O is for Occasional

No comments:
Anthony Andrews perfectly captures
Sir Percy Blakeney's unique blend of fop
and champion.
Apparently, I don't read enough Irish authors. As with "N", my list of "O" authors is not that long:

I have read Flannery O'Connor's well-written rather horrible story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It is one of those "classic" stories that students have to read in Intro to Lit courses. I've never cared for it, but another tutor and I were able to use O'Connor's story to illustrate the principle of multi-interpretations when we debated the grandmother's last line to the Misfit: "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my children!"

Is she losing her mind? Has she had a revelation of mercy? Does she feel compassion for the Misfit? Does she recognize the similar mindset between her and the Misfit?

"You see," we told the students (who were hoping we would just tell them what the story "means"). "We both read the story and have differing viewpoints. We have to defend our interpretations with evidence from the text."

Ah, formalism at its best! 

Ogilvie, Elisabeth: I read one of her books for book club. She does saga writing, a genre I hardly ever read (although I am currently giving Outlander a try).

O. Henry. Marvelous writer. Best known for short stories like "Gift of the Magi." The enchanting Wishbone's Dog Days of the West is based on an O. Henry character (and is the best, most hilarious Wishbone movie of the series).

Orczy, Emma or Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála "Emmuska" Orczy de Orci: I haven't just seen the movies; I've read The Scarlet Pimpernel! Speaking of . . . the movies, I highly recommend the Anthony Andrews' version.

Orwell, George: Animal Farm, naturally! Good book. Not the kind of thing I read more than once.

Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey: An Exploration of One Writer's Claims about Research

No comments:
One of my favorite books is Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time. In this fictionalized novel of scholarly detection, Tey's Scotland Yard character, Alan Grant, delves into the truth behind the Princes in the Tower: Were they killed by their uncle Richard III?

It is the ultimate Richardian defense. It has flaws--for one, it is more than likely that one of Richard's cohorts did dispose of the princes. Unfortunately, many Richard III scholars who disagree with the Richardians tend to belittle Tey's novel, to the point where they ignore some of her fundamental (and valid) points.

The latest Richard III book I tried to read made complimentary noises about Daughter of Time being a good read . . . for sweet little ladies. I'm not kidding about the last part. It was the most patronizing and appallingly stupid remark I'd read in a long time. And the guy called himself a scholar!

So I decided that it's time someone took Tey's claims about historical research seriously. Not her claims about Richard III necessarily. But her larger points about history, sources, and scholarship. If I taught a course on research, this is the book I'd have people read. Hopefully, an examination of Tey's claims will explain why:

The novel begins with Grant, bored. He broke his leg chasing a suspect, so he is stuck in the hospital for several weeks (Daughter of Time was written in 1951; nowadays, Grant would get stuck with a few pins and be sent home.)

Grant's long-term girlfriend Marta Hallard suggests that he entertain himself by investigating a historical mystery. To get him started, she brings him pictures of various historical personages. Richard III's portrait (see above) is amongst them. Grant is so struck by the man's face (he doesn't look like a monster!), he begins to investigate.

Claim 1
Source 1: A schoolbook. 

Grant gets two schoolbooks from a nurse. The first is the type of tertiary source where history is broken up into chronological stories: "all in clear large print and one-sentence paragraphs." Tey writes:
This, after all, was the history that every adult remembered. This was what remained in their minds when tonnage and poundage, and ship money, and Laud's Liturgy, and the Rye House Plot, and the Triennial Acts, and all the long muddle of schism and shindy, treaty and treason, had faded from their consciousness (p.25). 
So true! I love the fascinating intricacies of history, the complexity that one discovers by delving into a single moment of time. Things look smooth and non-complex from the outside. From the inside, they are series of causes, consequences, choices, and randomness: everything at once!

However, I am a big fan of teaching the simple, orderly history that actually gets remembered. In my American & New England Studies program, I encountered students who complained about this "high school" approach. People should know that the North also owned slaves! People should know that there were multiple reasons for the Civil War! Stepping back a hundred years, it's true that more people than Paul Revere headed out to warn colonists that the "British are coming!"

Not the Middle Ages. Plate 3 from Hogarth's
The Rake's Progress, 1732-1733.
Except it turns out that Paul Revere's message had greater impact and spread to more people than either Dr. Prescott's or William Dawes' (see Gladwell's The Tipping Point). Longfellow's choice of hero carries a core of truth!

Besides which, knowing history stories is far less upsetting (and problematic) than a lack of knowledge about history--as when well-educated adults confuse the Middle Ages with the 1700s (I'm not kidding). I don't expect every educated adult to understand that the King James Bible was largely influenced by Tyndale's Bible. I don't expect them to know that Europe in the Middle Ages endured more than one plague. I don't expect them to know that plague doctors did in fact improve their doctoring methods (although nothing to the equivalent of antibiotics). I don't even expect all of them to know that the Dark Ages (Rome falls) is not the same as the Middle Ages (people pick up the pieces).
I do expect the average educated adult to know the distinction between Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Things do get slightly more confusing after that. Still, the "modern era" belongs in a different category from the Middle Ages.

I have sympathy with those teachers and scholars who want to emphasize the complexity of history. I personally get quite irritated when people try to argue the one-way version of history ("Once upon a time, people were prim and proper about sex; they've gotten less prim and proper every decade until now when things are at their worst!"). The Regency era, for instance, was far more raunchy than the Victorian Era (which followed it) and even, in some ways, far less self-conscious about its raunchiness than us moderns are about ours.

Things don't always work to clear patterns. C.S. Lewis, for example, argued that the Renaissance was not a clean break with the Medieval Era. And he's right! (Tey will make a similar point later on.)

Still, knowing that the Renaissance represents a specific historical era is a place to start. The saddest aspect of history in school is that not teaching the simple, supposedly "bad" version of history doesn't give students any place to hang their hats. If they don't know the classic stories about the Revolutionary War, how will they understand the debates about the Revolutionary War? If they don't know when the American Civil War took place, how can they understand the attending complexities of the Civil War?

I recently had a student who didn't know what courting was; when he found out, he decided to write a paper about it (the sort of decision that makes teachers smile!). He got a long of things wrong (such as the assumption that every culture before "now" promoted arranged marriages). But at least he now knows that there was a "then"! Trying to explain the role of arranged marriages (and the semi-arranged marriages of Austen's time period) would be impossible if he didn't have a "then" in the first place.

Better simple, clear, chronological stories from history than a lot of different ideas about history with no context. 

Coming up . . . Source 2: The Other Schoolbook

25th Published Short Story!

No comments:
The latest issue of Space & Time, #123, includes my 25th published short story "Solvency."

In a futuristic economy with medieval overtones, Macworth must torture a corporate spy, also his wife. In a desperate attempt to avoid this duty, he enters into risky negotiations with an untrustworthy scientist.

