Thursday 28 July 2011

Specials, Scott Westerfeld

Sorry for the sparsity of book reviews at the blog recently. After the thrill of getting really immersed into the Harry Potter world once more, reading one book after another, I've taken my reading a bit slower than usual, as well as reading many books at once - and subsequently taking longer to finish any one.

If you come to Specials after reading the prequel books, Uglies and Pretties, you'll probably have a good idea of the patterns the story takes. It starts off, some time after Tally Youngblood and her friend Shay have had yet more operations to make them "Special:" Employed as government agents and set to crushing the rebellions among the ordinary Pretty folk, Tally and Shay have had their faces redesigned to intimidate the "bubbleheaded" pretties, senses finely-tuned to track and outsmart miscreants, and radio antennae implanted into their skin so they can communicate from afar. Their minds are made coldly logical, and their personalities rewritten once more to incorporate a large dose of arrogance. As far as Tally's concerned, this is the way things are supposed to be, until a reminder from her past sets her questioning her world once more.

Like Pretties, it is frustrating to read Tally's thought processes from the outside - when you know how she is brainwashed and manipulated into working for a crazy totalitatian government. With her new personality traits, I found myself actually disliking Tally this time around - even though I knew this wasn't really her. But the story begs the question: when her mind has been so meddled with, what is her real personality? Is it how she used to be, or what she seems to be now? It was interesting to see the dystopian world from other side; the point of view of those who not only support but enforce it, so that everyone can live in peace and order, and that individuality and personal freedom are a small price to pay for such a world.

Westerfeld also raises the questions of what it is to be human. What started off as a little bit of meddling - cosmetic surgery to make everyone look a certain standard of "pretty" - requires more and more meddling to keep under control. "Pretties" need brain surgery to prevent them thinking too hard about the ethics of the process, and then there need to be Special Circumstance agents to keep control, who need to be rewired in another way. As a Special, Tally finds herself repulsed by her former boyfriend Zane, because although he is "pretty," he is just the same as everyone else. All are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Despite the ethical questions, I found myself skimming through chunks of Specials, losing interest as the story seemed to repeat the same patterns as the first two volumes, saturated with technobabble I couldn't really visualise. It picked up towards the end, when Tally reached the "New Smoke," the city of Diego, where she finds that her very existence is questioned in its legality, and is faced with the dilemma of how to proceed in the upcoming war between Dr Cable's neatly-ordered Pretty city, and the New Smoke. I was surprised by the ending, and impressed that Westerfeld did not go for the easy or obvious ending, but I am in no great hurry to read the companion novel Extras. All in all, I think the Uglies story had potential, but that it was dragged out too long.

Monday 25 July 2011

Movie Monday: Robin Hood on Big and Small Screen

There are some stories that don’t wear out, and the Robin Hood legend is possibly one of the most popular. Today I’m going to share my thoughts on just a few of the screen adaptations: good, bad and ugly.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (1991)

prince of thieves

My goodness, this film is cheesy! Was it supposed to be, I wonder? There seems to be a strange balance between an epic score, a rather melodramatic script being acted by some actors who seem to take their roles very seriously, alongside BRIAN BLESSED (albeit in a tiny role) and Alan Rickman hamming it up as the deliciously evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
And let’s not even get started on the accents. (I’ll leave that job up to Mel Brooks and Cary Elwes, see below.) I’m not quite sure of its reception when it first came out, and I’m sure the first time I saw it, when I was a kid of about 11, I found it pretty grim viewing. I don’t even remember watching very far into it, put off by the horrors of the prisons where the story begins. If I’d seen a bit more of Rickman, perhaps I’d have changed my mind somewhat; he is an absolute joy to watch. The film as a whole is all good fun, using some of the best-known traditions of the legend, and helping to cement newer plot additions into the Robin Hood canon, but somehow it seems as though this film isn’t quite sure whether it wants to be adventurous and gritty, or tongue-in-cheek. Maybe it was always a little confused, maybe it hasn’t aged very gracefully, or perhaps I’ve been ruined forever by watching the hilarious Mel Brooks parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights, which just highlighted all that was ridiculous about Prince of Thieves.

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993)

men in tights
“Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent!”
If Prince of Thieves is a little confused about what genre it is, Men in Tights has no such troubles. A slapstickish comedy full of bad puns, deliberate anachronisms and the complete destruction of the Fourth Wall, somehow Men in Tights is closer to what I think of as the “real” Robin Hood story than the film it is most directly taking the mickey out of. Cary Elwes – “Westley” from the cult classic film The Princess Bride – smirks his way through scenes very reminiscent of Prince of Thieves, with Robin’s escape from prison in Jerusalem (swimming home to the tune of “Row, row, row your boat, kissing the sand, and promptly spitting it out again!) and his tragic homecoming.
Robin Hood: Blinkin, listen to me. They've taken the castle!
Blinkin: I thought it felt a bit drafty. Cor, this never would have happened if your father was alive.
Robin Hood: He's dead?
Blinkin: Yes.
Robin Hood: And my mother?
Blinkin: She died of pneumonia while... oh, you were away...
Robin Hood: My brothers?
Blinkin: There were all killed by the plague.
Robin Hood: My dog, Pongo?
Blinkin: Run over by a carriage.
Robin Hood: My goldfish, Goldie?
Blinkin: Eaten by the cat.
Robin Hood: My cat?
Blinkin: Choked on the goldfish.
Blinkin: Oh, it's good to be home, ain't it, Master Robin?
Then, of course there is the ghastly concoction brewed up by the hideous Latrine, while she tells Prince John all she knows about Robin of Locksley. (“You want certain, hire yourself a witch! I’m just your cook.”) This whole film ensures that I can no longer take Prince of Thieves seriously at all, though there are moments taken from other versions of the tale, such as the trap to catch Robin by luring him to an archery tournament, Prince John’s presence, and of course the green tights.

Robin Hood: BBC TV series (2006-2009)

BBC ONE AUTUMN SEASON LAUNCH IMAGES STRICTLY EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION NOT BEFORE 00:01 HRS WEDNESDAY 19TH JULY 2006 Picture shows: JONAS ARMSTRONG as Robin Hood  TX: TBC  Fun, modern and intelligent, Robin Hood sets out to entertain a whole new generation and stars newcomer Jonas Armstrong in the lead role.  WARNING: Use of this image is subject to Terms of Use of Digital Picture Service.  In particular, this image may only be used during the publicity period for the purpose of publicising ROBIN HOOD and provided TIGER ASPECT is credited.  Any use of this image on the internet or for any other purpose whatsoever, including advertising and other commercial uses, requires the prior written approval of TIGER ASPECT.

