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We Live in a Scarlet Letter World November 27, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Bill Clinton, current events commentary, Herman Cain, historical fiction, John F Kennedy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, politics, social commentary, The Scarlet Letter, Tiger Woods.
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When I was in high school, we read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, a classic of American literature. I realize now I was reading a historical novel, written by Hawthorne in 1850 about events that took place two centuries earlier. The theme of this great classic novel was how that puritanical society of the 17th Century humiliated Hester Prynne for adultery by requiring her to wear a scarlet A, forever labeling her as having had sexual intercourse with a man not her husband. For this lapse in personal conduct, Hester Prynne was to forever wear this badge of her transgression. As a high school student reading this story, there is no doubt to me that Hawthorne’s emphasis was the hypocrisy and injustice of that 17th Century society as they humiliated this woman. They seemed backward and rigid. Hawthorne was no doubt implying that American society had advanced from that time, that people were more enlightened than the people in that Puritanical society. My high school teacher was certainly inferring the same message, that in our modern world, we knew better.

It doesn’t seem to me that we are more enlightened at all. In fact, in our own 21st Century way, we are more punishing with the scarlet letter than ever. We live in a Scarlet Letter Society. We only need to look at the most recent headlines. Presidential candidate Herman Cain has drawn unwanted national headlines over sexual harassment charges from events of nearly twenty years ago. Serious commentators have indicated this could disqualify him from being President of United States. These accusations are far from proven, and do not even involve actual adultery. Cain has made some unique policy proposals, proposals that should invite scrutiny and consideration. Instead, the public stage was overrun with tawdry he-said she-said mini-dramas about whether Cain “sexually harassed” women years ago.

We don’t just have this occurring in politics. The biggest scarlet letter story in the recent popular culture involves golfer Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods ruled the sport of golf with scores, victories, and tournament winnings that had him compared favorably with the greatest golfers ever. Then the media burst forth with stories of a weird vehicle accident followed by accusations of serial adultery as Woods’ marriage came apart. Woods called a press conference, prostrated himself at the feet of public opinion with apologies, and took time off from golf to deal with the crisis in his personal life. As this played out in full view of the public, I found myself wondering how any of this was my business. Tiger Woods is not a politician vested with the public trust. He is a professional athlete. Just because he has been an extraordinarily successful athlete with a huge public profile and financial success unimaginable to most people does not grant us permission to pick over the pieces of his personal life. Tiger Woods has never really seemed the same, as a public figure, even as an athlete dominating his sport. Now, when we see Tiger Woods, we can’t help but think of his personal troubles. The only thing missing is that scarlet A plastered across his golf shirt.

For more Scarlet Letter Society, we’ll go back to politics, looking back a little over a decade. We had a President of the United States impeached as a result of accusations stemming from infidelity. True, the offenses Bill Clinton was impeached for were not sexual misconduct. Those bringing the charges would insist that this was not about sex, but was about Bill Clinton’s lies under oath as he attempted to cover up his behavior. (Back at the time of these events, I wrote an essay, “Clinton Impeachment Post-Mortem: The Five Blunders,” available at my Internet Column.) But it was because of our Scarlet Letter Society that Bill Clinton felt compelled to cover up the conduct in the first place! Between 1994 and 2000, cooperation between Bill Clinton and the Republican majority House led by Newt Gingrich, resulted in notable achievements including welfare reform and balanced budgets leading to surpluses. But what do most people think of when recalling Bill Clinton’s second term? Bill Clinton’s Scarlet Letter struggles.

This gotcha world of the Scarlet Letter Society is a recent development. President John F. Kennedy certainly strayed outside of his marriage as much if not more than President Clinton. (Kennedy was idol of Clinton’s—I have to wonder if Clinton sometimes wishes he had come along a generation earlier.) The media back then allowed this private conduct, deficient conduct, immoral conduct, but of a personal nature, to remain private. Has the media become less respectful of the idea of “private” versus “public” conduct, or have we as a society insisted we have a right to know about everything? Probably a mix of both.