This story is connected to a previous story, "Verbal Knowledge" published in Tales of the Unanticipated #29.

A full list of my published short stories can be found on my fiction page.

Published novellas can be found at Peaks Island Press.

The Extraordinary C.S. Lewis: Theology in Fiction

No comments:
The 1988 version is not as watchable as the
2005 version, but the actors do fine jobs,
including Jonathan R. Scott as Edmund.
Writing about religious individuals and their lives has been done effectively (I second Bless Me Father as an excellent British sit-com!), especially when the writers stick to character and story.

Writing religious motivations effectively is a much more difficult prospect for believers and non-believers--especially if those religious or theological motivations are part of the problem and need to be paid off in some way. As Eugene states, "[The bigger worldview] has to surface sometime, else the plot will end up chasing its own tail."

What makes C.S. Lewis so effective is that he wrote from within his religion and mindset and he knew how to ground abstract ideas in the everyday.

Edmund's choice to betray his brothers and sisters in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is horrific when contemplated abstractly. His literal sin is a violation of every chivalric, pagan, and religious code that Lewis took seriously. It requires  absolution or atonement beyond an "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you."

It's big.

Yet the extraordinary C.S. Lewis manages to make it small, concrete, real, and horrible all at the same time. Edmund is no Mr. Evil. His betrayal is grounded in petty jealousy, vanity, and greed (for Turkish Delight supposedly; for the power to boss people around, most definitely). Mixed in with Edmund's vices is also a feeling of "I'm going to get back at people" and an almost obscure need to stick to the path he is on ("The Queen isn't so bad; I didn't behave wrongly by telling her about Lucy's faun; I have to keep going even though I'm wet and cold.")

He is utterly and completely comprehensible, no mean feat when it comes to betrayal.

The lowest circle of Dante's hell is
ice, not fire.
He also utterly and completely betrays his family. This is necessary to the denouement of LW&W, Aslan's sacrifice on Edmund's behalf. In order to comprehend the need, the audience must comprehend the violation caused by Edmund's behavior. Despite being a child, Edmund hasn't stolen a candy bar or called someone a bad name or hit someone. He has effected what Dante considered the worst sin: Treachery. In the lowest point of Dante's Inferno, Satan--who turned his back on God (Supernatural is classically right to have the angels refer to each other as brothers)--chews on Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot, the ultimate betrayers.

And yet, unlike Dante, Lewis wants us to mourn for his traitor, Edmund, to wish for his restoration. Edmund is us yet himself, his own character. We want his salvation because we see ourselves in him and because we care for him.

Through Edmund, Lewis prepares us for a recounting of the theological event which wedded the ultimate abstraction with the ultimate reality: God made flesh; God on a cross. What makes this even more extraordinary is that Aslan is not supposed to be an allegory or mere symbol, an easy out for a writer. He functions in LW&W as an individual character performing the same ritual for a new world.

We see the ritual through Lucy and Susan's eyes. This is story, not a theological treatise (Lewis himself stated that the entire story began with the image of a lion), and story is important! Yet Aslan's motivation makes or breaks the scene's place in the narrative arc, and it is grounded in something bigger than Edmund's brothers and sisters feeling bad (although that is one facet of the decision). Rather, it is grounded in an underlying, consistent worldview.

Grounding it in "Edmund must be saved to save Narnia" works (clever Lewis grounded it in more than one thing). Ultimately, however, Lewis uses an abstract concept to defend Aslan's decision. Edmund's sin is represented as larger than the people he immediately harmed--in violation of an eternal law. Aslan sincerely wishes to save him, is capable of doing so, and has access to the power--the Deep Magic--that makes Edmund's salvation possible.

The entire novel lies on the knife-edge of getting us, the readers, to accept both character's behaviors as believable because their motivations are plausible. Their motivations are plausible because the underlying "rules" of Lewis's world are plausible (though wisely never fully delineated).

Without the novel's conceptual framework, Edmund becomes merely a problematic bad boy who went off the rails until a good parent came to the rescue. Not a terrible plot. Cute, sweet, Touched by an Angel-ish (hey, I've seen a couple of episodes!), it falls short of a timeless narrative, myth in the best meaning of that term. 

Many readers have felt that C.S. Lewis succeeded even without believing (or being aware of) the Christian context. The characters are real because what motivates them is real and vice versa.

Unfortunately for writers, doing what Lewis did is quite difficult--even in fiction with secular ideologies. Depending on the context, a writer may need to convey, "My characters believe in something bigger than themselves"--like the environment, for example--only to produce characters with vague motivations who vaguely want something that readers have to struggle to care about, despite there being a concrete threat or narrative arc.

Granted, environmentalism is pretty much a pit of vagueness but this issue is a recurring problem with characters that require substantial ideologies as backing for their singular, concrete acts, especially religious characters. Why do they care? What do they want? Why do they make such sacrifices and take such risks? For ideas? Just ideas? Is that enough? George Bernard Shaw tried but without a true (not crazy) belief in her visions, Joan of Arc doesn't make much sense.

In my fiction, I find it easier to stick to material and personal motivations--and I recommend that most writers do the same. If we're lucky, the bigger stuff creeps in. Much of it crept in with Lewis, but it takes a master to go straight-on at something so big ("a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than the whole world") and humanly incomprehensible as the Christian Atonement, Passion, and Resurrection, make it work as a believable story yet not bog it down in saccharine, over-explanations, or coy platitudes.

The exceptions make the rule.

The Difficulty of Writing About Religion

1 comment:
"Fair Enough"
Although I greatly enjoy the theological questions raised in Person of Interest, Season 3, Decima (John Geer) is the weakest of Nolan's characters so far.

In general, Person of Interest bad guys are fascinatingly complex, mostly due to their grounded desires and expectations: Elias, Hersh, Kara Stanton, Special Counsel (he's the "Fair enough" guy), Control, even Root (the most abstractly motivated of the bunch) all have clear objectives. Root may hold an abstract desire to talk to Her, but it circles around a definite goal: to TALK to Her.

The consequence is not simplicity but rather a network of differing (often conflicting) desires and needs. It is--at the risk of using an overworked term--politic, and it is naturally political. Not a lot of villains with twirling moustaches, just people with conflicting agendas, some evil, some not (or not completely). Until Decima.

Oddly enough, Collier OUGHT to have been a villain with a twirling moustache--an extremist along the lines of Timothy McVeigh. Unfortunately, the writers wanted so desperately for him to be a sympathetic dupe, they created a character whose motivations make absolutely no sense. Collier is too organized to be a John Hinckley, Jr., yet too lacking in any kind of ideology to explain his subservience to an unknown sponsor.

The impressive Camryn Manheim as Control--a character
one can despise and admire. Well-written!
Which brings me back to Decima--Decima (John Geer) is supposedly motivated by a higher, theological or religious purpose. (I haven't started Season 4, so my supposition is based on the end of Season 3). Unlike Root, however, he is utterly lacking in a theological center.

