MY Top 5 Book-to-Film Adaptations

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder

Brideshead Revisited was probably the first book I ever thoroughly fell in love with, cover to cover. Typically, even with some of my favorite novels, there’s at least one section that drags (which I proceed to skip on subsequent readings) or some aspect of the message I can’t agree with (not that that’s always a bad thing); the latter, of course, launches all sorts of conversations about authorial intent, but that’s not where I want to take this. My point is it’s very rare to find a book that speaks so deeply to your soul it seems the writer must’ve known you. It may happen more than once, but the first time it happens is nothing short of magical. To this day I can’t find a single misplaced word in the entire book. Structurally, it’s flawless. Waugh certainly knew this was to be his magnum opus and crafted the novel accordingly, with meticulous attention to detail and an as yet unmatched strength of voice, dripping with sarcasm and wit. Waugh, like Fitzgerald, was a master wordsmith. Who else could so seamlessly drop words like “dipsomaniac” and “gerontophile” as if they were apart of the everyday lexicon?

As a piece of literature, Brideshead is immensely rich, ripe for an English major’s picking: feminist, socio-economical, historical, religious; the theories with which to dissect Waugh’s novel are endless. But most importantly as a Catholic, this story reached me in a way no book had ever done before and only two (Jane Eyre and The Bluest Eye) have done since.

Ben Whishaw as Lord Sebastian Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited”

Narrated by Charles Ryder, captain of a regiment in the British army, deep in the throes of World War IIBrideshead is really about the aristocratic Flyte family and the indelible imprint they leave on the still young soldier’s life. When Ryder and his battalion take a reprieve at Brideshead Castle, the Flyte family home, Charles returns in his mind to the height of his youth: his college days at Oxford where he first met the striking and eccentric Lord Sebastian Flyte. After a rough start involving Sebastian puking in Charles’s dorm window, Sebastian invites Charles to lunch as an apology. The two become fast friends. Charles, too, hails from an affluent house, but on Sebastian’s stylish coattails, suddenly finds himself  integrated into a far more decadent circle than he could’ve ever imagined. At the helm of this circle is the flamboyant Anthony Blanche, who first warns Charles of the alluring, “gruesome” Flytes, namely Lady Marchmain, whom Blanche outs as the deadliest of all. And it’s true. Lady Marchmain is a manipulative, soul-crushing woman, so subtly and deliciously destructive that on your first read you’re left wondering why so many people hate her. Hers is a quieter, perhaps more deadly evil. She preys on her victims and they all die a slow death.

 Lady Marchmain is the obvious villain of the piece, but Charles is one to watch out for, too. He’s a shameless social climber, so desperate to be liked that he is willing to destroy his friends in order to keep them. Sebastian becomes his first victim. An abashed homosexual in a Catholic family, stifled by his mother, and essentially abandoned by his father, Sebastian is the resident tragic figure. He is in love with his own childhood, a 20something-year-old man carrying around a giant teddy bear named Aloysius (the patron saint of children by the way),  ill-equipped for adulthood until he flees to Morocco halfway through the story. It comes as no surprise that by the time he escapes, he is already a full-fledged alcoholic. Charles helps him along on his pathway to destruction. Sebastian’s family makes a worthy effort to impede his downward spiral by removing his access to alcohol, but Charles, not wanting Sebastian to reject him, gives his friend the money to go out and get sloshed. But the friendship is destined to end anyway, and Charles moves on to Julia, Sebastian’s self-involved sister.

Hayley Atwell as Lady Julia Flyte in “Brideshead Revisited”

The book is unreservedly didactic, moralizing that at any point God can pull his children back to him. Each of the main characters struggle with their faith, for in Waugh’s world, and indeed most people’s world, it is an inescapable aspect of life. Even Charles believes in something, although he is a self-described atheist.

Matthew Goode & Ben Whishaw

As a film, Brideshead Revisited follows the traditional route of being nowhere near as good as the source material. But it could’ve been. The film boasts a well-rounded cast and solid performances, specifically from Ben Whishaw as Sebastian and Emma Thompson as Lady Marchmain. Of course, when these two exit, the film becomes that much more duller because Matthew Goode as Charles and Hayley Atwell as Julia are not quite as memorable in their roles. The book, too, was never as good as its first half because Marchmain and Sebastian are such vivid, dynamic characters. At least Waugh had his  writing skill to fall back on. At any rate, I blame director Julian Jarrold for the whole thing. He took a book full of complexity and potential and reduced it to a love story. Gag me with a spoon twice. The film plays up the homosexual relationship between Sebastian and Charles, an affair never explicitly alluded to in the novel and ultimately uninteresting in the grand scheme of things. Critics have been debating for years whether homosexuality was among the “grave list of sins” Charles referred to when recalling his first summer with Sebastian. Honestly, this rather oversimplified idea of their relationship pales in comparison to the parasitic implications, given that Charles’s god at the time is Beauty, something Sebastian certainly possesses. What’s more, Jarrold can’t even get the love angle right, turning the romance into a love triangle, adding Julia to the mix long before she’s wanted.

