From Words to Films: Cloud Atlas, The Life of Pi, The Hobbit, Anna Karenina

Yesterday I saw Cloud Atlas at the theater, and it had previews for The Life of Pi and The Hobbit.  I’ve also seen recent previews for Anna Karenina.  All books I’ve read.  While watching the preview for The Life of Pi I wondered what Yann Martel and David Mitchell are feeling now that their words have become movies.  Do they feel like gods creating new worlds?

Lucky writers type words on their computer and a few years later those words become images on the big screen.  How marvelous must that feel for a writer?  Of course, a writer creates all their characters and scenes in their head by themselves, and a movie requires hundreds, if not thousands of people to create images on the screen for us to see.  And often, they aren’t the same visions the writer first imagined.  I can’t imagine David Mitchell picturing so many of his characters looking like Tom Hanks, but Tom Hanks with the help of make-up artists have fleshed out Mitchell’s characters in a world of pixels that is so much more vivid than printed words on a page.

I have to admit while watching the previews that I wished I could write something worthy of filming.  Few books are given birth on the big screen, so it’s a very rare honor that few writers get to enjoy. 

Look at the opening page of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell – I saw it acted out yesterday.  It’s not the same at all, these words inspired a movie scene on the beach.

cloud-atlas

 

Next, watch this clip:

 

 

Now read from the The Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

 

Life-of-Pi

 

And then look at the trailer for The Life of Pi:

 

These are just two examples.  I wish I had the time and technology to show several examples, with the exact book pages and filmed scenes.  Both Cloud Atlas and The Life of Pi are books of astounding feats of imagination.  I’m sure bookworms hope all their favorite books will become films, but few do.  I’d love to see The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi made into a movie.   That book also exhibited tremendous feats of imagination, although it’s a bleak view of the future.  I’m thinking movie makers prefer upbeat stories based on fantastic events.

I wonder how many writers sit down to write a story they hope will be filmed?  If you’ve read Cloud Atlas or The Life of Pi, you probably thought like me at the time that it would be impossible to film these stories.  Watching the preview of The Life of Pi made me realize that anything a writer can think up movie makers can film.  Watching the preview of Anna Karenina made me realize that movie makers are going far beyond what writers can do with words.  I don’t think any one mind can imagine so much beauty, color and vivid detail.

anna-karenina-kk

Look at this photo and then read Tolstoy’s words:

Anna was not in lilac, the colour Kitty was so sure she ought to have worn, but in a low-necked black velvet dress which exposed her full shoulder and bosom that seemed carved out of old ivory, and her rounded arms with the very small hands. Her dress was richly trimmed with Venetian lace. In her black hair, all her own, she wore a little garland of pansies, and in her girdle, among the lace, a bunch of the same flowers. Her coiffure was very unobtrusive. The only noticeable things about it were the wilful ringlets that always escaped at her temples and on the nape of her neck and added to her beauty. Round her finely chiselled neck she wore a string of pearls.

Well, they got the ringlets.  Can any words ever describe what we actually see?  What is the power of Tolstoy’s words that have made Anna Karenina one of the greatest novels of all time?   It is a novel that has inspired the production of many movies.  Will there be additional productions of The Life of Pi and Cloud Atlas?  Will Martel and Mitchell be as inspiring as Tolstoy?

Like I said, I wish I could write a story other people felt compelled to film.  The old saying is, a picture is worth a thousand words, well that means most novels have about 100 pictures in them.  But novels are really about characters fighting adversity, and that’s where movies and books really overlap.  I believe if I wanted to write a novel worth filming, I’d need to create unique characters facing unique conflicts.  Words are great for that.

I think it’s fascinating to read the words that become movies.  I think it’s even more fascinating see characters on pages become characters on screen.  I think it’s also fascinating  for stories to come alive before our eyes in the dark that we once read as black marks on white pages.

[By the way, is film even a valid word to use regarding movies anymore?  Are movies still filmed?  Or do they use high resolution video cameras?  In our modern times both novels and movies appear on screens.  I guess I could have talked about stories that appear in black and white on small screens and in color on large screens.  Is that the transformation good stories should expect – more pixels with great color depth?]

JWH – 11/5/12

Lord of Light

A couple weeks ago I reread Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, a favorite novel from my memory of 1967 by listening to the new audio book edition from Audible Frontiers.  For days afterward, I hammered out an ever wordier review that I never could finish because what I kept striving to say became ever more complex and out of my grasp.  So welcome to try number two.