It would be easy at this point to blame Decima's hollowness on Hollywood's apathy towards religion, but based on the number of tacky religious books and movies I've encountered, I think it is safe to say that religion is difficult to write about in general.

There are likely multiple reasons (some of which will come to me after I've written this) but a core reason that religion is difficult to write about is the abstract nature of belief. In order for Martin Luther to argue against indulgences (a practical reality), he has to believe in something far more abstract (that the soul cannot buy its way into heaven or out of accountability). In order for Joseph Smith to argue against infant baptism (another practical reality), he has to believe that Adam and Eve's Fall from God's presence did not entail a fall into sin. THAT entails believing that sin requires intent and knowledge. And THAT entails believing that without intent and knowledge, humans are innocent. And THAT . . .

In other words, a bigger worldview lies behind most theological arguments.

It doesn't necessary lie behind every religious act by every church-goer or, even, for that matter, every spiritual person. If I give money to the poor or take communion (sacrament) every Sunday or meditate--I am sharing in a larger worldview but I don't necessarily have to be aware of that worldview to benefit from the activity.

St. Augustine: I may not always agree
with him, but he argues his position
well and with great care.
Here's where things get complicated for writers: the grounded actions matter (that's where story comes about) but without the larger view, the grounded religious actions devolve into their own justification. Much religious fiction by religious people contains characters who have an out-sized preoccupation with rules. Sometimes this is intentional, but often it comes down to the sheer, unmitigated difficulty of (1) creating and/or explaining a theology; (2) talking about abstract ideas convincingly; (3) conveying the reality of an abstract idea without sounding crazy; (4) explaining one's spiritual or emotional connection to a series of behaviors (I do this because I know in my heart or hearts that it means something bigger, and I even know what the bigger thing is, but explaining how the two things connect will make me sound trite).

There's a reason the great theologians are great.

And if it is difficult for religious people to write about this stuff convincingly, imagine how much more difficulty it is for writers who don't have religious backgrounds or sensibilities--who find the whole religious mindset bewildering to begin with! Sure, they can always fall back on Catholicism--or Shintoism. But to create something like what Decima is supposed to be, the writers would have to understand how someone like Decima thinks to begin with.

The fall-back position, unfortunately, is not all that different from the one that religious people create: all religious people are either staid, obedient ruler-followers or crazy extremists. A logical fallacy, of course (generalization anyone?) but easier to write about than a series of decisions surrounding a central hub of belief.

Easier to write about--and totally boring. Obedience as a problem can be interesting but as a character trait . . . not so much. And extremism is always boring, which is why Control's utilitarian philosophy, however despicable in practice, is so, so, so much more interesting to listen to than Collier's Decima-fed rants. (And Control's dialog with the Machine--utilitarianism versus faith with an underscoring of wistful obedience--is totally fascinating.)

There's a reason C.S. Lewis and Tolkien remain two of the best religious fiction writers of the 20th century--and they came at the whole thing sideways.

What a Waste of Money (Sometimes): Book to Movie, V

1 comment:
The movie actually is better than the book.
I mentioned in my last post that many times, movie-makers purchase the material of a book rather than its plot. This approach has its downsides--and occasionally its upsides, as when the movie is better than the book. Julie & Julia is a far, far better movie than its book (and the movie isn't all that good although Meryl Streep is amazing).

The true oddity is when the movie-makers purchase the title and use none of the material.

It gets even stranger when the material offers more than the script.

The movie The Robe (1953) is truly odd because it takes an action-packed book based around the New Testament and turns it into a talky movie. I read the book first, then watched the movie. By the time I hit the second hour, I was in a state of  bemusement: "But there's a chase scene here . . . maybe . . . nope . . . there's a fight scene here . . . no, huh?"

A few of the recent Poirots (David Suchet) fall into this category although the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marples were way worse offenders. There's a reason Christie is the best mystery writer ever! (And a master in multiple mediums; she knew how to adapt a movie to a play, even if it entailed changing the ending: Appointment for Death, the book, and Appointment for Death, the play, have radically different endings as do the book and play versions of And Then They Were None--and it was Christie who made the changes!)

Incredible casting. The movie-makers
got the kids right!
Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events starts out as a faithful interpretation and ends in the quagmire of Jim Carrey's personality. I don't blame Jim Carrey by the way. He is perfectly capable of being a good actor so long as the director is willing to sit on him. But the director of Lemony Snicket's started out with one idea, then let himself be derailed by how hilarious Jim Carrey was on set--oh, he is sooooo funny.

Breaking the fourth wall constantly can be hilarious (Supernatural pulls it off in its Season 6 spoof episode), but too much doesn't help tell the story. (Supernatural doesn't do it very often.)

Susan Calvin's character does retain elements of book Calvin.
I can personally forgive a lot when it comes to movies if I feel that the movie-makers love the original work. I, Robot is NOT the book--not even vaguely. It is the name of one of Asimov's short story anthologies, but the script draws material from Caves of Steel and "Little Lost Robot" (from I, Robot) to create an entirely new story.

If, like me, you watched the movie for the first time expecting a tribute to I, Robot's examination of the growth of positronic robots from clunky Robbie to suave Stephen Byerley--I'm afraid that, like me, you were disappointed.

Disappointed but not flummoxed (as I was with The Robe) or angry (Why didn't they simply make up their own story?!). Despite the glaring lack of material from the original source and despite the slight misuse of the three laws, I came away from the movie feeling that (1) the writers and directors valued many of the ideas embraced in Asimov's texts; (2) the writers had at least read the short stories plus the Elijah Baley mysteries (Will Smith IS Elijah Baley sans wife) and (3) Asimov, being Asimov, probably wouldn't have minded. (Mr. Prolific would have volunteered to write the movie novelization or something.)

And besides, it is Will Smith.

This is What I Would Do: Books to Movies, IV

No comments:
Uncas from Last of the Mohicans,
a movie that is thankfully
completely unlike its book.
The fourth of my five categories--the strict rendering, the faithful interpretation, the alternate viewpoint, make-a-place-for-myself (or something else) and just-the-title--is the most common approach.

Most movies based on stories utilize the make-a-place-for-myself-or-something-else approach simply because most texts don't translate into sell-able scripts. In this approach, movie-makers do not merely change viewpoint or add in extra scenes or focus on a particular theme. Movie-makers use the motifs, characters, and plot points of the original to mold a new story. This "playing with creation" has its downside, which I will address in the next post. It also has its upside.

Last of the Mohicans (1992), for example, bears a strong resemblance to the text by James Fenimore Cooper: It takes place in the same time period as the novel! Okay, that's not fair but really, don't read the book expecting the romance of the movie--or for that matter, the streamlined plot and non-clunky dialog. (My review of the streamlined, non-clunky, and beautiful 1992 movie can be found here.)