By sacrificing the themes that made Waugh’s novel so great, namely faith and the dying aristocracy, the film loses a lot. It loses almost everything actually. It received mainly lukewarm reviews; although, I admit it was often and unfairly compared to the BBC miniseries, which had longer to incorporate more of the novel.

So why, you might ask, is this on my best adaptations list? Well, for all the faults of his vision, Jarrold certainly has a right to it. And adapting isn’t always about staying faithful to the novel (as you’ll see in my final pick). Surely many of his decisions were made with a modern, perhaps young audience in mind, and I commend him at the very least for being courageous enough to tamper with such a beloved staple of British literature. He did not always succeed, but he didn’t destroy Waugh’s novel for the screen. He diminished the theme of religion, but at least he did not eradicate it. Even by removing the ambiguity from Charles’s and Sebastian’s relationship, he did not damage the fundamental structure, that of host and parasite; for in the end Charles has a hand in Sebastian’s destruction, too, along with Lady Marchmain.

One thing I do like about his version is that it does somehow manage to capture the spirit of the novel, probably inadvertently. If I had to reduce Brideshead to a few words I’d probably say the novel is a beautiful, almost magical tragedy. Jarrold strikes this note easily, perhaps because it is the most superficial note of all. The costumes, the cinematography, the sets, and like I mentioned already, the acting, are all superb. But it is Adrian Johnston’s score that arguably goes the longest way to capturing tone. Sebastian is a huge part of the novel’s spirit and the same can be said of the film. His absence leaves a gaping hole in the story, not least because he is so endearing and lost and generally pitiable. Johnston dedicates an entire song to the character, “Fantasy Impromptu in C Sharp Minor, Opus 66: Sebastian,” perfectly evocative of his whimsical, tormented soul.

MY Top 5 Book-to-Film Adaptations

Atonement

Like Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan belongs to that celebrated group of contemporary British novelists who have filmmakers and producers lining up to adapt their works based on name recognition alone. Several of McEwan’s books had been turned into films long before he published Atonement in 2001; and it only took six years for Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright to translate the author’s latest award-winning novel for the screen.

 

James McAvoy and Keira Knightley in “Atonement”

Set in World War II-era England among the scions of British high society, McEwan sets his tale firmly in the grasp of Briony Tallis, an imaginative 13-year-old unfortunately left to her own devices one hot, aimless summer to the detriment of so many lives. Her unfaithful father remains at work in London most nights (and never appears throughout the novel) while her mother shuts herself away in her room most of the day due to “migraines;” her sister Cecilia grapples with her feelings for the maid’s son Robbie, and her brother Leon is too busy entertaining his businessman friend Paul Marshall. Meanwhile, Briony is stuck with her sojourning cousins, whose mother has recently run off with another man.

One night Briony catches Cecilia and Robbie in the middle of a passionate tryst. Not long after, Cecilia and Briony’s cousin Lola is found raped. Briony erroneously points the finger at Robbie, saving Lola the trouble of identifying her attacker. Robbie and Cecilia are subsequently yanked apart without any proper time together before war ravages the country.

The novel is largely about the sometimes blurry line between truth and perspective, or truth versus imagination, and on a metaphysical level whether the author is somehow exempt from twisting the truth to suit his intent or soothe his conscience.

Atonement also appropriately explores themes of guilt and forgiveness.

Saoirse Ronan as Young Briony

Generally speaking, I think it’s a masterpiece. But I have one big problem with this novel. I can’t speak extensively about McEwan’s pattern as a writer since this is the only book of his I’ve read (although I am considering picking up Cement Garden), but from Atonement alone, he seems pretty self-indulgent.

This dense, overly-detailed tragedy is not only a laborious read, but ultimately an infuriating one. Suffice it to say, it does not end well. This does not mean that McEwan is a bad writer. Far from it. He is perhaps too good a writer, and yes, that can be a bad thing. On the one hand, McEwan is unmatched in his ability to make characters come alive with just a few lines. He beautifully violates the writers’ golden rule: “Show, don’t tell!”

Of the novel’s resident Christ-figure McEwan writes, “Some said that it was innocence, or ignorance of the world, that protected Robbie from being harmed by it, that he was a kind of holy fool who could step across the drawing room equivalent of hot coals without harm.” Bellisimo.