Here’s my problem.  Forty-one years ago I read Lord of Light and thought it deserved its book of the year, 1968 Hugo Award, that made Zelazny, as well as Samuel R. Delany, the new comets streaking across the science fictional sky.  Lord of Light took a traditional idea of colonizing a new world and jazzed it up by blending in Hindu mythology.  It was colorful, had lots of vivid scenes, and Zelazny deserved high praise for trying to do something new and break out of John W. Campbell’s vision of space opera.

Fast forward to our future and I read Lord of Light again.  It’s not the same book – well, I’m not the same reader, so the exact same book came out different this time.  In the 1960s, New Wave science fiction felt sophisticated compared to 1930s and 1940s classic science fiction, but looking back now, Lord of Light seems primitive and crude, like The Skylark of Space felt when I read it around the same time I read Lord of Light the first time.  Lord of Light is still clever and somewhat vivid, but now I feel like Zelazny didn’t spend enough time developing his ambitious fantasy.

The idea of tech savvy first colonists setting themselves up as gods and enslaving their descendants in a pre-tech world is a far out concept, although I don’t know what Freud would have done with the idea.  The idea is so anti-science fictional that’s it’s amazing to think that it won the Hugo that year, now that I’m looking backwards.

The trouble with this contrived plot is it has no philosophical weight, a quality that makes science fiction novels have lasting power.  That, and the fact that the characterization is so minimal that it has zero emotional impact.  There are people that still love this story, but I’m not one of them.  So, do I savage a classic novel of my beloved genre, or do I promote it as a worthy read for historical purposes?  In my first attempt to review this story I struggled to find all it’s positive aspects and compare them to great SF/F that’s been written since then.  But the more I work to find comparisons, the more I realized that the field of writing has evolved, even for the lowly science fiction genre, leaving Lord of Light shipwrecked in the past.

I’m currently reading The Little Book by Selden Edwards, a literary time travel novel that is so well written, so imaginative, so deep in characterization that it makes the once dazzling Lord of Light fizzle.  I also listened to Heinlein’s 1951 Starman Jones just after Lord of Light and it still shines.  Why?  Heinlein had great science fictional ideas, but he also had characterization and good page turning plotting, at least in the 1950s.  Lord of Light would make a great comic book – it has colorful scenes, super heroes and the depth of characterization that matches the average DC or Marvel comic.

I know my science fiction friends think I love to make inflammatory statements like the one I’m about to make, but I don’t.  Writers outside of the science fiction and fantasy genre are taking science fictional concepts and writing much better stories than the guys inside of the genre.  Look how Michael Chabon swept our awards this year.  Read The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Life of Pi, Never Let Me Go, The Sparrow, His Dark Materials, Cloud Atlas, and other outsider novels that build their stories around our fantastic themes.

Part of Zelazny’s failure is he wrote for a genre where he had to hammer out the books.  If he had worked on Lord of Light with the same time and applied study as J. R. R. Tolkien did for his books, Lord of Light would be a fantastic SF classic.  Instead it’s basically a foundation for a great SF novel. The forty-one years since 1967 has up the ante on what it takes to write a stand-out SF novel.  If a young new writer took Zelazny’s idea and made it into a genuine statement about reality, space exploration and added real characterization she would be a new comet blazing across our science fiction skies.

To understand what I mean, read Lord of Light and imagine how it would be filmed.  It might have much of the feel of the recent Transformers, Ironman and Hellboy movies.  That’s okay if all you want is an ephemeral summer blockbuster that will seem silly in forty years.  I just finished reading Edith Wharton’s An Age of Innocence (1920) and I’m now reading The House of Mirth (1905), and these books have lasting power.  To last, you have to have something to say, not preaching like later Heinlein, but careful observations about our reality.  Wharton is brilliant at observing communication between men and women. 

All Zelazny did was take ancient super heroes, now called Hindu gods, and created a science fictional setting to justify their returned existence, which essentially is what every super hero comic does.  They are flashy action myths that offer no hidden parables.  We assume Sam is the good guy and the gods of this planet’s heaven are the bad guys, but that was never justified by skillful writing.  Lord of Light was written just as the the 1960s was about to peak in its social transformations, and Zelazny fails to even try to tie it in – what a wasted opportunity.

Now imagine writing a philosophical novel that realistically tries to capture what it’s like to become godlike.  Let’s say in the future we have access to virtual worlds where artificial beings dwell, but we don’t want them to know about our world.  This has all kinds of philosophical possibilities.  Then imagine using such a setup for first person shooter wars.  How limp would that be?  That’s sort of what Zelazny did.

Zelazny faintly hints at greater possibilities in wayward places within Lord of Light, but his plot is so thin about overthrowing heaven that we never feel that that it goes beyond setting up battle scenes.

