather than cerebral side of mystery fiction; I prefer the "locked room" problem to the "how can I prevent these five guys from beating me up" problem (yet another reason I don't much care for mafia stories).

Wharton, Edith: I had to read Wharton in high school. I loathed Ethan Frome. I quite like the short story "Roman Fever." I mostly remember Wharton because when I was growing up, my family would visit her home, The Mount, in Massachusetts to watch Shakespeare plays on the lawn.

White, T.H. wrote the amazing Once and Future King. I often reference the first part, Sword in the Stone, for examples on analogy: Merlin teaches Arthur about leadership by having him experience life as different animals.

Wilder, Thorton: Generally speaking, I've stayed away from plays in this A-Z list, but I have to mention Thorton Wilder for Our Town. I have just started The Bridge of San Luis Rey.

Willig, Lauren: I have read several of her Pink Carnation books. Lots of fun! Like many series, I was ready for Jane's book much sooner than it was actually delivered.

Willis, Connie: One of my favorite science-fiction writers and a great short story writer. I have mixed feelings about her latest, the two-part time-travel books about World War II. Willis often utilizes a motif--the seeming randomness of events prevents easy solutions--that has merit but gets a tad overworked in Blackout and All Clear. However, I read both novels in record time; I couldn't put them down! My favorite Willis novel is Passage which utilizes the Titanic as metaphor. 

Wodehouse, P.G.: I wish I liked Wodehouse's writing more; there are so many books!  I do greatly enjoy the BBC series with Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry (see below).

Woodburys! There are lots of us writers in the Woodbury clan, including my sisters Beth Hart and Ann Moore. Eugene Woodbury's books can be located at Peaks Island Press (and yes, I have read them and yes, I recommend them!).

Wroblewski, David: I read the entire The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the whole thing! Truth is, I usually pass on books over 300 pages. The Story is 566; I suppose that says something.

Around the World in 80 Days: 1956 v. 1989, Part III

The 1956 movie is a love song to travel. It is beautifully made (if incredibly long) with many scenic pauses. The 1989 miniseries is a romp.

The 1989 miniseries is less accurate to the book; however, BOTH the 1956 and 1989 productions expand the Europe section with added twists and turns . . .

Including the balloon.

Yep, that's right, the balloon isn't in the book.

In the 1956 movie, the balloon gets Fogg and Passpartout from France to the Spanish coastline. It is completely gratuitous but does allow for the beautiful scenery mentioned above. (Watching the 1956 movie is rather like watching an adventure tale plus three National Geographic episodes all at the same time.) 

In the 1989 miniseries, the balloon is an early Hindenburg creation, which at least satisfies the Verne-Steampunk aficionados. Still, one is left with the impression that the balloon is there because a balloon was in the 1956 movie; it is certainly not in the book.

In the book, the "modern" part of the modern world is glided over with little to no comment. Fogg and Passpartout make it from England to the Mediterranean with no extraneous adventures. Why would they? Getting from England to the Suez is about as boring, in Verne's eyes, as describing a commuter flight from New York to Buffalo.

But the handling of Europe in the various versions does bring up an interesting problem that I mention in connection to Lord of the Rings. A book can dispose of scenes and places in a few well-chosen paragraphs. Okay, so everybody got from here to there; let's move on the main adventure.

But in a MOVIE about going around the world, appearing to skip the first part of the journey would look like cheating. Even Michael Palin, in his own trip around the world, spent time exploring Europe. To do anything else gives the appearance--gasp!--that one simply flew to the Mediterranean.

Michael Palin sets forth.
Interesting enough, it is now so easy to get around the world (even without flying) that Palin's crew scheduled breaks and interviews and sight-seeing. Palin is filmed being more of a Passpartout than a Fogg. This does cause complications and Palin has to get creative to stay on schedule. Still, this is NOT Fogg jumping quickly from train to steamer to elephant to rickshaw with no time to stop and peruse the scenery. This is a crew realizing that it over-scheduled its star (granted, an interesting problem in its own right: missing a boat becomes a huge deal; people just don't travel--actually travel, not cruise--by ship anymore).

In any case, the result of needing to add in Europe means that both the movie and the miniseries spend WAY more time on Europe than is all that necessary. But then both the movie and the miniseries were aimed at American audiences who presumably didn't mind more Europe despite this entailing, later on, less America.

Around the World in 80 Days: 1956 v. 1989, Part II

There was a board game! Before the movies!
In Jules Vernes' book, Phileas Fogg pays little attention to his surroundings. Yes, he is going around the world but not in order to SEE the world. He is going around the world to prove the advent and importance of modernity. Consequently, he never sight-sees and remains consistently indifferent to the various cultures through which he passes.

Both Foggs (of the 1956 movie and the 1989 miniseries) retain this perspective--to a point. It's part of the joke that neither one cares much WHERE they are, so much as WHEN. Even in the latter case, Fogg remains relatively indifferent to set-backs; it is his companions who get frustrated by delays. The only time Fogg gets irked is when he bops Detective Fix on the nose for arresting him (and the 1956 Fogg doesn't even do this!).

In his tongue-in-cheek book How to Talk About Places You've Never Been, Pierre Bayard argues that Fogg's detachment actually makes him a more objective and reliable witness. In the end, he'll be able to deliver the big picture while his companions will be stuck with their subjective experiences.

