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Books-Into-Movie Commentary – “Hugo” (based on the book, THE INVENTION OF HUGO CABRET) December 5, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, Brian Selznick, Georges Melies, historical fiction, Hugo, Martin Scorcese, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
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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.)

“Hugo”—movie release date November 23, 2011—is based on the historical novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a “graphic novel,” a thick book of over 500 pages but because of the many images and the large print, actually contains a simple story that reads quickly. The filmmakers of “Hugo” made considerable changes and a significant addition, though the basic story of Hugo Cabret, his discovery of a “broken” elderly man, and Hugo’s “fixing” of that man, remains. I’ll start this post with a general discussion, including a discussion of the big changes, and then list other differences of note. 

“Hugo” starts out with images of trains, clocks and Paris, letting the audience know immediately what this movie will be about, and where these events will occur. This is absolutely faithful to the book. The movie takes us through the passages in the train station, the nooks and crannies Hugo navigates through, and the mechanics of the clockwork absolutely as depicted in the book. With so many visuals provided in the book, we can imagine this was not easy. But readers of the book will feel the movie has been completely faithful to the book’s visual feel.

There are many changes in the way Hugo and Isabelle interact in the movie:

  • In the book, Hugo sees Isabelle assisting Papa Georges at the toy shop from the beginning. The details of how the interaction begins are different. Isabelle in the movie is much more gregarious and forward.
  • In the movie, there’s much more information about Georges conveyed to Hugo by Isabelle during their early interaction. This allows story exposition to be presented to the audience that is delivered in narrative in the book.
  • In the book, Hugo and Isabelle get help from an adult friend to sneak into the movies. In the movie, they do it themselves (with Hugo picking a lock).
  • Hugo confides in Isabelle a lot more in the movie—this is the most effective way to communicate the backstory for this mysterious boy living alone in a train station.
  • Isabelle does not get trampled in the book as she does in the movie (though Hugo and Isabelle do chase after each other at one point, each trying to get the other to reveal their secrets).
  • There is no interplay of Hugo and Isabelle using large vocabulary words in the book.
  • In the movie, Hugo convinces Isabelle to let him use the key to start the automaton. In the book, Hugo steals the key from Isabelle.
  • In the book, both Hugo and Isabelle are injured. Hugo’s hand is slammed in a door, and Isabelle sprains her ankle when pulling the papers out of the compartment in the armoire. There are no injuries in the movie.

The filmmakers expanded the stationmaster’s/Station Inspector’s role in the movie significantly. In the book, he is a potential looming threat, but only materializes as a living, breathing threat at the end. In the film, he is a present threat from the beginning, Hugo’s main antagonist. He seems to be offered for comic relief, allowing opportunities for slapstick (not in the book), and with his own damaged parts, consistent with the theme of the movie. There is no subplot romance with a flower girl in the book, nor interplay with a policeman as the stationmaster sends a captured boy to the orphanage.

  • The book does not include an initial chase scene with the stationmaster running after Hugo in the train station. (Did anyone else want to see that cake splattered all over the station? They broke a cello instead, not something a musician like myself wants to see!)
  • We never find out the stationmaster was an orphan in the book.

There are no dogs in the book—no dog to help the stationmaster try to apprehend Hugo, and no dog to bother an elderly man until he brings a romantic doggy partner.

Other comments:

