Friday, December 20, 2013

What I've Been Reading (Holiday 2013)

Movies have always loved adapting their storylines from novels and books.  It goes all the way back to the beginning, when many of the most classic films of all time were based on the written word:  "The Wizard of Oz", "The Shining", "Frankenstein", "The Godfather", even the first giant monster movie ever, "The Lost World", came out of the mind of a novelist, Arthur Conan Doyle.  2013's slant of "The Hobbit", "World War Z", "Ender's Game", and the dozens of teen fantasy stories that came out this year are nothing new.  In the coming years we'll see dozens more adaptations, and more recreations will occur after that, forever, as long as movies are movie.   However one question I've never had adequately answered for me is:   when you see a movie adapted for a book, is it better to have read the novel beforehand? 

The very last post I wrote here was on the second part of the Peter Jackson "Hobbit" trilogy.  And rather shallowly on my part, a great deal of my criticism were its deviation from the open spirits and accessibility of the book.  The original "Hobbit" has this great sing-song quality to every line, its the kind of prose you really need to read out loud in order to appreciate, preferably to a very small child with a sense of wonder in their eye.  The movie is this massive unwieldy slab of drama and plotlines, with so much going on, it really misses the entire spirit of Tolkien.  But maybe I just couldn't appreciate what Peter Jackson was doing because I wanted it to be that original book?  Maybe I would have given "World War Z" a slowing recommendation if I hadn't cared that we were missing the satire and cleverness of Max Brooks - and the blind samurai chopping zombies heads off with a katana.

Then there's movies I've loved, which were based on books I've never read, and might never get around to reading.  I was ten when "The Lord of the Rings" movies came out, and I certainly didn't care that Tom Bombadil was missing.  I've never read "Coraline", but the movie is one of my favorites of all time.  On the other hand, I have no idea how "The Host" managed to link up with Stephenie Meyer's own vision, and its was one of the worst movies of 2013.  I would say, its probably best in the end to see the movie first, then read the book.  Not because of that hopelessly broad generalization that the book is always better (see and read: "Fight Club"), but because film is, in many ways, a less personal medium than a full hundred page novel.  The more familiar you are with the intricacies of the material, such as my comprehensive knowledge of Middle Earth history**, the less likely you are to enjoy a piece that simply gets its feet wet with that universe, rather than drown itself in the lore.  A movie is something you get to enjoy for a few hours, and its over.  A book is a part of your life for days, if not weeks, something you carry with you and fall into over and over again, then return to reality after a nice long stretch.  A movie is a date, a book is a relationship.  So here are three one-night-stands I decided to go back to and turn into long term romances.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin

And immediately my sex metaphor falls apart, because each volume of the Earthsea Trilogy "A Wizard of Earthsea", "The Tombs of Atuan", and "The Farthest Shore", are barely two hundred pages long, meaning that it will take you roughly the same amount of time to read through each one it takes for you to watch the 2010 animated film, "Tales From Earthsea", directed by Goro Miyazaki.  "Tales From Earthsea" was an extremely divisive Studio Ghibli release, often listed as one of their weakest, if their weakest film ever**, but I loved, because I'm stubborn and annoying.  The film didn't really bother to make much sense, doing a very muddled job of adapting the last novel in the trilogy, "The Farthest Shore", while mixing in other elements from other stories.  But I felt the tone was strong, the animation was gorgeous, and frankly, I don't care if plots don't really hold up to scrutiny, as long as movie making is beautiful.  However, now that I've read Le Guin (who generally hated the movie), how does it hold up?

