Off to a galaxy far, far away… Watching Star Wars for the first time

Like many people facing lockdown, I subscribed to Disney+, which has all of the Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel films; and like at least two of my fellow book bloggers (Elle from Elle Thinks and Simon from Savidge Reads), I decided that this might be the moment to watch Star Wars for the first time. As a member of the blighted generation as far as popular SF went, who grew up without Doctor Who and during the time when Star Wars Episodes I-III were screening, the only Star Wars film I’d seen before was Episode I, The Phantom Menace. Reasonably enough, I decided that Star Wars was over-complicated, boring and silly, and decided never to watch a Star Wars film again.

This time around, I decided to skip Episodes I-III altogether and launch straight into IV-VI, followed by Rogue One, followed by VII-IX. There are extensive fandom debates about the correct viewing order for the Star Wars films when watching them for the first time; suffice it to say that, in retrospect, I’m pretty pleased with my choice, even though it was not recommended by anybody! I don’t think you should watch Rogue One before seeing the original trilogy, even if you are keeping chronological order, because it very much functions as a prequel; watching the films in release order means that Rogue One intervenes awkwardly between Episodes VII and VIII; and if you leave it to the end, you finish, in my opinion, on a sad low.

The rest of this post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episodes IV-IX and for Rogue One.

The Original Trilogy (Episodes IV to VI)

In case anyone reading this blog isn’t already aware, I am the kind of person who is either NOT into a franchise or INTO IT; when I love something, I like to think about it for a long time until I’ve analysed every bit of it to destruction. Therefore, what a joy to watch these three films as somebody who really isn’t invested in them. The biggest surprise about Star Wars for me is how funny and uplifting it is. I’d expected serious space battles and plots that I’d have to concentrate on, but instead I got simple-but-effective storytelling and broad-but-compelling characterisation. My favourite thing about the franchise, hands down, is the droids; especially C-3PO but also R2D2 and the other droids that are introduced in the later films. I loved how we actually follow C-3PO and R2D2 through A New Hope, and even though neither of them is as central to The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, they maintain a refreshing counterbalance to the seriousness of The Hero’s Journey.

Speaking of Luke, my hopes were (ironically) not high in A New Hope, when I noted that he was ‘irritating and fluffy!’ but I was surprised by how much I’d warmed to him by Return of the Jedi, where his final confrontation with Darth Vader and his own dark side delivered a twist that I genuinely hadn’t expected. Han Solo and Princess Leia are both engaging secondary characters, and Harrison Ford is one of the best things about the films (obviously second to my beloved droids). Leia didn’t quite work for me basically because the film forgot to give her any kind of lasting emotional reaction to the destruction of her entire planet in A New Hope, and I couldn’t see her as much more than a narrative device after that, but I was still on board with her romance with Han. Courting controversy, my favourite film of the trilogy was Return of the Jedi and my least favourite was The Empire Strikes Back, although I thought all three were strong; Empire is clearly the most tightly plotted and cohesive, but I preferred the greater space that the other two films allowed for characterisation and world-building, even if they did go off on too many diversions. (I hear the Ewoks are generally unpopular with fans, but I thought they were adorable!)

In short: a solid, delightful trilogy that takes its place for me alongside my other fun adventure-film favourites like Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean. While I can see why it would have felt groundbreaking when it first came out, it’s hard to completely relive that experience in the twenty-first century – but I’d definitely watch them all again.

The rogue one

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I was SO EXCITED to watch Rogue One, the 2016 prequel to A New Hope that follows the doomed crew that managed to smuggle the blueprints of the Death Star away from the Empire, and cleverly closes a plot hole in the original film by explaining that a disaffected engineer deliberately designed the Death Star with a fatal weakness. However, I hated the film and I’m still sad about it. It has some very basic problems. We’re not given enough time to invest in any of the crew members except our main protagonist, Jyn, and she’s not well-written. A pound-shop Katniss Everdeen, she never feels sympathetic or believable, and I also think she was miscast; she’s meant to have grown up living on her wits, but she’s played by Felicity Jones with a cut-glass English accent. (I know there are meanings to accents in the Star Wars universe etc etc. but it still didn’t work.)

A fair bit of this film, in fact, feels like a Hunger Games rip-off, with its transparent determination to show that even rebels have divided motives and are not all good, but it never gives itself enough time to develop this moral complexity. The filmmakers seem to have been convinced that Morally Complex = Dark = Serious, an equation that annoys me so much that I wrote a whole other blog post about it. OF COURSE the only significant droid in this film, K-2SO, is the only person who’s allowed to be funny or have a character. ♥ droids forever. The result of all this is that we get a lot of relentlessly grim action sequences with none of the lightheartedness that’s characteristic of all the other Star Wars films. Thinking it over, I wish the protagonist of this had not been Jyn but her father Galen, who was the aforementioned disaffected engineer who designed the Death Star; if the filmmakers (rightly) wanted to have a female lead, they could have (shock!) made Galen a woman.

