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Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” February 10, 2012

Posted by rwf1954 in books compared to movies, books into movies, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, literary commentary, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”—movie release date January 20, 2012 (limited, December 25, 2011)—is based on the novel, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close written by Jonathan Safran Foer. After reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, I suspected this would be one of the more challenging Books-Into-Movies posts I would take on. The story of the mysterious key is relatively simple, along with the phone messages from Oskar’s father, Thomas. But the book is infused with tangents and diversions, and exotic storytelling techniques, providing a lot of eccentric details. The story does not unfold in a conventional linear way as it bounces from first-person accounts set in different time periods—from Oskar, and from both his grandparents. The film-makers needed to make choices to create an accessible story for audiences (and they did just that, though hints of the time-bouncing are still evident in the film). So I’ll start with some big-issue generalizations comparing the book to the movie, then offer some discussions of details as they struck me. Two comments before I begin: 1) There are a lot of details and I may miss a favorite of someone reading this. Please feel free to remedy that with a comment. 2) I have tried hard to be accurate with these details, but with this book, there is a chance I will miss something. I invite sharp-eyed reader comments on that as well.

First, the basic story of the key was retained nearly detail-for-detail from the book. In the book, Abby Black calls Oskar back some time after he visited her, saying she wasn’t completely honest, that she didn’t know about the key but that her ex-husband might. Oskar does not discover her with the phone number from a newspaper clipping.  The scene between Oskar Schell and William Black is mostly detail-for-detail from the book, including much of the dialogue. Differences: Oskar does not run off screaming at the end of their meeting. And there is no reconciliation between Abby and William Black. Also, I don’t recall any reference to an alcohol drink for William Black at their meeting. And, as in the book, the movie does not tell us what was in William Black’s safety deposit box. Frankly, as a reader and audience-member, I wanted to know!

Second, the storyline of the heartbreaking phone messages is also preserved from the book. That includes Thomas calling specifically for his son that last time, knowing his wife was not there because he had previously spoken to her on her cell-phone. In the book, Thomas tells his wife/Oskar’s mother that he is out of the building—she knows it’s not true, that he just made it up so she wouldn’t worry—and she believes he knows she knows. “Are you there” over and over is directly from the book.

Third, the filmmakers omitted a huge storyline from the book (time certainly was a limiting factor) involving the strange, quirky relationship between Oskar’s paternal grandparents. They both provide extensive first person narratives written in their own distinctive styles. We do get some of the grandfather—the not-speaking, the tattooed “YES” and “NO” on his hands are straight from the book. But many other details are omitted, and others changed. I’ll address more of this as I look at some of the details in the movie. The grandmother’s back-story is completely left out. Here, I’ll give only a rough outline of their back-story, inviting readers to buy and read the book if they want more. Both Oskar’s grandparents lived through the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II. (There is also a clip of an interview transcript with a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bombing right after the grandmother’s account of her husband leaving her, a scene apparently intended to connect war victims.) Both were traumatized by their experience at Dresden. Oskar’s grandfather is so traumatized that he is literally afraid to live. He leaves his young wife before Thomas is born, afraid to be a father. He writes endless, voluminous letters to his child, letters he never sends. (In the book, they receive a peculiar fate that I’ll address later in his post.) Oskar’s grandfather only returns after Thomas’s death on Nine-Eleven, and is also referred to as “the Renter” as in the book.

That completes the larger comparisons. Next, I’ll look at some details:

  • Oskar does indeed offer all sorts of unusual, imaginative ideas in the book, like having everyone swallow microphones so people can hear each other’s heartbeats.
  • Oskar’s business card, listing all his activities—straight from the book.
  • Thomas Schell’s coffin is empty in the book is well. Oskar is taken with the idea of filling it with something, but he’s not sure what. “The Renter” has the answer. He tells Oskar he had a son, now dead. Oskar asks how “the Renter’s” son died, but “the Renter” answers he lost his son before he died. At this point Oskar does not know for certain “the Renter” is his grandfather. The narrative implies that he makes the connection at some point after experiencing the events he is describing. “The Renter” wants to bury all his undelivered letters to his now deceased son. So, with some assistance, they dig up Thomas Schell’s coffin and do just that.
  • Walkie-talkie communications between Oskar and his grandmother are from the book.
  • In the book, Thomas Schell tells his son the story of the “Sixth Borough.” In the movie, this becomes a quest for Oskar. In the book, Thomas gives Oskar a number of puzzles to solve. So the movie combines the “Sixth Borough” fairytale with the puzzle-solving aspect of their relationship.
  • Oskar certainly sees the search for the lock to fit the key as an extension of his relationship with his father. In the resolution scene with William Black in the book, he wants the explanation to take as long as possible. I do not recall the detail about the sun exploding, then taking eight minutes to reach the earth. But this idea is consistent with Oskar’s character and approach to events in the book.
  • The newspaper article with “not stop looking” circled is straight from the book.
  • Oscar counts lies and tells laughable lies to explain why he is missing school in the book as well as in the movie.
  • There is a slight reference to Stephen Hawking and his book A Brief History of Time in the movie. In the book, Oscar writes Hawking over and over, wanting to be his protégé. He receives polite form letter responses until nearly the end of the book when he receives a long personal response from Hawking inviting Oskar to join him for a few days inCambridge. This happens right after Oskar finds William Black.
  • I do not recall any scene in the book with Oscar and his father at swings in the park. (Readers, let me know if you saw this somewhere in narrative or images.)
  • Oscar plotting the contacts with every Black in the phonebook is straight from the book.
  • I simply don’t recall any reference to Asberger’s syndrome tests in this book. I scoured the book for this, and just did not see it. At the end of the book, after Oscar returns from filling his father’s coffin with “the Renters” letters, Oskar begs not to be hospitalized. His mother assures him she finds nothing wrong with him. As in the movie, she tells him his father would have been proud of him. Readers, again, if anyone knows of a specific reference to Asberger’s (not some drawn implication, which personally I don’t find convincing), please add a comment.
  • In the book, “the Renter”/Oskar’s grandfather does not go with Oskar to find any of the Blacks. One of the Blacks contacted by Oskar joins his search for awhile, getting him to use public transportation, even the Staten Island Ferry at one point. He leaves the search when he joins with a woman, another Black, who has been living up in the Empire State Building. We do find out later that Oskar’s grandfather has surreptitiously followed him and his elderly Mr. Black companion. Filmmakers clearly made a choice to combine these characters to save the time of introducing and developing another storyline, and to allow some exposition for the grandfather’s character.
  • In the book, Oskar does say to his mother “if I could have chosen, I would have chosen you.” There’s no tantrum associated with this. Oskar’s mother silently walks away. Oskar goes to her and tries to take it back. She tells him he can’t take something like that back. Oskar asks if she’s angry. She tells him no, she’s hurt.
  • I do not recall any sores or self-mutilation for Oskar in the book. Readers?
  • “Heavy boots” is a clever phrase used in the book frequently, also used in the movie, a great phrase for personal baggage, for fears—but really seeming to convey more than just that.
  • In the book, Oskar’s mother has a new romantic interest (a year after Nine-Eleven), Ron, a man she has met in a grief-counseling group. It is this relationship and her laughing with him that has Oskar confused. But she says, as in the movie, that she will never love anyone the way she loved Oskar’s father.
  • Oskar concludes that his mother has known all along where he is going during his quest to solve the mystery of the key. (This is not confirmed one way or the other.)
  • Imagining events in reverse, in the book, is a construction of Oskar’s grandmother. She applies this idea to traumatic events of her life, and eventually to everything. She takes the idea back to Noah’sArk, with the rain returning to the clouds in the animals leaving the ark. Oskar picks this up at the end of the book and the movie. In the movie, it is a drawn diagram activated by a string his mother pulls when she goes through Oskar’s journal of his quest for the lock that fits the key. In the book, we are given a series of images of a body falling from theWorldTradeCentertowers. When the pages are flipped, the body rises back into the building.
  • The movie ends more sentimentally than the book. In the book, there are no thank you letters, with many of the Blacks who were part of Oskar’s quest coming to terms with some loss of their own. The final moment of the book is that series of images, flipped so the falling body rises back up.