Credible reports tell us Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson had similar personal conduct deficiencies. There are allegations Dwight Eisenhower was also unfaithful to his wife. Would any of these men have had a chance to be elected President in our Scarlet Letter Society?

Another aspect of this, by the way, is that this current brand of Scarlet Letter Society appears to apply more vigorously to men. Some young actresses in recent years have come under scrutiny, but this hasn’t really been for infidelity. In fact, sex videotapes may have actually enhanced public profiles of Pamela Sue Anderson, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, giving them a presence in the public eye that actually opened up opportunities.

Frankly, the Hester Prynne Scarlet Letter makes more sense than the current emphasis of our Scarlet Letter Society (though I have no love for either of them). Let me issue a warning—this line of thought is going to be politically incorrect. But it addresses reality. There is a perceived primal threat to human society from female adultery. In the evolution of humans from their primate origins, monogamy was a huge development for human beings. Females developed an enjoyment for sex, and the idea of choosing their mates and consenting to sex. This brought males back to the same females at night, to be with their receptive female mates. With exclusivity of mates, males also bonded with females to care for their offspring, being assured that the offspring of their female partners were their own offspring. Female adultery threatens that assurance for male partners. So there’s a primal aversion to it, especially among males. In our current society, we understand the unfairness of this, and that parentage can be effective without blood relationships. But that primal aspect still exists, and gives rise to the vociferous condemnations of female adultery even in our recent past. Male adultery has often been tolerated, rarely as strongly condemned as seems to be in our Scarlet Letter Society of today. Personally, I believe male adultery is immoral conduct, destructive to wives, mothers and children. But I also believe this is private conduct, to be handled between the parties, not under the bright lights of media scrutiny.

So can we be smug as we read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel about hypocrisy back during Puritan times in early colonial America? I don’t think so. We don’t sew scarlet letters on the clothing of the immoral transgressors anymore. Instead we flash their images around the world from television and computer screen to television and computer screen, a high-tech red letter Hester Prynne would have recognized very well and would possibly have found even more humiliating than her own scarlet A.


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

“Blog Tour” for THE SWORDS OF FAITH July 2, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in blog tour, books, crusades, historical fiction, history, Richard the Lionheart, Saladin, the crusades, third crusade.
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It’s been a year since The Swords of Faith was released by Strider Nolan Media. (Thank you again, Michael Katz, for deciding to publish my novel.) As I work on the sequel to The Swords of Faith (The Sultan and the Khan—I’ll have an update on my progress on that book later this month), I have put together a “blog tour” that addresses subjects related to The Swords of Faith, now an award-winning novel (bronze medal from the Independent Publishers Book Awards in the Historical Fiction/Military-War category) about what history calls the “Third Crusade,” the confrontation between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Four stops on this “blog tour” are confirmed:

July 4 – Nan Hawthorne’s Booking History. “Why Write About the Crusades?”

July 8 – Historical Novel Review. A discussion of writers critique groups. (A real practical help to me as I created THE SWORDS OF FAITH.)

July 13 – History Undressed. “Was Richard the Lionheart Gay?”

July 16 – Getting Medieval. A discussion of the increasing presence of genres, particularly as it relates to historical fiction.


July 20 – All Things Historical Fiction. The Case for Richard the Lionheart.

(I’m still working on some other exciting posts for later in the month which I will announce by updating this post at my blog, and on Facebook, as they are confirmed.)


Happy 85th birthday, Mom. It’s the second birthday we are commemorating without you. Somewhere, somehow, you are enjoying The Swords of Faith and the attention it has received. We all miss you a lot.