After the first few episodes of what has become known as “Robin Hoodie” due to its costume choice, I wrote this review:
All right, there is no way that this series can be taken seriously, but it is enjoyable enough to allow me to suspend my disbelief. The cheese factor is bearable, though I could not believe the cheek of some of the lines: "I am your father;" "I shot the sheriff..." "No, you shot the deputy" to name just a couple. Minghella et al have plagiarised shamelessly, but in a tongue-in-cheek way. However, it is left to the supporting characters to give the programme the charisma it needs: what is with Robin Hood being reincarnated as an emo pacifist? Sam Troughton as Much is adorable and grows as a character through the series. Keith Allen hams it up as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and let's not forget Richard Armitage as the brooding villain with a bit of a heart. Marion is gorgeous and manages to avoid the stereotypes that are a danger for females in adventure stories: she is neither a doormat who spends her time working on her embroidery, nor a man's character in a dress, but a strong, feminine woman trapped in a seemingly impossible situation.
I look forward to series two, but I hope for some more bow action and less sulking from Robin next time around.
Perhaps it was Isle of Wight loyalty – the man behind this reinvention of the Robin Hood legend was the brother of the late Anthony Minghella. Looking back now, I feel I was too generous – especially after the plot developments of seasons two and three. There is something wrong when you’re secretly hoping that Guy of Gisbourne will polish off Robin Hood in any confrontation! And this is the version where the writers decided it was a good idea to kill off Maid Marian and introduce their own potential love interest character in her place. It wasn’t a good idea, and by all accounts Maid Marian’s replacement was what fanfiction writers dismiss as a “Mary Sue.” I say “by all accounts” because after series one I only dipped in and out of this series. Even in the first season, most of my enjoyment of this programme came from shouting abuse at the TV screen at either the corny scripts or the actions of our designated heroes, such as Robin failing to follow through on his threats, and generally wimping about.

Robin Hood – 2010 film


Despite, or perhaps because of, my love for the Robin Hood legend, I never went to see the latest film in the cinemas, from Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe. By all accounts it was a “darker, grittier” retelling of the legend, and the fact that these two were the pairing for Gladiator, which I disliked, made me suspicious. But was it darker? Well, yes, the light was poor in the opening scene, and there’s a fair bit of blood. But I was hasty to judge.

Over the past century, the Robin Hood tale has evolved, each filmmaker adding new elements to the legend, which the next assumes has always been there, and so the story has mutated. Of course, this has always been the case – the tale has been changing since the early ballads, the old folk plays, literature – Ivanhoe – then later film and television. Ridley Scott has taken the story back a bit, so that the basic plot points remain recognisable, but the details are different.

Lady Marion is older and more worldly than usual,  no longer “Maid,” but widow of Sir Robert Locksley – who is not Robin Hood. The man we know by that name is a humble archer who, for tax reasons, has taken on the identity of Locksley. This version takes place at the very end of King Richard Coeur de Lion’s life – he dies early on – and the wicked Prince John of legend is now the wicked King John by rights. This story is set against the backdrop of treachery and the threat of invasion from France, and turns into a war film, concluding with Robin Hood being declared outlaw – which is where most stories pick up.

But despite the differences, I thought that this film had a greater Robin Hood feel to it than some of the aforementioned, with a good historical setting – though I am quite sure many liberties have been taken with accuracy. And if Russell Crowe’s accent takes a bit of a wander around the British Isles and beyond, at least he tries, bless him. *ahemKevinCostnerahem*

Robin Hood (Disney) – 1973

disney robin hoos

I suspect that a lot of what I’ve referred to throughout this post as the “familiar” Robin Hood story comes from the Disney classic, which stars a strange mixture of anthropomorphic animals with a strange mixture of accents. Historically, geographically or realistically accurate, this is not – talking animals aside. But no matter. It’s a kids’ version, an introduction to the old tales whose only purpose is to tell a good story. And, after all, we are told right from the start that this is the animals’ version of the legends of old, not the British version, or even the human version. So I have no problem accepting a wolf who plays the kind of Sheriff you’d find in an old Western, rather than in medieval Naadinghayem – sorry, Nottingham, or a Friar Tuck who I didn’t even realise was supposed to be a badger, even though it says so in the credits. It doesn’t matter. It’s all good fun, though things take a sombre turn and I confess the song, “Not in Nottingham,” which is sung when our heroes are at their lowest point, still makes me feel a little choked up.

Other notable adaptations include:

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, Errol Flynn)
Robin of Sherwood (ITV, 1984-86)
Maid Marion and her Merry Men (BBC, 1989-1994, Tony Robinson)

Friday 22 July 2011

50 Greatest Harry Potter moments.

Next week, ITV1 will be showing a compilation of the top 50 moments from the Harry Potter films. This got me wondering about what my top 50 moments were, in both film and book. Contains plot details of the whole series.

50. The Sorting Hat. (Philosopher's Stone)
49. The Time-turner. "If all goes well, you will be able to save more than one innocent life tonight." (Prisoner of Azkaban)
48. "This is what Dumbledore sends his defender. A songbird and an old hat!" A hat containing the sword of Gryffindor, which will only present itself to the most loyal Gryffindors. And the phoenix, whose tears heal any wound. Just what Harry needed. (Chamber of Secrets)
47. Hermione the rebel. "I don't know what's got into you lately!" said Ron, astounded. "First you hit Malfoy, then you walk out on Professor Trelawney - " Hermione looked rather flattered. (Prisoner of Azkaban,)
46. Professor McGonagall: "I always wanted to use that spell!" (Deathly Hallows, Part 2 - film.)
45. Ron: "Why couldn't it have been 'follow the butterflies?'" (Chamber of Secrets, film)
44. The Weasley Twins' attempt at fooling the age line around the Goblet of Fire - and the consequences. (Goblet of Fire)

43. Neville Longbottom.  Dumbledore: "It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends." (Philosopher's Stone)
42. The flying Ford Anglia. (Chamber of Secrets)

41. Quirrell's true allegiance. After spending the first book thinking that Professor Snape hates Harry - true - and is trying to kill him - false - we discover that ineffectual, timid Professor Quirrell is not only after Harry, not only trying to bring Lord Voldemort back - but Voldemort is living on the back of his head! And Snape is trying to protect Harry. The first, but by no means the last of such twists in this series. (Philosopher's Stone)
40. The Triwizard Tournament. All of it. (Goblet of Fire.)
39. Tonks loves Lupin! Dumbledore's dead, Bill Weasley badly wounded, but his wife-to-be Fleur is sticking by him. I turned the page - and all of a sudden, two of my favourite characters are in love with each other! Where did that come from? (It is foreshadowed in the book, but I did not suspect a thing. Lovely couple.) (Half-Blood Prince)
38. Luna Lovegood's Quidditch commentary. (Half-Blood Prince.)
37. Tom Riddle's true identity. Hands up who saw that coming first time around? (Chamber of Secrets)
36. Umbridge vs McGonagall. "You are raving," said Professor McGonagall, superbly disdainful. Don't try to outsmart McGonagall, Dolores. You will lose. (Order of the Phoenix.)
35. The duelling club. It is testament to how irritating Gilderoy Lockhart is, that I found myself cheering on Snape before I ever liked him as a character. (Chamber of Secrets)