Book Commentary/Review – Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman November 24, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, crusades, historical fiction, literary commentary, medieval period, Middle Ages, Richard the Lionheart, Richard Warren Field, the crusades, The Swords of Faith, third crusade, writers.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Sharon Kay Penman’s Lionheart tells the story of Richard the Lionheart’s mission to the Middle East to take back Jerusalem for Western Christendom, commonly referred to as the “Third Crusade.” Lionheart delivers Sharon Kay Penman’s usual attention to research—she may write in the genre of “historical fiction,” but readers can always depend on Penman’s story-telling to contain accurate history to go with whatever fiction she has added. Being closely familiar with this period because of research on my own novel, The Swords of Faith, I can attest to the accuracy of the historical detail provided.

The story begins in Sicily, not with Richard, but with Richard’s sister Joanna. Readers discover quickly that though this book is about Richard the Lionheart, his story will be told from multiple points of view. Two prominent viewpoints are Joanna’s and Richard the Lionheart’s potential future wife, Berengeria. This multiple viewpoint technique brings gusto to the legendary aspects of one of history’s most dynamic characters by giving readers the chance to witness Richard through the eyes of others.

When we think of “Crusades,” or of Richard the Lionheart fighting Muslims, we think of battles in the Middle East. But Penman has the courage to delay delivering readers to that expected setting until halfway through Lionheart, staying with the accurate history. This rewards readers with a richer, more dramatic story. Because the “Third Crusade,” for Richard the Lionheart, was much more than fighting revered Muslim Sultan Saladin for Jerusalem. Getting to the fight (and returning from it, which could be an even more dramatic story Penman will tell with her follow-up to Lionheart, Ransom) is as compelling a story as the fight itself. On his way to fight Saladin, Richard chooses between two possible wives and marries his choice, seriously alienating his main European ally. He rescues his sister, widow of the late king of Sicily, held in dubious circumstances by the successor to the throne. He rescues his sister and fiancé after a shipwreck puts them just off the coast of Cyprus, within reach of the unprincipled despot ruling the island. What Richard does next in Cyprus as a result of this confrontation will change the history of the island, and factor into his own future activities. So readers will be too caught up in the drama of Richard’s journey to be impatient for arrival at the Middle East.

Penman remains loyal to the history once the story arrives in the Middle East, again relying on the true facts of one of history’s great confrontations to provide the drama. It is hard for me to understand why writers feel they need to change the facts of Richard’s crusade—it is a great story without any help! In the hands of a skilled story-teller like Penman, intimately familiar with the time period so able to re-create for readers the physical settings, as well as the mental settings—the attitudes of the age—all that is needed is to place the characters in the events and let the story unfold. This is what Penman does, and she delivers entertainment and accurate history bundled together.

Penman avoids a major temptation other storytellers have succumbed to when telling this story.  These two iconic historical figures never met face-to-face. For over a year they were locked in an intense military and diplomatic struggle with lives and the future of their faiths on the line. It is tempting to try to heighten the intensity of this story, of this personal rivalry, by putting these two men face-to-face. But history did not put them face-to-face, and neither does Penman. The resolution of their head-to-head battle takes extraordinary twists and turns without a personal meeting between the two. This includes harrowing battles with Richard’s life in jeopardy, life-threatening illnesses at inopportune times, negotiations that take peculiar diversions no author of fiction would dare to invent, and even a bizarre assassination that thwarts a potential negotiated peace. Through all this, Penman takes us through the events as experienced by Richard the Lionheart, and by those around him, including his sister and his new wife, struggling for Richard’s attention through these history-making events. This guarantees maximum entertainment even for those familiar with the events.

Sharon Kay Penman leaves us at a logical stopping point, the resolution of Richard’s conflict with Saladin. All Richard the Lionheart has to do now is get home. That, as I mentioned earlier, will be much easier said than done.

Lionheart is definitive reading on the topic of Richard the Lionheart during this part of his life.  It is entertaining while maintaining historical accuracy, a difficult task to accomplish, a task accomplished well by a master of her craft.

Now for Some Personal Comments
I would be a fool not to mention that my award-winning novel The Swords of Faith, released about a year before Penman’s Lionheart, tells the story of the events of this same “Third Crusade” that is the subject of Lionheart. With that mention comes the question of why readers should ever consider reading The Swords of Faith now that Lionheart, written by a master historical novelist of this particular time period, is available. The answer is simple. The story is handled completely differently in The Swords of Faith. In fact, these two books complement each other. Readers enthralled with this story will enjoy my alternative approach to the same history. And not an alternative approach to the facts—I share Penman’s choice to stay with the actual history. As I have indicated in this post, the real history needs no embellishment. But my interest in the story is not a biographical interest but an interest in the religious confrontation. So I do not offer nearly as much detail about Richard the Lionheart and those around him, choosing instead to offer Saladin’s point of view, as well as providing the points of view of two fictional characters who experience these events through the prisms of their own religious orientations.

Other comments concerning Lionheart and The Swords of Faith:

  • Stylistic comparison—there are two big differences between the story-telling style of Sharon Kay Penman and my style in The Swords of Faith. Penman uses a lot more narrative exposition, so provides a great deal more narrative detail. My style utilizes episodes/scenes, with as little narrative exposition as possible. (This is a deliberate choice, used in writing on subjects as varied as The Swords of Faith, Dying to Heal, and my 1997 novel, The Election. (I comment in detail on this style choice at my web site and at Lisa Yarde’s blog.) This is not to imply that one approach is better—I would not want to be seen as even hinting at that idea when comparing myself to a well-respected and successful author. But the styles are different, and readers interested in the subject can enjoy a fresh take on the material.
  • As I have previously indicated, Lionheart is a richly detailed biographical novel, fair and accurate, about one of the most intriguing characters in history, and one the best-known and most familiar even now. The Swords of Faith addresses the same events with an eye toward religious fanaticism and the impact it has on historical and fictional characters of the era. A theme of The Swords of Faith is that the less fanatic the behavior of the main characters, including Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, the more successful they are thriving and achieving their own goals. True even then, as we certainly see it is true now.
  • Is The Swords of Faith more historically accurate than Lionheart? No. Is it as accurate as Lionheart? The honest answer again is no. Is The Swords of Faith more historically accurate than most of the historical fiction written about this, including recent films (“Kingdom of Heaven” comes to mind)? Yes, and this includes the classic Sir Walter Scott novel The Talisman, though in fairness to Scott, he was not attempting to be historically accurate. There is no doubt that Sharon Kay Penman has a lot more patience with research than I do, combing through primary sources, some difficult and/or expensive to acquire. She could certainly provide informative lectures to scholars on this era. This depth of research allows her to take to task Steven Runciman, a writer of one of the most acclaimed histories of “the Crusades,” for his treatment of the slaughter of the Acre hostages. My research relies on the work of people like Runciman, as well as scholars and historians Penman cites in her bibliography.
  • I’ve had the pleasure of exchanging some e-mails with Ms. Penman, some as she worked on Lionheart. She asked if I was going to continue to write about this era. She mentioned how she feels “at home” in the 12th Century. I admire her dedication and mastery of this era (as do her legions of readers). But the events attracted me because of the clash of religions. I’m off to a new century—a few generations later in The Sultan and the Khan. (And I won’t stay there long either.)
  • Did I enjoy being sandwiched between two novels offered by mainstream publishers on the same subject? The Swords of Faith was released one month after Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha, and about a year before Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman. (I have previously written about Shadow of the Swords.) That’s fine. They’re all companions, taking three very different approaches to the material. The more interest generated in the characters and their stories, the better.
  • And I may bump into Conn Iggulden as his Mongol novels reach the third generation of the Genghis Khan dynasty. That’s fine too. Again, I’m certain our approaches to the material will be way different. 