Book Commentary/Review – Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson June 16, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in historical fiction, Jeri Westerson, mystery, Uncategorized.
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Veil of Lies, written by Jeri Westerson, is a clever, engaging combination of mystery and history, set far enough in the past to deliver readers to an exotic location, while replete with the suspense-filled twists and turns we would expect from a mystery set during the 21st Century. Crispin Guest, “the Tracker,” is a disgraced knight, stripped of this title after taking the wrong side of the conflict over Richard II of England’s accession to the throne. He plainly retains a moral connection to the chivalric code of knights. He also retains the attitudes of his class, though he no longer has the privileges and resources that go with the attitude. These elements of his character create a constant internal tension for him, coloring his approach to the world around him and his relationships, making him a deep, sometimes troubled, and therefore constantly intriguing character to follow through the entire Crispin Guest series.

Veil of Lies starts with murder and adultery, with “the Tracker” hired as sort of a 14th Century private detective by the beautiful widow of the murder victim (also the main suspect through much of the book). But like any good mystery, the truth is not at all what it seems to be at first. Westerson drips out the solution with an eyedropper, offering readers tantalizing little bits at a time. Every chapter concludes with some form of cliff-hanger, with “the Tracker” teetering on the precipice of destruction more than once. Two huge plot twists slam readers before all is resolved at the end. But all is not necessarily tied up in a nice neat little happy-ending bow. What we want for Crispin Guest, and what his character will allow for himself, are two different things. Westerson is uncompromising as she stays true to the character she has created.

Veil of Lies is the first of a series—Westerson is now up to three, with a fourth on the way. The craft demonstrated by Westerson, showing both a command of the history of the period, and a command of the mystery, story-telling genre, guarantees future books in the series will provide wonderful entertainment, with a seamless blend of history and mystery for story after story.

Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

Veil of Lies by Jeri Westerson

Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson
Serpent in the Thorns by Jeri Westerson
The Demon's Parchment by Jeri Westerson

The Demon's Parchment by Jeri Westerson

Troubled Bones by Jeri Westerson

Troubled Bones by Jeri Westerson


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 – Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne April 17, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, crusades, historical fiction, the crusades, Uncategorized.
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Nan Hawthorne’s Beloved Pilgrim dramatizes the events of the crusade of 1101, an unnumbered crusade, following right after the First Crusade (which concluded with the Western Christian capture of Jerusalem in 1099). Hawthorne remains absolutely loyal to the facts of the crusade while her characters bring exotic and fresh angles to the story.

Elizabeth is a young woman with a streak of independence trapped in circumstances incompatible with her feisty nature. She finds herself facing a marriage that will tie her to an unaffectionate brute, a man who has no compunction about using her for his needs, physical and economic, while completely disregarding her feelings and well-being. Her brother is committed to go on the crusade. She has sparred with her brother, so knows the moves of a medieval knight. In fact, she is accomplished enough to compete effectively with him. When he dies of an illness, she takes his place, fleeing her circumstances to join the Christian fighting pilgrimage. Only her squire, the gay lover of her late brother, knows of the deception. Much of the suspense of the novel develops from Elizabeth’s desperate efforts to keep her secret in the midst of the challenging circumstances of an army marching under stress, moving through hostile territory, confronted by strong, dangerous enemies.

Hawthorne also takes us to the exotic court of the Byzantine Empire, dramatizing the quirky mix of Greek/Eastern Christianity into the whole crusading movement. (A Byzantine Emperor’s plea for help triggered the First Crusade, but Byzantine emperors came to regret the Western European rush east this plea triggered, and greeted future expeditions with everything from indifference to outright hostility.) Colorful characters in the Byzantine court mix into the story in unexpected ways, causing Elizabeth to explore her own sexual preference, and creating the possibility that Elizabeth and her companion can have a happy ending regardless of the success or failure of the crusading mission.

Elizabeth’s struggles on the crusade, her battles, her growth and development, and the uncertainty over her ultimate fate, will keep readers enthralled to the end.

Beloved Pilgrim - Nan Hawthorne

Beloved Pilgrim - Nan Hawthorne

Movie Commentary: Crusade: A March Through Time March 15, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in Children's Crusade, Crusade A March Through Time, crusades, historical fiction, medieval period, movie commentary, movie review, movies, the crusades, 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.)

