Words and ideas can change the world.

Dead Poets Society

I know, I know, Dead Poets Society is a film, not a book, but it should be at the top of your to-read list nonetheless. Starring the incredible Robin Williams and directed by Peter Weir, this 1989 film tells the story of Todd Anderson and his peers at the very strict, very up-right Welton Academy. Tradition, convention and routine are fundamental features of this boys’ boarding school, everything taught word-for-word from the textbook. In short: life is boring, school is strict and the lessons are uninteresting and uninspiring. Everything a good boys school should be, right? Not according to John Keating.

John Keating is the new English teacher. He’s been employed to teach these boys poetry and is equipped with another one of those textbooks so beloved by Welton. But John Keating does not much care for by-the-book teaching and is therefore unorthodox by Welton standards. He is different. He is odd. He is a revelation. “Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary,” he whispers to the class. He has them listening with bated breath, engaged like no one knew was possible in a classroom setting. And he teaches them. About love, about poetry, about literature, about life, about dreams and about how all of these things intertwine.

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society takes literature and words and poetry and illustrates their extraordinary power as tools of influence and growth and emotion in the lives of even the most flippant, careless and rebellious teenage boys. It demonstrates with incredible poignancy the potential for language to draw people together, transcend inhibitions and change the way things are done, thought and felt. Dead Poets Society is an intellectual and emotional feast.

If you haven’t seen it, it will change your life. If you have, do you agree?

Travelling ‘The Road’ as a cinephile

The Road FilmHaving recently read the ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy, I decided to watch the film version, intrigued by how one might go about translating McCarthy’s powerful words to the screen. Directed by John Hillcoat and featuring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the father and son, the film version of ‘The Road’ promised to be a vivid reflection of the book with its bleak, grey and stormy film poster. The truth is however, that this poster is probably the very best aspect of the film. For me, a major let-down. 

I will not deny that the scenery and cinematography were well produced to mirror the bleak and frightening atmosphere of the book; the professionals behind these aspects of the film did a stellar job of setting a post-apocalyptic scene. However, that’s where the positive attributes ended for me.

The acting, the casting, the tension, the structure and the general focus of the film were all disappointing and by no means did the book the justice it deserves. McCarthy’s best-seller focuses predominantly on the relationship between man and boy, father and son; the brutality, fragility and strength of unconditional love and the measures one takes to protect and guide the beholder of one’s heart. For me, the book’s naked and poignant illustration of this very theme was the key to its success. The makers of the film however, didn’t quite seem to understand where the focus ought to be. John Hillcoat’s interpretation was a messy mixture of father and son, husband and wife, then and now and thereby distracted from the powerful journey of man and boy.

The acting was also, in my opinion, sub-par. Kodi Smit-McPhee, as a thirteen year-old, can obviously not be expected to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, but that said, I was still not impressed. Nor was I pleased by Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the father. The two together did not at all create a sense of family love with many of the moving lines that I remembered from the book delivered in such a way as to hardly convey their intended poignancy and weight, leaving me almost entirely unaffected. The only time throughout the film that I felt myself provoked was upon seeing a couple of the more disturbing images that, it must be said, had nothing to do with the acting or the relationships.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t label the film as ‘terrible’ or ‘disastrous’ and can acknowledge that others may have greatly differing opinions of it to me, but I cannot at all say that I enjoyed it. Though the basic storyline remained relatively true to the book, the essence of McCarthy’s message was lost and in my opinion, that is a tragedy. The book version of ‘The Road’ is a magnificent and thought-provoking read, one that I recommend to everyone. The film however, is not.

Let me know what you think of the book, the film and how you would compare the two!

The Oscars just got nerdy

Not too many weeks ago I talked about how six of the nine Best Picture Oscar nominees were based on films and, although none of these won (the winner being ‘The Artist’), I think that literature deserves a round of applause for how well it has infiltrated the 84th Academy Awards. Of the many and varied categories, ten were won by book-based films proving, I feel, that literature is certainly not a dying art for without it, we wouldn’t have such a spectacular group of Oscar-deserving films.

So, Ladies and Gentlemen, Girls and Boys, Nerds and Bookworms, without further ado, here are the Oscar winning films that originated from within the wonderful world of books:

The Iron Lady

  • Best Actress – Meryl Streep
  • Best Makeup – Mark Coulier and J. Roy Helland

The Iron Lady Film The Iron Lady book

The Help

  • Best Actress in a Supporting Role – Octavia Spencer

The Help film  The Help book

Hugo

  • Best Cinematography – Robert Richardson
  • Best Art Direction – Dante Ferretti and Francesca Lo Schiavo
  • Best Sound Editing – Philip Stockton and Eugene Gearty
  • Best Sound Mixing – Tom Fleischman and John Midgley
  • Best Visual Effects – Rob Legato, Joss Williams, Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning

Hugo Film Hugo Book

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

  • Best Film Editing – Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Book

The Descendants

  • Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) – Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

The Descendants Film The Descendants Book

I adore films but I have to say, I got a nerdy thrill out of knowing that the 2012 Oscars were so thoroughly infiltrated by books!

Oh Horror, what happened to you?