34. First sight of Hogwarts. This really is a magical world. If only my school had been like this. (Philosopher's Stone.)
33. Owl post. You can run and hide, Dursleys, but there's no escaping Harry's magical identity. He will be a wizard, like it or not. (Philosopher's Stone.)
32. The Shrieking Shack. Sirius is an animagus! And Lupin is his friend! And Lupin is a werewolf! And Sirius is innocent! And Ron's pet rat is the real villain! Shock after shock, revelation after revelation, and everything you think you know is turned upside-down. (Prisoner of Azkaban)
31. "I don't think you're a waste of space." ("Coming from Dudley that's like "I love you.") (Deathly Hallows.)
30. Harry, Ron and Hermione battle a troll. In the girls' bathroom. Aged eleven. And survive. There are some things you can;t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them. (Philosopher's Stone)

29. Harry's first broomstick ride. Harry stands up to the class bully, disobeying orders and ends up, not expelled as threatened, but the youngest quidditch player for a century. (Philosopher's Stone.)
28. Snape: "Your head is not allowed in Hogsmeade. No part of your body has permission to be in Hogsmeade." (Prisoner of Azkaban)
27.  'I want to fix that in my memory forever,' said Ron, his eyes closed and an uplifted expression on his face. 'Draco Malfoy, the amazing bouncing ferret ...' (Goblet of Fire)

26. That wonderful scene in the Goblet of Fire film, where the kids are talking about Yule Ball partners when they are supposed to be doing homework. Fred's mimed invitation to Angelina is hilarious, but the best part is Snape who, when hitting them with his book proves ineffective, forces their heads forward. It's the twitch of his sleeves that does it for me! (Goblet of Fire, film)
25. The Mirror of Erised, and how it helps Harry outwit Voldemort for the first time. Dumbledore:"It was one of my more brilliant ideas, and between you and me, that's saying something. Only one who wanted to find the Stone - find it, but not use it - would be able to get it, otherwise they'd just see themselves making gold or drinking Elixir of Life. My brain surprises even me sometimes..." (Philosopher's Stone)
24. The Marauder's Map. "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good." Bonus points for insulting Severus Snape. (Prisoner of Azkaban.)

23. Harry under the influence of Felix Felicis, the lucky potion - especially the film. Daniel Radcliffe clearly enjoyed hamming it up in that scene. (Half-Blood Prince)
22. Dobby to the rescue. Though I didn't like Dobby particularly, his rescue of Harry et al from Malfoy Manor is brilliant, and his death scene so sad. (Deathly Hallows)
21. The Seven Potters. Fred and George: "Wow! We're identical!" (Deathly Hallows)
20. Ron and Hermione finally get together. (Deathly Hallows)
19. Snape: "Do you remember me telling you we are practising non-verbal spells, Potter?"
"Yes," said Harry stiffly. 
"Yes sir."
"There's no need to call me 'sir', Professor." (Half-Blood Prince)
18. Molly Weasley vs Bellatrix Lestrange, and I quote: "NOT MY DAUGHTER, YOU BITCH!" (Deathly Hallows.)
17. Dumbledore's Army. Despite the best efforts of Dolores Umbridge, a group of students continue practising Defence against the Dark Arts in secret, right under her nose. (Order of the Phoenix)
16. In the Ministry for Magic, we see just why Albus Dumbledore was the only wizard Voldemort ever feared. (Order of the Phoenix)
15. Ron's return and the destruction of the Slytherin Locket. (Deathly Hallows)

14. Platform 9 3/4. Harry's first introduction to the Weasley family, who promptly adopt him as one of their own. (Philosopher's Stone)
13. The Weasley Twins' exit from Hogwarts. They make sure that Umbridge is left with as much chaos as possible, and the staff and students do all they can to help. Best line comes from McGonagall to Peeves the Poltergeist. "It unscrews the other way." (Order of the Phoenix.)
12. "Look... at... me." Severus Snape was never going to survive the series, but his death scene was a shock, so sudden. It seemed a bit anticlimactic on the first reading, but then, with a bit more information, it all makes sense and is so very sad. An addition to the film makes it more obvious. "You have your mother's eyes." *sniffle, sob* (Deathly Hallows.)
11. Neville Longbottom faces Voldemort, survives and kills the Dark Lord's last horcrux, his snake Nagini. (Deathly Hallows)

10. Escape from Gringotts. On a dragon. (Deathly Hallows.)
9. Expecto Patronum! And then it hit him - he understood - he hadn't seen his father - he had seen himself. (Prisoner of Azkaban.)
8."I am not worried, Harry," said Dumbledore, his voice a little stronger despite the freezing water. "I am with you." Throughout this book, Dumbledore has trusted Harry with more and more, treating him as an equal, until their roles are reversed. This is the moment in which Harry comes of age. (Half-Blood Prince) 
7. "King's Cross." Harry's near-death experience, in which he meets Dumbledore once more, and finally - finally - understands everything. Dumbledore: "Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?" (Deathly Hallows)

6. Priori Incantatem: Lord Voldemort has returned, and he will kill Harry Potter. Harry is just fourteen years old, he knows nothing of duelling. He's toast. But he's not giving in without a fight, and with an expelliarmus - the disarming spell and the only useful spell he knows - the two wands connect. (Goblet of Fire)
5. Dumbledore: "Well - it's just that you seem to be labouring under the delusion that I am going to - what is the phrase? - come quietly. I am afraid I am not going to come quietly at all, Cornelius." And sure enough, he does not. (Order of the Phoenix)
4. "The Prince's Tale." After seven books, eight films of keeping us guessing, finally J. K. Rowling's most complex creation reveals his true character, and it is heartbreaking. Excellently acted by Alan Rickman in the film. (Deathly Hallows)
3. The final confrontation between Harry and Voldemort: in which Harry survives - again - the killing curse, and defeats the most evil wizard of all time with nothing more than his favourite disarming spell. The Elder Wand recognises Harry as its true owner, and he becomes the master of death - not by becoming immortal, but by facing his own mortality and being unafraid. (Deathly Hallows)
2. The Boy Who Lived - because his mother loved him enough to die for him. (Philosopher's Stone - recurring theme)
1. Harry's sacrifice. Harry not only looks death in the face, but walks willingly towards his fate, his companions all those he has loved and lost, giving him the courage to do what must otherwise be impossible. Beautiful, beautiful scene, wonderfully written and perfectly adapted. It will give you the chills. (Deathly Hallows.)

Monday 18 July 2011

Movie Monday: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2

Well, there was only going to be one choice of film for today's Movie Monday review, wasn't there? 

It's been eleven years since I first started reading the Harry Potter series. When Goblet of Fire was first published, I was the same age as Harry at that point in the series, 14 years old. Seems incredible now. With the hype around the books being unprecedented, and then the film adaptations, Harry Potter has played a huge part in the lives of so many people who came of age alongside the boy wizard. After rereading the books in preparation for the final part of the final film, I decided against my usual habits, and allowed myself to be swept up in the general excitement, going to see the midnight premiere among other like-minded nutters, including one dressed as Bellatrix Lestrange, many in wizard's robes and school uniform, and one with a T-shirt bearing the sign of the Deathly Hallows. There was a great buzz of excitement and anticipation, and I hadn't felt as excited about a film since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was released in 2003. 