  • Georges saying “ghosts” when he first takes Hugo’s notebook, and seeming very emotional about the notebook is straight from the book (and played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley, a difficult role trying to make a gruff and initially cruel old man appear sympathetic).
  • Hugo’s work on the clocks, his ability to maintain them so well that no one notices his uncle is gone, is straight from the book, and is visually striking in its faithfulness to the book.
  • A flashback to the story of Hugo’s father, including his death in a fire and Hugo’s uncle bringing him to the train station is straight from the book.
  • Georges handing Hugo ashes and saying he burned the notebook—straight from the book.
  • Hugo’s father’s favorite film, the film that ends with a rocket in the eye of “the man in the moon,” is consistent with the book as well.
  • The automaton come-to-life scene is the same in the movie as in the book, including the initial doodles that appear meaningless, followed by the image of “the man in the moon” signed by filmmaker Georges Méliès.
  • The book certainly intends to pay homage to George Méliès. The movie expands this to include many film clips and additional information about Méliès not included in the book (and more effectively offered in a film).
  • There is a discussion of a train crashing into the station in the book. In the movie, this is vividly depicted as part of a dream Hugo has. (This was too tempting as a stunning image not to find its way into a 3D movie that focuses so much on striking imagery.)
  • The movie has police informing the stationmaster about the death of Hugo’s uncle. This leads to the stationmaster looking to remove Hugo’s uncle’s belongings from his apartment, a source of dramatic tension toward the end of the movie. In the book, the dead uncle is not identified right away.
  • The surprise visit of the film expert is from the book though the sequence of events is slightly different, and Méliès’ wife has a much larger role in the movie.
  • The final chase scene is largely from the book, including George Méliès’ rescue of Hugo from the stationmaster except for-
    • The dog.
    • Hugo hanging from the clock (though he does hide in his room to obscure himself from the stationmaster during the chase).
    • The stationmaster, watched by the flower girl, softening as he releases Hugo.
  • The ending is different. In the book, we are aware at the beginning that the story is being told by Professor Alcofrisbas. At the end, we find out this is Hugo, transformed into Professor Alcofrisbas after an apprenticeship with Georges Méliès. He is now a master magician. In the movie, we end with Isabelle indicating she will write the story of Hugo.

*******

 Synopsis of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, written by Brian Selznick, published in 2007:

Part One
1 – The Thief
We meet Hugo Cabret, a mysterious young boy living in the rafters of a train station, intimately familiar with every passage, every vent, every opening in and around the station, particularly around the clocks in the station. He steals to eat, and steals toys from a stand run by a grumpy elderly man. A girl about Hugo’s age assists at the store. The old man catches Hugo stealing. He makes Hugo empty his pockets, and takes Hugo’s notebook. Hugo’s notebook is precious to him. The old man seems inexplicably demanding about what is in the notebook, and Hugo will not tell him, guarding the secrets of the notebook. The old man tells Hugo never to return to the toy stand, and that he will burn the notebook. Hugo runs away before the old man can turn him in to the station inspector. The old man calls Hugo a thief. Hugo retorts that the old man is the thief.

2 – The Clocks
We find out Hugo keeps the twenty-seven clocks at the station maintained. It is a job he has been doing under the supervision of his alcoholic uncle who has disappeared, leaving Hugo alone. Hugo is good at keeping the clocks going. No one seems to know Hugo’s uncle has gone.

3 – Snowfall
Hugo has another encounter with the old man at the toy stand. The man refuses to give Hugo his notebook. We also learn the old man seems unusually sensitive to the sound of shoes clicking against the floor.

4 – The Window
Hugo goes to the old man’s home and meets the girl who helps at the stand. Hugo asks her to help him get the notebook back before the old man burns it. She promises to make sure he won’t burn the notebook, and convinces him to leave.

5 – Hugo’s Father
We learn about Hugo’s father and the secret of Hugo’s notebook. Hugo’s father worked at the museum. He found an automaton, a mechanical man engineered like a complex clock. Hugo’s father worked constantly to get the automaton to work. The notebook is Hugo’s father’s drawings of the automaton. But his father perishes in a fire at the museum one night where he was working on the automaton. Hugo feels guilty because he pushed his father to work on the automaton. And he feels the automaton, which is poised to write, will deliver a message from his deceased father. Hugo manages to take the damaged but not destroyed automaton from the unguarded, burned museum. This is why the notebook is so important—Hugo wants to complete repairs on the automaton.

6 – Ashes
The old man hands Hugo a handkerchief full of ashes. Hugo is despondent that the old man has destroyed the notebook, and his chances to repair the automaton. But he receives a note to meet him at the bookseller—his notebook has not been burned.

7 – Secrets
The girl who helps at the toy store says the old man did not burn the notebook. Hugo goes to the toy shop and demands the notebook. The old man refuses to confirm it is available and tells Hugo he needs to work to make up for what he has stolen.