His descriptions, not just of the characters but of the world around them, are vivid and inspired. Too bad he feels the need to detail everything. For instance, McEwan takes pages—as in more than two—just to describe what Cecilia is wearing. At one point, he even has Cecilia look at vase, describes the vase, then proceeds to unravel her  entire family history (note: her grandfather living underneath an ironmonger’s shop has nothing to do with the rest of the novel). Superfluous details like these overload an otherwise genius story. There will always be stories about writers, especially since writers are the ones writing stories. But you rarely find stories about the art of storytelling and its limits, if there are any. Atonement seems to ask to what extent does a writer get to play God? Without thinking, the answer might be there are no limits. After all, it’s the author’s story. Isn’t it? There may no real answer to this question, but several writers will tell you that at some point, the story begins to write itself.

It is for this reason that Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the acclaimed novel is not only brilliant, but commendable. He has never, even at his worst (*cough*The Soloist), been a heavy-handed director. He knows when guide and when to draw back and let the story and his actors blossom. Case in point, there is a twist at the end of the novel that was declared “un-filmable” by many of its fans before the film was released. Wright, however, pulls it off seamlessly. There is no fancy camera work in this scene (although the cinematography in this film is just breathtaking, but more about that in a minute), just a close-up of Vanessa Redgrave‘s Older Briony, her somber face and penetrating gaze filling up the screen. No need to pan the camera around the room or zoom in on Redgrave’s eyes. Let the story speak for itself.

Wright clearly understands this, but this doesn’t mean his approach to this film is a lax one. In some instances, like Redgrave’s finale, there’s really no need to do any more than keep the camera steady on this legend and allow her to do what she does best. But when adapting a novel like Atonement, with all its twists and turns and sprawling internal dialogues, effort of a different kind is required. Where McEwan had the luxury of switching perspectives with just a smattering of words, Wright had the more difficult feat of attempting to do this visually and without confusing the audience. Just like hte book, we witness certain scenes twice, but Wright frames these moments with a shot of Briony in order to let us know we are about to receive something ambiguous.

Seamus McGarvey‘s sweeping cinematography is perhaps Wright’s greatest ally in this department. The photography is exquisitely captured, and there are so many breathtaking scenes of simple moments–like Cecilia falling onto the steps in the crisp, black evening while her green dress billows elegantly around her–made all the more impressive thanks to McGarvey’s skilled and careful eye.

The film also boasts an expressive, heartrending score by Dario Marianelli.  The composer thoroughly deserved the Academy Award he received for it. It’s hard not to fall in love with the wistful, romantic “Cottage by the Beach.” He also showcases a nice bit of wit with “Cee, You, and Tea.” (Think about it.)

MY Top 5 Book-to-Film Adaptations

Never Let Me Go

Acclaimed author Kazuo Ishiguro only released his award-winning science fiction novel Never Let Me Go in 2005, and Mark Romanek‘s film adaptation starring Andrew Garfield (the new Spiderman), Keira Knightley, and Carey Mulligan, entered theaters just five years later. It’s understandable. It is Ishiguro, after all, the same man who penned Remains of the Day, later adapted into an Academy Award-nominated picture starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins back in 1993.

 Never Let Me Go did not leave nearly the same impact as its predecessor. The film was given limited release, and while met with generally positive reviews, did not garner the kind of accolades Ishiguro’s previously adapted work did. Most critics concede that while the film was a heartfelt effort, thanks in no small part to the poignant performances from its main cast, Never Let Me Go fell short of the source material’s emotional punch. But even Mark Jenkins of NPR called the film a “remarkably successful adaptation.” I tend to agree.

Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley in “Never Let Me Go”

Ishiguro’s novel is a haunting, elegiac composition, not without its flaws. Set in dystopian England, Never Let Me Go is lyrically told from the flat, not particularly engaging perspective of Cathy H., an introverted girl-clone, raised solely to someday provide vital organs, known as “donations,” to wealthy humans in case of emergencies like kidney or liver failure. The story chronicles Cathy’s youth at Hailsham boarding school and her long-lasting friendship with two other students: the extroverted, but secretly insecure Ruth and the passionate, gentle-hearted Tommy D. Tommy and Cathy fall in love early on, but Ruth manages to scoop him up first, binding him to a loveless relationship that lasts into their adulthood. The three friends are soon pulled apart by various external and internal circumstances, not least among them Cathy’s feelings for Tommy–which she believes unreciprocated–and Ruth’s burgeoning envy. They are all, however, reunited just in time to learn how short life really is.

The film owes much of its success to the playing up of this theme rather than the injustice of clone-life aspect (given far more prominence in the novel); as metaphysical commentary the message cannot survive the confines of its genre, and the true emotional impact enters through the audience’s connection with the film’s very human characters. Undoubtedly, this was Ishiguro’s purpose. Whatever the case, the film might’ve lost a great deal of relevance with the argument, “Clones are people, too!” This is one of several things Romanek actually gets right.