I think by now that most Harry Potter fans will have read all of the books, but to a casual viewer I would recommend that they remind themselves of the story so far, because Deathly Hallows part 2 does not give much chance to play catch-up, repeating just the final moments of the last half before plunging us back into the story where we left off. Not many franchises could get away with that trick, but Harry Potter makes its own rules. Part 2 doesn't feel like a whole film, but is the second half of a very long one. The break-in at Gringotts Bank would ordinarily be a big, climactic scene but launching into the scene in minutes without any preamble or build-up it felt a bit rushed. Helena Bonham Carter (with Emma Watson's voice) does a great Hermione-disguised-as-Bellatrix, and her attempts at walking in Bellatrix's boots reminded me of myself wobbling on high heels.

We haven't seen Gringotts since the first film, and with its rows of smart, suited goblin clerks, I found myself reminded of Mary Poppins. Warwick Davies, who has always been present in the background as Professor Flitwick, got a moment in the spotlight - albeit under heavy prosthetics - as the goblin Griphook. Griphook was civil, polite and quietly-spoken, which coupled with the black eyes and pointy teeth was more unsettling than any cackling Labyrinth goblins one might be more likely to expect. The ride down to the vaults was a great piece of filming that was obviously designed to make the most of the 3D effects, a bumpy rollercoaster ride that hearkened back to the descriptions of Harry's first trip with Hagrid in Philosopher's Stone. The special effects continued with the replicating gold, and of course the breakout on the dragon which smashed up Gringotts and half of Diagon Alley with it. I did wonder, for a moment, how Harry located the next horcrux so easily under the circumstances, especially as he had never seen it before in the film version.

And then, all of a sudden, Harry, Ron and Hermione were headed back to Hogwarts. Already? I thought. After all the time spent on finding and destroying the locket horcrux, it seemed very sudden, and even in the book it crashes on me quicker than I expect. And we are at the three-quarter mark, with all the best bits still to come.

Back at Hogwarts, it was wonderful to see nearly everyone back from the previous films, even just in the background: Dean and Seamus, Cho, Lav-Lav (I beg her pardon, Lavender Brown) and possible Percy Weasley. But there's no time to get soppy, as the school prepares for battle, two horcruxes still left unfound. The cost of protecting one teenage boy was astounding. Of course, the good guys are fighting for more than just Harry Potter, but the fact that all Voldemort sees as standing between him and absolute power is this one young man, and the lengths he's willing to go to in order to eliminate that one threat - wow! As the battle commences, and Hogwarts turns to chaos, Professor McGonagall takes control and is awesome, raising a few laughs ("Boom!") Someone's gotta do it. It looks like certain death for all, as our heroes muster all the courage they can to face Voldemort and his masses of Death Eaters. Remus Lupin and his wife Tonks (What do we call her now? Tonks-Lupin? Nymphadora?) reach for each other's hands, and the formerly uncrushable comic relief, Fred and George Weasley, can only manage wobbly, watery smiles. Ouch.

Meanwhile, Ron and Hermione have destroyed the next horcrux - and finally kissed! (And everybody says "Awww," "Hooray!" or "At last!") Harry has located another with astonishing ease, with the help of Luna Lovegood and the beautiful ghost of Helena Ravenclaw, before Malfoy and his cronies corner him in the Room of Requirement. I had a bit of a giggle as I saw some of the props stuffed in the Room of Requirement - including a cage of blue pixies from Chamber of Secrets. But the giggles didn't last long. Goyle's (Crabbe in the book) Fiendfyre spell goes wrong, and that's another horcrux down. One more to go - then Voldemort himself! It could be such a victory, but the enormity of everything they've been through hits our central trio and they break down for a moment in a powerful, very believable scene.

There was one part of the story that fans would never have forgiven the filmmakers if they had not done it justice: the chapter called "The Prince's Tale." Thankfully, there is nothing to forgive. The scene is perfect. Alan Rickman, always outstanding as Snape, excels himself in this film and though he is only in a few scenes, is the real star of this movie. His performance as Headmaster of Hogwarts is deliciously sinister, terrifying even when one knows his true allegiances. Even I felt myself wondering briefly whether or not he could be trusted, and I knew the whole story. His death was inevitable; such a great character was never going to survive the series, I think I've always known that. The snake attack was shocking and violent, viewed from behind a blood-smeared window, and then so very, very sad! At least in the film, I got the feeling that Snape was at peace in the end, not struggling against death but facing it with courage - which is one of the main themes of the story. Then, at last, we learn Snape's story, in a heartbreaking montage of scenes from his life, the final thoughts of a dying man twisting and merging together. Key moments from his childhood spliced together with Dumbledore's revelation of his ultimate plan, clips from all the previous films and an additional, devastating scene of Snape being first on the scene of James and Lily's murder. I always found Rickman's Snape to be a much more restrained character than Book-Snape, always cold and calm and contemptuous, unreadable. At the time of Half-Blood Prince, I was disappointed by the lack of the "DON'T - CALL - ME - COWARD!" line, but that complete control throughout the series makes it all the more powerful when now, at last, he bares his soul. Rickman's portrayal of Snape's grief and undying love is perfect, beautiful, heartbreaking. Oh, Severus! 

I have to confess that when the first couple of Harry Potter films came out, I wasn't overly impressed by Daniel Radcliffe's acting, finding him awkward and wooden at times. Well, he was eleven. Not any more. He has improved steadily throughout this series, and his performance as Harry courageously walks through the forest towards his fate is flawless. He conveys just the right mix of shock, courage and determination, fear and acceptance, and the scene is perfect.

I've been using that word a lot, haven't I? I won't say the entire film was perfect, though it was a very satisfying conclusion to the series that has been enchanting children and adults alike for over ten years, and very true to the source material. If I have a complaint, it's that I felt that the filmmakers sometimes skimped on the story to devote more time to epic battle scenes. I would have preferred more of Dumbledore's backstory, and there were a couple of times where plot holes were patched over, where minor plot points were omitted from previous adaptations which would later be needed - Sirius's mirror, and Harry mentioning Lupin's son that non-readers wouldn't have known he had. As I've always said, these films are great companions to the books, but don't always flow seamlessly on their own.

Dumbledore told Harry at "King's Cross" that words are the most powerful kind of magic, which seemed to be a comment on the story itself. J. K. Rowling has certainly proved the power of words with her storytelling.

Back in Hogwarts in the battle, two characters got their moments of glory, and they were well worth the wait. I'm referring, of course, to Molly Weasley and Neville Longbottom. Dear old Neville, who started off as a squishy, inept junior wizard in Philosopher's Stone, has grown over the last few films and turned into a brave, confident hero. I've always had a soft spot for Neville, so it's wonderful to see how his character turns out. I salute you, Longbottom! He also got a lovely warming moment, not from the books but that I'm sure many people wished would happen, the pairing up of our favourite outcasts. I know I approved.