The Latest Trilogy (Episodes VII to IX)

This was an interesting viewing experience, because all these films are recent enough for me to have had vague memories of what I’d perceived to be the ‘fans’ reaction’ when they came out, and I’d basically remembered that everyone loved The Force Awakens, then either hated The Last Jedi and liked The Rise of Skywalker, or vice versa. Therefore, I was surprised that I found these films much of a muchness, although I’d agree that The Force Awakens is the best and The Rise of Skywalker the worst. Again, I wondered how I would have reacted had I been a diehard fan of the original trilogy; no doubt there are a lot of nuances and missed opportunities here that have simply passed me by. Nevertheless, I felt that this new trilogy delivered an equally enjoyable ride to the first three films, with some notable improvements (decent female and BAME representation, more interesting thematic resonance) coupled with slightly more convoluted plotting. Indeed, I’d say The Force Awakens is the best Star Wars film I’ve seen, even if it cheated a bit by riding on the coattails of the original trilogy.

Rey is a much better character than Jyn, the other Star Wars female protagonist of which I am aware (Leia was clearly never foregrounded in that way). I’d heard complaints that she was too idealised, but I didn’t find that to be the case; obviously, she occupies the same Hero slot as Luke did, so there are aspects of her journey that are unrealistic, but that’s par for the course in this genre, and she experiences setbacks and misgivings as well. Finn was a fantastic co-protagonist in The Force Awakens, and one of my main complaints about the second two films is that he was shortchanged, forced very much into a supporting role when I think the story would have been better had it not focused so closely on Rey.

The films also flesh out an interesting and diverse supporting cast, and alongside the obvious cameos, I very much enjoyed Rose, Poe, BB-8 and OF COURSE all of my old favourite droids, who have lots to do, although this did reawaken many of my concerns about droid rights (why is C-3PO, clearly a sentient being, so frequently laughed at when he expresses concerns for his own safety, and why is his temporary loss of selfhood when his memories are wiped also played for laughs?) The Rise of Skywalker didn’t quite succeed in wrapping up the trilogy satisfactorily – there were too many loose ends left hanging due to the film being totally consumed by Rey and Kylo Ren, which I found the least interesting strand of the story – but neither was it the terrible catastrophe that I expected going in.

Overall Reflections

If you aren’t a diehard fan of something, it’s probably easier to enjoy it, especially when new additions to ‘it’ get released. Which is sad for me because this is just not how I watch or read most things, but these films were a perfect lockdown distraction, and so thank you to everyone who’s told me that I ‘have to see Star Wars’ over the years. In fact, I’m so keen I’m now up for watching more! Tell me which one I should try:

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Should you write in the voice of an oppressor?

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In January, fans’ excitement over a promised prequel to the extremely popular YA Hunger Games series, written by Suzanne Collins, turned to dismay when it was revealed that the prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, would be told from the point of view of one of the central villains of the original series, President Snow. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the premise of the Hunger Games, President Snow ruled over a dystopian North America whose most vicious act was the staging of an annual ‘Hunger Games’, where twenty-four teenagers chosen by lottery from the twelve oppressed Districts were forced to fight to the death on live television. While many fans seemed unhappy that the prequel wasn’t focusing on a different character, framing Collins’ choice as a missed opportunity, or were simply uninterested in hearing from President Snow, some (adult) fans have been putting forward a different argument. In short, these writers suggest, it’s morally wrong to write a prequel from the point of view of a younger President Snow because it will ‘humanise’ him and ‘encourage readers to sympathise with an egotistical dictator.’[1] The prequel ‘can’t redeem’ Snow because he is not ‘a cog in the machine… he is the machine… It’s telling that Collins seems more invested in humanizing the architect of cruelty than exploring its aftermath.’ [2]

While I’m not hugely invested in a Hunger Games prequel of any kind, although I enjoyed the original books and (especially) the films, this debate is interesting to me because it’s based on no evidence at all – at the moment, all we have about this book is its blurb and a brief excerpt, neither of which indicate the direction in which the story is going to go. Obviously, this book might be awful, but nobody knows that yet. In the absence of a text, then, all we can argue about is whether it is ever OK to write from the point of view of an oppressor – and some of these angry reactions seem to me to indicate either a fundamental misunderstanding of what fiction can be for, or a firm belief that fiction can and should only ever have one function.

As I wrote recently, certain readers seem to think that the purpose – the only purpose – of fiction is to ‘give voice’ to people whose stories we need to hear. As a historian, I find this interesting because it parallels particular developments in the discipline of history, recalling a set of historical ‘turns’ that kicked off in the 1960s that promised to write ‘muted groups’, like working-class people, women, and people of colour, back into history. At the same time, though more recently, historians have become increasingly reflective about how who they choose to write about affects power dynamics in the contemporary world. Kathleen Blee’s incredible essay [paywalled] on conducting oral histories with female members of the Ku Klux Klan is a great example. Despite the fact that she sought to understand why these women were drawn into violent white supremacist far-right politics in order to condemn it, she reflects that ‘perhaps the nature of oral history research… itself empowers informants, by suggesting to them, and to their political descendants, the importance of the Klan in American history.’ As a white woman from Indiana, Blee found that her interviewees would simply assume that she shared their political views: ‘Even challenging their beliefs had no effect on their willingness to talk. They simply discounted my spoken objections as ‘public talk’ and carried on the ‘private talk’ they assumed was universal among whites.’

Blee’s concerns are genuine and important, but things become more complicated when we turn to fiction rather than oral history. Most obviously, President Snow isn’t real, and there aren’t a lot of disaffected President Snow diehards out there longing for someone to finally pay proper attention to his story, even if they write a critical account. This does not mean that Collins should write a novel that seeks to simplistically ‘redeem’ Snow, but as of right now, there’s no evidence that she aims to do that. Some of the articles on this subject seem to have a very limited sense of what it means to be a protagonist, assuming that, because Snow is the narrator, this must be a story that aims to elicit sympathy with Snow, and that the overall structure of the novel will be a redemption arc.