8 – Cards
As Hugo works, the old man plays cards, astounding Hugo with his abilities handling the cards. He meets the girl, Isabelle, at the bookstore. She promises to look for his notebook, as she lives with the old man. He meets Etienne, a young man who promises to sneak them into the movies. When Hugo sees a book about magic and tries to steal it, Etienne catches him and gives him money to buy the book.

9 – The Key
Hugo makes progress on the automaton without the notebook. As he repairs toys for the old man, he finds parts at the toy store that fit the automaton. Hugo enjoys the movies with Isabelle, but the manager at the theater catches them and throws them out. Hugo returns to the station and sees the station inspector looking at one of the clocks, taking notes. He is afraid his situation has been discovered. Isabelle wants to know why he runs, but Hugo will not tell her.  He runs from Isabelle and she chases him. She falls. Hugo sees a key around her neck. He asks her where she got it. She refuses to say and runs—now he chases her. They part without disclosing their secrets.

10 – The Notebook
When Hugo gets to the toy shop to work the next day, the old man accuses him a breaking into his home to steal the notebook. Hugo discovers Isabelle has found the notebook. He hugs her, then runs.

11 – Stolen Goods
Hugo has lifted the key from Isabelle. It will fit into the automaton.

12 – The Message
Isabel finds Hugo just as he is about to activate the automaton in his small quarters at the train station. He is upset she has found him, but wants to activate the automaton. The automaton makes what appear to be unrelated, random marks at first. But the image it completes is an image from an old movie, “The Man in the Moon” with a small rocket sticking in his eye. This image is from Hugo’s father’s favorite movie. Part One ends here, with the words “but another story begins, because stories lead to other stories, and this one leads all the way to the moon.”

Part Two
1 – The Signature
The automaton signs a name, Georges Méliès. Isabel realizes this is the old man’s name, her godfather whom she calls “Papa Georges.” Hugo wants to know more and follows Isabelle back to their home. Isabelle wants to get home and does not want to tell him any more. When Hugo tries to follow her through the door, she slams the door on his hand. We learn Isabelle stole the key from her godmother. Her godmother is angry because she hid the key to “protect my husband.”

2 – The Armoire
Mama Jeanne, Isabelle’s godmother, looks toward an armoire as she asks the children to hide so Papa Georges will not find out Hugo is in their home. When she leaves the room, Isabelle pulls a box out of the armoire from a secret section. The chair she is standing on to get to the box breaks and the box falls, spilling out hundreds of papers filled with drawings of striking fantasy images. Isabelle injures her ankle.

3 – The Plan
Hugo returns to his home, his room in the station, and hides the automaton. His hand is injured, but he goes to the bookstore the next morning after deciding to find out about old movies. He is referred to the Film Academy library.

4 – The Invention of Dreams
Hugo takes the metro to the Film Academy library. The librarian is not going to let him in, but Etienne is there, and does let him in. He finds out that the image drawn by the automaton, from his late father’s favorite movie, was created by filmmaker Georges Méliès. Etienne tells Hugo Méliès is dead. Hugo tells Etienne he is not dead—he is Isabelle’s godfather.

 5 – Papa Georges Made Movies
Isabelle comes to Hugo’s room. Hugo tells Isabelle about her godfather, and that he has invited Etienne and another person to Papa George’s home the following week. But Papa Georges is sick. Mama Jeanne is unlikely to allow the visit.

6 – Purpose
Isabelle and Hugo talk about how all machines are made for a purpose, and that maybe they can “fix” Papa Georges. They go up into the station rafters for a night view ofParis. But Hugo’s hand is too injured for him to continue maintaining the clocks at the station.

7 – The Visit
The clocks are starting to show different times. The station inspector leaves Hugo’s disappeared uncle a note. Etienne and his colleague arrive at the home of Georges Méliès. Neither Papa Georges nor Mama Jeanne know they are coming. This section ends with Georges hearing them, taking a projector from Etienne, and closing the door to his room, locking the door behind him.