I loved the epilogue, giggling at the appearance of Harry and Ginny, Ron and Hermione, and Draco Malfoy in their mid-thirties. Albus Severus is a very good-looking kiddy who I'm sure will grow up to break many hearts, and the family relationship was lovely. Some of the other children on the train bore a remarkable similarity to Harry and co.'s classmates - I wonder whether that was deliberate.  I broke into a grin watching the Hogwarts Express chugging a new generation off to Hogwarts, a safe Hogwarts which brings us full circle, back to the magical innocence from the beginning of Philosopher's Stone. 

I left the cinema with a warm feeling of contentment and happiness. Although Deathly Hallows Part 2 won't overwrite the movie in my head, I'm very happy for the two to coexist. Congratulations to all of the cast and crew for bringing these beloved books to life. You should be very proud of yourselves.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Mini-Reviews: Forever & Amy and Roger's Epic Detour

Forever - Maggie Stiefvater:

In Shiver, Grace fell in love with a boy with golden eyes, who was a wolf in winter. The book ended with his cure. In Linger, the werewolf virus that had lain dormant in Grace for so many years kicked into life, and we were left staring after her as she shifted and ran off into the night.

Now Grace and her friend Olivia are, for all intents and purposes, missing. Sam, Cole and Isabel know the truth, but who else would believe it? And when Olivia turns up dead, Isabel's father Tom Culpeper makes plans for the extermination of the Mercy Falls wolves. Even when Grace is in her human form, she can't go home, so this book is much more pack-based than its predecessors. I had a sense of the loneliness of living a life that no one else can be told about. Grace can't even let her friends and family know she's alive, and it seems like survival must be impossible. If Tom Culpeper and his cronies killed her while she was in wolf form, her disappearance would never be explained. Sam, Grace and Cole are faced with the near impossible task of moving the wolves out of the woods to a safe place.

This volume is more of a werewolf race-against-time than the love story of the previous two volumes, and I kept turning the pages with a desperation for everything to turn out all right, but a dread of the more likely outcome. Forever is a beautiful end to a simple but exceptional story.

Amy and Roger's Epic Detour - Morgan Matson

I bought this book after having seen a lot of reviews on other people's blogs, and, I confess, because it has a pretty cover. After her father's death, Amy Curry is charged with bringing the family car from California to their new home in Connecticut, but she won't drive any more. Enter Roger, an old family friend, and the pair decide to make a proper road trip of the journey, taking the scenic route.

I found the plot of Amy and Roger to be fairly standard for a real-issues teenage novel. I'd read too many books with the main character dealing with bereavement and family upheaval (Fixing Delilah, The Sky Is Everywhere, Tiger Eyes, Hold Still, The Truth About Forever to name but a few) for this to really stand out as a story. It was the travel that made this book different. I loved reading about the different places Amy and Roger visited: Yosemite National Park, America's Loneliest Highway, Graceland, Utah and there was a scrapbook effect with photos, ticket stubs, receipts and iPod playlists, which added to the feeling of being a passenger in the car. Along the way, Amy and Roger meet up with some lovely supporting characters, who open their homes and hearts to strangers. When Amy visited Graceland, a trip she'd always been meaning to take with her Elvis-mad father, I found myself close to tears and realised this story had drawn me deeper in than I'd previously thought.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay

Although I'd been vaguely aware of the Dexter books and the TV series based upon them, I'd not given them much thought until I saw a memorable Facebook status update from my sister:

Then, when I realised I hadn't brought a book to read in my lunchbreak at work, and had no interest in getting a magazine, I found an abandoned copy of the first book in the lunchroom, and, remembering Jenny's raving about the TV series, thought I'd give it a try.

I was vaguely aware, from what Jenny had told me and the book and DVD blurbs that Dexter Morgan was a forensic blood spatter analysis for the Miami police, a likeable man who happened to be a serial killer in his spare time - but who only kills the bad guys. The really bad guys. I came to the books unaware of any more of Dexter's character than this, and maybe had some idea that he was some sort of vigilante character whose primary objective was to bring villains to justice who had somehow slipped through the net. When I actually opened the book, it became clear that this view was mistaken. Dexter Morgan is primarily driven by the murderous urges and voices he calls "The Dark Passenger," and it is due to his moral code learned from his adopted father Harry that he has put the Dark Passenger to good use. Hey, if you must go around murdering people, you might as well go after the people who really deserve it, no?

It was difficult at first to get into Dexter's head, because he has no emotions - or so he claims - an outsider who observes humans as a species quite apart from himself, whose entire life is a performance to hide his secret, from his relationship with timid, damaged Rita and her children, to the decor of his house. And I wasn't entirely sure that I wanted to get into his head! Gradually, though, I became intrigued by this character, and Darkly Dreaming Dexter is a fascinating insight into the mind of a sociopath with some sort of moral code.

Then, more, I realised I was starting to like this self-confessed monster. His narration reflects his view as an outsider to his own life, facing drastic turns of events with an "ooh, would you look at that?" sort of curiosity and a dry, understated dark humour. What became just a handy distraction in the lunchroom hooked me and made me wonder how Dexter could possibly continue to hide his sinister pastime from his work colleagues including his sister Deborah, who are already starting to worry about how a blood spatter analyst could be such an expert in the serial-killer's psyche. Although I tend to prefer one-off novels to series, I'm alreadythinking, "Bother, only four more to go!" I've been discussing the story with Jenny who is a fan of the TV series, and so far we understand each other, but it seems that from series 2 onwards the books and TV show go their separate ways. Reviews claim that the TV DEXTER is one of the few instances of the adaptation being better than the original material - I shall have to investigate this for myself, I think. Purely for research and comparison, of course. And that way, I've got twice as many Dexter stories to keep my dark side entertained.

Monday 11 July 2011

Movie Monday: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1

Contains spoilers

With the final installment of the Harry Potter film series released this Friday, it is only right that this week's Movie Monday brings us up-to-date with the story so far. I'm not going to recap the story here, as I've written fairly lengthy book reviews already. The film itself makes no allowances for newcomers - it's probably a safe assumption that most viewers know what's going to happen anyway, and that those who don't, have at least watched the films to date. After a brief speech from the Minister for Magic, we are plunged without any further ado into the seventeen-year-old heroes' lives as they prepare to leave their homes and venture out into a terrifying world unprotected. This is the only film to reduce me to a blubbering wreck in the first two minutes, before the title card.

As I said, this film is not very newbie-friendly, reuniting Harry and the audience with a flurry of old faces, some not seen for three or more films (Fleur, Dobby) and other characters are introduced briefly, with little to-do, and you are left to work out for yourself quite where they all fit into the equation (Bill Weasley, Mundungus Fletcher and others.) Still, I was very pleased to be introduced to the eldest Weasley boy, a tertiary character for whom I have quite a fondness, but who could conceivably have been rewritten. When I first heard that Deathly Hallows was to be split into two films, I wondered whether it was strictly necessary, but now I am very grateful for the fact. This is probably the most faithful adaptation since Chamber of Secrets, but is a far superior film, in part because the actors have come a long way, in part because there was enough imagination in the translation process from one medium to another. When reading the book, there were a couple of subplots I hadn't remembered being included in the film, but there was enough to suggest that these have not been forgotten, just probably shuffled into part 2. Just a few more days and I will know.