In all honesty, the movie mainly came up short in those areas that are more conducive to literature and can only be poorly translated into film. One of the high points of the novel is the relationship between Ruth and Cathy, reminiscent of so many girlhood friendships, all at once possessive, envious, and adoring. Obviously, a film does not have the time to explore this connection as throroughly as a three hundred-page book might; although, Knightley and Mulligan do what they can. Which brings me to the performances.

Andrew Garfield & Carey Mulligan

Another thing the film did right was the casting. One mistep in this arena could have easily pushed the film into soap opera territory. Garfield is flawless as Tommy, and this is never more apparent than a pivotal scene where he hurtles from a car and stumbles, screaming, into a deserted field. This could have easily been one of those melodramatic moments that yanks the audience out of the film. The effectiveness of this scene is a testament to his sincere, unaffected performance leading up that point. Hitherto restrained, he, like the audience by this point, longs for catharsis. When he breaks, so do we.

Mulligan turns in a beautifully-realized Cathy, so much more engaging and heartrending than the novel’s version. It’s a quiet role, but she never gets showy or fidgety there, preferring to leave most of the effort to her eyes. I’ve never been a fan of Knightley, but she’s at the very least passable here as the bitchy Ruth, though somehow nowhere near as complex or heartbreaking, also potentially the fault of time constraints.

Otherwise the film shines in those areas native to the medium. The cinematography is fitting, immersed in that gray color palate which seems to be the default tone for all dystopian dramas (see The Road and Children of Men). Most commendably, Never Let Me Go shows remarkable restraint with a film that treads the line of between serious drama and melodrama by subject matter alone. Rachel Portman‘s–in a word, “composed”–score  goes a long way towards keeping the movie in check. Serene and unintrusive, the music serves as a kind of embodiment of Cathy or either the quiet tragedy of her life, which she embraces with her quiet strength. Portman reportedly employed an ochestra of less than 50, and her initial instinct (veered away from by producers before they ultimately realized its ingenuity) to keep the soundtrack soft and restrained as opposed to big and romantic turned out for the best. For this is no sweeping, epic romance. It’s a simple love between simple “people,” all the more beautiful for its humanity.

All that said, Never Let Me Go is a successful adaptation and generally speaking, faithful in all areas except one. In the novel, Tommy asks Cathy not to be his “carer,” or the clone that helps another clone make his or her donations. The film, in an arguably better choice, sees Cathy remain Tommy’s carer. Perhaps what makes it so successful an adaptation lies simply in the efficiency with which Ishiguro’s novel was translated. I don’t know if it survives on its own, having read the novel first. But it’s a well-made film in any case.

Below is one heartbreaking scene (among many) from the movie.

 

MY Top 5 Book-to-Film Adaptations of the 21st Century (So Far)

The Harry Potter Series

Few people would consider J. K. Rowling‘s best-selling series “literature,” at least not in the same vein as its predecessors, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy or even C. S. Lewis‘s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Some of you are probably balking right now at the mere mention of Rowling in the same sentence as Lewis and Tolkien, even though the woman practically revolutionized the Young Adult genre. Whatever the case, no one can deny that this series has become entrenched in popular culture and the hearts and souls of readers all over the world. Given its fans’ intense adoration, naturally, the films are held to a very high standard, but they more than meet the challenge and have been generally well-received, critically and publicly.

Obviously, some adaptations are better than others. The first two, The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, are generally considered the worst of the series, not horrible but akin to Disney fluff (although The Sorcerer’s Stone is great if for nothing but nostalgic value). The Deathly Hallows Part 1 and 2 were pretty epic, even separate from the books; and The Prisoner of Azkaban marked a very well-executed transition into a darker, more adult arena.

More than anything, I admire that despite the fact that this series is the product of several different visions, each director somehow managed to remain consistent and true to the spirit of the books; for that is where

Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, and Daniel Radcliffe in “Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban”

the success of Harry Potter resides. Strip away the magical beings, Quidditch, power-hungry warlords, and what you have is a story about the human experience: growing up, friendship, love, loss, the ugliness as well as the beauty of humanity. The series’ popularity was unprecendented, thanks in large part to the fact that its core base effectively grew up with the beloved main characters. Just as Harry experienced the pain of failed first love, so were many of his readers. While Harry and Ron fought and made up, while Hermione and Ron pined away for each other under poorly-disguised irritation, we, too, engaged in a similar, adolescent tug-of-war with our own childhood friends. No matter the director–Alfonso Cuarón, Mike Newell, David Yates–not one of them ever intefered with the heart of Harry Potter.