I wish I could write fiction.  This is an exciting time to be a writer.  Writing techniques have evolved to dizzy heights of sophistication.  Yes, I urge you to listen to the new edition of Lord of Light to see why 1967 science fiction was so exciting then, but don’t accept it as a great novel, instead imagine how to retool it with modern writing technology.

I think science fiction has been coasting for years, with the exciting new Turks coming from outside of the field.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s lot of sense of wonder left in science fiction, at least I hope there is, but the genre tends to be a record label repacking old hits rather than putting time and money into finding new forms of music.  I don’t read many new novels from within the genre any more, but I still try to read a certain number of novellas, novelettes and short stories from the best-of anthologies every year. 

There’s no lack of far out ideas.  What’s needed is a New Wave of story telling techniques.  In this decade, the new Zelaznys and Delanys are coming from outside of the genre, so SF isn’t getting the credit.  To the larger outside world, only a tiny handful of true SF novels have caught the attention of their bigger pond.  The most famous is Ender’s Game.  Novels like Neuromancer and Snow Crash are on the distant radar of a few non-science fiction readers, but for the most part, the world of science fiction is as isolated as the star writers known to MFA majors.

The place to be are those tables in bookstores, near the front door, that display the trade paperbacks of titles that stay on them for months, if not years – the books that all the hardcore bookworms read.  The ones that get produced as audio books, studied by book clubs and made into movies.  These are the books that surf the cresting wave of popular literature.  SF and fantasy books are seldom seen on these tables, and that’s because the SF/F/H genre writers aren’t using the latest writing techniques to tell their stories.

It’s not about literary quality, not in the academic sense.  It’s why books like Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series are stacked on floor all around these tables.  I know my science fiction fans think I keep bashing the genre, but I’m trying to be helpful.  Twilight succeeds where other fantasy books fail because most genre books are tone deaf to emotion and characterization.  Lord of Light will never be a classic outside of it’s tiny puddle because it measures almost absolute zip at expressing emotion warmth, and barely climbs to the level of one-dimension for its characters.

I’m not trying to be nasty here, but I know it sounds like it. If you’ve never read any good novels, and spent your life reading within the science fiction genre, then Lord of Light will feel brilliant.  Compared to E. E. Doc Smith, Edmund Hamilton and most of the other SF up to the 1960s, it is.  In terms of storytelling plotting, it doesn’t even get up to average Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel.  Where Lord of Light shines is fantastic ideas.  Science fiction is a literature of fantastic ideas.  What I want to see are SF novels that mix great ideas with good story telling.  Can you imagine the success of SF if science fictional ideas could be conveyed with the storytelling techniques of J. K. Rowling?

Jim

My Kind of Story

After consuming 2,000-3,000 books over the last half-century you’d think I’d know exactly what kind of books I love to read, but I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been living on the trial and error method up to now.  Before recent revelations, if I didn’t like a book it was a bad book, or a boring book, or if I wanted to be generous I could claim I wasn’t in the right mood for that book or whine that the book covered a topic out of my territory.  If I loved a book, it was brilliant, insightful, well written, heartfelt, and perfect for me.  What if I’m wrong?  What if why I love or hate a story has nothing to do with those factors?  What if it has nothing to do with genre?  What if it has nothing to do with favorite writers?  What if the books I love the most, the ones I read the fastest are due to a particular writing formula?

Recently I selected The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon for my June book in the 1% Well-Read challenge, but that book rubbed me the wrong way.  Since the Pynchon book was about the 1960s I thought I’d try a different book about the same time period and see how another author handled the subject.  I quickly found, Drop City by T. C. Boyle, also covered in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  Both books open in California, but the Pynchon book came out in 1966 and appeared to be about 1964, and the Boyle book was published in 2003 and was about 1970.  Drop City rubbed me the right way.

So, with two books about Californian counter-culture, why did one soar and the other crash and burn?  You’d think the book written in the middle of the 1960s would feel more authentic, but actually the book written in 2003 hit an emotional bull’s eye with my old memories of the times.  Well, for one thing, Pynchon was born in 1937, and Boyle was born in 1948, and I was born in 1951.  In fact, the Pynchon book reminded me of another book from 1966, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina, also born in 1937.  I had the same kind of trouble with the Farina book, and for many of the same reasons I didn’t like the Pynchon novel.  Both of those books felt overly intellectual and writerly, whereas the Boyle book felt like it was just a straight-forward tale about real people.

This first clue leads me to think I need to read writers who are like me in some way, because obviously I can’t always read writers my own age.  I like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but they definitely aren’t like me, and I don’t resonate with them emotionally.  I admire their stories greatly, but I don’t have a personal bond with them like I do with modern stories.  I don’t think it’s time that keeps us apart, but their storytelling techniques.