A scene not located in the original book: Justin v. Jenner.
And then there are all those movies that change the original story's ending--thankfully, in some cases. I enjoy The Secret of Nimh far more than its excellent book by Robert C. O'Brien, Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, mostly because Justin doesn't die in the movie (it's implied that he dies in the book although O'Brien's daughter keeps him alive in her sequel). The Bourne Legacy is really just Flowers for Algernon with a WAY better ending. Anyone who wants to argue that Capote's ending to Breakfast at Tiffany's is more realistic is probably right: I still prefer the film's ending.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka
Some movies, while sticking to the plot, characters, and even structure of the story/book, create a differing worldview and tone. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) is a far more tolerable version of the book than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) even though the second creepy movie is far more similar to the creepy book than the nostalgia-inducing first movie. Likewise, Robert Redford intelligently left the sex scene from Judith Guest's book Ordinary People out of his movie. In the book, it is more or less a throw-away scene; in the movie, it would have been gratuitous and distracting (the movie is about the father and son, not the son and girlfriend).

In general, the movie-makers of these movies appear to have purchased the material more than the storyline (although Ordinary People is quite faithful in other regards). However, there are instances where the book's material is faithfully reproduced while utterly transformed.

Howl's Moving Castle, the film, retains the plot of the book for the first 1/2. The second 1/2, however, takes on a different rhythm and purpose. For one, Miyazaki removes the Wales scenes; in Diana Wynne Jones' delightful shaggy dog story, the scenes are not out-of-place. In Miyazaki's interpretation, they would have added a jarring Monty-Pythonesque tone. Miyazaki also enhances the war references of the book, making that conflict a driving force in the film.  

The most important change is Miyazaki's development of Sophie's bespelling. In the book and in the movie, Sophie is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste. In the book and in the movie, it is implied that Sophia has clung to the spell for self-protection. In the movie only, Miyazaki uses Sophie's age--from old woman to young to old and back again--as a counterpoint to Howl's more self-destructive self-protection.

Sophia becomes young and beautiful when she forgets herself, when she fights for Howl, when she stops caring about the world's opinion of youth and beauty. She retreats into salty, good-humored old age when she needs to hide. The heartbreaking lovingness of Miyazaki's vision is something any woman, young or old, comprehends instantly. It has nothing to do with outward judgment. It has everything to do with state of mind. Only the Sophie who accepts herself, indifferent to others' opinions, can help Howl accept his heart.

Diana Wynne Jones' book is a good read. And the power of her story and ideas is preserved in Miyazaki's art. 

Miyazaki's film is a singular classic, utterly unique to its author.

I Never Thought of It That Way: Books to Movies, Part III

No comments:
One of several scenes in P&P 1995 where the audience
is given additional insight into Darcy's mindset.
The third approach of books to movies is the alternate viewpoint. This is common especially in tribute books, including Persuadable (my look at Persuasion from the "villains" point of view), Longbourn (a look at Pride & Prejudice from the servants' point of view), and Grendel by John Gardner (point of view self-explanatory).

It's fun! It can be insightful. It can also start an argument (I use Pamela's Mr. B in Mr. B Speaks to run a court case on the merits of literary analysis in higher education). The alternate viewpoint asks, Is that really what happened? What was going on elsewhere when all the attention was focused here? What can we learn about the original novel by examining the evidence from a different perspective?

Many movies utilize this technique simply for the sake of comprehension and interest. In 1995 P&P, Darcy's hunt for Wickham is relayed through his point of view at the time it occurs; in the book, it is relayed as dialog/summary to Elizabeth after the fact; the reader consequently sees Darcy's actions entirely from Elizabeth's point of view. Giving us Darcy's point of view, however temporarily, provides more connection.

In a similar fashion, the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes movies and episodes, which I would generally label faithful interpretations, occasionally flip perspective--not everything is seen from Watson's point of view (first person causes so many problems!).

Edmund from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
provides a story that "carries".
In some ways, an alternate viewpoint can help create the consistent thread necessary to holding a film together (in general, when I refer to "thread," I am referring to the overall worldview or vision of the director, not the message). One of the smarter additions to The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the use of the White Witch as Edmund's ongoing nemesis from Edmund's point of view. Both movies have their flaws as movies and the latter is a challenge, being a difficult book to reproduce as anything but a series.

The book also happens to be one of my favorites, so I approached the film with trepidation the first and second times I watched it. I recently rewatched it, however, and found it more enjoyable than I remembered. Skandar Keynes, Georgie Henley, and the marvelous Will Poulter carry the movie and could even have gotten more screen-time. As in the first and second movies, Edmund's ability to see "behind the curtain" of false promises provides a necessary stable viewpoint, especially in the last movie (Dawn Treader really should be Eustace's movie exclusively; however, the book provides so many fantastic events from other people's viewpoints, a screenwriter would have to be extraordinarily disciplined to remember this).

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern waiting for others to act
So switching viewpoints momentarily is customary. Movies that completely switch viewpoint are a little harder to come by. One example is the play-to-movie Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a look at Hamlet from the point of view of hapless bit parts. Another, which works out less effectively, is the most recent Murder in Mesopotamia (Agatha Christie's Poirot). The switch from the nurse narrator's p.o.v. to Poirot's p.o.v. was necessary (viewers want to focus on Poirot/ Suchet, not a lesser known actress) yet creates a vastly different tone. In the latter case, book and film should be handled as two distinct rather than complementary entities. (The inclusion of Hugh Fraser in the movie version is a nice bonus, and the husband's character is well-captured.)

A more common variation to the alternate viewpoint is the alternate time period: Clueless (Emma), Bridget Jones Diary (Pride & Prejudice), 10 Things I Hate About You (Taming of the Shrew) and many more Shakespeare plays! These variations can lend immense insight regarding the nature of the original relationships--and they can be quite enjoyable. P.D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley gave me additional insight into Wickham's character.

Such alternate approaches can also provide historical insights since the adaptations usually highlight those aspects of the original novels/plays that remain constant and those that time has challenged or questioned: girls and boys still act silly around each other but these days, the girl can go get a job.

Books to Movies, Part II: The Faithful Interpretation


1995 Darcy is extremely introverted. I recently watched
Victoria and Albert, starring Colin Firth's brother, Jonathan.
He delivers a flawless performance of Albert as intensely
introverted. Either the Firth brothers ARE introverts or
they have an excellent role model upon which to draw.
Interpretation is the second of my five categories. To be more precise, I will be addressing faithful interpretations.

Faithful interpretations stick to the plot and characters of the original text. Unlike strict renderings, however, they deliver the plot and characters through a specific understanding. This is not only necessary but one of the truly lovely things about interpretations.

One can, for example, watch multiple versions of Jane Eyre or Pride & Prejudice or Shakespeare or (some) Agatha Christie and come away with a new perspective not because the plot has changed (assuming that all comparable versions are faithful interpretations) but because the vision/worldview of the movie-maker* is so distinct.