Cuarón’s Prisoner of Azkaban first steered the series into darker, arguably sinister territory tonally, with its dark lighting, Gothic era-inspired cinematography, and mournful score–the last to be composed by John Williams. Our Harry, under Cuarón’s direction, is different, too. He is sullen, in the way only puberty-stricken boys can be, sarcastic and angsty, displaying the first hints of burgeoning manhood. Cuarón, of course, is no stranger to placing children in dark situations, having directed a personal childhood favorite of mine, A Little Princess a few years earlier (he would also go on to produce best friend Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth). But I can imagine it would’ve been all too easy to ignore the subtle beauties of Rowling’s opus and place undue emphasis on the more cinematic aspects like Harry’s struggle with the dementors. I knew this adaptation was in safe hands early on in the film when Harry runs upstairs having blown up his Uncle Vernon‘s sister Marge, and stares longingly at the moving portrait of his parents dancing surrounded by autumn. I’m relatively sure that this is not in the book, but even if it is, it’s executed nicely in the film with the addition of Williams’s score.

Daniel Radcliffe in “Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows Part 1”

 The point is to remind the audience that this is still the Harry we remember, the Boy Who Lived, the most famous boy-wizard of his time, who, at the end of the day, is just like any other orphan, longing for the love of parents he never knew and so desperately needs come moments like these. Rowling, of course, addresses this in a different way. The book allows for much more detail about what goes on inside Harry’s head when the dementors creep near, forcing him to relive the horrible night his mother traded her life for his. In the film, as in the book, we get Professor Lupin‘s conversations with Harry about his parents, and those conversations probably would’ve sufficed. But the decision to keep even this little moment in the film is a testament to the director’s willingness to remain faithful to the text even on the smallest scale.

There are several other examples of such respect for the source material throughout the series, and I won’t enumerate them all, but I will mention just one more. In The Deathly Hallows Part I we see Hermione performing the memory charm on her parents. She mentions this in the book, but we don’t actually get to experience it because the book is told from a third-person limited perspective. We get Harry’s point of view, occasionally Voldemort’s, and a very amusing scene at the beginning of The Half-Blood Prince between Fudge and the human prime minister. Yates, however, made the very wise decision to show us the heartbreaking moment where Hermione erases her parents’ memory and every trace of herself from her home. Moreover, equipped with the conviction that the first half of Rowling’s final installment in the series is very much the trio’s story, Yates gives the audience a shot of Ron, Harry, and Hermione each, right before they head off to the fight of their lives.

These books certainly earned their film adaptations, because it’s so much easier to make a great movie when it’s based on a great book; not that it’s impossible to fail a great book, too. But in the hands of these extremely talented and considerate directors, you really couldn’t go wrong.

{Here’s the amazing trailer for the amazing final film, which I saw three times while it was in the theater and cried through each time.}

Moving right along…

So, I’ve decided to keep it at 4 Hollywood tropes that must die a horrible death, because I couldn’t think of another one that I felt passionately enough about or that was detrimental enough to warrant a full-length post. Anyway, one thing I KNOW I can write about extensively is my Top 5 Book-to-Film Adaptations. People have a funny relationship with the term “literary” and “literature,” so I’ve avoided them. One tends to lend these terms to books that have earned merit through age, and some of these novels haven’t even reached the ten-year mark.  More to the point, this list will be limited by the scope of my reading and to films released in the 21st century, which may sound grand and sweeping but really only covers the past twenty years. So, that’s happening soon.

 

4 Hollywood Tropes That Must Die A Horrible Death

4. UGLY DUCKLING ROMANCE

You can’t have a list of narrative devices Hollywood has sufficiently run into the  ground without including the infamous makeover cliche.

I don’t even have to explain it. You already know what I’m talking about. But for those of you who have spent the last forty to sixty years in a cave somewhere, the makeover cliche often happens when an “ugly duckling,” or more accurately, a stunningly beautiful actress wearing glasses wants to date the  resident cutie, but realizes he’s out of her league because she wears glasses. So, her fairy godmother/best friend or whoever (not important, honestly) grants her a makeover and voila! Suddenly, pretty boy who was heretofore indifferent to ugly duckling, suddenly discovers her existence and decides she is worthy of his time.

The message here being that you can’t truly be happy unless you’re pretty and someone other than you loves you. Either that or you’ll never be considered romantically viable if you wear eyeglasses.

Audrey Hepburn looking positively undesirable pre-makeover in “Sabrina”

Grease is probably the worst and most celebrated offender, followed shortly by She’s All That.  Who can forget the infamous red dress scene, where Rachel Leigh Cook‘s Laney descended into the wide gaze of Freddie Prinze Jr.‘s Zack? In all fairness, that’s a pretty memorable scene for a reason. Director Robert Iscove built up the anticipation expertly, with the added touch of the undyingly beautiful “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer. It only fails to hold up as well as it did at the time thanks to countless scathing reenactments that have more to do with the silliness of the premise than the actual scene itself.