These takes also assume that because Snow holds ultimate power in the original trilogy that he must always have been a free agent, even though The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place sixty-four years earlier. This argument is especially bizarre because the protagonist who is unwillingly or unknowingly complicit in evil is the central concern of the series, moving from the microcosm of book one, where Katniss is forced to enter the Hunger Games and kill other tributes in order to survive, to the macrocosm of book three, where Katniss realises she has been a crucial part of bringing a new regime to power that looks like it could be as bloodthirsty as the last.

What I find particularly concerning, though, is the persistent use of the word ‘humanise’ and the idea that humanising Snow would be wrong. If Collins wrote a novel that simply showed that Snow was ‘evil from birth’, and, like little Voldemort, he ‘never cried’, that, to me, would be just as much a betrayal of her readers as a novel that expected us to forgive Snow everything because of his tragic past. If we all believe that all oppressors are psychopaths, then we won’t be able to recognise how ordinary people oppress others. That, for me, is why it is not only permissible, but vital, to write in the voice of an oppressor; because the origins of oppression don’t lie with its victims, but with its perpetrators.

[1] ‘Opinion: We don’t need a President Snow origin story’, Jerrett Alexander, Indiana Daily Student.

[2] ‘Snow Thank You: “The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” can’t redeem Coriolanus Snow’, S.E. Smith, Bitch Media.

Little Women (BBC, 2017) vs Little Women (Columbia, 2019)

When the hype for Greta Gerwig’s film version of Little Women (2019) started to get going, I felt a bit confused. The film was being hailed as a modern take on the classic novel that finally drew out its feminist themes, foregrounded the real, human relationships between the women of the family, and gave both Jo and Amy the credit they deserve. But for me, all of this had already been done – by the stellar BBC television adaptation of the novel in 2017.

Before anyone gets cross, I really liked Greta Gerwig’s film – but I think Vanessa Caswill’s very different adaptation has been unfairly sidelined. So I thought it would be fun to pitch these two against each other. I will only compare things that I care about, so don’t expect this to be in any way fair.

Warning, this post probably won’t make much sense unless you are already familiar with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives!

Meg

Let’s start with an easy one. Meg from 2017 (Willa Fitzgerald) is streets ahead of Meg from 2019 (Emma Watson), and because No-One Likes Meg, it’s so important to get her right. This is down to the acting, but – even though I’m not a Watson fan – I think the script is the crucial factor here. The longer runtime of the BBC mini-series allows Meg to come into her own. Fitzgerald portrays her with a quiet serenity that makes her affectations at the Moffats’ party feel genuinely out of character, and giving her time to talk about her work as a governess – and be snubbed by an English snob, as she is in the novel – means that her desire for pretty things feels less shallow and more understandable. As she moves into adulthood, the harrowing birth scene added in 2017 makes her life feel real and hard rather than merely a heteronormative fantasy that’s there to taunt Jo.

I think that the 2019 film had its heart in the right place with Meg. For example, her line to Jo – ‘just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant – indicates that we are meant to see her as a person worthy of respect in her own right, and that Gerwig wants us to recognise that women who choose a traditional path of marriage and child-bearing are not inherently inferior. But I think that the way that 2019 chooses to value Meg is a bit of a misstep, emphasising the need for both sisters to understand each other rather than the true, inherent conflict between their dreams. Meg wants her own home and family; Jo wants her ‘first family’ to remain together forever. Both films are really good at portraying Jo’s anguish at the prospect of losing Meg, but only 2017 actually presents it as the insoluble problem that it is. But because 2017 takes Jo so seriously, it also allows us to feel the pressure that Jo’s expectations put on Meg, with Jo looming in the background of John’s proposal like a forbidding, virtuous angel. Meg is sometimes seen as moralistic, but Jo shows us that she’s actually the sister who holds others to viciously high standards. +1 to 2017.

Jo

Let’s move on to a more difficult one. Yes, Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Jo in 2019 is, I think, better than Maya Fitzgerald’s portrayal of Jo in 2017. But, again, this isn’t just down to the two actors, but about the choices made by script and direction. 2019 is the Jo Show, and the character is totally captivating. Gerwig draws out the queer undertones of Jo’s character much more effectively than any other adaptation I’ve seen, and she gets a huge amount of screen time to explore the central tension in her life: that, as she puts it in the most memorable scene of the 2019 film, she doesn’t want to get married but nor does she want to live her life alone. ‘Jo’s Dark Days’ is one of my favourite chapters of Little Women and Good Wives, and 2019 gets that so well. However, if Jo is less striking in the 2017 adaptation, it’s partly because the script has made a deliberate choice to give more time to Marmee and to the other sisters, which strengthens the story as a whole. So 2019 wins, but at a cost. +1 to 2019.

Beth

Maybe nobody likes Meg, but the character I found most difficult in the novel was always Beth – I still find her death totally unmoving except in terms of how it affects Jo. Annes Elwy in 2017 and Eliza Scanlen in 2019 both do an admirable job of making her a little less dull. Both adaptations play up her social anxiety, which helps us to understand the character a little more, but on balance, I preferred the deliberate weirdness of 2019’s Beth, who constructs elaborate tableaux with her dolls at the table and uses the fact of her impending death to get Jo to write her the stories she wants. +1 to 2019.