Great Expectations is one of my all time favorite books, but that’s more for abstract reasons, and I greatly admire it for creative and intellectual reasons.  I’ve got to admit that I preferred the narrative of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber (1960), a novel set in Dickens’ time over straight Dickens storytelling.  Modern writers have developed skills to get their readers closer to their characters.  I don’t know is this is an illusion, and modern historical fiction is more appealing because the historical characters are just more modern themselves, or if Jane Austen used modern writing techniques we’d feel even closer to her two hundred year old characters.

My all time favorite books are books written by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s.  I also have a strong affinity for Jack Kerouac and his books from the 1950s.  These books I’ve read and reread.  Some of my more recent favorites are The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter series, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, His Dark Materials, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret Live of Bees, Middlesex, The Wonder Boys, Positively 4th Street, Nobody’s Fool, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Poisonwood Bible, The Glass Castle, Truth and Beauty, The Sparrow, Cloud Atlas, The Memory of Running, The Time Traveler’s Wife, A Woman of the Iron People, Bellwether, and so on.

Maybe here’s enough clues to solve the puzzle.  I think the books I cozy up to the fastest are first person narratives, or stories told in very limited third person.  I don’t like intellectual authors, especially those who use third person omniscient to expound about life and reality.  What I’m discovering is my kind of stories are about people, told in a very straight forward manner, and I greatly prefer the voice of the character over the voice of the author.  Not only that, but I’m pretty hung-up on wanting the story to unfold in a linear fashion.

I’m starting to wonder:  What if my kind of story depends on how the story is told rather than what it’s about?  When I was in elementary school and begun getting into books I loved biographies and autobiographies first.  Very linear people stories.  If you examine the book list above, all the stories are focused on people and the narrator tells the story by sticking close to the main character’s POV.  I liked Drop City better than The Crying of Lot 49 because Boyle got closer to his characters, but it wasn’t a super great book to me because he didn’t get close enough and there were too many of them.

When I listened to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this week, I got extremely excited about the beginning when I was first learning about Oscar, and got very disappointed when the story turned away from him.  I just started Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell, and the first story, “Baby Doll,” was a hit because of the characters, and the third story, “The Last American,” was a dud because it was all ideas and no characterization.  Intellectually I know “The Last American” is supposed to be a good story.  I can see it’s creative parts.  But it was painful for me to read because it had no character I could get behind.

I don’t think I’m seduced by every character driven story, because I’ve hated some stories with great personal writing because the POV character was too unlikable.  I love stories where the POV character have a distinctive voice, like Chi-mo in King Dork or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.  I think one of the reasons why I love the work of David Sedaris is his distinctive voice – he wouldn’t be so funny if he wasn’t so unique.

Literary writers definitely have the skills I like, but they often write about boring people.  The character details may show fantastic writing, but the personalities of the POV characters are often unappealing.  Who really cares about average alcoholic writers living in academia and getting divorced?  Well, Michael Chabon made Grady Tripp different in The Wonder Boys.

Drop City would have been a much better book to me if Boyle had followed a couple of his characters more closely.  It’s still a damn good story, but it’s movie like in that all the characters seem equal distant.  A lot of writers do this, that is, follow the techniques of the movies, jumping from character to character.  You can only get so emotionally close to an ensemble.  The Big Chill was a masterpiece of my generation, but it didn’t have the wrenching impact of Forrest Gump or Four Friends.

Other techniques I don’t like are flashbacks, convoluted plots and frames.  In the MFA classes I’ve taken, many of the student writers loved putting stories in frames, and then jumping back into flashbacks two, three and even four layers deep.  Sometimes they even use fantastic tricks to bring the modern narrator back into the past, as was done with Middlesex and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  To me, this hurts the story.  I can understand how dazzling this writing trick is intellectually, but not emotionally.

Now that I know what kind of storytelling turns me on it should help me improve my batting average finding great books to read.  On the other hand, it may not be that useful.  I often select books because other people say they are great and I want to discover what these people have discovered.  There are a lot of reasons to read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, a book that is definitely not my kind of story.  It is instructive about the nature of the early English novel and life in the 18th century England.  Tom Jones can be a great novel but one I hate to read.  So, should I read it?

Now that I’m more aware of what I like to read, should I only gorge on my kind of stories?  If reading was only about entertainment, then yes.  If reading is about pushing yourself into unknown territory, then no.  It is interesting to know about my reading sweet tooth.  Now I just have to learn how to recognize other reading flavors and how to savor them.

Jim

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