From My Big Fat Greek Wedding to The Princess Diaries to My Fair Lady to Sabrina and so on, the continued perpetuation of this trope is perhaps one of the most detrimental messages people get from Hollywood. On the surface it seems funny enough, but upon deeper inspection it’s kind of cruel. For one thing, it suggests that only pretty girls get handsome guys or get loved in general. It is apparently impossible in Hollywood land for nerdy GIRLS to be loved as they are. Which brings me to the other point, can you name any film where the guy was forced to undergo a makeover to get the girl of his dreams?

Yeah, didn’t think so.

Jim Sturgess and Anne Hathaway in “One Day”

Unfortunately, this trope is impressively hard to kill and even worse, seems to be evolving in an ugly way if the film One Day is anything to go by. In the film, Anne Hathaway stars as yet another ugly ducking wearing glasses who spends most of her life in love with the handsome, charismatic Dex (Jim Sturgess). Anne doesn’t get a makeover montage, but her character blossoms into a confident, beautiful celebrated children’s writer with a gratingly faux British accent. Unfortunately, her life has no meaning without the once-handsome guy she used to drool over back in college, who, by the way, isn’t even handsome anymore. Once they get together, her existence is officially validated. How romantic.

4 Hollywood Tropes That Must Die a Horrible Death

3. BIG BAD CHRISTIANITY

Hollywood seems to have an ambivalent, contradictory relationship with Christianity. On the one hand, it makes for a great villain. Christians and their theology are regularly portrayed as the chief threat to all things pleasurable and worthy of pursuit in life: freedom, intellectual enlightenment, sex, and general happiness.

On the other hand, when you’ve got a possessed woman or child or house on your hands, a priest–not Dan Aykroyd–is number one on speed dial.

That said, the former has always carried more stock than the latter. Haunted houses and demon-possessed loved ones are not immediate dangers to be anticipated in our everyday lives. You are, however, likely to come across a Christian every once in a while, and if the American film industry is anything to go by, you should run for the hills because they’re all effing whackjobs.

Think I’m reaching? Okay. When was the last time you saw an overtly Christian hero or protagonist grace the big screen? I’ll wait.

Okay then. Now let me enumerate recent examples of Christian villains in film. I’ll start with Ridley Scott, director of one the most enjoyable movie experiences I’ve had this past summer, Prometheus, thanks in no small part to Michael Fassbender. A few years ago, Scott directed Kingdom of Heavena film, disappointing on several levels, about the Crusades. Heaven‘s hero is the extremely unimpressive Orlando Bloom, whose character Balian is wary not just of faith, but faithful men, and for good reason as the movie wastes no time revealing. In the first few minutes, if not seconds, of the film, we see a priest steal the silver crucifix from the recently deceased body of Balian’s wife. Fast forward to Balian’s arrival in the Holy Land, where he meets the nefarious Raynald of Châtillon and, if

Marton Csokas being creepy in “Kingdom of Heaven”

possible, even more wicked Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas). As if the fact that Lusignan is married to Balian’s love interest Siyblla was not enough to establish his villainy, he and Raynald (played deliciously by Brendan Gleeson) are also avid supporters of the  Knights Templar, united under the objective of provoking war, destroying all Muslims, and claiming the land for Christians. Ultimately, war begins because “God wills it” and, as a random monk cries, “To kill an infidel is not murder. It is the path to heaven!” Just two things: For one, the latter phrase is nowhere to be found in the Bible, either literally or implicitly; and for another, while some ordinary random might be able to get away with that cray-cray, a monk, who supposedly studies the Bible for a living, could not. In essence, EPIC FAIL, RIDLEY.

Really, I shouldn’t even waste my irritation on Kingdom of Heaven. It was a joke, both critically and monetarily, and Edward Norton’s heartbreaking portrayal of Baldwin IV was the only good thing about it.

Amanda Bynes and Emma Stone in “Easy A”

Easy A, however, was an all-around success, not just in the box office and with critics, but also in the respect that it catapulted newcomer Emma Stone to stardom. In all fairness, the film was a modern day take on The Scarlet  Letter, so hypocritical Christians kind of come with the territory.

Resident Puritan Marianne is portrayed as a neurotic, bipolar, Bible-thumping high schooler who makes it her life’s mission to destroy the film’s likeable protagonist Olive (Stone) after she generously offers to perpetuate rumors that several nerdy guys have had sex with her in order to increase their popularity. But it’s not enough to make Marianne woefully unrealistic and grating, she must be punished for her belief system, too. *Spoiler Alert* It turns out that Marianne’s boyfriend, also “devoutly Christian,” has been sleeping with the guidance counselor and contracted chlamydia. The subliminal message being that Christians either don’t really believe or practice what they preach and/or what they preach is unnatural anyway, reducing the film to that wonderful argument a five-year-old could poke holes in: Everybody’s doing it.