So I hope an interest in Lionheart generates an interest in The Swords of Faith, and vice versa. It’s an entertaining time of history—Richard the Lionheart, and Saladin, are intriguing people to read about, and to write about! 

Lionheart - Sharon Kay Penman

Lionheart - Sharon Kay Penman

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Sarah’s Key” August 7, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, historical fiction, literary commentary, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Sarah's Key, Tatiana de Rosnay.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

This post will discuss the movie “Sarah’s Key,” and how the movie compared to the novel Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay that it was based on. 

The movie followed the book closely. The key plot contours, the big events, were not changed—there were only small variations of a few details. The history of the events in 1942 as offered by de Rosnay was not changed at all. The moves back and forth between the present and the past take place more frequently during the first two-thirds of the book (about every four to five pages), but the concept is the same. (It would have been jarring for the filmmakers to cut back and forth as often as de Rosnay does in the book.)

A few specific comments about what did or did not vary between the book and the movie:

  • The entire sequence of events with “Sarah’s key” is straight from the book. I wondered if filmmakers would soften the blow and not give us a small child starved and/or suffocated to death, trapped in a small space, abandoned. They did not flinch from this (and I’m glad they didn’t). Perhaps the one concession to sensibilities was not to show the rotting body. That said, there is a small variation—in the book, Sarah’s brother suggests the hiding place and asks to be locked in. His sister is against it at first but goes along with it. The change in the movie makes sense as it heightens Sarah’s ongoing, growing guilt over her brother’s death.
  • The present-day story in the book is told in the first person from Julia Jarmond’s point-of-view. The movie keeps that feel—this is definitely Julia’s story.
  • Another key element of the movie, Julia’s discovery that her husband Bertrand’s family took the apartment after a Jewish family was deported, is also straight out of the book. Though this basic plot element is present, there are some variations:
    • Julia immediately asks Bertrand about his family’s apartment in the book. (There is no surprise later on after Julia discusses the issue with Bertrand’s father.) Bertrand says he is unaware the apartment was taken from deported Jews, but his attitude seems to be “so-what.”
    • Edouard (Bertrand’s father, who as a boy was present when they found Sarah’s dead brother) confronts Julia about discussing the apartment with Mamé immediately, telling Julia not to discuss the apartment with her. (There is no series of unreturned calls.) But when Julia asks what he knows, he rushes off the phone, feigning some sort of bad connection. He confronts Julia at her next visit with Mamé (they do not usually visit Mamé at the same time), seeking her out. He again asks her not to discuss the apartment with Mamé, but reveals his awful burden—he was there when Sarah’s brother was discovered. (In the book, this event melds masterfully with Sarah’s terrible discovery after her return to Paris with her soon-to-be adoptive parents.) Edouard does not hide this from Julia—he seems anxious to share the information with her, encouraging her to find out more about the displaced Jewish family (which eventually does occur in the movie as well). Julia delivers the news, as in the movie—Edouard’s father sent money to Sarah’s adoptive parents secretly.
    • In the book, no one ever tells Sarah the family that took over her family’s apartment in Paris, the family present when her brother’s body was found, sent regular payments for her care. That is one of the reasons driving Julia to find Sarah, and eventually Sarah’s son—to deliver the information that her in-laws, her family, did care about the people they had displaced.
  • I do not recall Sarah being sick at the camp as she is in the movie. I checked the book again and did not see this. The book makes more sense as Sarah runs across a large field to escape, a physically demanding activity for sick girl.
  • Sarah and another girl do escape together as occurs in the movie. The French policeman who lets them go, in the book, is a policeman Sarah knows from the neighborhood. In the movie, he is a compassionate policeman Sarah seems to have established a quick, sympathetic rapport with.
  • The Bertrand story-line, husband wanting the abortion, is straight from the book with only trivial variations. This includes Julia not getting an abortion and the marriage breaking up. In the movie, Bertrand is stressed at work, a big deal with the Chinese pending. Maybe that was added to make this thoroughly unlikable character a little more understandable.
  • Sarah’s companion in the escape does get sick and die, as portrayed in the movie. The storyline with the Dufaures, including going to Paris with them, growing up with them and eventually leaving for New York, is straight from the book. This includes the daring bribe on the train to address Sarah’s lack of identity papers.
  • The story of Sarah’s trip toNew York, and Julia’s first encounter with Sarah’s son (including his angry reaction inItaly) is directly from the book. And the ending, with Julia and Sarah’s son sitting together in New York, with an implied chemistry between them but no further indication that they might end up together, is also straight from the book.
  • I do not recall any reference in the book to “bombings of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.” This looks like a political point inserted by the filmmakers.
  • Julia’s child’s name is Sarah; Lucy is the name of little Sarah’s giraffe—straight from the book.

Sarah’s Key is a well-crafted work of modern fiction. It is one of those books that is hard to put down. The movie seemed to hit an emotional peak with the discovery of Sarah’s dead brother, and then had a hard time getting to that peak again. The book keeps enough suspense, enough mystery, to drive the reader forward. The movie adopted these elements from the book, so tells a compelling story about a subject matter with a glut of tragic stories told, but sadly, still many untold.

Previous Books-Into-Movies Posts:

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Jane Eyre

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: True Grit

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Gulliver’s Travels

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” July 28, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, historical fiction, Lisa See, literary commentary, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

In this post, I compare the movie “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” with the Lisa See novel it was based on. As with my other Books-Into-Movies posts (see below), this is not a review, not a critical analysis. I’m simply answering that question often heard when a book is made into a movie: “How close did they stick to the book?”

I will go through some specifics. But first, a general comment needs to be made. The movie invented a whole present-day story not in the book. This, to me, is part of a trend—the Dan-Brownitization of stories set in the past. We see this all the time now, with books and movies; a present-day story frames another story set in the past, as if the story set in the past is not compelling enough to stand alone. (We’ll see this again very soon in another Book-Into-Movie, “Sarah’s Key.”) This is a trend to discuss, but not now. For our purposes here, the Nina/Sofia story set in present-day Shanghai, is not in the novel at all. Sophia’s novel, read and experienced by Nina, is the Lisa See novel. I did not do any precise timing, but it seems to me the present-day story took up at least half the movie. I am not familiar with Lisa See’s other books, so I don’t know if any of this modern story comes from them. There is no reference to other Lisa See books in the credits.