I was leisurely browsing the blogosphere yesterday when I stumbled across a post, Deliver us from another Vampire Tale, that made me think quite long and hard about what on earth has become of our literary and cinematic horror industries.

Once upon a time, horror stories were thought-provoking, fear-inspiring and heart-pumping tales, rich with detailed characters and clever plots. They took their readers on intimate journeys of the human psyche, exploring the very complex and fascinating nature of fear. What do we fear? Why do we fear? What does fear drive us to do? How do we handle fear’s ultimatums? Yes, the horrors of yesterday involved monsters and gruesome creatures but they were about more than just lingerie-clad high school girls running and screaming. They were intelligent and insightful tales, with as much depth and intellectual substance as a Dickens or Thoreau novel.

The Shining   Dracula Novel   Frankenstein

Sadly however, it seems that the horror genre has dramatically deteriorated upon the turn of the twenty-first century. Authors and cinematographers have bastardized what was once a thrilling genre, consequently morphing horror into a cheap, shallow and unintelligent class of fiction. The focus, instead of being on the excitingly interesting and multifaceted concept of human fear, is far too often placed on producing quick, cheap thrills. Girls in underwear, men with knives, a haunting soundtrack and a handful of moments that make you jump for no other reason that the shower curtain fluttered in the wind.  Horror, in my humble, grammatically correct opinion, has become stupid.

Now, I don’t mean to be just another Twilight hater, but seriously… why? Why, why, why? Why did the captivating, thrilling notion of vampires have to be so thoroughly destroyed by what has become a shallow, tween obsession with sparkling boys? The Twilight saga, I know, is meant to be more of a romance novel than a horror story but I cannot help but begrudge it for its impact on vampiric fiction. Vampires used to be a terrifying but fascinating species embedded within the myths and legends of human history. They date back centuries, originally appearing in eighteenth century poetry before becoming a prominent feature of Gothic fiction. The very celebrated Lord Byron, for example, included the vampire in a passage in his epic poem, The Giaour:

But first, on earth as vampire sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent:
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;

There from thy daughter, sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet which perforce
Must feed thy livid living corse:
Thy victims ere they yet expire
Shall know the demon for their sire,
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.

Perhaps it’s just me, perhaps I’m being unfair, but I honestly cannot see how today’s petty tales of high school vampires can even be considered within the same league as the fictional works of Byron and Stoker.

However, I must concede that there are one or two modern horrors that prove themselves to be more than just bangs and screams… I just wish that they were the majority instead of the rare. Shutter Island, for example, is a psychological thriller starring Leonardo Di Caprio that is almost entirely a game of the mind. Set on an island mental facility, this very clever film takes its viewers on an expedition into insanity, quite shockingly illustrating the very delicate nature of the human mind and the very real possibility that we may all be in various stages of our own psychosis.

Martin Scorcese does an impeccable job of this film but sadly, it’s one of only very few horror films worth watching. And it causes me even greater pain to say that I have yet to find a twenty-first century horror novel that does anything more than disgust me. What has happened?

I’ve been talking with the author of Deliver us from Vampire Tales and it seems that I’m not the only one completely disillusioned by the modern take on horror and thriller fiction. What are your thoughts? Am I completely off-base, unaware of an entire world of recent horror fiction that shames even Frankenstein? Or are you as much in want of a deliciously intelligent, complex and insightful tale of the human psyche but sadly unable to find such a fine-sounding specimen of literature?

Books in the Oscars

Well well well, hello 2012 Oscar nominations and my, aren’t you looking rather bookish this year. 

The Academy Awards: those elusive little buggers that every actor, director, producer and cinematographer covets. The Oscars celebrate the best of the best, revering talent, finesse and artistic innovation, boosting the careers of those lucky enough to win and serving the not-so-successful a serious dose of disappointment. When thinking of the Oscars, images of the red carpet, billion-dollar gowns, camera flashes, fierce competition, polite applause and long-winded speeches are usually conjured and, although there is certainly a lot more to this prestigious ceremony, form an accurate picture of what the Oscars mean to most of the non-showbiz population.  What we don’t usually consider however, is, not what the Oscars say about actors, dressmakers and viewers, but what they say about books.

Of the nine Best Picture nominees this year, six are based on novels. SIX…that is two thirds of this year’s Best Picture nominees whose roots lie within the literary world. Quite obviously, those in bold font are those based on books:

  • “The Artist” Thomas Langmann, Producer
  • “The Descendants” Jim Burke, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Producers
  • “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” Scott Rudin, Producer
  • “The Help” Brunson Green, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan, Producers
  • “Hugo” Graham King and Martin Scorsese, Producers
  • “Midnight in Paris” Letty Aronson and Stephen Tenenbaum, Producers
  • “Moneyball” Michael De Luca, Rachael Horovitz and Brad Pitt, Producers
  • “The Tree of Life” Nominees to be determined
  • “War Horse” Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, Producers

A small triumph for bibliophiles as we infiltrate the film industry? Or a loss as our favourite stories are torn unceremoniously from their dust jackets and bastardized into loosely adapted film versions? I guess it depends on each individual case. Let me know what you think of this little Oscar phenomenon.