Perhaps this is why director Will Gluck maintains the film was “inspired” by Hawthorne’s masterpiece, rather than a blatant retelling. Easy A doesn’t pack the same punch nor carry the same significance because it has no real direction for its criticism. The conclusion shows Olive telling her school it’s really nobody’s business who, when, how many times, and most importantly who or how many people she has sex with; keep in mind, she says this in a video after she has just detailed the events of her life that past semester. Personally, I think the  best line comes from Thomas Haden Church‘s character, who says, “I don’t know what your generation’s fascination is with documenting your every thought… but I can assure you, they’re not all diamonds.” This to me should have been the WHOLE point of the film. It would’ve made far more sense in the age of Facebook and Twitter, especially since it’s not like Olive’s attending a parochial school in the middle of nowhere. Nope. She’s going to regular old public high school…in California, no less. And, if memory serves me correctly having only graduated a little over four years ago, such an instituition would be far harsher to the Christian kids than the kids born to the Sexual Revolution’s generation.

Now all this is not to say that crazy or hypocritical Christians don’t exist. They definitely do. But then, crazy, hypocritical people of all creeds and even no creed at all exist. The problem lies within its vitriolic agenda-pushing. In any other case, to demonize a group of people for believing differently than you do would be called intolerance.

4 Hollywood Tropes That Must Die a Horrible Death

2. AFRICAN EARTH MOTHER-DIVAS

In her essay “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”, wunderkind author Zadie Smith laments the fetishization of black female protagonists as they appear in literature. Regardless, her observation remains astute and translates seamlessly to film: The reason we see this trope up on the big screen so often is because it was first depicted in a wildly best-selling novel, typically set in the South and told from the perspective of  a vulnerable young white girl wandering aimlessly toward womanhood.

Smith describes it like this: “In the place of negative falsification, we have nurtured, in the past thirty years, a new fetishization. Black female protagonists are now unerringly strong and soulful; they are sexually voracious and unafraid; they take the unreal forms of earth mothers, African queens, divas, spirits of history…They are pressed into service as role models to patch over our psychic wounds; they are perfect…”

Now, some people might not see what’s so wrong with that. After all, black women have come a long way from being portrayed as either Mammies or Sapphires…or have we? Only a few months ago, Octavia Spencer won an Oscar for perhaps the MOST stereotypical character I have had the displeasure to behold. In The Help (based on Kathyrn Stockett’s disgustingly beloved novel of the same name), Spencer plays Minny, a sassy, fried-chicken loving black  woman whose main purpose is to extend tough love to the picture’s attractive, fragile white women. Eventually, they mature into courageous young ladies, ready to take on the big city in Emma Stone‘s case and no longer preoccupied with the opinions of their contemporaries in Jessica Chastain‘s. And what does Minny get in return? Why, a lifetime of servitude to her favorite white family, that’s what! She hit the jackpot, Minny did.

Minny’s friend Aibileen (played with as much grace as possible by Viola Davis) is similarly reduced to a human prop. She considers it her life’s duty to instill confidence in her employers’ adorable, neglected toddler. Although her best friend Minny’s children are forced to witness their father physically, verbally, and emotionally abuse their mother on a nightly basis, Aibileen doesn’t seem too bothered about that.

I trash The Help quite a lot, so I’ll be fair and point out the same shortcomings in one of my favorite films, The Secret Life of Bees. This film will forever hold a special place in my  heart, simply because I feel like Sue Monk Kidd came from a far truer and more sincere place than Kathyrn Stockett ever could.

Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, and Alicia Keys in “The Secret Life of Bees”

Kidd owes the success of her story mainly to characters that were not only sympathetic but relatable. Lily is an awkward, motherless, fourteen-year-old, starved for affection. She finds that affection in four black women–her father’s maid Rosaleen and the three Boatwright sisters. June (a passable Alicia Keys) suffers serious fear of commitment issues and May (the always engaging Sophie Okenedo) is a lovable, if heartbreaking empath. August (Queen Latifah) is the resident African Earth Mother-Diva, never less than saintly in any scene. Lily only begins to blossom after she finds “all these mothers” and accepts the love she longs for so desperately.

While The Secret Life of Bees is not a great film, it succeeds thanks largely to the chemistry between the leads. But neither Kidd nor Stockett, and thus nor can their films achieve the message of sisterhood both claim to purport. They can’t because their white characters and their black characters are not on the same footing. Sisterhood isn’t give and give, it’s give and take, and equality must be established first. Lily is the primary beneficiary of her story, just like The Help‘s Skeeter and Celia are the primary beneficiaries in their respective relationships with their maids.

The danger in this stereotype should be painfully obvious: It strips black women of their sexuality, white women of their strength, and both of their dignity.