Without this vision, a film will be clunky, confused, and out of focus (metaphorically--although some directors go in for that sort of thing literally as well).
1980  Darcy, played by David Rintoul, is more aloof and
arrogant than 1995's. 1983 Elizabeth is witty and
observant while 1995 Elizabeth is witty and direct

Jane Eyre (1983) focuses on the mental integrity of Jane; Jane Eyre (2006) focuses on her desire to be loved. Both issues are in the book, and both film versions bring up the conjoining issue but never at the expense of each series's main interpretation. The thread of "sight" (the thing the director wants us to see for ourselves) holds the piece together.

Granted, many times, artists--including movie-makers--are unaware of their thread. Writers, poets, painters: very few of them are George Bernard Shaws, interpreting their own work before and after the fact (one reason why commentary by directors is rarely as good as expected; even self-aware directors like Whedon and Branagh tend to spend more time focusing on technicalities--the HOW of creation--than the meaning).

Yet a movie without that thread fails to carry its plot--much like Star Wars I, II, and III.

And 1940 Darcy is practically an extrovert! He is
also suave and debonair, displaying little of the discomfort,
shame, and confusion of 1980 and 1995 Darcys.
Consequently, Hamlet (Mel Gibson), Hamlet (David Tennant), and Hamlet (Branagh) become not competing visions (what would be the fun in that?) but complementary visions whereby each carries its own insights into Shakespeare's masterpiece. Likewise, although I greatly prefer Pride & Prejudice (1995) to BBC Pride & Prejudice (1980), I still enjoy aspects of the 1980 interpretation (in general, 80s BBC Austens fall into the strict rendering category).

As for Pride & Prejudice (1940): I would call it an interpretation plus make-a-place-for-something else, "something else" in this instance being Gone With the Wind (as far as I can tell). It's a good movie, just far easier to appreciate if one ignores the title (and connection to the book).

In comparison, Jane Eyre (1943), though massively cut, is a faithful interpretation, even if Joan Fontaine is depressingly miscast.

Other faithful interpretations include the following:
  • Anne of Green Gables (1985): Jonathan Crombie sadly recently died.
  • The Little Princess (1986): excellent television series.
  • Shawshank Redemption, oddly enough (the tone is totally different, but the plot is faithfully interpreted). 
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (1962): Interestingly enough, this film also retains, to an extraordinary degree, the point of view of the book. I will address viewpoint in more detail in my next post.
*I refer to the director as the author throughout these posts, simply because it is easier. Truthfully, however, as with a play, movies are the result of multiple authors. War & Peace is Tolstoy. But Henry V (1989) is Shakespeare (naturally), Branagh (to a huge extent) as director, scriptwriter and actor plus the other actors  (Judi Dench's stunning soliloquy on the stairs) plus the costume director (won an Academy Award!) plus Patrick Doyle and his haunting music plus the film's editor.

In fact, the recent movie Hitchcock argues, rightly or wrongly, that without Alma's editing, Psycho would have been a flop! While some books benefit greatly from an editor, the product is two authors at most--plus, perhaps, a famous illustrator like E.H. Shepard for A.A. Milne. Every movie, however, no matter how self-important the director, has many, many hands. One of the pleasures of listening to Whedon is that he is fully aware of this and will tell you how other people contributed to the film, including the actors.

The Hopelessness of Comparing Books to Movies, Part I

In my post on The Hobbit, I state, "Adaptations of a book to film can take several routes: the slideshow or strict rendering (boring), the interpretation (more interesting), the other viewpoint (fascinating), the make-a-place-for-myself (problematic but possibly insightful), and the 'all we used was the title' (pointless)."

Lovely image in a slideshow movie.
I will address this paragraph in more detail over several posts.

To start:

The Slideshow or Strict Rendering

This is the most boring of the approaches and only slightly less pointless than "all we used was the title." It can usually be traced to a basic fallacy: books = movies.

No, no, they don't.

It is not only utterly unfair to expect a movie to be a clone of a book, it is utterly unfair to judge a movie/television episode by the same criteria as a book as I discuss in my post "Getting Snarky About Television and Other Anti-Television Silliness".

In sum, watching a movie utilizes one's imagination differently than reading a book.

This reality creates problems  for readers who think that the imaginative journey they took in the book--"I could imagine the characters and the world in my own way!"--ought to be echoed by the movie.
A non-slideshow movie.
Since the movie provides images of the characters and of the world, the reader-now-viewer feels gypped ("But that's not the way I saw it! I'm not having the same experience!").

Of course, it's great to watch a movie where the characters and the setting are what one imagined. It simply isn't the point. The imaginative leap evoked by movies is NOT about turning words-into-images. The imaginative leap evoked by movies is about sensory immersion, no immediate left-brained translation.

What a movie asks for in terms of imagination isn't better or worse than what books ask for. It is different. But it's a difference that matters because when a movie tries to be a book, it fails--it stops being a movie and becomes a slideshow.
Slideshow movies come about when adherence to plot cancels out the director's interpretation/worldview. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone is a slideshow movie. Chris Columbus is not one for grand interpretations, yet Harry Potter the First lacks even his frenetic viewpoint.

Chamber of Secrets
Columbus isn't one of my favorite directors. Still, if he is going to direct something, I expect to see his thumbprint or, to get forensical, his DNA. Speaking artistically, I expect the movie to have his aura/feel/voice/tone. For example, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuaron has a haunting tone that makes it definitely, unmistakably a MOVIE.

Columbus did much better with the second movie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. His imprint, especially in the chamber scenes, is more apparent. (In keeping with my yen for short, crisp stories, I quite enjoy both the second book and the second movie.)

Pattinson before Twilight!
Directed by Mike Newell, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is also a fine interpretation, which, in many ways, improves on the book's pacing.

To be more than a slideshow, a movie must have an authorial point of view and that authorial point must be the author of the medium (the director/producer/actors). Without a point of view . . . I might as well read the book. Such resignation might make "books only" folks happy; unfortunately, it would spell the death of an entire art-form. 

Tauriel and Kili: Jackson's Theme for The Hobbit Trilogy

No comments:
It's Patriot's Day in New England: of course, I watched the third movie!

Kili: I saw a fire moon once.*
*Jackson is quite adept at conveying
entire relationships in small scenes. Here,
we realize that Kili and Tauriel have more to
say to each other than to their companions.
The full exchange is below.
Brian Sibley's Official Movie Guide to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies quotes from concept artist John Howe:
The relationship between Tauriel and Kili is like one of those love stories where people think they are falling in love when, in fact, they are actually falling out of love with everything else around them, and the only sympathetic face is someone who they would never choose in any other circumstances . . .

Take Tauriel first. She is an under-appreciated member of an insular society. The only person who seems to comprehend her worth, Legolas, is mute on the subject. She continues to do her job--very well--because after all, what else can she do?