8 – Opening the Door
Isabelle picks the lock to Georges’ room. Georges tells Isabelle her father had made movies with him before he died. Georges explains his early career, and how after World War I he was no longer competitive and had to sell his films and leave the business. He explains he had donated the automaton to the museum, and thought it had been lost. But Hugo tells him he has the automaton in his room at the station. He promises to go get it and bring it back.

 9 – The Ghost in the Station
When Hugo returns to the station, the station inspector takes custody of him. Hugo breaks loose of his hold and runs through the station, through the spaces and passageways around it. The station inspector catches up to him and with help, takes him into custody again. “The only place you’re going is to prison.” They lock Hugo in a cage.

10 – A Train Arrives in the Station
When the police come, and the cage door opens, Hugo bursts through the police and runs through the station. He runs through crowd, and gets knocked into the path of a train. At the last minute, Hugo is yanked out of the path of the train. The station inspector has him again. Hugo blacks out. When he wakes, Georges Méliès is there. He has come because Hugo had been gone too long to get the automaton. Georges explains matters to the station inspector, and Hugo is freed.

Six Months Later
11 – The Magician
Hugo attends a tribute to Papa Georges at theFilmAcademy. After the film tribute, ending with “A Trip to the Moon,” Hugo’s father’s favorite film, Papa Georges tells Hugo he is now “Professor Alcofrisbas,” “a character who appeared in many of my films, sometimes as an explorer, sometimes as an alchemist… But mostly he was a magician…”

12 – Winding It Up
Hugo/Professor Alcofrisbas tells us he is now a successful magician, and has created an automaton that will create the text and images of the book we have just read.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret - Brian Selznick

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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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1 comment so far

(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)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Jane Eyre March 21, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, Cary Fukunaga, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre, Moira Buffini, 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.)

“Jane Eyre” the movie (2011) is a faithful, clever adaptation of Jane Eyre, the classic novel (1847). The filmmakers follow the basic storyline closely. I’ll discuss their approach to the story, which is different from the novel. I’ll then go over similarities and differences of note between the story told in the movie and in the book. Finally, I’ll finish with a brief synopsis of the book. 

Story Approach. While the filmmakers retain the basic story, they shuffle the order of events by using a flashback technique. The movie starts toward the end of the story, with Jane Eyre wandering in the rain, penniless and homeless, fleeing from something (in the movie, we don’t know what), rescued by “St. John” Rivers and his sisters, unwilling to give her correct name. From there, we flash back to the beginning of the story. The novel starts with Jane Eyre’s childhood and moves forward with the chronology of the story depicted consecutively.  Using this flashback technique adds suspense to a story that otherwise might be labeled as starting out slowly. The flashback technique is a clever device, successfully adding drama and mystery to the effect of the film. With acknowledgement of the flashback technique, we can then see the basics of the story are retained.

The flashback style does create one subtle change in the story, specifically with Jane Eyre’s character. In the movie, she seems more haunted by her past. This is a necessary by-product of the flashback technique. In the book, one of her distinctive traits is that she moves on with strength and dignity despite the adversity she faces.

Comments on story specifics.

  • The movie is cast consistent with the book’s descriptions and depictions of the characters. Jane Eyre is not gorgeous—she has undistinguished looks. A prettier version of the Jane Eyre character would have changed one of the basic aspects of Brontë’s concept for this novel. Jane Eyre in the movie is direct and sincere. She never flinches from saying what a situation demands, regardless of the consequences. This is the Jane Eyre of the book, making her character likable, someone we want to watch.
  •  Jane Eyre’s aunt and male cousin are as despicable in the book as they are in the movie, including the scene of Jane Eyre clobbered in the face by her cousin, and the subsequent unjust reaction. In the movie, her aunt seems a little more repentant in their final scene together—in the book she confesses wrongs done to Jane Eyre, but seems to rationalize them. 
  • Lowood School’s depiction, including the severe Mr. Brocklehurst and the rigid austerity of the school, are consistent with the book. The death of Jane Eyre’s friend is also directly from the book. There are two deviations:
    • There isn’t time to show the kindness of the head of the school, and the way Jane Eyre wins over authorities at Lowood. She ends up thriving there, becoming a teacher during her final years at the school.
    • After the death of her friend Helen, and a number of other girls at the school due to a typhus epidemic, conditions at the school improve. It becomes widely recognized that poor diet and severe treatment of the girls was the cause of the epidemic, and this triggers the changes.
  • The Edward Fairfax Rochester of the movie seems consistent with his depiction in the book, through the movie version may be a little better looking. Judy Dench is perfect as the housekeeper of the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall. Adele, the ward of Edward Rochester, is also consistent with the character presented in the book.
     