This 2007 movie involves a young soccer player accidently transported back in time to what history now calls “the Children’s Crusade.” This event from the crusading period is often considered the epitome of religious fanaticism leading to tragic foolishness.

Summary of the History:

(Summarized from A History of the Crusades, Volume III, by Steven Runciman.) In 1212, a shepherd boy of about twelve years old named Stephen, with a gift for preaching, convinced several thousand children to rescue Jerusalem for Christendom. He promised that God would part the seas for them once they reached the ocean. The group gathered at Vendome, France and marched, mostly on foot (Stephen rode in a cart with a canopy and some children of royal blood brought their horses) to Marseille. The journey was difficult; many died—others deserted. When they reached Marseille, and the sea did not part for them, some turned against Stephen. Two merchants offered to convey them, free of charge, to Jerusalem.

In 1230, a priest arrived in France with news on the fate of the ships the French merchants had provided eighteen years earlier. Two of the ships sank due to bad weather—all drowned. Five ships were escorted by a Muslim squadron to Algeria where the children were sold into the slavery, by prior arrangement with the two seemingly magnanimous merchants. Some ended up in Egypt. Some were executed for refusing to convert to Islam. Others ended up in the service of Saladin’s nephew, al-Kamil, who utilized them as interpreters and did not demand conversion to Islam.

Stephen’s effort inspired a German “Children’s Crusade,” led by a boy named Nicholas. This “crusade” broke up into groups, but with the same basic results. When the children arrived at the coasts (Genoa, Brindisi, Pisa, Rome), the sea again just wouldn’t part. In Genoa, many of the children became Genoan citizens. Some tried to wander back to their homes in the Rhineland, but few were able to complete the return journey. Nicholas’s father was hanged by angry parents for encouraging his son to take the children on the journey.


The Movie:

Rudolph “Dolph” Vega, in his late teens or very early twenties, wants to undo a bad result in a soccer game, so attempts to use the time machine his mother is working on to change the game, earlier that day. He ends up in the middle of a procession of children, apparently the so-called “Children’s Crusade.” The crusade story-line appears to combine aspects of the various children’s crusading movements detailed above. At first, it appears Dolph will be overwhelmed by the brutality of the era. But when he saves the son of the King of Pomerania—when he “breathes him back to life” using artificial respiration—his education, his knowledge- advantage, places him in a position to influence the entire crusade. His IPod and Mars candy bar offer humorous interactions between him and his Thirteenth Century companions on the march. Most present-day elements mix credibly into the story though I found it a stretch to believe that Dolph would be able to find gunpowder among the elements along the way, and then use them effectively in a rescue of some children taken captive. As Dolph tries to bring a 21st Century perspective to events, sometimes with positive results, sometimes not, one of the characters says to him “Your ways are not our ways.” That is the true fun of the movie, determining just how the different “ways” play out during the 13th Century.

The time travel parts of the story are weak. Not once do we hear a discussion of the time-travel paradox, even when Dolph insists on going back in time to rescue his romantic interest. (What if she was destined to play an important role in history, or give birth to an important person, or an important line of line of descendents?) But this has to be considered a story-teller’s license to allow us to take a contemporary young man back to a more brutal, less learned time period.

As to the history, the events of the historical “Children’s Crusade” are broadly observed, and used as a setting for the interaction between the eras. There is one added aspect added, however, that I will note for this post. The film-makers add a truly despicable villain, a Christian priest who is a leader of the crusade, depicted as having a great deal of influence over the child preacher. This man schemes to turn the children over to slave merchants in Genoa. There is no record of priests behaving that way. This is another example of a vile Christian villain, a phenomenon I discuss in my final post on the “Pillars of the Earth” mini-series, in the section The Church and Church Characters in “The Pillar of the Earth” Mini-Series.

Also, this is not a movie with big set-piece battles that we might expect from a movie about the Crusades. As with history, the children never reach the battlefield.

“Crusade: A March Through Time” is a harmless, entertaining exploration of how a modern young adult might fare in the brutal world of the Middle Ages.