Amy

Everyone’s supposed to hate Amy, but I always liked her, and both 2017 and 2019 bring Justice for Amy. Both adaptations make the choice to have Amy played by the same actor throughout, which means they both make certain sacrifices. Kathryn Newton (2017) is much more convincing as Young Amy, partly because she gets more screen-time, so although neither version really helps us understand why Amy burns Jo’s book, 2017 gives us more space to explore Amy’s character development after the terrible deed. For example, we get the scene where Amy writes a will, with Laurie’s help, when Beth is sick with scarlet fever, and makes a specific bequest to Jo because she’s sorry about her book and wants to be a better person.

On that note, I really disliked the fact that the 2019 adaptation chose to have Amy in love with Laurie all along, rather than being the self-centred, creative, clever, irritating person she actually is in the first volume. 2019 really wants us to buy into Amy and Laurie, a pairing that a lot of fans find difficult to accept, but because I never had a problem with them in the first place, I never found this to be such a plot hurdle. 2017 handles the pairing more subtly by showing us how Amy and Laurie interact while she’s still a child and he’s still in love with Jo, while 2019 uses its non-chronological structure to intercut shots of the young Amy pining after Laurie while older Amy realises that he’s finally falling for her. Not a fan, bring back selfish Amy please.

However, having said that, Florence Pugh (2019) is so good as the older Amy, and one of the stand-out moments of the film is when she explains to Laurie that while marriage might not be a financial transaction for him, it surely is for her. Some of the assumed modernity of 2019 grated on me, but I can completely believe that this is something that Amy might say to the dissipated and ‘lazy’ Laurie. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Marmee

2019 did not get Marmee. She’s one of the key casualties of its meta approach to the source text, with Gerwig unable to play her deeply held moral beliefs – based on a life of repression and self-sacrifice – straight and instead retconning in feminist statements. As Sarah Blackwood writes in the New Yorker:

Marmee belongs at the heart of the story. Gerwig’s adaptation is too committed to the idea of Jo as a transformative feminist hero to plumb these depths. The story that Gerwig’s film wants us to own—the story that so many redemptive, individualist readings of the novel push us toward—is the one where there are survivors, singular women who somehow escape. I don’t think this was the story Alcott was telling. 

One of my favourite scenes in the novel is the scene when Marmee talks to Jo after Amy falls through the ice; partly because it’s one of the few scenes that gives us a glimpse of Marmee as a person. Both 2017 and 2019, unusually, adapt this scene, but I don’t think either of them quite get it right. In the book, Marmee tells Jo: “You think your temper is the worst in the world, but mine used to be just like it.” Jo can’t believe it: “Yours, Mother? Why, you are never angry!” Marmee explains: “I’ve been trying to cure it for forty years, and have only succeeded in controlling it. I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so.”

In an age where we are told – and rightly so – that rage becomes her, that anger is a positive emotion, that the criticism and belittling of women’s anger, particularly the anger of women of colour, is a tool of the patriarchy, Marmee’s words may feel too anti-feminist to screen, and it’s noticeable that neither adaptation lets her say the full quotation. However, I think that we need to know this about Marmee if we are going to understand her character. Marmee isn’t sweetness and light; she is a mother who cares deeply about her daughters but is still deeply embedded in the society in which she lives. 2019 sees her offering her daughters ‘outs’, suggesting to Jo that her life can be different from the one that Marmee herself has lived. The harsher, less forgiving Marmee in 2017 (Emily Watson) is much more accurate, and much more interesting, and as a bonus, unlike Laura Dern, she doesn’t look like she’s dressed up for a day at the office. +1 to 2017.

Mr March

Mr March is literally missing in action in 2019 even after he comes home from war, with Bob Odenkirk only appearing in a couple of shots (none of which I could find to use for this post). While I slightly admire Gerwig’s determination to make the patriarch of the family ‘not seen and not heard’, this choice undermines the reality of the sisters’ worry about him, and further diminishes Marmee as an independent individual. While Mr March (Dylan Baker) doesn’t have a great deal more to do in 2017, he’s there enough to address these issues. +1 to 2017.

Laurie

I don’t really care about Laurie as a character, except insofar as the way he is presented affects the characterisation of Jo and Amy. 2019’s Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is much more engaging, but I think 2017’s Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) does a better job of getting across why the essentially conventional Laurie is not right for Jo. Both films handle the proposal scene heartbreakingly well, but 2019 leans harder on the idea that Jo never wants to get married, whereas 2017 is more focused on Jo’s assertion that she does not love Laurie romantically, but may love somebody else in the future. I like 2019’s interpretation more, but I actually found the 2017 version of the scene more convincing. As I’ve suggested, both adaptations also do a pretty good job of setting up Amy and Laurie as a romantic pairing. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

Professor Bhaer

I mean, that says it all, doesn’t it? Alcott was cross about having to marry Jo off at the end of Good Wives, so she invented Professor Friedrich Bhaer, an older German intellectual who is not conventionally attractive (Mark Stanley, 2017); the pair team up to open a school for boys. Making Bhaer into a hottie (Louis Garrel, 2019) totally undermines that, whatever the meta intentions of Gerwig’s choice, and I’m not sure about the more conventional feminist resolution of having Jo and Friedrich open a mixed-sex school instead of a boys’ school either.

