ThePageBoy

Writing, Reviewing and Criticism In The Internet Age

Tag: films

Big Mac and Fries, or ‘Still Scary’

Yup, this face just SCREAMS well-adjusted

Yup, this face just SCREAMS well-adjusted

 

Right,

I’ve written before about Stephen King  – I mean, let’s face it, the man is easily one of the most prolific authors in recent memory and his books (mainly thanks to the frankly bonkers amount they sell) have been adapted over and over again. Now, I’m well aware that King has his flaws – the rapid pace at which he churns out novels is not necessarily conducive to decent quality control and and his nigh unshakable devotion to the New England milieu can get trying but I think, and have thought for a very long time, that King has been seriously under-appreciated critically.

He’s somewhat hampered as a genre author – literary critics tend to be quietly dismissive of those who cling to rigidly to the tropes of a genre and King himself self-deprecatingly compared himself to the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, which strangely, makes me respect him even more as he seems to be aware of the criticisms against him and, y’know, not really care about them.

Whilst the limitations and tropes of his genre do sometimes affect the quality of the final product I’ve always felt there is more ambition and scope in King’s writing than is acknowledged, and it’s one of his more interesting novels I wanted to talk about here as it shows one of the prevailing concerns of King’s writing that often gets glossed over.

The 1987 novel ‘Misery’ is a book about a writer and the struggles of writing – immediately echoing some more well known of King’s fiction. The main character is Paul Sheldon a successful romance writer who, after finishing his first non-romance novel gets caught in a severe snow-storm and is severely injured, shattering both of his legs. His is rescued by a reclusive, obsessive former nurse called Annie Wiles who just so happens to be his biggest fan. Of course Annie is none-too-happy when she discovers that in the last of his romance novels Paul killed off the beloved protagonist and wants to write more ‘serious’ fiction. It turns out that Annie isn’t just obsessive but is seriously insane, prone to homicidal rage and she has a background steeped in murder the weak. This writer with the broken legs is then forced by his crazed captor to write a new book bringing back his formerly killed off character under threats of torture and physical pain.

HMM, I THINK STEPHEN KING MIGHT BE TRYING TO TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE WRITING PROCESS!

The beard hides his writerly pain

The beard hides his writerly pain

Alright, so it isn’t exactly a subtle metaphor but what shouldn’t be overlooked is that this is a very well put together horror tale. The characters are compelling – (if this is King being a little autobiographical he should be commended for his honesty), the set-up and environment does not strain credulity too much and it manages to generate some very deep scares. (more on that later)

It may not be subtle but it is highly effective and compulsively readable. Paul Sheldon as a character is identifiable and as with other works King manages to construct an interesting tension between love/hate, need and fear, not just in his relationship with Annie but in writing itself too. With Annie he fears her but at the conclusion of the novel finds himself missing her and her narcotics that she dosed him with, his good ‘Annie-dope.’ His insights on writing aren’t shallow here, even if they aren’t subtle and it’s clear that King genuinely does have an interesting relationship with his craft and how a writer produces something in a creative way when writing has become more and more about business and keeping fans happy at the expense of your own creative energy.

This is something that has gone through King’s work, as far back as the Shining, a weird tension between love and fear that King seems to be fascinated with and is a mainstay of Gothic horror fiction for as long as the genre has existed.

The book was a success though King was reluctant to sell the rights thanks to how previously films had been adapted. Thankfully Rob Reiner got hold of the film rights after King had been persuaded by how he had treated ‘Stand by Me.’ This is a very faithful adaptation but it manages to stray away from being self-indulgant. Much of the gore is skipped over and the focus of the film is on the psychological contest that emerges between Paul (played by James Caan) and Annie (the magnificent Kathy Bates.)

Would YOU turn her down for an Oscar?

Would YOU turn her down for an Oscar?

This tight focus really does help the film as instead of getting distracted by the musings on writing that worked in the book what we’re left with is a battle of wills. The gore being minimised doesn’t affect things much either as there is one scene which is different from the book, but in my view actually better done.  At one point Annie becomes aware Paul is attempting to escape – in the book she cuts off his foot with an axe and then cauterizes the wound with a blowtorch. The writing is close and intense and Paul’s terror is very well done. The key is the film didn’t aim to recreate the book but rather translate it. In the film Annie uses a block of wood and a sledgehammer to ‘hobble’ him. Watching the scene you can’t help but notice the effort that has gone in to telling something that was originally literary in cinematic language. Annie Wilkes is all sweaty, wide eyed close ups, and the choice of perspective makes us, along with Paul look up to her. The expert editing and shooting makes this not just a great horror thriller but a great example of how to adaptation well. Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her performance, proving that even if it’s a Big Mac and fries, occasionally that can be just what you’re hungry for.