Le Guin's fantasy universe is pretty self-explanatory, it takes place in a huge tropical archipelago made up of isolated islands separated by vast oceans.  At the time of writing "A Wizard of Earthsea", Le Guin was actually being innovative by making the star, the wizard Ged, the star.  Ged was not a bearded old man in a shabby robe, but a youthful hero leading his own adventure.  Its also the first fantasy series I know of to star dark-skinned characters - Le Guin is very insistent that Ged is Black, which is one reason that Goro Miayzaki's adaptation disappointed her, among many.  Wizards in Earthsea are mighty figures, with powers ranging from transforming into dragons, to merely being able to use spells to keep away poor weather and navigate the sea.  The main logic behind magic is the use of a special secret magical art, based upon the "true names" of people, places, and things.  All people have their public names, and inner private names that they reveal only to their closest companions.  Ged goes by the title of "Sparrowhawk" in public, for example.  Magic is also very regional, a spell might work in one place, but will fail in another.  So its a very rich, well-thought-out universe with a great sense of culture.

My personal favorite of the novels is "A Wizard of Earthsea", which details Ged's upbringing, journey to become a wizard, and eventually his great battle against a dark shade of himself that he accidentally unleashed using forbidden magic.  There's a great deal of action sequences, such as Ged battling a dragon, but its mostly a very deliberately paced and contemplative novel, which still moves steadily throughout its couple of hundred pages.  I would love to see an adaptation of this book some day - its length, is again, almost exactly feature length, so you could almost adapt this scene for scene.  The latter two novels are also extremely well-done, bringing in younger characters for Ged to guide, and new stories for him to take part in.  Le Guin has actually since continued her Earthsea universe beyond the three novels, and at the old age of eighty-four, is still writing fantasy and science fiction novels.  So if your grandma ever complains that she need help cleaning out her garage, tell her that Ursula K. Le Guin is still working, so grandma, get off your fat ass and do some cleaning, dammit.

As for the Studio Ghibli movie, I can't say my opinion has much changed having read the novels.  I can finally see how mangled the story was, but I think Goro Miyazaki's additions did not weaken the story.  The preregister girl Tenar is all but forgotten in "The Farthest Shore" when she was the star of "The Tombs of Atuan" - Goro now gives her place in the storyline.  More importantly, I think he generally got the tone right for the mystical universe that makes Earthsea such a compelling place to read about.  He might have gotten the details wrong, but I think he captured the spirit well.

Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O'Malley***

"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" was my favorite movie of 2010, so we're really jumping into major confrontation territory here.  Edgar Wright's movie is genius, so if the source material disappoints, then you know I'm going to get seriously angry.

Turns out, the movie "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" is probably best viewed as a gateway drug to this series of six graphic novels, which may be the best things ever written.  As a twenty-something recent college graduate mostly floating through life aimlessly, there aren't many movies or books written to my perspective.  If I were a twelve year old girl wishing for a magical boy to sweep me off my feet and carry me away from my dull life, I would give myself arthritis thanks to all the fapping material the world supplies.  If I were a sad middle aged man wondering if this is all life has to offer and if its not too late to start over, then I would be well-supplied with sad literature and movies.  But I'm not, I'm a lost adolescent pretending to be authoritative on the Internet, complete with a humanities degree that's best used as toilet paper.  In this recession, I'm part of an underclass of the betrayed and disappointed, children who went to college and came out, discovering, oh no, we really don't have a place for you, after all.  So what do you do then?  Get drunk, hang out with friends, and play video games, that's what.  What else is there to do?

The movie itself is mostly a highly condensed but generally flawless distillation of the original six comic books, each of which are fairly lengthy mini-novels in of themselves.  Pretty much every line and gag from the film is borrowed straight from O'Malley's text, particularly the first couple of books.  The storyline does not deviate in any particularly massive ways, its greatly simplified, and much of Scott Pilgrim's journey in slacker Toronto is sped up so that a novel that originally lasts over a year or so, is now down to... what, a week?  Two?  That's something of a necessity when you're making a film, you have to make it shorter, so there's definitely something that's been lost.  A lot of the introspection and development of the Scott Pilgrim character and his friends is missed out on, and I think the tone of the movie is more straight comedy, which is somewhat inferior.