Rewatching the 2017 adaptation, in contrast, made me see why Friedrich is a good match for the Jo presented in this version of Little Women. Jo, as I suggested above, is an idealist who holds other people to her scarily high moral standards, and the person she’s hardest upon is herself. Modern readers find the scene where Professor Bhaer paternalistically criticises Jo’s stories hard to swallow – and this scene isn’t adapted fully in either 2017 or 2019 – but the intention behind his criticism is to show that he believes that these stories don’t represent the moral or emotional truth Jo is capable of writing. The 2017 adaptation gets how important it is for Jo to have someone who believes in her, not as a writer (I never got the sense that Jo was lacking in self-confidence where her writing is concerned) but as a good person. +1 to 2017.

The Civil War

Neither film lingers on the realities of the Civil War or its legacies of white supremacy, but 2019 gives a couple of black characters speaking parts, whereas the only black person in 2017 is a corpse on a stretcher. (If you want to read more about the whiteness of Little WomenKaitlyn Greenidge’s essay in The New York Times is a good place to start). +1 to 2019.

Story structure

2017 tells the story in strict chronological order. 2019 intercuts between Little Women and Good Wives, so, for example, both of Beth’s sickbed scenes are juxtaposed together, and Jo is trying to sell her stories at the start of the film. I admire the idea behind 2019’s out-of-order storytelling, but I don’t think it really works. It makes the film feel even more rushed and choppy, and I’m not sure a viewer who wasn’t very familiar with these two volumes could easily follow it. +1 to 2017.

So meta

Modern Little Women adaptations are always a little bit meta, something that some of the reviews of the 2019 film have missed. (Even the 1994 adaptation shows Jo writing her life story). However, 2019 goes a step further, presenting two potential endings to Jo’s story – one in which she marries Professor Bhaer and runs her school, and one in which, like her creator, she becomes a ‘literary spinster’. This pulls out a lot of the thematic material that is latent in Little Women and Good Wives and gets at some of the ideas raised above about how all of the sisters are stuck in the system, but it does also feed into the suggestion that exceptional women are able to escape. For me personally, the straightforward 2017 adaptation feels more useful to think with, but I have to admit that 2019 has probably brought the tensions at the heart of Little Women to a bigger audience. It’s a score draw. +1 to 2017, +1 to 2019.

THE VERDICT

2017: 8 points

2019: 6 points

To be honest, we’re lucky to have two such great adaptations of this great novel. However, 2017 wins out for me because I think it’s willing to present the viewer with more difficult material, because it doesn’t aim to wrap everything up with a feminist bow, and because it acknowledges that Marmee, not Jo, is the centre of the story.

Has anyone else seen both these adaptations? What did you think? Or are any of the earlier adaptations closer to your heart?

 

 

Three Things… December 2019

Reading

First, Nikita Lalwani’s debut novel, Gifted (2007), which follows Rumi, a second-generation Indian immigrant growing up in Cardiff, whose father, Mahesh, is determined that she should become a maths prodigy after she’s identified as ‘gifted’ as a young child. Lalwani handles this situation with great subtlety; Mahesh makes Rumi’s life a misery, but not necessarily because he buys into the Mensa-approved ideas about what it is to be gifted, and he is infuriated by the idea that Rumi is somehow a freak because she is both smart and brown. He sees himself as a progressive man, willing to nurture a daughter’s gifts in the same way as he would a son’s. Meanwhile, Shreene, Rumi’s mother, pushes against stereotypes of silenced Asian women, despite her conviction that Rumi’s main destiny is to get married; she too goes to work every day and happily recalls how she refused to see Mahesh when he made the first formal visit to her family to ask for her hand, because he arrived earlier than expected and she wasn’t ready. Gifted succeeds more as a series of excellent set-pieces than as a whole novel; it’s a bit fragmented and directionless, but its evocation of Mahesh, in particular, is brutal and touching. Despite the title, it’s not really about the label ‘gifted’ or about being a ‘precocious’ child – I wish somebody would write a really intelligent novel about either of those subjects! – but about the pressure of family expectation, especially in a hostile country.

Second, I finished my re-read of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (2002); I don’t have the energy right now to give this novel the review it deserves, but suffice it to say that (a) this evocation of a Mississippi community in the early 1970s is devastatingly sad – much more so than I remembered, and (b) it’s definitely Tartt’s best novel.

Third, I read Deborah Levy’s Booker-longlisted novel The Man Who Saw Everything (2019) – or at least I got halfway through it, setting a new record for me with a Levy novel. (And yes I did get to the bit where it all switches about). Levy just doesn’t click for me – she’s obviously a very good writer, but while I hoped this would be a literary mediation on time and space along the lines of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, it didn’t engage me at all.

My December reading plans haven’t been especially successful; I’ve read two of the six books I planned to read (The Bluest Eye and The Unpassing), have struggled to get hold of two others (We, The Survivors and A Door in the Stone) and have decided against reading the final two, at least right now (The Echo Maker and Heaven My Home). Because I’m dumping The Echo Maker, I’ll hold out on declaring my 4.5 star challenge complete until I can read Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. However, I did manage to read ONE SF book by a writer of colour in December (Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse).