  • In the book, we have more about the mysterious Grace Poole, who Jane suspects as the one responsible for the violent acts at Thornfield Hall (the fire and the stabbing). The filmmakers offer less specifics in the movie, with Grace Poole barely mentioned at all. Adele does mention a mysterious woman who walks through the house at night, but this is not significantly developed.
     
  • Edward Rochester’s sprained ankle after coming off his horse, with his later meeting with Jane Eyre at the house, is directly from the novel.
     
  • Edward Rochester asks for Jane Eyre’s “tale of woe.” The fact that Jane Eyre refuses to tell a “tale of woe,” despite the adversity she faces, is what makes her character so compelling. This scene emphasizes the point, and is a crucial point of similarity between the book and the movie.
  • Jane Eyre’s discovery of the fire, and rescue of Edward Rochester, are directly from the book.
     
  • The tease that Edward Rochester will marry Blanche Ingram is also directly from the book. A strange scene with Edward Rochester disguising himself as a female gypsy fortuneteller is omitted. This seems a good choice. The Edward Rochester character dressed in drag trying to do a falsetto would have been comically absurd, and would have wrecked the tone of the movie.
     
  • Richard Mason’s arrival, the “blow” referred to by Edward Rochester, and the subsequent stabbing and Jane Eyre’s help with the aftermath, are directly from the book.
     
  • Edward Rochester’s proposal to Jane Eyre is directly from the book—maybe a little condensed, but the Edward Rochester dialogue in the book tends to run long. And, a solicitor does break into the ceremony, right at the moment when the minister asks if there is any impediment to the marriage, to tell of Rochester’s previous marriage.
     
  • The movie spares us page after page of Edward Rochester begging Jane Eyre to stay with him. After a shorter effort to convince her to stay, Jane Eyre does leave Thornfield Hall (the only possible decision for this character) determined to start over. Because of the flashback technique, we are aware the marriage is not going to work and we wonder how it will be thwarted.
     
  • In the book, Jane Eyre goes farther away than is apparent in the movie. This takes her to the point in the story where the film begins.
     
  • Jane Eyre aka Jane Elliott runs the small school, as in the book.
     
  • Jane Eyre inherits the fortune of her long-lost uncle, as in the book. In the book, she finds out she is related to “St. John” and his sisters (making the subsequent marriage proposal even more inappropriate). On the basis of that relationship, Jane Eyre shares the bequest. In the film, she “adopts” them and shares the bequest. The film version spares the audience suspending disbelief on the coincidence of Jane Eyre stumbling on relatives miles away from Thornfield Hall.
     
  • “St. John” does propose to Jane Eyre, wanting her to go to India as a missionary’s wife. As in the book, she’s willing to go as a “sister” or “friend,” but she rejects the marriage proposal.
     
  • The book ends as the movie does, with one huge discrepancy. Jane Eyre does come back to Edward Rochester and finds him blind, after his home has been burned and devastated, and his wife is now dead. Jane Eyre loves him regardless of his new circumstances and marries him without hesitation. But in the book, Edward Rochester regains his sight in one eye. That makes for a happier ending than the Jane Eyre in the movie, left with the blinded love of her life. We can ask, does it make much difference for this particular character? 