And then this dwarf shows up who thinks she is the most impressive person, and woman, he has ever met. The actors provide decent sexual tension, and the characters have a nice vibe (not to mention gorgeous music). More importantly, faced with Kili's admiration, Tauriel begins to re-evaluate herself, to question the role into which she has been slated by her king and culture.

She chases after Kili yet in many ways she is chasing after re-definition.
When she declares to Bofur, "I'm going to save him," the line is not romantic. Rather, Evangeline Lilly gives it a reverberating pathos that addresses identity without sounding arrogant: I will do this. I can do this. Why did I never realize so before?

As for Kili: he is Thorin's second heir (Fili is the elder of the two). Like Fili, he looks up to his uncle, admiring his strength of purpose and leadership skills. Thorin is a goal-oriented guy! Even at the beginning of the trilogy (and in the book), Thorin comes across as one-idea-ed or tunnel-visioned. This is not necessarily a bad quality, especially when pursuing the seemingly impossible, but it closes him off to outside solutions and makes him susceptible to his grandfather's obsession with treasure.

As in the book, Fili and Kili demonstrate a flexibility of viewpoint lacking in their uncle. For example, they are more accepting and tolerant of Bilbo from the beginning than Thorin. As the trilogy unwinds, Kili (representative of the brothers) begins to identify Thorin's inflexibility as a flaw in an otherwise great man. Meeting Tauriel, stepping outside his slated role, lends him the objectivity to voice his worries. He remains loyal to his companions while becoming more likely to question Thorin's course of action. He is in the process--unfortunately never finished--of remaking himself.

Remaking--redefinition--is the theme of the trilogy. Everybody's doing it!

Bilbo  naturally remakes himself, changing into a hobbit who returns home still valuing the comforts of the cozy life yet willing and able to appreciate the dangers he has experienced:
A pivotal moment echoed by the lines below.
Bilbo Baggins: No! I am glad to have shared in your perils, Thorin. Each and every one of them. It is far more than any Baggins deserves.

Bilbo Baggins: One day I'll remember. Remember everything that happened: the good, the bad, those who survived... and those that did not.
This is the Bilbo who will adopt and raise the near saintly Frodo, who sets out to save not just hobbits but  the entire world. Could (would) Bilbo have done it otherwise?

Legolas, Bard, (Saruman, on the downside), all recast themselves as something not entirely new (they retain their fundamental personalities) but altered, redefined in terms of how they perceive themselves within their own communities.

The remarkable aspect of Jackson's approach to this theme is that the results of such redefinition are epic but the redefinitions themselves are human, ordinary, even small.

"He was my friend," Bilbo says of Thorin, a small declaration in which the entire Fellowship (and the future of the ring) is contained.

Kili and Tauriel's Conversation in the Dungeon:
Kili: Sounds like quite a party you're having up there.
Tauriel: It is Mereth Nuin Giliath; The Feast of Starlight. All light is sacred to the Eldar, but the Wood Elves love best the light of the stars.
Kili: I always thought it is a cold light, remote and far away.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug QuotesTauriel: It is memory, precious and pure.
[they look at each other for a moment]
Tauriel: Like your promise.
[she holds out his stone and he takes it back; she turns and looks up]
Tauriel: I have walked there sometimes, beyond the forest and up into the night. I have seen the world fall away and the white light forever fill the air.
Kili: I saw a fire moon once. [as he talks, she sits on the stairs to listen] It rose over the pass near Dunland. Huge! Red and gold it was: it filled the sky. We were an escort for some merchants from Ered Luin; they were trading in silverwork for furs. We took the Greenway south, keeping the mountain to our left, and then it appeared. This huge fire moon lighting our path. I wish I could show you...
For an unalloyed Romeo & Juliet moment (with non-teenagers)
watch this while listening to Billy Boyd's "The Last Goodbye".

The Two Hands of Person of Interest, Season 3

No comments:
Finch saves John. In the end, Finch will try to save even Collier
I recently finished watching Person of Interest, Season 3.

On the one hand, my heart sank the moment the writers introduced Vigilance. Oh, man, I thought, this is going to muck up the ending. (I was right.)

The reason: Vigilance is the worst-run activist movement in history. If I am an organization opposed to Big Brother surveillance, and I am based in New York, and I don't mind going a little too far--maybe not kill but definitely destroy--what do I do?

I vandalize street cameras.

If I have unlimited resources, I vandalize lots of them.

In the series' finale, the writers back-write the possibility that Collier et al. began this way. The problem: whatever Vigilance did to hinder surveillance affected NO ONE in NYC from our heroes to city citizens. Finch & company are never forced to fall back on "old-fashioned" investigative techniques  (like using Bear) due to Vigilance's activities. Lionel never mentions that surveillance in any part of Manhattan has suffered. More criminals don't get away.

The writers get Collier to argue that going after technology--specifically, the technology that put his brother in jail--is useless. Vigilance needs to "teach a lesson."

So . . . the group goes after the equivalent of the people who run www.whitepages.com. That is, they go after a "lesson" that nobody gives a hoot about. It's a "tree falling in the forest but nobody hears" stuff and has zero impact on the world as we know it.

To sum up: this is an activist group that fails to successfully impact the news media, the police, the Machine, the public, and, for that matter, the viewer. (When Elias and the Russians were producing collateral damage on a daily basis, everyone was discussing it.)

And yet at the end of the season I'm supposed to believe that this group of home-grown terrorists has had such an impact on the mind of America that a bunch of self-serving Washington politicians have been frightened into giving up their government feeds to a private corporation.

It isn't that the latter couldn't happen (Big Business meet Big Government); it's that politicians don't expose themselves to voter dissatisfaction and ridicule by "standing up to" the equivalent of Soccer Moms Against the DMV. The public doesn't fear Vigilance. Nobody cares about them at all (this would be hilarious if the writers didn't expect me to take it seriously).

Presumably, blowing up the courthouse *is* the trigger--so why didn't Decima do that to begin with? A completely useless activist organization that nobody is talking about is not only time-consuming to start but expensive to run. It also results in massive clean-up and potential exposure. (I guess Decima is run by idiots.)

At least Hersh kidnapped his fall guy and blew up the ferry himself.

On the other hand . . .

I love the ideas that Nolan pours into the third season episodes, specifically the Machine as God. Root's fantastic faith in the face of what she perceives as senseless priorities (more about this later); Reese and Shaw's decision to follow Finch rather than the seemingly omniscient Machine (or, to be fair, to follow Finch rather than what they perceive the omniscient Machine's request to be); the idea of ownership ("MY" machine); Saul Rubinek's touching performance as Claypool and his beautiful words to Finch that describe the Machine as both supplicant and transcendent "other":
Arthur Claypool: Everything slides toward chaos. Your creation: it brings us poor souls a cupful of order. Your child is a dancing star.
Harold Finch: It's not my child; it's a machine.
Arthur Claypool: A false dichotomy. It's all electricity. Does it make you laugh? Does it make you weep?
Harold Finch: Yes.
Arthur Claypool: What's more human?
Not to forget the questions, What does the Machine want? Does the Machine understand Finch's intentions? Is the Machine still influenced by Finch's deep, abiding kindliness? Does she (or "he," according to Reese) understand what Finch is to his own creation?