Watching

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As usual, I have been watching a lot of rubbish! I went to see Frozen II a week or so ago (if anyone cares about spoilers for Frozen II, look away now!) This is a somewhat frustrating sequel in that it’s pitch-perfect thematically, but isn’t a very compelling film. The basic plot sees Elsa, Anna and their various sidekicks try to heal a past rift with the local community of Northuldra (obviously based on Inuit peoples) after Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling her away from her kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa’s character arc is very well-handled; the writing team have worked out how to give her a second internal conflict that doesn’t diminish what she came to terms with in Frozen. While she ultimately decides to resign her queenship and leave the kingdom, she does this on her own terms; rather than running away as she did in the first film, she now knows she is accepted for who she is and can freely decide what to do.

There’s been lots of speculation over whether Disney will dare to present Elsa as openly lesbian, and the furthest this film goes is to emphasise that she has no interest in marriage and give her a cute girl to chat to. While this decision was probably made for the wrong reasons, I thought it was the right one for this particular film – much as I love the idea of lesbian Elsa, it is refreshing to see a female character in an animated film (or any kind of film!) whose central arc is not about romance. It’s funny to think that the film writers have probably been forced into this relatively positive representation by dint of wanting to avoid explicit lesbian representation but not wanting to piss off the LGBT community too badly.

However, the writers have seemingly forgotten to give Anna a parallel arc to her sister, and this shows, as her sections of the film really drag. This is annoying, as obvious possibilities present themselves – Kristoff keeps trying unsuccessfully to propose marriage to Anna throughout the film (which is hilarious), but if he’d been allowed to pop the question at the start, this could have sent Anna into a tailspin, as she flashed back to her disastrous engagement to Hans and wondered whether she was rushing into things with Kristoff as well, even though she has now known him for a year. Instead, Anna’s only conflict is whether she can get Elsa to accept that she needs to accompany her on her adventures – which falls rather flat when it transpires that Elsa was absolutely right to tell Anna that, without magic, there are places she cannot go. While I LOVED Kristoff’s line to Anna when they are reunited, and she’s worrying if he now doubts whether she cares for him – ‘My love is not fragile‘ – both characters are under-used in this film. And the sooner Olaf the snowman is blasted into smithereens, the better.

Thinking

Well, like everyone else in Britain, I’ve been thinking about the horrible election result on Friday, but I don’t want to spend much time discussing it on this blog. These are some interesting Twitter threads/articles if anyone wants them: one    two    three    four

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What has helped me in the last few days, apart from talking to my sister and some of my friends, is re-reading Sylvia Louise Engdahl’s classic Enchantress From The Stars (1970), which I first read when I was fifteen. Enchantress from the Stars focuses on a young woman, Elana, who joins a secret team from the Federation Anthropological Service, bound to encourage one civilisation to leave the planet of another. Engdahl was the first to teach me that you can combine science fiction and fantasy, and that unthinking atheism and rationality is as damaging as unthinking belief and superstition. (Engdahl herself has objected to the novel being called a combination of these two genres, because she thinks that only science fiction has something to say about the future, which is her purpose as a writer. Whether or not you agree with this, my sense of the way in which the novel lets genres talk to each other is stylistic and thematic – Enchantress From the Stars is not only partly written in a folktale pastiche, but is concerned with the reality of ‘magic’). It reminded me that I want to read many more novels where the speculative genres talk to each other like this; Nina Allan’s work pulls off the same kind of thing. I found Enchantress so helpful to re-read in the last few days for two reasons: firstly, it reminds us that the route to social progress is not linear, and things can get a lot worse before they get better. Secondly, in its depiction of Elana and her local ally Georyn, it suggests that sometimes we can only accomplish things we believe to be impossible by pursuing them in defiance of reason, and that that isn’t a stupid thing to do.

I’ll now be mostly offline until I put up my Books of the Year posts at the end of December (and maybe a bonus Books of the Decade this time around as well) so I hope you all have a festive and relaxing holiday season!

 

Three Things… October 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

After my reading slump, I wanted to read something relatively undemanding to get me back on track. Diane Setterfield’s immersive Once Upon A River fit the bill. Setterfield’s books are basically potboilers, but I enjoyed this a lot more than The Thirteenth Tale. Set around the River Thames, it uses the case of a four-year-old girl who seems to have come back to life after being pulled from the river as a central thread that interweaves a range of stories from the local villagers. The novel actually has a pretty precise temporal location – the references to Darwin’s recent book suggest we’re around 1859 – but I thought this was a misstep. The timeless feel of Setterfield’s prose is one of the book’s strengths, and the Darwinian references are hackneyed and unnecessary (and far less important to the plot than the back cover blurb makes out). The book has a fairly conservative attitude to childhood and motherhood on the whole (it ALMOST features a woman who makes a positive decision to remain childless, but no), but there are hints of radicalism in how the community tears itself apart over who owns this little girl, suggesting how children can be valuable more as symbols than as people.

I’ve read all of Val McDermid’s Tony Hill/Carol Jordan police procedurals, and while the early entries in the series (especially The Wire In The Blood, which inspired the TV series of the same name) can’t be beaten, she’s done a remarkable job of maintaining quality across a long-running series. The eleventh installment, How The Dead Speak, cleverly handles several plot threads without overwhelming the reader – this is crucial, as her central cast are now scattered in different locations, with Tony in prison, Carol retired from the police, and the remaining members of Carol’s old squad assigned to a new case. Only one plotline, following Tony’s abusive mother, felt unnecessary – it provided a kind of psychological closure that I felt that the previous novels in the series had already addressed – but it wasn’t too much of a distraction. Perfect weekend reading.