If this book had been handled differently by the filmmakers, we could well have ended up with an English 19th Century “Mommie Dearest” on our hands. We would have “poor Jane Eyre,” almost comically put-upon from every side, suffering the injustices heaped upon her by caricatures of nasty, deficient people. But the potential “woe-is-Jane-Eyre” element of the novel is kept subservient to her strong, likable, even admirable character. The flashback mechanism injected into this story makes for a successful book-into-movie, while staying very close to the original story from the book. 

Brief Synopsis. The novel starts with Jane Eyre as a child, staying with her aunt, who treats orphaned Jane Eyre with contempt and injustice, favoring her cousins, and unfairly labeling Jane Eyre as a deceitful, troubled child. Her aunt puts her in an austere charity boarding school. 

After a rough start at the school, Jane’s hard work—and her courage to pick the right moments to stand up for herself—pay off as she starts to thrive. A typhus epidemic kills some students, and takes one of her best friends, but also results in improved conditions at the school. She ends up as a teacher, and at eighteen, secures a position as a governess/tutor for a wealthy young girl, a ward at the estate of a wealthy family.

Jane Eyre enters the service of Edward Fairfax Rochester, a wealthy man with the resources to travel and live pretty much as he pleases. Jane Eyre is hired to tutor Adele, the illegitimate daughter of one of Edward Rochester’s female friends (apparently not his own daughter). She handles the task with earnest dedication, serving effectively at her assigned job. When she first arrives, Edward Rochester is not on the premises. When he first arrives, he is a gruff, aloof and abrasive man, especially considering that his first meeting with her is out away from the estate where he falls off his horse and sprains his ankle.

Jane Eyre continues her efficient handling of her duties and service to the household. But strange events occur. A fire nearly kills Edward Rochester. A mysterious guest is stabbed nearly to death in the middle of the night. Jane Eyre aids in the handling of these events, and the relationship between her and Edward Rochester, though still servant-master, deepens. Affection develops between them. Suspicion for the events falls on the mysterious servant of the household, Grace Poole. Her role in the household is unclear to Jane Eyre, and with Grace Poole’s apparent connection to these violent events, she wonders why Edward Rochester does not act against Grace Poole.

It appears to Jane Eyre that Edward Rochester will marry Blanche Ingram, a woman of his class, an obvious match for him. Wedding preparations are underway. But Edward Rochester proposes to Jane Eyre! She accepts. At the ceremony, when the minister asks if anyone knows why Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester can’t be married, a solicitor speaks out. Edward Rochester is already married—to a deranged woman he has been keeping secretly at his house under the supervision of Grace Poole. It is Edward Rochester’s deranged wife who tried to burn Edward Rochester alive, and who stabbed the visitor, her brother. Edward Rochester begs Jane Eyre to stay with him. But she will not stay with a married man.

Jane Eyre takes whatever money she is owed and pays for passage on a coach as far a she can travel from Thornfield Hall. She ends up homeless, sleeping in the rain. Desperate, she approaches a home where she is admitted and gets food and shelter. She ends up teaching at the local school. “St. John,” the head of the household, is a serious Christian missionary, planning to bring his missionary work to India. He proposes to Jane Eyre, but she believes this is for convenience, not love, and she is not in love with him. She declines his proposal.

In a bizarre coincidence, Jane Eyre turns out to be related to the members of the household. An uncle of Jane Eyre’s dies, leaving her 20,000 pounds. She has never known her uncle, and feels the others should share in the bequest. She divides the money four ways.

Word comes to Jane Eyre that back at Thornfield Hall, a horrible fire has occurred. Edward Rochester’s deranged wife is dead, and he is now blind. Jane Eyre finally marries him—her love for him remains though his resources are reduced and his needs have dramatically increased. He gains sight back in one of his eyes, and they remain happily together.

Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

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)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: True Grit February 7, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, Charles Portis, Coen Brothers, Jeff Bridges, John Wayne, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books, True Grit.
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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.)

Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, has now been made into a movie for a second time. This offers lots of opportunity for comments as we compare the book to the movies, and the movies to each other. To focus this commentary, I’ll 1) start with some overall comments, 2) discuss each movie compared to the book, and 3) offer a chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the novel.