Nothing points to the religious theme more strongly than the difference between Decima and Root. Both wish the Machine to be free. Yet Root (backed by Finch) sees herself as a free agent. She chooses to follow, to demonstrate faith. Their relationship is about dialog, a state of affairs that the Machine encourages. Root is all about talking to God.

Decima is about being controlled by God. Tell me *your* commands.

And it raises the interesting theological query: Does God deliberately limit himself (like Finch's Machine) in order to keep us from being Decima?

Awesome stuff.

Occasionally dumb plots.

More Thoughts on Supernatural: Why Dean Has the Internal Arc

1 comment:
I have reached Season 6 of Supernatural. So far, the bulk of the internal arc has been carried by Dean. As I mentioned in a prior post, even though Sam is ostensibly the more intellectual (i.e. deep thinker) of the two brothers, Dean as holder of the internal arc makes a great deal of sense.

To clarify: an internal arc is a character's emotional and/or intellectual journey from one state of mind to another by choice; it will be accompanied by an epiphany or a-ha moment. For example, in The Lion King (Walt Disney's Hamlet), Simba's face off with Scar is the climax of the external arc. Simba's acceptance of his role is the internal arc--as it is in Hamlet when the eponymous character states, "We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all." Hamlet has made peace with himself and the weirdness of life: he has resolved his internal questions.

Why Dean is the necessary keeper of the internal arc:

(1) Sam's internal arc would remove him from the storyline.

Sam's internal arc occurred before the show begun, climaxing when he left the "family business" for college. The series starts when his father disappears, his brother shows up, and his fiancée dies in a macabre fashion. But in his heart of hearts--as revealed in "Dark Side of the Moon," the episode where Dean and Sam visit heaven--the emotional journey that enabled Sam to leave hunting remains incredibly meaningful to him, defining him as a person. Leaving WAS the fulfillment of his inner desire to be his own man.

In the episode where Dean and Sam return to high school, "After School Special" (one of Supernatural's best, thematically speaking), Sam thanks the teacher who inspired him to follow his own path. As the conversation continues, Sam admits that life and duties have cancelled his original plan--but he is still grateful that someone at least gave him a second option.

To follow Sam's internal struggle to its natural conclusion would be to remove Sam from the family business permanently (or produce a Sam so bitter and resentful that nobody would much like him)--and whoops, there goes the show!

Consequently, much of what Sam endures is external--being tempted by demon blood, being stalked by Lucifer, even losing his soul. All these arcs work because they resonate at an emotional level; however, they are external struggles: they were done to Sam (passive voice).

Don't get me wrong: part of the show's attraction is watching HOW Sam deals with these things. Still, Dean runs the internal arc because he produces from within himself an emotional journey of guilt and doubt.

(2) Sam is better at cognitive dissonance than Dean.

Overeducated people in general are better at cognitive dissonance than less educated people.

Note: I did not say, "over" and "less" intelligent. Smarts, commonsense, discernment, the ability to comprehend the world: all these things have nothing to do with education. Education, in general, does three things: (1) provides people with usable skill sets (ability to read, ability to add); (2) creates habits of discipline; (3) provides exposure to multiple ideas. (#4: In today's world, it enables people to compete in the marketplace.)

#3 has an interesting pay-off: more exposure leads to an increased ability to balance disparate ideas at the same time. Aging does the same thing, which is why as people grow older, they tend (on average) to get less dogmatic/black & white in their thinking.

That is, as people get older or become exposed to more ideas, they become more comfortable with hypocrisy, a good thing since such cognitive dissonance (I totally believe in freedom from government tyranny--I still pay my taxes) allows the human race to survive.

Terrorists and saints find the disparity between ideals and reality less comfortable. Legal student Sam is comfortable (in the earlier seasons at least) with contradiction--all the horrors that he has seen do not negate, for him, the possibility of angels. This would  be awe-inspiring if it was based on some large theological view of the universe. In Sam's case (and I think this is quite realistic), it is based on the educated man compartmentalizing his ideas because he knows that many ideas do get compartmentalize, simply by necessity.

Dean, on the other hand, is never comfortable with contradictions. His education is the education of experience, not the education of ideas. When experience contradicts reality, he suffers confusion, disillusionment, and angst--all elements of an emotional/internal arc.

(3) Dean is a non-boring idealist.

In many ways, Dean is an idealist. Idealists invite instant arcs, being primed--so to speak--for worries followed by large personal sacrifices.

"What do you think Death does to people who lie to his face?"
Unfortunately, idealists (and their arcs) often come across as whiny, dull, or unrelatable. It is easier to write internal arcs for Batman than Superman--though even Batman's internal angst can get unbearable.

Dean escapes the worst aspects of idealism: he is not a terrorist and eschews being a saint. He remains interesting (especially) since his entire personality is underscored by hard-headed realism. 

While Dean doesn't accept the contradictions neither does he avoid them. Sam is the guy who either tries to figure things out (make the contradictions square with each other) or deals with them separately (this is what I can do today); Dean is the guy who agrees that the Apocalypse is coming, it can't be stopped, earth is doomed, and we should all give up--then goes to the field to be with his brother anyway. Dean is stoicism squared.

To put it another way, Dean rejects cognitive dissonance because he won't try to believe two seemingly contradictory things at once--instead, he decides that trying to make stuff square is wishful thinking, right before he goes straight at the problem. And since he actually is a Saint (he just doesn't know it), the solution that nobody ever even thought of occurs.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Cognitive Dissonance

No comments:
I recently watched the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.

I enjoyed it.

And I have no idea why.

I'm a proponent of the idea that humans largely like things due to personal taste--then rationalize their likes (and dislikes) after the fact. An over-thinker like me can create a rationalization in no time flat.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles leaves me blank. I have wanted to write about the phenomenon on my blog for years now. I was waiting until I understood my interest. I still don't. So I'm writing about it anyway.

Why do I (and others) like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I was a teen when the Turtles hit the big time. I vaguely remember the animated series. I saw the completely ridiculous live-action 1990 movie more than once. I even had a favorite turtle (and still do): Leonardo.

But turtles? I mean TURTLES? I don't even like reptiles. (They're not exactly cuddly--and since Splinter would chew off someone's arm to save his sons, the rat is out too.)

Possibilities: Maybe it's an evolutionary psychology thing--I'm hearkening back to some atavistic memory of evolving from a fishy thing.

Or maybe it's the whole animals-talking attraction thing, but I'm not typically a fan of animal heroes (I never got into Brian Jacques' Redwall series, for example). In general, I prefer humans. (It would be interesting to have a movie where the turtles temporarily become human, just to see who would be cast as whom.)