Finally, I’ve almost finished Lisa Taddeo’s controversial Three Women – full review coming soon, but I’ll say that I’m finding it totally absorbing, especially Maggie’s story, and I’m a little puzzled as to why it’s upset people so much – I wonder if the answer may lie with the marketing of the book rather than the book itself. I think the publishers have made claims about the universal nature of the three women’s stories that couldn’t possibly be supported by any book of this kind.

Watching

 

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I went to see the premiere of Ken Loach’s new film, Sorry We Missed You, at (where else!) Tyneside cinema last Wednesday, which was followed with a Q&A with Loach, the scriptwriter Paul Laverty and the key cast members. Set in Newcastle, the film focuses on a working-class family who, in the words of Laverty, sleep ‘in the same house: they are only a few feet away from each other for hours on end. But they hardly see each other at all.’ The dad, Ricky, is ‘self-employed’, delivering parcels for a large firm; what this means in practice is that he bears all the risks of the business and is allowed no sick leave or holiday. The mum, Abby, is a carer, travelling by bus between the homes of old and vulnerable people who need her help; she’s only paid for the time she actually spends with them, and can’t claim overtime if one of them has a crisis and she can’t leave them. Their teenage son, Seb, is struggling at school, focusing instead on becoming a graffiti artist, and their pre-teen daughter, Liza Jane, is distressed about what’s happening to her family. Sorry We Missed You, therefore, presents a critique of the ‘gig economy’ that will be familiar to many people already, but, like I, Daniel Blake, it’s a deeply moving film. Loach commented in the Q&A that followed the film that this family ‘could have lived on the next street to Daniel Blake’.

Loach’s recent films, in my opinion, are intended as campaign pieces rather than as artistic works per se; the impact of I, Daniel Blake, which an audience member who volunteers at a food bank acknowledged in this screening, is so important that one can hardly begrudge him his priorities. However, I did find the characterisation of the four protagonists much more simplistic in Sorry We Missed You than the more interesting stories that were drawn out in I, Daniel Blake. In short, the film’s focus is on Ricky; this is a film about white working-class masculinity and the shame of not being able to provide for his family; even after he hits his son hard in the midst of an argument, the camera stays with him and not with Seb. While we get to see a lot of Abby’s job and her difficulties, the ending of the film underlines the fact that Ricky is the real tragedy of this story. The underlying message also strongly reinforces the nuclear family as the unit under attack by capitalist exploitation, playing into traditional narratives about gender roles. Sorry We Missed You is worth seeing, but I wished it had a bit more of the experimentation that characterised I, Daniel Blake, even if I thought that film ultimately slipped into sentimentality.

Thinking

After six weeks of teaching, I’m too tired to think! Instead, I will suggest some links that connect to what I’ve been teaching. This great article by Professor Lucy Robinson, ‘Climate protests have roots that go deep into the rich history of British social change‘, sums up a lot of the rationale behind my current undergraduate course, which is on youth, age and protest in post-war Britain. Dr Jenny Crane has written a fascinating blog post on ‘What is a “gifted child” anyway – and can children themselves design or defy this term?’ which reflects some of my own work on ‘evil’ or ‘extraordinary’ children in post-war British horror and SF films. Finally, this useful post by Dr Ryan Hanley sums up some new books on black British history.

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I also went to see Margaret Atwood speak at the Sage Gateshead at the last minute on Saturday (friend had a spare ticket). If I’d known I was going, I would have prepared better, as much of the detailed discussion went over my head – I read The Handmaid’s Tale when I was sixteen and haven’t read the sequel or watched the TV series. But Atwood was unexpectedly hilarious at times, and I enjoyed her thoughts on writing what you can write rather than trying to write what you can’t. I’m completing the Booker double in December when I’ve booked to see Bernadine Evaristo speak at the same location!

 

Three Things… March 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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The Language of Kindness is Christie Watson’s memoir of her twenty years as a nurse, working across a range of specialisms that included resuscitation, paediatrics and mental health. I totally agree with Watson’s emphasis on the importance of nursing care, and how, as a female-dominated profession, it is systematically overlooked and undervalued. A number of my close family members are nurses and the work they do is so important. So why did this memoir irritate me consistently? Partly, I think, it’s Watson’s voice – there’s a lack of the kind of soul-searching and self-doubt that I’ve encountered in junior doctors’ memoirs such as Rachel Clarke’s Your Life in My Hands, or in other professional memoirs such as barrister Sarah Langford’s In Your Defence (both highly recommended!) and so Watson comes across as far too complacent.

It’s difficult for me to review this fairly, I think, because once you lose trust in the narrator of a memoir like this, that’s it – you keep on finding fault. For me, this happened pretty early on. I’ve encountered a recent spate of horror stories about the way parents are treated by nurses in PICU, Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, and SCBU, Special Care Baby Unit (search ‘Mumsnet SCBU/NNU/PICU’ for some of these). Watson has nothing but praise for the nurses in these units, and I’m sure many of them are doing a very good job under extremely tough circumstances. However, the judgmental and misogynistic expectations placed on mothers in these units come through even in Watson’s positive account:  ‘The nurses do everything they can to treat mother and baby as one unit… In maternity units in some private hospitals, babies are taken from the mum directly after birth to be cared for in the nursery’. But what about the mother’s needs, which are separate from those of her infant? The fact that it’s relatively new practice to refuse to part mothers and babies after birth, even if the mother is recovering from an emergency C-section and can’t safely take care of her baby? Accounts from mothers also indicate that they were judged harshly for not being by their baby’s side night and day in PICU/SCBU – even if they had other children to care for at home.