The movie starts right off with references to two of the big themes of the novel. “Big Feet Productions” is clearly a jab at the Chinese tradition of “foot-binding,” deforming the feet of young girls to give them supposedly attractive little feet. Also, as the film begins, we see a woman writing nu shu, a coded writing for women to trade secret messages with each other in what was a repressive, male-dominated culture.

Some specific comparison comments:

  • Nina and Sophia are laotung (“old sames”) as Snow Flower and Lily are in the book. In the book, this was a special one-to-one relationship, not available to every girl. Sworn sisters, a group of girls bonded together, was portrayed as a less special bond than this one-to-one bond, laotung. The Nina/Sophia laotung vow in nu shu code is a reference back to the Lisa See novel.
  • The movie gives us a look at this horrible practice of “foot-binding,” deforming girls’ feet. The book gives us a more in-depth, more intense look at this practice. I will admit, I still have a hard time imagining what a properly changed foot would look like—I still can’t picture it. The filmmakers had Sophia concerned about the practice, with some sort of gallery or exhibit addressing it. There are sketches of feet. But we never see the finished product. We see women shuffling on tiny feet, wearing small shoes. As long as they had Sophia addressing this topic, I wish they’d taken it a step further: 1) What does a foot look like after the process? 2) Is this still widespread today—was that an issue for Sophia in the present-day story?
  • My impression of Lily’s mother in the book was that she was less sympathetic to Lily than in the movie, especially during foot-binding. The book explicitly depicts how girls are considered worthless by this culture, as if they are already failed human beings because they were born female.
  • We get a lot more about Snow Flower in the book. Lily is grateful to be a laotung with a girl who has such great chemistry with her, and who seems to be from better circumstances, but who still shares sisterly love. This is developed from the beginning of the story in the book.
  • A line that seemed absurd to me in the movie was Lily saying to her mother when she was about to be married: “I am not a good daughter for leaving you.” The book is clear that girls know from birth they will “marry out” and leave their families. Lily had no choice about leaving. No one would think she was “not a good daughter” because she was leaving after her marriage. (In fact, the book tells us Lily would only visit her husband at the early stages of her marriage, until she got pregnant the first time. Then she would finally stay with her husband.) The filmmakers may have been trying to generate the tension that exists throughout the book between Lilly and her mother.
  • The Temple of Gupo as a special meeting place, sometimes secret meeting place, is straight from the book.
  • Lily’s lack of enjoyment of sex, and Snow Flower’s enthusiastic enjoyment of sex, are from the book. (Snow Flower shows no shame for this at all!)
  • In the book, Lily’s first child is a son (as Snow Flower’s is).
  • In the book, Snow Flower tells Lily about her family’s fall from fortune just as they are both getting married. At this point in the book, Lily and Snow Flower have had a lot more interaction, with Lily always assuming Snow Flower has come from the better circumstances. What angers Lily in the book is that her family, and the matchmaker for both Lily’s husband and laotung, have known about Snow Flower’s circumstances for a long time, and have never even hinted the truth to Lily. Lily is especially angry with her mother for this. When Lily finds out Snow Flower is betrothed to a butcher, she considers this the worst possible match. Snow Flower reads pity, and tells Lily she does not want pity. Lily is confused. She says she does not feel pity.
  • I recall Lily’s mother-in-law disapproving of Snow Flower in the book, but I do not recall her discovery of their secret meeting and striking Lily as a result.
  • The typhoid epidemic is straight out of the book, including the deaths that make Lily and her husband masters of a wealthy, high-status household.
  • In the movie, Lily does not discover Snow Flower’s husband is a butcher until much later, until she visits Snow Flower right at the beginning of the Taiping rebellion.
  • The rebellion story is very similar to the book, including Snow Flower’s husband beating her after their son (in the book, their second son, a stronger boy than their eldest son) dies.
  • In the book, Lily also asks Snow Flower to come live with her. Snow Flower points out that desertion is the worst thing she could do, and that she must protect her children. Lily then offers a lot of advice (in the form of demanding questions) about how Snow Flower can be a better wife and possibly change her circumstances. Lily is soon reunited with her husband, who rewards Snow Flower’s family, a “handsome reward.” Snow Flower then sends a note on the fan: “I cannot be what you wish…  Three sworn sisters have promised to love me as I am.” Lily takes this as a rejection of their laotung relationship and breaks off communication. This is the breach between them in the book.
  • The scene after the falling out between Snow Flower and Lily at a woman’s ceremony before a wedding is different in the book. The two women confront each other with harsh words detailing how each believes the other has wronged her. Lily is especially humiliating and blunt in her verbal attack on Snow Flower.
  • Snow Flower’s daughter coming to tell Lily that Snow Flower is dying is from the book. But there are sworn sisters in the book. They lecture Lily about how wrong she has been in her treatment of Snow Flower. Snow Flower has been dying of a slow-growing cancer for years, and dies in a slow creeping agony. Lily realizes at this point that she could have been a better friend. She brings Snow Flower’s grandchild into her family. She mentions that she and Snow Flower are bound together forever, and ends the book asking for Snow Flower’s forgiveness. I looked through the book, but did not see the passages about “the world always changing” and we “need to look within ourselves.” At the end, it seems to me Lily was trying to master the complexities of love and friendship, and lamenting her past deficiencies while trying to make amends in whatever way her world allowed her to.

There are three screenwriters credited with the screenplay—Lisa See is not one of them. Frankly, I would have preferred more Lisa See and less of this forced modern-day story, obviously injected as a parallel to the original story, maybe attempting to say something universal about friendship. But time taken in the modern setting takes movie viewers out of the immersion into that exotic world of China in the early to mid 1820s. For this reason, I felt the book made a stronger, more absorbing story than the movie.

Previous Books-Into-Movies Posts:

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur”

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Jane Eyre

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: True Grit

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Gulliver’s Travels

Books-Into-Movie Commentary – Special Easter Edition: “Ben Hur” April 24, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Ben Hur, books, books into movies, historical fiction, Lew Wallace, literary commentary, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, Uncategorized.
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(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

“Ben Hur” the film, made in 1959, was an appropriately honored and revered film, made from Lew Wallace’s best-selling book of 1880. The film was a masterpiece, and holds up well in 2011, over fifty years later, with its visually riveting chariot race and sea battle, still bristling with energy and drama after all this time. In some ways the film is a textbook example of how to turn a book into a movie, with good choices made to make a movie masterpiece:

  • The film version eliminates a romantic triangle that would have bogged down the three-hour plus movie.
  • The film version eliminates a subplot involving Simonides in Antioch, which would also have been a distraction.

The screenplay adaptation preserves the themes and tone of the book, and its epic scope, reducing long dialogue and narrative passages to prescient images without reducing the quality or intent of the story. 

It would be tedious to try to itemize every difference between the book and the movie. I will first list differences that struck me as particularly notable. I will then offer a basic synopsis of the book to allow readers another way of comparing the book to the movie, particularly for readers of this blog familiar with the movie (I suspect many are very familiar with this incredible movie). 