The previous film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opened with a shot of the Millennium Bridge being destroyed, showing how even the muggle world was affected by the wizards' wars. Deathly Hallows Part 1 shows the continued effect, which I found the more chilling because it was more casual: a headline announcing the murder of a muggle family, the battle between the Order of the Phoenix and the Death Eaters - and Voldemort - taking place over a busy motorway and bringing down power lines,  the burnt-out caravans in the scenery without any mention of what happened.

After about half a film full of fantasy action: a discovery, the infiltration of the Ministry of Magic - but alas, no one answered my plea to assassinate Umbridge after her first giggle -  and a One Ring-like Horcrux spreading  discord between the central trio, more terror comes after a moving scene at Harry's parents' grave, when Harry and Hermione - Ron having temporarily scarpered in a huff - meet what they think is magical historian Bathilda Bagshot. Background music and the preknowledge of what is to come, but not how, build up a creepy suspense, and the gruesome horror is more implied than shown, with the buzzing in the background and a few blood spatters. There is a strange moment when, after the scenes in a gloomy old house, the wall is smashed open to reveal a bright, airy nursery for a moment or two, before returning to darkness. This uncanny, unexpected shot just heighten the chaos and panic of the scene.

 In Chamber of Secrets, when Harry discovers that he can speak the language of the snakes - without realising it! - the filmmakers were left with a dilemma: do they show the scenes as Harry sees them - implying he speaks English and then revealing that wasn't the case at all - or as they really are - alerting the audience to his uncommon skills before Harry himself finds out. They went with the latter option, and I remember thinking "that ruined it!" Somehow, this time - at least on this viewing - I thought they did a better job. It seemed that "Bathilda" was saying something I couldn't quite make out, but somehow it seemed like it wasn't clear why, whether my ears or brain weren't working properly for a moment. But maybe that was just me and just this time.

The Harry Potter actors and filmmakers have come a long way since the twinkly, magical children's film that was Philosopher's Stone, and particular credit goes to the central trio, who must have spent half their lives so far playing these roles. Emma Watson as Hermione deserves a particular mention in this film; it was thanks to her performance that I was reaching for the tissues in the first two minutes.

Oh, and of course Dobby, not seen since Chamber of Secrets, and generally disliked then, Dobby put a smile on my face when he reappeared in all his joy to see Harry Potter, his pride at being A Free Elf and general cheerful, matter-of-fact demeanor in a film so full of darkness and fear. Of course, this makes his final scenes all the more heartrending. I never would have thought nine years ago that I would shed a tear for that irritating house-elf!

I've now bought my ticket for the midnight showing - ten past midnight, if that makes any difference! - of part 2 on Thursday night/ Friday morning, and am itching to see the final part. Reading all of the books in a row recently has left me more caught up in the Pottermania than I otherwise would be, and I am particularly looking forward to seeing Neville and Mrs Weasley's greatest moments, Alan Rickman as Snape - a character sadly missing from most of the previous film - and his backstory, and of course the final showdown(s) between Harry and Voldemort. But I am in no doubt about the fact that tissues will be needed.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling

Pottermania has been abounding in the last couple of weeks with the run-up to the final film in the series, which premiered in London on Thursday. I watched some of the live coverage, and when Alan Rickman turned up, I couldn't help singing, "Snape, Snape, Severus Snape!" from the Potter Puppet Pals online video, "A Mysterious Ticking Noise," and the tune which has popped into my head as a sort of leitmotif for Snape whenever he turned up in the books. So I nearly fell off my chair when, a couple of seconds later, I could make out what the crowd were chanting.

So, I may or may not have been persuaded to go along to the midnight showing of the final film on Thursday night/Friday morning. I've never been one for midnight anything. I'm too fond of my sleep. Instead of visibly succumbing to the Pottermania with the book releases and queuing at the bookshops, I got up early to buy my copy. But this is my last chance. It remains to be seen whether I might dress up... Expect a Movie Monday review next week.

In a way, I envy the next generation of kids. With Pottermania so strong over the last few years, I doubt there are many people who haven't read the books, seen the films or at least had important parts of the story told to them. When the fuss has begun to die down, and a new readership comes along, I envy them the opportunity to read the books unspoiled, not knowing what to expect, like (most of) my experience. But just in case there are readers who don't yet know the whole story, be warned:

This review may contain spoilers for book 7; definitely contains spoilers for books 1-6.

After six books whose major events fit into a neat little routine - Something slightly odd happening in the school holidays, a return to school, slow revelation that something odder is taking place in or out of the school, several mysteries to solve throughout the year building to a climax just before the summer holidays - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows breaks the pattern by not sending Harry, Ron and Hermione back to Hogwarts at all. Instead, the trio set out on their own to search for and destroy He Who Must Not Be Named's horcruxes - a collection of objects to which the Dark Lord has attached portions of his soul in his search for immortality. Considering that Harry has only the vaguest idea of what these objects might be, and no clue where in the country - or the world! - You-Know-Who has hidden them or how to destroy them, this is no easy feat.

Sometimes, in fantasy quests, the world seems very small indeed, and the near-impossible achievable with unrealistic efforts. This is averted in most of Deathly Hallows, which portrays the tensions that rise when three people are living in close quarters, away from the rest of civilisation, embarking on a hopeless quest - especially when they have as a companion a little piece of the most evil wizard of all time, shut into a locket. in addition, because the trio are no longer at school, the plot no longer has to fit into a single academic year. It does, but it's equally possible that it could take years.

After a brief respite in Half-Blood Prince, the Ministry of Magic stands once more against Harry, this time because of its being infiltrated by You-Know-Who's Death Eaters who are terrifying the rest of the ministry into submission through threat and force. Thankfully, as Harry and co spend much of the book out of contact with other wizards, the sense of oppression is less intrusive, and though we do see the horrible Umbridge again, she plays a much smaller part.

Although Deathly Hallows is exactly the same length as its predecessor, it feels like many books in one, with more action, more varied scene changes as the heroes apparate across the country, visiting friends, London, forests in the middle of nowhere, wizarding settlements, more middle-of-nowhere, wizarding businesses, being captured and escaping and eventually winding up back at Hogwarts school after all. Add to this Harry's visions back in and out of Voldemort's mind, and I wonder how this much story can be packed into just over 600 pages. No wonder Warner Brothers chose to make this story into two films instead of just one.

As if this weren't enough, we find out a lot more about Albus Dumbledore's youth, where it is revealed that the wise old wizard was not so infallible as we'd previously been led to believe. Indeed, the man had spent his whole life trying to atone for a tragic mistake from his youth. And at last, the true character of one of children's literature's most complex anti-heroes is revealed: the enigmatic Severus Snape.