This section is typical of the book as a whole. Apart from a brief paragraph that admits that a few nurses are not very good at their jobs, Watson permits no criticism – and most doctors get short shrift, dropping in from on high to deliver a diagnosis then leaving the nurses with the real work. While I’m in no doubt this is how some consultants behave, it’s evident from the accounts of junior doctors that this is a misrepresentation of their work. This interesting review on Goodreads also points out that Watson is in the habit of minimising the significance of other professions as well – in this case, translators. She also has little to say about other hospital workers who are not part of a ‘profession’ but are nonetheless vital, such as healthcare assistants and porters. Ultimately, this came off as a rather sugar-coated account of life as a nurse.

Watching

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I went to see Rafiki at the Tyneside Cinema last night, directed by Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiru. Rafiki (Swahili for ‘friend’) is currently banned in Kenya, where homosexuality is illegal, because it depicts a lesbian relationship too positively. Kahiru was asked by the Kenya Film Classification Board to change the hopeful ending, but she refused. From my perspective, Rafiki is more of a significant political statement about LGBT rights in Kenya than a groundbreaking piece of art. The story it tells, about two girls who discover their sexuality together and then are brutally torn apart, is very familiar. The evocation of Nairobi is colourful and vivid, and both protagonists give great performances. However, it made me think about how incredibly limited the stories we tell about bisexual and lesbian women are, and how lesbianism tends to be shallowly explored, if it features at all, in Western fiction and film as well (compare the recent Disobedience, which deletes the novel’s complexity, and both versions of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which are uplifting, but have little interesting to say). However, this is not to criticise Rafiki, which is doing a very important job. You can watch the trailer for Rafiki here.

Thinking

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Not the novel discussed below, which many people liked more than I did!

A while back, I wrote a fairly negative review of a writer’s second novel. I was especially cross about this particular book because it felt lazy and rushed. I posted the review on my blog and on Goodreads, but didn’t tag the author anywhere. Despite this, the writer in question took the time to seek me out on Twitter and block me – even though this was a platform where we’d had no interaction at all. So, this led me to think about why I write critical book reviews.

I disagree with much of what is said in this provocative article on book reviews in Harper’s, ‘Like This Or Die’, not least its eager dismissal of anything that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘literary fiction’ and its weird hostility to television. However, I think it has a point about the relentless push towards solely positive coverage of books in the mainstream media and on social media. This is (perhaps unsurprisingly) promoted by authors themselves, whom I often see tweeting things like this:

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[I love James Smythe’s work so feel bad picking on him here – it’s just the latest example of the trend I could find!]

This kind of statement is often extended to book bloggers and reviewers as well, or, more threateningly, to aspiring writers, who are told that if they want to get published themselves, they should spread positivity at all times [again, this link is to a blog that I generally like!]

I find this stance both repressive and bizarre. Firstly, there’s the suggestion that critical reviews (I think the terms ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ reviews are too loaded) are permissible, as long as they don’t come from other writers. Why? Secondly, there’s the hidden implication that actually nobody should be writing critical reviews at all – that if you don’t like a book, you shouldn’t say anything about it. I find this absurd for a number of reasons:

  • First and foremost, I don’t review books for the sake of their writers. I review them for other readers, as a reader. I don’t tag writers in critical book reviews, even if the criticism is very minor, so if they seek them out, that’s on them.
  • The idea that published writers are so fragile that they can’t deal with criticism from bloggers is a little strange to me. I tend to think that if you’ve demanded a reader’s time and attention by publishing a book, you need to be able to take polite feedback if you have sought it out (again, I don’t advocate sending bad reviews to writers, or being rude, and I assume here that writers with mental health conditions or specific personal circumstances will be able to avoid critical reviews).
  • I find this PARTICULARLY weird because all unpublished writers are essentially told to ‘just suck it up and get better’ when it comes to dealing with criticism of their work, whereas for published writers, there’s suddenly an attitude of ‘I don’t want to criticise something that someone’s put so much work into’ – so, in short, there’s a double standard in play that implies that unpublished writers’ work is less valuable and has required less labour.
  • Moreover, I think critical reviews can actually be helpful for other writers (i.e. the ones that didn’t write the book in question!) I’ve learnt a lot more about writing from reading intelligent, critical reviews than totally positive reviews.
  • It can also be impossible in practice, if you’re an honest reviewer, to avoid negative reviews if you are on a shadow panel, a blog tour, or have proof copies to review. If I really find a book unreadable I won’t review it, but this has only happened once or twice.
  • Finally, all this is off the table if a book is problematic and offensive, when suddenly everybody seems to agree that it needs to be ‘called out’, even if this jars with their usual stance on critical reviews.

My feeling is, that if I ever publish a novel, I may not seek out criticism from readers; but in the abstract, I could only be grateful to those who engage thoughtfully and critically with my work, especially if they aren’t paid to do so.

What are other people’s thoughts on writing critical reviews?