Thanks

ThePageBoy

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Fantastic? Or, Yes but not really

fantastic_mr_fox

Right,

Whenever anybody looks back at their childhood there are a few things that tend to form your cultural backbone. The books and films and music and art and experiences that were important – the things that helped form who you are and the specific tastes you have. As you grow up, it is these things, these important and special things that you become protective over- things that you don’t want to see people neglect or not understand the way that you do. With that as the beginning here, let’s talk about Roald Dahl. The Norwegian born and British adopted author is, for me, and countless others who grew up at the same time and place, an incredibly important writer. As per usual I’m just trying to be honest and when it comes to Dahl and his books I can’t really be impartial.

The magic and genius of Roald Dahl was his ability to accurately capture the dark side of a child’s perception about the world. The world as Dahl and many, many children (myself included) was magical, yes, but could also be deeply unfair, mean and even dangerous. Dahl’s novels are full of brave and intelligent characters that have to deal with grotesque monsters and unfair conditions in order to get their happy ending. And grown up people? They can often be the biggest problem rather than any kind of help.

The book/film under consideration today probably isn’t one of Dahl’s best known and it is definitely one of the shortest and, on an initial reading, simplest stories – Fantastic Mr Fox.  If you’ve never read the book (I’ll stifle my cry of disbelief) it is classic Dahl, rich and funny yes, but deeply disturbing and set in a world where death lurks behind every corner. The plot follows the adventures of Mr Fox (imaginatively named) and his family as he makes his living stealing from the three mean and greedy farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean. The farmers find out what the cunning animal is up to and, after nearly shooting him to death, try to dig him out. I won’t spoilt the books ending but the good guys are OK and the bad guys….well, let’s just say that with the three farmers their ending will perfectly appeal to a child’s occasionally jet black and ironic sense of justice.

As per usual with Dahl it is the details that make the story so great – the three farmers are beautifully sketched grotesques, one of them surviving on just cider, one of them only eating chicken and the other eating nothing but livers mashed into doughnuts.  The three make  compelling villains, arrayed against the simple animal just trying to keep his family safe.

I remember being initially sceptical when news of a film initially broke – it seemed like the plot was too slight to sustain a whole feature film. But then I found I out who was directing – Wes Anderson. Perhaps counter-intuitively once I knew the hipster god-king of American indie cinema was going to be involved I relaxed a little, because if there is one thing that Anderson has consistently proven he can do is interesting aesthetics married to characters facing an occasionally dark and scary world.

So onto the film, made as a stop motion animation (thank goodness, a live action version would have been unspeakably creepy) it makes the correct judgement of not trying to spread the books plot too thin. Thus, the film’s second half is really the plot of the book and the first is Wes Anderson playing around with the characters and giving them his own particular spin. Here Fox, voiced by George Clooney is a man (animal?) who has given up on stealing chickens and has settled down for a quiet life with his wife – voiced by Meryl Streep and son played by Jason Schwartzman. Mr Fox runs into a bit of a midlife crisis and hearing the call of the wild side of his own nature starts stealing from the three toughest and scariest farmers in the valley.

So, is it a good film? Most definitely.

A good adaptation?

Well, that is slightly more complicated….

Strictly speaking the answer would have to be no, the plot and characters are changed significantly and the overall style is very different. Some scenes are quite jarring in how out of place they are (the scene with the wolf being a text book ‘big lipped alligator moment) but the film is certainly more than just the sum of its parts. For one thing the script is excellent, managing as Dahl did to capture the childlike story without becoming patronizing or overly romanticizing. When Fox’s wife realizes what he’s done and the consequences, her response of ‘I love you but I shouldn’t have married you’ shows how the script pulls of simplicity and sophistication. Yes, this is, I suppose, a kid’s movie but it isn’t a movie made AT kids. It depends upon them being familiar with the harder stuff, the drama and dark side of life when you are small and vulnerable. It may sound a little vague but it is this that makes the film a ‘good’ adaptation – the sense that the original message of the book is being carried onwards.

At its core the film celebrates the uniqueness of the individual. Though Mr Fox is a thief, he does it because he’s a wild animal and that is just who he is. His son isn’t as athletic and outgoing as his father – and that’s OK because that’s who HE is. So, it may not be a traditionally great adaptation but it is one that treats its source material with respect and no little amount of joy. It looks gorgeous, has a great cast (Willem Defoe being a highlight for me) and a story that captures some of the spark that made youngsters like me love Dahl. It’s fantastic alright, but like nothing else I’ve reviewed – just as it should be really.

Thanks

ThePageBoy