Notable differences between the book and the movie: 

  • The entire “Book First” of the eight books of Ben Hur tells the story of “the three wise men” visiting Jesus at his birth. The three wise men from the New Testament are depicted in the movie, but in much less detail than in the book, almost as a prologue, and before the opening credits.
  • The first scene in the film with Messala has references to John the Baptist and Jesus already beginning their legendary actions. In the book, years pass before Jesus and John the Baptist start their public activities.
  • There is no spear-splitting scene in the book. “Down with Eros; up with Mars” is mentioned in the book, but in a different context, as Messala boasts of Rome’s superiority over everyone. In the movie, it seems more like a cheer shared between Messala and Judah Ben-Hur.
  • Messala and Judah Ben-Hur are older in the movie.
  • In the book, there is no gift of a horse to Messala, or Messala asking Judah Ben-Hur to identify rebels, followed by a huge confrontation.
  • Simonides visits from Antioch early in the movie. In the book, Ben-Hur uncovers Simonides’ relationship to his father’s fortune. In the movie, Simonides is clearly a “slave” of Ben-Hur from the beginning, though Ben-Hur makes it clear he does not consider either Simonides or his daughter Esther to be “slaves.” In the book, there is no arranged marriage pending between Esther and another merchant. Ben-Hur does not meet Esther in the book until after his experience as a galley slave.
  • In the book, after the tile hits the Prefect, there is a riot in the city. This explains the Roman harshness after the incident. In the movie, there is no riot.
  • In the book, there is no scene with Ben-Hur holding Messala at spearpoint just before he is shipped off to be a galley slave.
  • Simonides, in the movie, is not taken into custody by Messala right after the tile incident (because Simonides is not introduced to the story until later in the book.)
  • With some minor variations, the galley slave section of the book matches the movie.
  • In the movie, Ben-Hur is on his way straight from Rome to Judea when he stops off in Antioch. The dynamics among the various characters in Antioch are different. He meets Balthasar in Antioch, who literally asks him if he is Jesus. As in the book, he does become associated with Sheik Ilderim, who has horses and runs them in chariot races.
  • The movie moves the chariot race from Antioch to Jerusalem. Undoubtedly, Lew Wallace understood that such an event in Jerusalem was not really possible given the historical realities at the time. There was no arena to contain this event, and the idea that an event that could excite the crowd’s passions in a nationalistic/patriotic way would be allowed in an area so rebellious to Roman rule is far-fetched.
  • In the movie, Esther is the servant who remains at the Hur home throughout Ben-Hur’s absence and the imprisonment of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister. In the book, there is a servant named Amrah. Esther takes her role in the book, combining it with her role as Simonides’ daughter.
  • In the book, Simonides is taken and tortured to reveal where the Hur wealth is. This is mentioned, but almost in passing, in the movie. And in the book, he is a resident of Antioch, servant of the House of Hur for their merchant enterprises.
  • In the book, Messala and the Roman governor of Judea, Gratus, take the Hur wealth, as much of it as they can get their hands on, and there’s a clear implication that appropriating their wealth is part of the motivation for their harsh dealings with the family. This does not appear to be part of the story in the movie.
  • Malluch in the movie is a large, tongueless man, joined with crippled Simonides to make “one whole man.” In the book, Malluch is a servant of Simonides who helps him investigate Judah Ben-Hur in Antioch.
  • In the movie, there is no Iras, Balthasar’s beautiful Egyptian daughter. An attractive dark-complected woman is seen with Ben-Hur briefly during his time in Rome, but there is no development of this story angle. In the book, Iras serves as a romantic rival to Esther, and appears to be ahead of Esther in trying to gain Judah Ben-Hur’s affections.
  • In the book, there is no pre-chariot race confrontation between Ben-Hur and Messala.  Messala finds out about “Arrius” less directly. And he does not tell Judah Ben-Hur that his mother and sister are lepers. In the book, Ben Hur’s mother and sister are deliberately walled up in an unmarked cell where leprosy is known to be virulent.  There is no such event in the movie.
  • In the book, Judah Ben-Hur is not told until after the chariot race (falsely) that his mother and sister are dead. In the movie, this piece of information motivates him to race against Messala.
  • In the book, we have a clear indication that Ben-Hur has a plan not just to win the race, but to kill Messala in the process, and that his plan to leave Messala as a trampled wreck is a success. The movie hints at this, but it is Messala who is the aggressor during the race. Ben-Hur’s triumph at the end seems less obviously the result of deliberate planning by him, and more created by Messala’s aggressiveness. Messala does not die right after the chariot race in the book.
  • The movie is not specific about Ben-Hur’s activities after the chariot race. In the book, he trains legions to rebel, and has them standing by. He considers whether “the Nazarene” could be a king in the material world, not just the spiritual world. In the movie, he talks of rebellion, debating with Esther and spurning overtures of friendship from the new governor Pontius Pilate. In the book, he is more obviously willing to act on his hatred of Rome.
  • In the book, Jesus heals Ben-Hur’s mother and sister before his crucifixion. The crucifixion serves at first as a disappointment, and then a transformation for Judah Ben-Hur her as he watches Jesus’s apparent acceptance, and possibly even his orchestration of the events. The crucifixion does not act as a healing agent for his mother and sister—they are already healed at this point. 

A Synopsis of Ben Hur:

Book First: Three spiritual men from three separate areas of the world meet together, following a bright star, an apparent sign that a special child has been born or is about to be born. They are Gaspar from Greece, Balthasar fromEgypt, and Melchior from India. They bring separate spiritual traditions, but are drawn by the sign in the sky. (Wallace has Melchior traveling through “Baghdad” on the way to his meeting with others near Jerusalem; Baghdad was founded centuries later, after the start of Islam.) They meet a child in Bethlehem, born to Joseph and Mary. Joseph is a carpenter from Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, descendent from King David. He is much older than his very young wife, Mary, so much older that he is mistaken by some for her father. They have come to Bethlehem to be counted for the census, ordered by the Roman emperor. Bethlehem is so crowded that they end up in a cave, in a manger. After a brief visit with aging King Herod, the three traveling spiritual men greet the child, shortly after the child is born. (Yes, this is a very familiar story to Christians!)

Book Second: The story moves forward twenty-one years. Messala (sometimes referred to as “the Messala”) returns from five years of training in Roman schools away from Jerusalem. He meets with his childhood friend Judah, son of Ithamar, of the House of Hur. From the efforts of Ithamar, Judah’s family is wealthy and prosperous, well positioned despite the Roman occupation of Judea. The two young men are in their late teens. But Messala demonstrates, through long lectures about Roman power and superiority, that he has changed. Judah is disgusted by the changes, and tells him he does not believe they can remain friends. Messala seems almost confused by the rebuke, especially when Messala suggests to Judah that he could rule the area in a sort of partnership, with Judah installed as high priest of the temple at Jerusalem.

At the Hur home, a spacious multistory dwelling in the heart of Jerusalem, we meet Judah’s mother, and his sister, Tirzah, and a servant girl, Amrah. A commotion captures the family’s attention; there is a procession of Roman soldiers. Judah goes to the top of his home and accidentally dislodges some loose tiles which hit the Prefect, injuring him. This triggers a riot, necessitating Roman soldiers to quell the disturbance. Roman soldiers storm the house, ransacking it, and taking custody of the family. The servant Amrah eludes capture. Judah begs Messala to release his mother and sister. Messala refuses. Judah prays for God to grant him vengeance. Judah is condemned to serve as a galley slave.