Crusade: A March Through Time

Crusade: A March Through Time

Crusade: A March Through Time (widescreen)

Crusade: A March Through Time (widescreen)

A History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman (Volume One)

A History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman (Volume One)

A History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman (Volume Two)

A History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman (Volume Two)

A History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman (Volume Three)

A History of the Crusades - Steven Runciman (Volume Three)

Book Commentary/Review – Khan: Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden March 9, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in book review, books, Conn Iggulden, historical fiction, Khan: Empire of Silver, medieval period, Mongols, Ogedei Khan, Sorhatani, Uncategorized.
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Khan: Empire of Silver is Conn Iggulden’s fourth installment in his series of novels about Genghis Khan and his dynasty. As with the first three, this is a well-researched, fascinating telling of the Mongol conquests, years that had a profound effect on history, an effect that  arguably continues today. (My own novel, The Sultan and the Khan, soon to be available, chronicles the clash between forces commanded by Hulegu Khan and his generals, and the Mamluks, including future Sultan Baybars. The consequences of this clash certainly echo into the present-day.) Iggulden does not flinch from the Mongols’ ruthless savagery, their cold-blooded commitment to victory at any cost, with a brutal lack of compassion or basic human morality. Genghis Khan’s near genocidal disdain for the soft people in the cities remained alive and flourishing in the succeeding generations as Mongols swept through Russia and Eastern Europe to Poland and Hungary, unstoppable, and guaranteeing devastation to any hints of resistance.

In a sense, the book can be roughly divided into three unequal parts. Part one covers the succession conflict after the death of Genghis Khan. The conflict is between Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai, and third son Ogedei, Genghis Khan’s choice to succeed himself. The factions face-off at the newly constructed capital city of Karakorum, with violent, all-or-nothing, high-stakes confrontations needed to resolve the issue. Part two covers the Mongol sweep westward after the new Great Khan confirms his position, a sweep that would forever profoundly change the history of Russia, and that would lead to eastern Europeans struggling to contest them, and western Europeans hoping they would be like an ocean wave dissipating momentum as it moves from its source. Part three, intertwined with part two, and just a sliver in length, is another succession controversy after the new Great Khan dies. We are left there— Conn Iggulden will certainly be offering another installment to this series!

One bizarre event, dramatized straight from a key source for this period, The Secret History of the Mongols, has Genghis Khan’s youngest son Tolui killing himself as a human sacrifice to somehow appease spiritual forces and prolong the life of his older brother, the newly confirmed Great Khan. The sacrifice seems to work, but not for long. Ironically, it will be Tolui’s sons who end up ruling—Monge and Kublai become Great Khans, and Hulegu becomes Il-Khan of a huge empire that will include Baghdad.

We also meet Sorhatani, Tolui’s widow, the mother of khans. This is a formidible woman in a man’s world, the Mongol equivalent of Eleanor of Aquitaine, a fun character to watch.

One technical issue I am raising—Iggulden does what folks in the business call “head-hopping.” He switches points-of-view, going into the internal musings of different characters constantly within a scene. My feeling about it? It’s a bit jarring, because I have been so emphatically advised against it and therefore trained to spot it. But I find myself smiling. If you can sell as many books as Conn Iggulden, if you have his following, you can “head-hop” all you like. No agent or editor will tell you otherwise! And I found no reduced enjoyment of the story because of it.

For readers who want an entertaining look at this fascinating, formative period of history, provided with close attention to the facts (and a comprehensive “Historical Note” at the end to point out any deviation taken by the author), Khan: Empire of Silver, is a must read. Conn Iggulden’s fascination with this story transfers into an exciting novel, vivid and energetic, with exotic characters and history-forming events depicted.

Khan: Empire of Silver

Khan: Empire of Silver

Genghis: Birth of an Empire

Genghis: Birth of an Empire

Genghis: Bones of the Hills

Genghis: Bones of the Hills


Genghis: Lords of the Bow

Genghis: Lords of the Bow