On one level, we have black women who are more invested in the rearing of their employers’ children than their own. That’s not only absurd but a complete distortion of the true nature of race relations during this time. The relationship between maids and the children they looked after could never be free to develop purely because society would not allow it. It did not take long for some of these same children to grow up to become oppressors. Now, that’s not to say all white children grew up to be Klansmen; on the contrary, some grew up to march alongside other blacks at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Nevertheless, whether they wished to or not, they could not help but benefit from a system built on the subjugation of an entire group of people.

Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, and Viola Davis in “The Help”

Most disturbing of all is the way this trope masks itself as a well-intentioned celebration of womanhood across racial lines, weeding its way into the hearts of white and black women alike while subtly devaluing them both. Strength is not an innate element found in melanin; moreover, isn’t it strange that none of these women can be strong and romantically appealing at the same time?

And what of their white counterparts, reduced to helpless girl-babies desperate for guidance and direction? Romantically appealing but ultimately weak, virtual children?

Unfortunately, this trope shows no signs of fading away anytime soon. Spencer won the Oscar for a role yet to be acknowledged for its unabashed offensiveness. Meanwhile, Davis has another “Mammy-ish” role in the can with the upcoming Beautiful Creatures.

4 Hollywood Tropes That Must Die a Horrible Death

Hollywood may be the laziest corporation in existence today.

Originally, I intended to qualify my opening statement with “in America,” but honestly, it’s probably the laziest association of individuals in the world. No exaggeration. I can’t think of any other entity making more and working less at the moment. For all the money they rake in, they haven’t had an original thought in a long time. One need look no further than this weekend’s box office: Three of the five top-grossing films are sequels and one is a remake. This pretty much sums up the majority of Hollywood’s efforts the last three to five years. Moreover, for a business so obnoxiously, if not undeservedly, hailed as the beacon of the film industry, they have remade practically every successful foreign film of the past decade, with absolutely no signs of slowing down. Harvey Weinstein and his people recently announced plans to film an English-language remake of the highest-grossing French film in the world, “The Intouchables,” released as far back as last year. My reaction to this news: Um…why? Are Americans illiterate? Or are we as a people just so lazy that we can’t be bothered to read subtitles?

But this is to be expected. Hollywood’s number one objective–breaking news, folks–is making money. So they stick to those tested and true trends that bring in the dough, no matter how repetitive or worse, detrimental. And  yes, some of these trends are definitely detrimental.

Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

1. MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL

Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown”

Although coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in response to Kirsten Dunst‘s character in Elizabethtown (2007), the truth is the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl (MPDG) has been around for ages. From Audrey Hepburn‘s iconic Holly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to what I consider the epitome of the archetype, Natalie Portman‘s adorable Sam in Garden State, the MPDG is pitifully unrealistic…and kind of sexist, too.

Aside from being an adorable collection of quirks assembled into the feminine, but not intimidatingly sexy frame of a doe-eyed 20-something Caucasian woman, Rabin beautifully characterizes this archetype as “that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.”

Now I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Garden State as much as the next film-buff-hipster hybrid, and this hurts all the more because it’s basically true of two of cinema’s most likeable female characters. Let’s take a quick glance at Holly. Her personality consists of one endearing eccentricity after another. She can’t be bothered to name her pet so she just calls him “Cat.” She serenades the city with “Moon River” on her guitar in the middle of the afternoon. She climbs into her neighbor’s window and falls asleep with him after meeting him oh, maybe thirty hours  or so ago. She does at least have her own problems to deal with, like worrying about her soldier brother and her fear of commitment issues. In the sixties, they were so much better at faking it. But let’s call a spade a spade. Holly’s main purpose is to get Paul, the main guy, focused and writing again. Before she waltzes into his bedroom , he’s a lost soul struggling to compose a follow-up to his debut novel.

Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in “Garden State”

If you’ve seen Garden State, do I really need to enumerate all the ways Sam is the quintessential MPDG? Between tap-dancing barefoot and screaming on top of trains and lying only to confess five seconds later, does she have any real purpose besides making the audience squeal with delight and yanking Zach Braff back into the world of the living? Didn’t think so.

I suppose all of this would be fine, except that it’s rooted in sexism, however well-intentioned. On some level it’s flattering to be someone’s muse, but these characters are left to do little else but prop up the men in their lives and serve to alternately amuse and guide him.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in “500 Days of Summer”

Fortunately, this trope is being turned on its head as of late. 500 Days of Summer brilliantly exposes the Dream of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” And just to prove how necessary the death of the MPDG is, ask at least three people what they thought about the romantic lead in this film. I can guarantee at least two of them will call Summer “a bitch.”

Even more recently,  my latest girl crush Zoe Kazan penned this year’s indie darling “Ruby Sparks” (which I haven’t seen yet, but from what I’ve read is a far more upbeat version of 500 Days of Summer), which also turns the MPDG myth on its head.