_______

Before this new “True Grit” film, I had always thought of “True Grit” as the movie which finally got John Wayne an Oscar. John Wayne evolved into such an iconic personality/heroic-image that his acting was not always taken seriously. “True Grit” became the film that allowed critics and Oscar voters to take his acting seriously. The movie was a platform for John Wayne, the actor. But what kind of movie was “True Grit?” Answering that question undoubtedly led the Coen Brothers producing team to look at remaking the film. Because absent the John Wayne platform element, the “True Grit” of 1969 allowed many opportunities for improvement.

The 1969 release is a tidy movie, much more neat and orderly than the world portrayed in Portis’s novel. At the risk of sounding too cute, the first “True Grit” wasn’t gritty enough! Portis’s novel was written in the late 1960s at a time when Americans were looking critically at their history. It seems to me that Portis sought to offer an uncompromising portrait of the American West in the post Civil War era. He vividly dramatizes a setting that is on the fringes of civilization—a place one step from lawlessness, a place where the strong and vicious try to victimize gentler, more civilized types, and then ooze back into anonymous regions lacking civilization. At this place and time, it took men nearly uncivilized themselves to vanquish the victimizers. That is Rooster Cogburn—a man who has been an outlaw, a man whose scruples seem flexible depending on circumstances, a man with “true grit.” The first movie is tidy; John Wayne couldn’t completely cast off his heroic, iconic nature, and maybe moviegoers were not thought to be ready for a film as uncompromising as the book, at least not as a John Wayne vehicle. This discrepancy allowed the filmmakers of the 2010 “True Grit” the opportunity to capture the “grittier” tone of the book.

In my opinion, almost everything about the newer film is an improvement on the first film. First, and maybe foremost, this second film was not a John Wayne vehicle. So they could cast a great actor who doesn’t always play heros in the role of Rooster Cogburn. Jeff Bridges portrays a more convincing Rooster Cogburn, more consistent with Portis’s character than John Wayne’s fun but definitely John Wayne-ish Cogburn. Kim Darby plays Mattie Ross in the first version and plays her well, but she is clearly older than the fourteen year old she is supposed to be playing. Hailee Steinfeld is more convincing—when LaBoeuf spanks her, we feel her indignation and helplessness more powerfully. We feel the frustration of a confident fourteen-year-old unable to assert her will against brute strength, pleading for justice from Cogburn. Glen Campbell as LaBoeuf was just plain awful; Matt Damon had no trouble improving on that performance. Similarly, Josh Brolin seems more age-appropriate and consistent with Chaney/Chelmsford, and Berry Pepper is also a shade more convincing as Lucky Ned Pepper than Robert Duval.

In many places in both films, dialogue is taken word for word from the book. This is certainly a tribute to Portis’s gift for character and dialogue. Many lines like “Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!” fill pages of the book, making it directly into the dialogue of the movie. 

This second “True Grit” movie offers a more uncomfortable atmosphere, with dimly lit scenes, inclement weather, and untidy settings that look mostly untamed and undisturbed by human beings.

The first “True Grit” goes completely “Hollywood” at the end, creating another dissonance between the tone of Portis’s novel and the way the filmmakers told the story. In the book, Mattie Ross loses her arm as a result of her injuries—not in this tidy movie version. In the first movie version, Rooster Cogburn joins Mattie at the family cemetery and agrees to be buried with her family! True, in the book, Rooster Cogburn is taken for burial by Mattie Ross after his death, but there is no direct interaction at all between Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn after Mattie Ross is dropped off for medical care at the end of the main story. Portis resists the temptation to offer an orderly, feel-good ending. Many people at the fringes of creeping civilization in the American West of the last half of the Nineteenth Century did not live tidy, orderly lives. For a man like Rooster Cogburn, sentimentality was not a luxury he could afford if he was to survive in the world he inhabited.

One area I do not believe was an improvement from the first film to the second film was the music. The first film used a grand orchestral score from film-scoring legend, Elmer Bernstein. For this version of “True Grit,” for the tidy version, such a score was appropriate. For the newer version, a sweet orchestral score was all wrong, and may have sabotaged the tone of the film in places. An earthier score, a Ry Cooder type score, with acoustic guitars, harmonicas—simpler, earthier, “grittier”—would have helped convey the mood of this less tidy remake.