I stand in awe of J. K. Rowling's storytelling, for Harry Potter's story is made from so many strands of plot and subplot, but Rowling does not lose a single thread, weaving them together perfectly in this finally installment. Everything is significant, nothing is left dangling, Rowling is truly the master of her craft. The saga culminates in an epic battle at Hogwarts which is a bit of a family reunion, reintroducing forgotten faces and old favourites. But it is rather a bloodbath! We are forced to bid farewell to some beloved characters, for in war, no one is guaranteed immunity. There were two characters, just two, that I thought were safe (and neither of them were Harry.) I was proven wrong, and it is just one cruel, devastating loss.

If the Horcrux quest seemed a little too conveniently resolved, and if the wand-politics at the end are confusing, these are small criticisms when compared to the rest of the finale. The final showdowns - for there is more than one - are poignant, beautifully written and epic, and a couple of unexpected characters get moments which I fully expect to raise a cheer in the cinemas. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an utterly satisfying conclusion to this wonderful series that has captured the hearts and imaginations of children of all ages. While rereading the series, I have been fully absorbed both while reading it and when I was not, and it's strange to have finished it now. Roll on Thursday midnight!

Friday 8 July 2011

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J. K. Rowling

After the stifling atmosphere of the last book, it comes as a relief to be reintroduced into the familiar, friendlier Hogwarts. Yes, the wizarding world has become a dark, dangerous place. Voldemort and his folllowers are at large and in the open, and every edition of the Daily Prophet newspaper reports more death and devastation. Even the Muggles know something strange is going on. But at least the threat is in the open. Harry and Dumbledore don't have to deal with the Ministry's opposition to their every move and wild accusations - on the contrary, the Ministry want to be best buddies. It would make them look good, because rumour has it that Harry Potter is the Chosen One destined to destroy Voldemort.

Before this book was published, it had been publicised, like the last two volumes, as being darker than ever. But, for the majority of the book, this is a return to a tone that was more reminiscent of the first half of the series. Harry, Ron and Hermione are now sixteen and a great deal of the plot focuses in on their muddled attempts at romance. There also seems to be a lot more humour, even among the dark events going on outside Hogwarts - and within, if Harry's suspicions about two of his oldest adversaries are correct.
Thankfully, Harry has grown out of the rage that was the defining point of his character in Order of the Phoenix! Professor Dumbledore plays a greater role, as he and Harry work together out of school hours, seeking the information and means to defeat Lord Voldemort once and for all. Through flashbacks, Harry learns a lot about Voldemort's backstory, from his parentage, to his childhood and adulthood, before his rise to power as the most feared wizard of all time. I found Half-Blood Prince an easier book to get through, not as emotionally taxing - and frustrating! - as its predecessor with the lack of Umbridge. There is a good balance between lessons, mystery, humour and exposition, with some significant development of some of the best-loved characters.

And then, right at the end, comes an abrupt change in tone, in the most disturbing scene of the entire series, the Cave Scene. The book comes to an end with a series of climactic events that mean that nothing can ever be the same again.

If somehow you have got through the book publication in 2005, and the film release in 2009, and still don't know what happens, be warned that plot and character spoilers follow:

While Harry has shown himself as growing in maturity throughout the book, with the increased responsibility allotted to him by Dumbledore, and in his own actions, the cave scene marks Harry's coming of age. Early in Half-Blood Prince, Dumbledore tells Harry:
"I do not think you need worry about being attacked tonight."
"Why not, sir?" 
"You are with me."
When it was first revealed,
this cover bothered me. I knew
very well that Harry was not a good
 enough Potions student to continue
studying the subject in 6th year.
But then, I'd predicted Snape would
be made Defence Against the Dark
Arts teacher in book 7 - and that he'd
be really good! It hadn't occurred to
me that this might happen  earlier,
because of the rumoured curse -
Snape was too good a character to
lose before the end of the series. But
I hadn't foreseen the changes that
happen in this book.  Clearly I'm
not a candidate for Professor
 Trelawney's class.

At the time, it seems like a typical Dumbledore thing to say, a quirky but reassuring lack of false modesty - after all, Dumbledore is the greatest Wizard alive at this point. So it's a testament to how far Harry has come, when Dumbledore says, after a terrifying ordeal that reverses his and Harry's roles,
"I am not worried, Harry [...] I am with you."
But it is not Harry's characterisation that is so fascinating as Severus Snape's. We've known since the end of Goblet of Fire that he has been a Death Eater, and that he is assuming his former role, acting undercover for Dumbledore. And he is doing a very good job. To fool either Dumbledore or Lord Voldemort would be unthinkable - but Snape is fooling one of them. But which one? All the evidence in this book paints him in a very suspicious light indeed, making an Unbreakable Vow to commit some unnamed act for Voldemort, arguing with Dumbledore and trying to back out of a deal with him, and offering assistance to the very dodgy-acting Draco Malfoy. But Dumbledore trusted Snape, and I couldn't bear to think Dumbledore could be wrong. What sort of message was that to give the kids? Besides, Snape has always been the most complex person in the story, an ally but completely unpleasant! To make him a villain after all would surely diminish him as a character. But sneaky Ms Rowling gave plenty of evidence to support either argument - Snape as villain or Snape as hero - but no definite proof either way.

Until the end, when Snape proves his true colours beyond all doubt.

I read the last chapters in disbelief, desperate for some revelation to prove that somehow, something wasn't as it appeared. I read on, and I read on, and at last I came to the understanding that I must have been mistaken, that there could be no coming back from what he had done. But still it bothered me. Surely there must be more to this man than meets the eye?

Monday 4 July 2011

Movie Monday: Never Let Me Go

I read the novel Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro just before the film was released and all the publicity was coming out. As it happened, I was non-stop busy when the film hit the cinemas, and had to leave it a couple of weeks. That's OK, I thought, I can see it later - except it had left the cinema within about two weeks! After all the publicity, and the casting of Keira Knightley and Carey Mulligan, I had expected it to be much more popular. But now the film's on DVD I've been able to rent it from Blockbuster to see how it translates to the screen.

Kathy (Mulligan), Ruth (Knightley) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield) grew up at Hailsham school, a seemingly ordinary English boarding school, but one that when examined closely, seems a little odd. The children of Hailsham are being raised for a very specific purpose, which is revealed to them gradually, before they are too old to quite understand, until they are grown up knowing everything which is too deeply ingrained in them for them to expect any other life.

It's not very easy to compare the reading experience of Never Let Me Go with watching the film. There can only be one first time, and to watch the film knowing what is to come makes seemingly insignificant little scenes become heartbreaking. To me, it seemed that the Big Reveal was made more obvious in the film, but perhaps that was because I already knew it. It also seemed to come a lot earlier. The book seemed to dwell on the Hailsham years for a lot longer, but it might be that I was just reading it slowly.

The film certainly emphasised the not-quite-rightness of Hailsham in a more definite way than the book. When I read things that seemed a little out of place, I couldn't be sure if it was my interpretation of Ishiguro's choice of language that made things seem skewed, or if they really were. The book is narrated by Kathy H, which gives the reader a personal view of the story from within. Although Kathy narrates part of the film too, the visual medium distanced me and made me see the friends' situation as an outsider. The new  Hailsham Guardian, Miss Lucy (Sally Hawkins), is a more relatable character, as she comes to Hailsham as an adult and is plunged into a situation that doesn't seem natural to her, whereas the children know no other life.