Another possibility: in the 2014 movie, the turtles are HUGE, making them comparable to the Hulk, (except they talk more). And the Hulk is cool, so that could be one explanation. Yet I enjoyed the 2007 animated film where they are more svelte and lithe. So, now that explanation is out too.

If I had to explain all this to aliens--Humans enjoy this show because...

I would give up.

But I will continue to ponder--and maybe the answer will come to me. For now, this post will have to do.

Everybody Needs a Spike: Thoughts on Supernatural

Mark Sheppard as Crowley
Both Whedon's Buffy and Kripke's Supernatural tackle theological themes. Buffy provides demons, vampires with souls, and the Powers-that-Be. Supernatural--with slightly less depth but a whole lot more complexity--supplies demons, self-serving angels, confused angels, and a writer who may or may not be God.

Both also provide a self-serving and sarcastic bad guy who helps the good guys while helping himself.

James Marsters as Spike
In Buffy, this guy is Spike (played by James Marsters).

In Supernatural, this guy is Crowley (played by Mark Sheppard).

They both deliver their clever lines in crisp British accents--acquired by Marsters; the real thing for Sheppard.

Both characters are impressively at home in the real world:
Buffy: What do you want?
Spike: I told you. I want to stop Angel. I want to save the world.
Buffy: Okay, you do remember that you're a vampire, right?
Spike: We like to talk big, vampires do. "I'm going to destroy the world." It's just tough guy talk. Struttin' around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You've got... dog racing, Manchester United . . 
 Crowley is Spike's brother under the skin.

It raises the question: Why are these guys so necessary to theologically-themed fantasy? Supernatural went through several ambiguous bad guys (Gordon Walker, Ruby, Bela) before settling on Crowley as a long-term player. Crowley's appeal was so readily apparent, reasoning backwards from Crowley can help explain Spike.

Three reasons why Crowley is necessary to Supernatural

(1) Crowley (like Spike) wants something.

The brothers want things, but their things--like Buffy's things--involve the future: I want my brother to survive. (I want to be a normal girl.)

Don't get me wrong: these are great things to wish for, and they help to ground the characters. But such things--accompanied as they are by highly emotional states of mind--make the characters extremely vulnerable and serious.

The angels--and Angelus--also want futuristic things though their futuristic things are far grander: cosmic show-downs, the end of the world, etc. etc. 

Crowley (and Spike) want things in the here and now: fish 'n' chips, big house, big dog.

Characters who want specific things in the here and now lend themselves much better to episodic writing than characters who want futuristic things. And if too many of the latter type want grand futuristic things, the episodes sadly run to (bad) ground on the ridiculous sandbank of big-bad-conspiracy-theories.

Crowley (and Spike) keep things real.

(2) Crowley (like Spike) is irreverent. 

Theological shows need irreverence because they need to be able to discuss doubt and faith without becoming too dogmatic. Despairing angst is no better than Touched by an Angel.

Crowley's irreverence is quite distinct from Dean's (as is Spike's from Buffy's). Dean is a believer who doesn't want to believe because he doesn't want to doubt. In many ways, the internal arc of Supernatural belongs to him while the external arc belongs to Sam (since Sam is ostensibly more intellectual and insightful than Dean, this may seem contradictory but actually it makes a great deal of sense).

A character who can be disillusioned is not a character for whom irreverence is a comfortable state of mind. Dean's irreverence (which can be quite amusing) is tied directly to his weary calls for aid. He is Job-- overwhelmed by catastrophe and his inability to fix his family's lives--demanding that God intervene. He is Dylan Thomas's father "raging against the dying of the light."

One of Dean's favorite memories: when he was able to "fix"
his brother's problems.
All the above makes Dean a great character! But the irreverent Crowley (or Spike) is necessary to restore balance. Rage all you want--you still gotta buy gas. What can it hurt to call for aid? It doesn't change what's going to happen to you anyway. And by the way, you need more chips.

While Sam and Dean are (enchantingly) willing to throw themselves in the fire for each other, Crowley (and Spike) are looking around for an actual match--or a fire extinguisher: Kind of depends on the day. 

(3) Crowley (like early Spike) is an outlier.

From a writing point of view, the outlier is a necessary character. The outlier--like the omniscient narrator--can step outside the action and explain what is going on.

Dean: Is this a fight? Are we in a fight?
Castiel: [Hugging] is... their handshake.
Dean: I don't like it.
Castiel: No one likes it.
Regular characters must be committed to their narrative arcs. This is one reason that Castiel, however amusing at times, is NOT the outlier. He is committed to the narrative arc of questioning his faith. Castiel does provide a nice foil to everyone (including Crowley). But he has chosen a side.

Chuck--despite his outlier tendencies--also has a side. Only Crowley (and Buffy Spike) don't.

In mystery shows, the outlier is the audience or occasionally the newest member of the team--or Watson. It is to the outlier that characters deliver long-winded explanations about how DNA works, the ins and outs of game theory, and the exculpatory nature of tainted evidence.

Fantasy suffers from the same need for definitions: who is that guy? why did he show up again? The audience needs to know the information but is less willing to be educated in the same way as mystery audiences. After all, if you were a real fan and watched the show every week, you'd know already! Since the audience is less willing to BE the outlier, the outlier must be a character--but not one of the main characters (see above).

Not only does the fantasy outlier get told stuff (both Spike and Crowley operate as "new" members, who occasionally need to be caught up), the fantasy outlier also possesses the ability to deliver information in tidy ways that don't appear explanatory (even though they are).

Crowley explains that Bobby can now stand:
Crowley: Bobby, you just gonna sit there?
Bobby Singer: No, I'm gonna Riverdance.
Crowley: I suppose if you want to impress the ladies. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby. Really wasted that crossroads deal. In fact, you get more if you phrase it properly. So, I took the liberty of adding a teeny sub-a clause on your behalf. What can I say? I'm an altruist. Just gonna sit there?
Spike explains that the scoobies need to fight the Native American demon, no matter how politically incorrect:
Spike: Oh, someone put a stake in me.
Xander: You got a lot of volunteers in here.
Spike: I just can't take all this mamby-pamby boo-hooing about the bloody Indians.
Willow: Uh, the preferred term is...
Spike: You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not goin' around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world is not people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story.
Buffy: Well, I think the Spaniards actually did a lot of - Not that I don't like Spaniards.
Spike: Listen to you. How you gonna fight anyone with that attitude?
Willow: We don't wanna fight anyone.
Buffy: I just wanna have Thanksgiving.
Spike: Yeah . . . Good luck.
Willow: Well, if we could talk to him . . .
Spike: You exterminated his race. What could you possibly say that would make him feel better? It's kill or be killed here. Take your bloody pick.
Xander: Maybe it's the syphilis talking, but, some of that made sense.