On his way to the coast, roughly treated as he is marched to begin his service (which is supposed to be as good as a death sentence) he encounters the son of carpenter Joseph, who gives him water during a stop in Nazareth. Judah’s treatment improves after the incident.

Book Third: Judah Ben-Hur becomes a galley slave. Quintus Arrius, a Tribune, commands a naval expedition. Ben-Hur serves with numerous different galley slaves, from all over the area. Quintus Arrius takes notice of Ben-Hur: “A Jew! and a boy! A Jew is not a barbarian. I will know more of him.” He speaks to Ben-Hur and seems moved by the injustice of his story. But he sees no way to commute Ben-Hur’s sentence in the middle of the expedition—among other issues, he is their “best rower.” Quintus Arrius knew Judah Ben-Hur’s father, and heard about the attack on the Prefect in Jerusalem. Just before a major engagement, the rowers are chained to the ship. Quintus Arrius instructs the “hortator” that Ben-Hur is a better rower without the chains. The ship goes down, and Ben-Hur nearly drowns. As he surfaces, and clings to life, he sees the Tribune Arrius and pulls his head above the surface of the water. Rescue appears to be imminent. Arrius tells Ben-Hur to drown him if pirates will capture him. It is a Roman ship that rescues them. Quintus Arrius adopts Judah Ben-Hur as his son.

Book Fourth: Five years later, Ben-Hur has become established as the adopted son of Quintus Arrius. He travels to Antioch, a thriving port city on the eastern Mediterranean coast, described as possibly second to Rome as “the strongest if not the most populous city in the world.” He learns of Simonides, an extremely wealthy merchant who was a slave entrusted with his family’s fortune, and who has now increased that fortune after the events of five years earlier. But there is more to the story. Simonides has been tortured repeatedly by Roman authorities to reveal the whereabouts of the Hur fortune, to the point of permanent physical impairment. He has held on to the secret. He considers himself a caretaker of the fortune for Judah Ben-Hur and his mother. After the confiscation of the Hur fortune in Jerusalem, Simonides has continued his loyalty to the Hur family, not clear on the fate of the Hur widow. Judah Ben-Hur meets Simonides in Antioch. Simonides is not sure of him; he has a Roman name and no solid proof of identity. Esther, Simonides’ beautiful daughter, feels attraction to the young man. Simonides sends a servant, Malluch, to follow Ben-Hur, to assess him, to check his credibility. Malluch ends up befriending Ben-Hur in Antioch. Simonides realizes this young man appears to be who says he is. That will make him and Esther Judah Ben-Hur’s slaves. Simonides wonders—will he treat them justly after all Simonides has done to preserve the Hur fortune?

Messala hears of the son of Arrius, an adopted Jew, a freed galley slave, now present in Antioch. Messala seems to take note of the information, and its significance, but starts an orgy, as if to signal his indifference to the story.

While in Antioch, Ben-Hur comes across the arena there, and the chariot races. He has experience with chariot races inRome. He discovers Messala races in the arena. During an incident in the city, Messala’s horses nearly trample Balthasar and his daughter. Messala laughs as he rides four horses drawing a chariot right into a crowd of people. Judah Ben-Hur prevents serious injury. Messala looks right at him, but seems not to recognize him. Messala’s arrogance seems, if anything, to be even more pronounced. He treats the incident casually, and seems to care little about the harm his irresponsibility nearly causes.

Ben-Hur sees the arena as his chance for revenge against Messala. There is a wealthy sheik, Sheik Ilderim, who has beautiful, strong Arabian horses, but no one competent to ride them. Ben-Hur contacts him, and offers to ride in the arena in a race for a huge purse; Ben-Hur wants none of the purse, just the chance for revenge. This meeting takes place at the evening meal. The next morning, Ben-Hur will show what he can do with the horses.

Balthasar joins them. He speaks of his quest for the man grown from the infant he visited twenty-seven years before. They discuss King Herod’s efforts to kill the child, his “slaughter of the innocents,” but Balthasar is certain the child survives. He believes this man is the Messiah described in Jewish scriptures, and wants to be present when the child-now-grown begins to fulfill his destiny. Balthasar is on his way to Jerusalem. Judah Ben-Hur is disappointed when Balthasar describes a spiritual kingdom. Ben-Hur believes the Messiah will be a political-military king of the Jews, reminiscent of David, a man who will lead Jews to freedom in this world, not in some spiritual world. When Balthasar mentions Simonides as a good man who understands what the Jewish scriptures actually call for, Ben-Hur seems disgusted. “Simonides here, Simonides there; from this one now, then from that! I’m likely to be well ridden by my father’s servant…” He then hears a song from Balthasar’s beautiful daughter, Iras, but finds it reminds him of Esther, a woman he finds even more beautiful.

Book Fifth: This section tells the story of the chariot race. The section starts out with a letter from Messala to Gratus. He knows very well who Arrius/Ben-Hur is. We find out from the letter that Gratus and Messala both profited considerably from the confiscation of the House of Hur wealth. Messala also suggests that Roman authorities in Antioch will take Sheik Ilderim, placing “the Arab on the ship for forwarding to Rome.” Judah Ben-Hur demonstrates mastery over the sheik’s horses, preparing for the race. Simonides sends word that he supports the developing friendship between Ben-Hur and Sheik Ilderim, and that he has intercepted Gratus’ letter from Messala—Ilderim needs to be on the alert. Iras, Balthasar’s daughter, tells Ben-Hur stories about Egypt; its wealth, traditions and culture. Ben Hur reads the intercepted letter from Messala stating that he and Gratus completed a “plan” that his mother and sister would be set for “delivery over to inevitable but natural death.” Ben-Hur is devastated, but now more determined to seek victory in the race, and vengeance. Ben-Hur meets with Simonides, Esther, and Ilderim. They discuss Balthasar’s concept of the Messiah, but these men, particularly Judah Ben-Hur, are prepared to confront Roman power and resist it directly. Esther meets Ben-Hur privately. She wishes he would “make peace” with Rome. Esther tells Ben-Hur of her affection for him. He says “you shall be another Tirzah to me.”

Big bets are made on the race, with odds, bets that could affect Messala’s finances. The race begins with Messala getting position at the inside, the “wall.” When Ben-Hur comes up alongside him, Messala whips Ben-Hur’s horses. Ben-Hur controls his horses and pulls up alongside Messala again. They race side-by-side for three rounds. The other competitors do not seem involved. Messala starts to forge ahead. Ben-Hur maneuvers behind Messala. The part of the crowd favoring Messala cheers. Simonides says to Ilderim that he believes Ben-Hur is “about to execute some design. His face hath that look.” Messala hugs the wall to hold his position. As they make the last turn, Ben-Hur comes around Messala, squeezing him into the wall. Messala’s chariot crashes. He becomes entangled in the reins and trampled by another trailing racer. Ben-Hur wins the race. Messala is crippled for life. Gratus sends a “Northman” to kill Ben-Hur. But Ben-Hur establishes a rapport with the potential killer, and they scheme to say an already dead man is the slain Ben-Hur. The Northman takes his fee for the murder, and some money from Ben-Hur as well.