And of course, if I'm going to choose between live action and animesque cartoons, I'm going to choose the animesque cartoons.  Michael Cera was fine in the movie, but I can't say he was a perfect choice for the lead role, I read the comic Scott Pilgrim as less of a mumblecore wanna-be and more... me, I guess.  Edgar Wright's casting was otherwise a thing of absolute perfection.  Come on, Brandon Routh, is Todd Ingram.  And he's the true modern Superman.  You don't make casting decisions this fabulous every day.  But really, I just love cartoons more than I really should.  Maybe that too is part of the tone, the refusal to grow up mood, where everything is still bright and simple to Scott's viewpoint, even when it should be detailed, complex, and very far from black and white.

"Scott Pilgrim" is currently in re-release in color, so pick that up as they come out.

Watchmen by Alan Moore

Yeah, two graphic novels, sue me.  I know they obviously have half the literary merit of a purely text novel, because illustrations are for children and the feeble, and we, the book-reading populace must feel superior to all others at all times, but it just so happened that two of my three books were novels.  It was either this or read one of the dozens of "Twilight" books.

"Watchmen", the 2009 Zack Snyder film, was actually the very first thing reviewed on this blog.  And goddamn do those early reviews embarrass me, much like in four years, I'm sure this post will equally embarrass Future Space Blue Highwind, Hegemon of Olympus Mons.  I did not like the "Watchmen" film when I first saw it in high school, I was more positive towards it when I watched it again in college, and now in my post-graduate career of massive success and fame and fortune, I think I finally can appreciate "Watchmen".  Well... maybe not the movie, I still don't care for Zack Snyder, who is a filmmaker entirely without a vision beyond idiotic special effects and tropes, but the book is amazing.  Alan Moore's "Watchmen" is widely regarded as the greatest comic book of all time by people how have not yet read "Calvin and Hobbes".  It set a new standard for how super heroes are understood in popular culture, going from merely children's stories to true mythology and deeper issues.  Of course, typically modern superheroes use the mythology to appease fanwankers and the deeper issues are ignored to have Batman once again punch the Joker's teeth out, but at least "Watchmen" got the idea right.

"Watchmen" is the archetypical deconstruction.  If you look up the word 'deconstruction' in the dictionary, you will find there is no illustration, because its an abstract concept and its nearly impossible to illustrate it.  However, I would put a little gif image showing the Justice League morph into the Watchmen, Alan Moore's cast of superheroes.  Moore is his novel creates an entire long-standing mythology, along with some fantastic essays written by in-universe characters, telling of a superhero culture, and how it would deviate from our own.  In many ways, the story Alan Moore writes is a parable for the entire history of superheroes, starting with the simple morality of the Golden Age heroes, and moving slowly into weirder powers and characters like Dr. Manhattan, the Silver Age, and then finally, darker antiheroes and questionable tortured creatures, which represented America's own conflicts at the time, and anticipated the antihero craze of the late Eighties and early Nineties.  There's a great deal of depth in this version which is simply lacking in the Snyder film, which just throws its historical differences forward as shock value.  The other issue is violence.  The graphic novel is bloody at times, but I never really felt like the violence was much more than a storytelling event, just something that happens.  In Zack Snyder's film, he worships the violence, and the sex, and... I'm pretty sure "Watchmen: The Movie" has the worst sex scene ever put to non-pornographic film.

Both the movie and the comic follow exactly the same plotline, this is the most faithful adaptation by far, practically scene for scene.  The two places Snyder deviates is by removing a very violent and gritty comic-within-a-comic about pirates (whose purpose I'm still not sure of, but it is a very powerful story), and by slightly changing the climax, removing a giant psychic alien monster.  Why exactly a movie with Richard Nixon as dictator, a giant naked blue God, a super villain base in Antarctica, and a midget getting flushed down the toilet thought the giant alien was going too far, I don't know.  It ultimately makes no difference to the story, though fanboys certainly whined endlessly about that one change.