The Hailsham students, even as grown-ups, are visibly different from people of the outside world. Even after leaving school, they are isolated, living in shared accommodation with other people "like them." Their attempts to act like "outsiders" are amusing but pitiful - copying cheesy American sitcom characters because they know no other way to relate, and sitting stiffly in a cafe, too afraid and overwhelmed even to know how to order lunch. These are clearly outsiders, conditioned for plot reasons to be different from non-Hailsham people, and yet it's nurture, not nature, that makes them so.

The tone of the book is subdued, pensive and moody, and the film turns this right up with the help of the sad, eerie soundtrack, the characters' drab costumes and unexcitable acting. The literary cushion is stripped away and the film really drove home the passivity of the characters. Most books set in this sort of world show the fighters, those who rebel against their lot. But not everyone is a revolutionary, and Never Let Me Go's central trio are those ordinary people who have no thoughts that life could be any different. It's a bleak world, and what is thoughtfully melancholy in the book is shown up as plain depressing here.

I'm glad I got to see this film - finally! - but I think it works better as a companion to the book than viewed on its own. Alone, it is too harsh and leaves rather an unpleasant aftertaste. Kathy ends by pondering about how everybody dies (or "completes") wondering if life could have given them more, thinking they've missed something and been left unfinished, and that was the feeling I got from the film. I don't think anything too important was omitted, but the movie wasn't quite satisfying. I felt there ought to be more - but what?

Friday 1 July 2011

It's Friday! Let's talk literary lovers.

It's a beautiful day here on the Isle of Wight, and I've spent the last two days in the garden with my nose in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, being lucky enough to have a four-day weekend this week. (Hurrah!)

Despite my crazy to-read list (which I swear has a life of its own and is possibly breeding without my help) I've been back in the bookshops again - quite aside from when I've been working! - and invested in four new YA books: Paranormalcy, Ballad, Amy and Roger's Epic Detour and What I Saw And How I Lied. I've made a start on Amy and Roger, but I'll give these books more attention when I've finished the Potter series.

At GReads, Ginger asked:
Mr and Mrs: Who are your favourite book couples?
Firstly, I have a confession to make: I'm not a big fan of the mushy stuff. (Shocking, I know!) For the most part, romance in books is a thing to be tolerated as long as it doesn't get in the way of the plot. So I don't tend to get excited about most couples. A lot of books are full of lovable, funny, lively or sweet characters who pair up and make each other happy. But for me, it takes more than that for me to think of them as "a couple" rather than "two characters who fall in love with each other." There has to be a special dynamic between the characters, people who complement each other. Their relationship is almost like a third character itself, where together they are stronger than each person apart. Which is not to say that either character is nothing without the other! If you've got two non-characters, then you get a non-relationship.

I think it's quite rare to find that kind of special relationship in modern teen fiction, probably because there is such a prevalence of love triangles. As I once tried to explain to a former Creepy Stalker trying to ask my advice on which of two girls he ought to ask out: if there's any question about it, if it's not obvious, then surely neither one is right to be with right now. That's my take on it, anyway.

So, who are those literary lovers whose relationship is so strong it softens even my hard heart? 

Exhibit A: Anne Shirley and Gilbert Bythe, from the Anne of Green Gables series. They meet when Anne is eleven years old, and Gilbert makes a very poor first impression when he makes fun of her red hair, causing her to smash her slate over his head. Anne doesn't speak to Gilbert for years after this insult. Yet he's always present in her mind, as an enemy and a rival in school, even though she might protest her indifference to him. They become friends eventually, however, and it's quite clear that Gilbert thinks Anne is something special. But to Anne, Gilbert is just a very dear friend - or so she thinks. But he will keep appearing in her thoughts and getting in the way when she's trying to daydream!
[Anne's "home o'dreams"] was, of course, tenanted by an ideal master, dark, proud and melancholy; but oddly enough, Gilbert Blythe persisted in hanging about too, helping her arrange pictures, lay out gardens, and accomplish sundry other tasks which a proud and melancholy hero evidently considered beneath his dignity.
Bless her, she's in love and she doesn't even realise it! The great thing about the Anne series is that it doesn't just end with the happily-ever-after of a typical "romance," but shows them through their engagement living apart, married life and onto their own children, their love staying strong through good and bad times, and even when they might not necessarily be feeling "in love."

Exhibit B is drawn from the Bard himself: Benedick and Beatrice, the original love/hate relationship from Much Ado About Nothing. Both swear that they will never marry, show disdain for the opposite sex and put all their energy into trying to score points off the other - but they are so perfectly suited. No one else can match them in wit, and I have the impression that their surface antagonism hides a real enjoyment from their banter and wordplay with each other. It doesn't take a lot, really, for them to be persuaded into love with each other. To quote C. S. Lewis: "They were so used to quarreling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently." Here's their first scene together, as portrayed by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson.


Arthur and Molly Weasley - Harry Potter series. Ron's parents have been married for over twenty years and brought up seven children, and it is quite clear that Molly wears the trousers in the family. An angry Mrs Weasley is not a sight anyone likes to see up close, and Mr Weasley appears to be a typical hen-pecked husband, but the couple have a real love for each other which shines through, even when Mrs Weasley is shouting at her husband again for meddling with the muggle technology that he is so fond of. 

Sam and Sybil Vimes - Discworld novels. When we first meet Sam Vimes, Captain of the City Watch, he is an angry, cynical drunk who is going nowhere. Lady Sybil Ramkin - is a jolly-hockey-sticks type of noblewoman who dresses in her scruffiest clothes and looks after sick dragons. She is a sensible, motherly woman who is able to stand up for herself and her loved ones, maybe a toned-down version of Molly Weasley. It's clear that Sam and Sybil need each other. Vimes is too forceful a character to allow himself to be wrapped around his wife's finger, but she can firmly but gently persuade him to do things he doesn't want to, when no one else can. It is Sybil, and Vimes' love for her that saves him from the darkness inside himself.

Finally - a late addition to my favourite couples list - Faramir and Eowyn - Lord of the Rings. We don't get to see much of them together; in fact they don't even meet until near the end of the book. Eowyn is always described as a cold, strong, beautiful woman; she's full of love for her country, Rohan, as much courage and skill on the battlefield as her brother, but always she is forbidden from proving her worth because she is a woman. She is in love with warrior king Aragorn - or in love with the idea of him - and full of despair for the future. Then she meets Faramir, who does not view her with condescension, but respect and admiration for a remarkable woman. He offers her hope, and when she allows herself to fall in love with him, she is able to let down her guard without worrying about looking weak. Both know what it is to carry all of the burdens of their family and none of the glory - Faramir, though a respected soldier and wise, clever man, was always overshadowed by his elder brother Boromir. This is a marriage of equals, and the scene in which they realise their love for each other has always made me go a little bit swoony inside.

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