Book Sixth: Gratus is replaced by Pontius Pilate. Authorities working for Pontius Pilate review the prisons and address circumstances of all those in custody. They find Gratus has deliberately walled off Ben-Hur’s mother and sister into a cell not even indicated on the prison map, a cell known to be infested with leprosy. This was designed to kill the two women passively. By the kindness of prisoners in adjacent cells, they have been fed. But they are infected with leprosy and horribly disfigured. The new prison authority frees them. They go to their home. At the same time, Ben-Hur goes to their home as well. The place is locked. Ben-Hur falls asleep. The two women see Ben-Hur, and are glad he is well, but they do not want him to know about them. There are afraid he will join them. Their servant Amrah is still present. She finds them among the community of lepers near the city. They get her to promise she will not tell Judah where they are. Ben-Hur finds out his mother and daughter are lepers. He is told they have been stoned to death. He resolves to use his learned knowledge of Rome and Roman tactics to lead a fight to free Jews from Roman rule. He kills a Roman soldier in a duel-like altercation.

Book Seventh: Ben-Hur forms a group of fighters the size of three legions. He encounters Balthasar and his daughter Iras again. Iras tells him an Egyptian story, of man alone, finally brought out of depression and dissatisfaction when a woman is created for him by Egyptian gods. Ben-Hur seems taken in, but when he will not tell her everything about what he is doing to rebel against Rome, she withdraws from him. Balthasar takes him to the river Jordan to meet a person described as heralding the Messiah. They see John the Baptist, and “the son of a carpenter over in Nazareth,” introduced by John as “the Lamb of God.” Balthasar knows him instantly as “the Redeemer—the Son of God.” Ben-Hur surveys his “slender figure, and a holy beautiful countenance compassionate to sadness.” Ben-Hur asks “may not the Redeemer be a king also?”

Book Eighth: Esther acknowledges she is in love with Ben-Hur. She is concerned Balthasar’s daughter “has him in her net,” as her father believes. It turns out Iras is loyal to the Romans, and working with Messala. Ben-Hur finds out, and she is out of the picture. Ben-Hur is amazed at “the Nazarene’s” healing abilities. He brings his mother and sister to “the Nazarene,” who heals them. He still has legions of rebels standing by. He is present when Jesus is taken into custody. Jesus discourages any sort of rescue.

Judah Ben-Hur figures somehow Jesus will triumph. He is stunned to discover that Jesus has been sentenced to die on the cross. He is further surprised to find that many in his rebel legions have turned against Jesus, and are part of the crowd mocking him as he is abused and placed on the cross to die. But Ben-Hur comes to the realization that Jesus has gotten exactly what he has wanted, and understands now that Jesus has revealed a spiritual kingdom. Balthasar dies at the same time; “the spirit of the Egyptian accompanied that of his master over the boundary into the kingdom of Paradise.” 

The book ends five years later. Ben-Hur is married to Esther and living in a villa inherited from his adopted Roman father. Iras comes and tells Esther she has murdered Messala “for the much misery he brought me.” Simonides lives into old age. They give money to the church growing around the message of the Nazarene, Jesus.  

Ben Hur (DVD)

Ben Hur (DVD)

Ben Hur (the novel)

Ben Hur (the novel)

Book Commentary/Review – An Involuntary King by Nan Hawthorne February 19, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, historical fiction, literary commentary, medieval period, Uncategorized.
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An Involuntary King, written by Nan Hawthorne, is a rousing, action-packed, epic-scope novel with the historical setting of Eighth Century England, but otherwise populated by fictional characters. The dialogue feels era-appropriate, and Hawthorne offers enough description to pull the reader into the exotic time-and-place, without slowing the momentum of the story. It is a struggle of good characters versus evil characters, with one wild-card character who complicates the story and keeps readers guessing.

The novel starts out with Lawrence, the second son of a king, suddenly thrust onto the throne when both his father and older brother are killed in battle against the king’s usurper brother Nifhmund. Before their deaths, Lawrence’s father tells him to be ready to be king. Lawrence objects to the idea, expressing his preference not to be king, giving us the title of the book. But Lawrence proves to be an excellent king, with the proper combination of strength and compassion. If he has a fault, it is his difficulty seeing evil in others, leading to some of the adversity he faces. His queen, the stunningly beautiful Josephine, rules with him, devoted to him, bearing him children, and supportive of his efforts as king. If she has a fault, it is her underestimation of the effects of her beauty, as her non-romantic kindness and affection is misinterpreted by more than one man during the story, with major effects on events.

King Lawrence faces a succession of truly horrible, brutal villains. As soon as he cleverly dispatches one, he faces others under even more difficult circumstances. The novel pulses with constant action, with battles and other confrontations that bristle with drama and suspense. Adding nuance to the story are peripheral characters like the two roving entertainers, Shannon and Rory, who find what might be a home, and then face losing everything as that home becomes threatened.

About two-thirds through, just when it seems King Lawrence has triumphed over his most difficult challenges yet, he faces the consequences of a scheme to displace him that has been bubbling under the surface of events almost from the beginning. The Queen is held prisoner—the King fights against enormous odds to regain his “involuntary” throne.

As King Lawrence battles Gadfrid, his evil cousin, son of the usurper Nifhmund killed in the battle at the beginning of the story, he faces tough obstacles. We sense that Lawrence will triumph over his evil antagonist. But Elerde, the mercenary, an enigmatic character driven by devotion to Queen Josephine, mixes into events as an independent force, complicating the plot, keeping readers guessing to the end.

An Involuntary King offers an entertaining escape into an exotic, past time-and-place, fun reading for those entertained by rich, epic storytelling.

An Involuntary King - Nan Hawthorne

An Involuntary King - Nan Hawthorne

Book Commentary/Review – The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner September 15, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, C.W. Gortner, historical fiction, literary commentary, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.
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With The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, author C.W Gortner offers us a well-crafted historical fiction autobiography of a woman who is generally demonized as a ruthless actor in French royal politics, particularly with respect to conflicts between newly emerging French Protestants and long-established Catholics. The so-called St. Bartholomew Day massacre is often considered the epitome of this behavior, a massacre of protestants attributed to King Charles but possibly instigated and approved by Catherine de Medici. History may find fault with Catherine. Gortner takes the view that Catherine was only trying to eliminate blatantly treasonous Huguenots—Charles and others acting on Charles’ behalf independently took it too far. Gortner depicts Catherine as a person trapped between fanatics, trying to bridge a gap that could not be bridged. This is well dramatized in Gortner’s novel, and could offer pause for thought concerning some of today’s issues of faith. What is the answer when trying to establish peace among religious fanatics? Is there hope of finding a middle ground? And can a search for that middle ground be incredibly dangerous?

The book is told in a first-person/diary-journal style. “Confessions” is probably a more alluring title, but “explanations” or “justifications” would be more accurate. The story covers most of her life, from when she was ten years old to her death. Gortner handles the massive time scope adeptly, creating a long, workable dramatic arc that keeps the pages turning. As the story develops, Catherine de Medici’s chief adversary is the Guise family, fanatic Catholics, favoring ruthless, genocidal persecutions of the French Protestants, the Huguenots. This conflict offers the main issue for the dramatic arc that drives the story. Catherine rejects the Guises’ approach, and schemes from her position at the edge of power, but with little granted authority, to take a more moderate approach to the religious clash. The resolution of that conflict, which takes place the same year as her death, resolves the key dramatic question of Guises versus Catherine and her family. Of course, during the vast time line of the story, subplots and maneuverings of various sorts, with sudden twists and turns, dance around this long dramatic arc. By having the long arc to focus the story, the entire novel holds together as an effective entertainment, informative and intriguing.