The problem with this wink wink nudge nudge approach, at least from a film perspective, is that viewers find it hard to invest in a story whose main characters are not invested.

In a book, the investment can be solved through an omniscient narrator; in a movie, viewers need to care about something or someone and if that something or someone is going to travel around the world, it would be nice if it, he, or she cared a little.

In the 1956 movie, this person is Passpartout (as he is in the book to an extent). Like the reader and viewer, Passpartout becomes invested in Fogg's success (despite knowing the ending, I found it almost painful to watch the end of both productions: Oh my gosh, is he going to make it?!). Passpartout is also the one who wanders through the cities in which he and Fogg dock. He eats the food, takes on work, gets lost, meets people . . . In addition, he is largely responsible for acting on Fogg's plans; it is Passpartout who rescues the princess and Passpartout who saves the train.

In the 1989 series, Fogg becomes more invested as the journey evolves. Almost against his will, he is forced to participate in increasingly complex (and many non-book-related) adventures. He is forced to care, to problem solve and physically act. At the end, he is as devastated as the viewer is to believe that he has failed (though he hides his emotional upheaval better). Most touchingly, he and his companions finally arriving at the Reform Club, he almost turns back when they stop at the doors. He has come so far with them, he expects to keep going with them.

"Go on," they cry, and he goes on.

Nellie Bly went around the world in
72 days in 1889. Verne met her at the
the start of her journey and sent
her congratulations after.
Although this view of Fogg is not in keeping with Verne's vision, it is easy to understand why a scriptwriter--faced with an ostensible hero (the man who made the bet) and an action hero (the servant who does the heavy lifting)--would be puzzled at how to proceed.

After all, the Finch-Reese dynamic hadn't yet been invented--though one could argue that Steampunk-beloved Verne foresaw it. The man who wins the bet and the girl is the geek, the guy who knows his modern world so well, he knows that it can be circumnavigated in less than 80 days (the extra days are there in case).*

*Verne was right. Before the turn of the century, a number of people went around the world in 72 or fewer days!

Around the World in 80 Days: 1956 v. 1989, Part I

I recently read Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. To celebrate, I watched the 1989 miniseries, starring Pierce Brosnan, Eric Idle, Peter Ustinov, and Julia Nickson after which I rewatched the 1956 version, starring David Niven, Cantinflas, and a WHOLE bunch of other people.

This series of posts will focus on the differences and similarities between the versions.

First up: the Phileas Foggs.

Both David Niven and Pierce Brosnan do respectable jobs conveying Fogg's personality, including his discipline, kindliness, and sangfroid. Brosnan is slightly more relatable for several reasons, most of which come down to the following:

The miniseries presents Fogg in a way that Verne himself did not--as a young man who is altered slightly by his experience. 

The whole hilarious point of Verne's book (and the 1956 movie) is that Fogg doesn't change after going around the world. He falls in love: that's all. But his cool-headed worship of timetables . . . one gets the impression that Mrs. Fogg will still be expected to get to the breakfast table on time, and if she doesn't, she'll get a mild-mannered yet cool rebuke. (The 1989 Aouda Fogg, played by Julia Nickson, would bop her Phileas over the head for being so ridiculous.)

David Niven gives us this unchanged Phileas. This makes sense since one suspects David Niven would--in real life--go right on expecting, say, the same level of hotel service during an earthquake as during a non-earthquake.

1989 Aouda
1989 Fogg, while not losing his quintessential reserve, subtly alters his views and life goals during his journey. He even (occasionally) gets emotional. For instance, a great deal more attention is paid in the miniseries to the romance between Phileas and Aouda; the Aouda of the miniseries is also far more outspoken and plays a far greater role in the group's adventures.

Brosnan's Fogg is also younger than Niven's. Brosnan was 36 when he did the miniseries (and looked younger) while Niven was 46 when he did the movie. Consequently, when Brosnan's Phileas pulls out a card deck on the train across America and insists on teaching strangers whist, it's completely hilarious, precisely because it is so incongruous. When Niven does it, well, it seems kind of normal. I mean, I would do that (says the woman in her 40s). The older one gets, the more one realizes that reading and playing cards are excellent ways to get through troubling (and/or boring) times, from a train trip to an earthquake.

Likewise, when Brosnan's Phileas arrives at the Reform Club at the end of miniseries, there is about him a kind of suppressed exhilaration. Despite greeting his fellow club members coolly, he is practically shaking with excitement, which makes him utterly adorable.

It's sort of hard to find David Niven adorable. Great actor! Totally personable! But adorable . . . ?

While Niven's Fogg's character is already set (and solidifying), Brosnan's Fogg, on the other hand, is at the mercy of his own youth: how much of his rigidity has been a pose? Believed in--but a pose nonetheless? (Brosnan's Fogg reminds me of Dana Andrews' cop character in Laura; he comes across as laid-back but resorts to playing a boy's game when under stress so he can keep his cool.)

All this is not to say that Niven's interpretation is wrong or uninteresting. It is more to say (1) the two films have different agendas (more on this later); (2) the 1956 film is more Passpartout's while the miniseries is more Fogg's.

To be continued . . .