I still am somewhat mixed on the ending to "Watchmen", since the villain definitely wins, and it seems like peace has been created by a very terrible crime, which is far too convenient and seems to argue that the ends justify the means.  (Ask the Ghost of Robespierre, see what he has to say on the subject.)  And this is where I've always had so much trouble with "Watchmen", as a high schooler it was an argument I disagreed with, and thus difficult to understand.  I think now I'm mature enough to see that the ending is purposefully vague, and is hopefully leading to the truth coming out.  Either way, "Watchmen" is a fantastic graphic novel, which despite brilliant faithfulness by its director, is best experienced as a book.  I can see the place where "Tales from Earthsea" or "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" have on this planet, but "Watchmen" as a book is just so much richer and more powerful than the movie.

* I just realized the other day when I started complaining about Azog the Defiler and his son Bolg that I really am not a good representation of the general audience of "The Hobbit".  I didn't really like "The Lord of the Rings" book, but I did love the appendix at the end that gave a very detailed summary of the entire history of the legendarium, such as Morgoth, The Fall of Numenor, the Witch-King of Arnor, and other trivialities that will probably bore most people.  And I don't even really think of myself as a Tolkien fan, yet for some reason I know all of this.  What is the matter with me?

** Does anybody else remember "The Borrower Arriety"?  Didn't think so.

*** "Lee O'Malley" is apparently the first real-life Scotch Korean, based on nothing but his last name.


  1. Looking at Tales of Earthsea, I am thinking of giving it a chance be it either the animated movie or the book series, I need a new book series to read right now.

    Also hooray, you finally got around to reading the Scott pilgrim series. Since you read it in 2010 I have been waiting for you to experience these great graphic novels. While I love the movie, for me the graphic novels just seem to have more to offer and I am glad you got to read them.

    By the way , since you liked these books may I suggest his first graphic novel "Lost at Sea".
    I will admit it is extremely different then scott pilgrim. Its about a teenage Canadian girl on a road trip back from California to Toronto with some of her classmates any the experiances they have. Also she has no soul. I will leave it at that. It is a well written story about growing up and I think you'd enjoy it.

    Sword Of Primus

    P.S Never forgive the World War Z for how they insulted the books name. Any one could have written a better adaptation of that movie that train wreck. We were denied a civil war style firing circle shooting zombies with Iron Maiden blaring in the background.
    That can never be forgiven.

    1. The movie was ok (though a little stupid), but yeah, the fact they used the "WW Z" brand really pissed me off. The only thing they took from the book was the name and the plan Israel came up with, and they even messed up that. I hope someone someday comes up with an adaptation that actually does honor to the book, probably as a mini-series or an anime.

  2. I'm a big fan of studio Ghibli but I still haven't seen their "Earthsea" film, the main reason being its bad reviews. I had no idea that it was originally a book trilogy (though most movies are originally a book). I might give them a try, thanks for bringing it to my attention.
    I still remember "The Borrower Arriety", I watched it after you posted about it in your blog a while ago.

  3. I've got some real mixed feelings about Scott Pilgrim. so far, I'm 5 volumes through it, and its fun, its spunky..a little nerdy. But i think Scott, our “hero”, is the stories biggest problem. SO he's awkward, and he loves video games. in case you couldn’t figure that out. Most of his spare time seems to be spent playing Nintendo, but on the side Scott is also a martial artist, a grunge rocker, a stud, a chick magnet, AND a psychic. Just your average hard core gamer!
    I like the other characters in scott pilgrim, they're funny, and likable, but insecure, and unsure at times. just like all of us. Not Scott though. he’s a super hero Y’all!!

    I tend to think what really happened is Scott stalked all of Ramona's exes, but since HE seems to be narrating this story, we'll never know what really happened or, DIDN'T.

    Scott Pilgrim needs more honesty. how about tell it like this:

    ~Ramona is not as hot as she acts. she’s actually a clingy loser under it all, and she has HPV too, but nobody knows it.
    ~Scott it turns out is a serious pathological liar. period.
    ~Knives parents are divorced.(fuck that strict asian dad crap) her dad doesn’t even know she exists. and behind all that girly innocence shes a bitch.
    ~Wallace is an alcoholic.