Gortner’s craft is evident from the first pages. Whether one wants to consider the historical Catherine a villain, or a hero, or something in between, Gortner knows well the maxim that every character is the hero of his or her own story, whether the character is a hero or a villain. He brings us into sympathy with the ten year old Catherine immediately as she is thrown into a convent of unsympathetic nuns, and is then humiliated for no other reason than the fact she is part of the Medici family. Readers will find themselves feeling sympathy for Catherine, and anger at those who have treated her so unjustly. This continues when she is shuffled off to France to marry an insensitive French prince who treats her not much better than an animal obtained as breeding stock. He humiliates her by giving prominence to a mistress nearly old enough to be Catherine’s mother. Catherine becomes an underdog. We root for her to overcome the adversity that has been foisted upon her. So when she wins her battles, we rejoice. Gortner’s craft in drawing us into her battles is the key to the success of this book.

The St. Bartholomew Day massacre is one of the most controversial events of Catherine de Medicis’s life. Gortner continues his presentation of a sympathetic Catherine, forced by circumstances and the duplicitous behavior of those around her into making difficult choices. The choices appear to be as moderate and as temperate as she can make them—the massacre occurs when those choices evolve into terrible events not planned by Catherine.

The Confession of Catherine de Medici is historical fiction the way it is supposed to be—steeped in solid research, with a pinch of educated speculation. Gortner offers a comprehensive Afterword to identify where he has speculated, and to tie up loose historical ends. Connoisseurs of the genre will enjoy this book.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

What The Swords of Faith Says About Our Times June 16, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, literary commentary.
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In my last post, I offered some ideas about how The Talisman was formed by the times of author Sir Walter Scott. This isn’t a criticism—it is a factor present in any literature or art. So how do I think our current times have shaped my novel, The Swords of Faith, due to be released on July 4th? Before I start into this, I need to admit that offering a commentary like this can only be a preliminary assessment because when writers are immersed in their time periods, there are influences swirling around that are not easily identified. Only the perspective of time passing allows a fully informed assessment. But, why not address the issue now? If nothing else, we can look back years from now and see if the initial comments still make any sense.

I fully admit that the events of September 11, 2001 inspired me to write this novel. The story of Richard and Saladin fascinated me for a long time, and in the back of my mind, I considered writing about it. Nine-Eleven brought the idea front-and-center.

I will identify three present-day influences I believe shaped The Swords of Faith, and how specifically they affected the book:

1. An understanding that terrorizing innocents has not always been the Muslim way. After Nine-Eleven, I found myself wanting to understand why these fanatic Muslims were so angry with us in the United States, why they were willing to kill so many innocent people and risk bringing down such terrible consequences on themselves. As I looked back at the history, at Saladin and other Muslim examples, I learned quickly that there is a constructive, altruistic side to Islam, historically, and in the present-day. What Western European historians commonly call the “Dark Ages” occurred while Muslims were experiencing their “Golden Age.” Muslims preserved Greek learning and advanced in many intellectual pursuits, including medicine and astronomy. These personal discoveries factor into the themes of The Swords of Faith. Knowing these facts beckons us to reach out to moderate Muslims, to Muslims who embrace the constructive and altruistic aspects of their faith. Then, together, we can defeat the fanatic terrorists trying to hijack Islam. (Kamran Pasha is a moderate Muslim who has written a throught-provoking, entertaining novel about the same time period as The Swords of Faith. His novel, Shadow of the Swords comes out on June 22nd.)

I will further develop this idea, with its complex historical aspects, in my follow-up novels, The Sultan and the Khan, The Ghosts of Baghdad and The Sultan and the Prince. It is important to consider that during the period from the late 1000s to the mid to late 1200s, Islam underwent an existence-threatening assault from two directions: the “Crusaders” from the West, and the far more severe threat of the Mongols from the East. The nobility of Saladin became a luxury Islam could not afford. The efficient ruthlessness of Baybars arguably provided Islam with what was needed for survival, and eventual victory. But a Baybars-instead-of-Saladin approach arguably changed Islam.

2. A desire to speak against demonizing an entire religion because of the actions of a few fanatic extremists. I have written at length against demonizing Islam; my essay “Demonizing Islam is Both Wrong and Foolish,” (published in August 2009 in Opposing Viewpoints: Islam.) The Swords of Faith reflects this idea. Demonizing the fanatic aspects of religion leads to counter-fanaticism, an effect absolutely in play during the Crusades. In The Swords of Faith, all four of the main characters (Richard, Saladin, and two fictional characters) thrive best when they approach the world without religious fanaticism. They have the most trouble when they lapse into fanaticism.

3. There is more than one path to God. This the most personal of the influences, an idea pervasive in our culture, but definitely not embraced by even a majority. Religious tolerance is honored, but the proselytizing religions of Christianity and Islam still have, in my opinion, the baggage of claiming to be the only “true faith.” I believe the idea that there is more than one path to God is an idea for our times, and I pursue that theme in The Swords of Faith. I will be developing this theme in additional writing.

I invite comments, particularly from readers of The Swords of Faith.

Items mentioned in this blog with links to purchase at Amazon.com:

Opposing Viewpoints - Islam

Shadow of the Swords by Kamran Pasha

What Sir Walter Scott’s The Talisman Says About His Times June 15, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, literary commentary, Sir Walter Scott, The Talisman.
Tags: , , , ,

(Richard Warren Field wrote the award-winning novel,
The Swords of Faith. Read why this book will make a great movie.)

Literature reflects the times of its creation. My novel, The Swords of Faith, about Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, reflects our current 21st Century circumstances. The same two characters were immortalized in Sir Walter Scott’s novel, The Talisman. I have commented at length about the history in The Talisman. Here, I will just make some quick observations about what Scott’s novel says about his times.

Scott makes no claim at all that he is presenting accurate history. He is quite frank about this in his Preface. He states his intention to be true to the characters. And for Scott, I think one of the most important aspects of that issue was presenting the noble nature, the chivalry, of Saladin. Scott presents Richard the Lionheart as a dashing figure, but with flaws of vanity and impulsiveness, and as a victim of bitter factions among his fellow Christians. Scott also elevates Scottish characters to an importance not recorded in the history of the period. What was happening in Scott’s world that led to these priorities?

First, Western Europe was only a decade or so removed from the Napoleonic wars, and continued to be torn apart by fervent nationalism. Christian factions in The Talisman, and their destructive effect, allowed a historical lesson for Scott’s time, although Scott’s emphasis on Scottish characters ironically serve to illustrate the nationalist tenor of the times.

Second, Great Britain’s empire was approaching its zenith. “The sun never sets” on the empire; Great Britain was absorbing humans from different and exotic cultures. It was certainly important to peace in the empire for the British to honor and appreciate the nobility of heroes from other cultures. Saladin presented Scott with the perfect opportunity to develop this theme.

Third, the Ottoman Empire was shrinking, and Muslim areas were coming into Western European spheres of influence. A positive, respectful attitude toward Islam could help that absorption occur smoothly.

I suspect there are other ways The Talisman reflected the times of Sir Walter Scott. I invite your comments!

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss how I believe my novel, The Swords of Faith, reflects our times.

Link to purchase The Talisman at Amazon.com:

The Talisman by Sir Walter Scott