_______

Comments specifically on the 2010 movie version of “True Grit:”

  • As if to signal immediately that this second “True Grit” would be book-faithful (and the second film is very close to the book, as close as movies get to following a book), the movie starts off with Mattie reciting the opening lines of her first-person account of this story, the opening lines of the novel True Grit.
  • Cogburn and LaBoeuf have a sharper conflict in the movie, separating in places where they do not separate in the book. This creates some slight variations in the plot, though the basic plot outline remains the same.
  • I do not recall the weird scene with the dentist wearing the bearskin in the book. (Maybe some sharp-eyed reader recalls this. I skimmed the book a second time and still did not spot this scene.)
  • The trail never really goes “cold” in the book. Though some of Cogburn’s schemes to track Chaney/Chelmsford, and Ned Pepper, do not always work to perfection, Cogburn still manages to stay pretty well on the trail.
  • This movie almost totally adheres to the unsentimental ending of the book—with one exception. In the book, Cogburn makes no attempt to contact Mattie Ross at all. She hears of him and sends letters—he never replies. She finds out about he is part of a wild-west show from a newspaper article sent to her by someone else, not Rooster Cogburn. As in the movie, she misses a reunion by just a few days in 1903, discovering he has passed away just before her arrival. On her initiative, she buys a marble headstone and buries him with her family. We are left to wonder whether Rooster Cogburn would have agreed with this at all. Untidy. Like the time and place of the book.

Comments specifically on the 1969 movie version of “True Grit:”

  • The earlier movie version of “True Grit” starts right off with tidier story-telling. The film shows Mattie Ross with her father before he leaves for Fort Smith with Tom Chaney/Chelmsford, and shows the murder of Frank Ross. The book starts off with Mattie coming to town after the murder—the murder is back-story in the book. We never meet Mattie’s father in real-time nor do see her interaction with her father in real-time.
  • Food seems much tidier in this movie. At one point, at McAlester’s, we see Mattie Ross sitting down to what looks like a family picnic.
  • LaBoeuf does not die in the book.

 _______

 Synopsis of True Grit

 Note: This will be a broad synopsis of True Grit. I must caution the reader, however, that Charles Portis’s True Grit is as much about character and atmosphere as it is about plot and events. It is no-holds-barred uncompromising storytelling, showing more interest in creating a story that feels real and authentic, than a story that feels good. Characters suffer realistic consequences for their actions:

  • Mattie Ross suffers life-changing injuries as result of her insistence on joining two grown men on a dangerous mission.
  • Characters do not magically go on to live perfect lives after their experiences.

So as I offer this dry sequence of events, I recommend that readers experience the book directly to get the true feel for True Grit.

Unlabeled Chapters One and Two. Mattie Ross starts off telling her story—this is a first person novel—she tells how to Tom Chaney, a “tenant working for hire,” kills her father. While Mattie Ross’s father and Chaney are in Fort Smith, Arkansas to buy some horses, Chaney gets drunk and loses money at cards. When he grabs a gun to go after a man he says cheated him, Mattie Ross’s father confronts Chaney, and Chaney shoots him, then runs away to Oklahoma/Indian territory. Mattie Ross, fourteen years old, aggressively settles matters with the man who sold the horses to her father, invoking the name of her lawyer. She is disappointed that the authorities are not taking more interest in apprehending Chaney. Mattie Ross asks “who is the best U.S. Marshal they have.” The sheriff tells her “the meanest one is Rooster Cogburn… a pitiless man.” He will be at federal court the next day.

Unlabeled Chapter Three. Mattie Ross watches Rooster Cogburn testify in court. There is an implication that Cogburn has a grudge against the defendant and his dead father and brother—shot by Cogburn. But Cogburn holds up well. Mattie Ross proposes fifty dollars as a reward for Cogburn to bring back Tom Chaney. Cogburn insists on one hundred, fifty paid in advance.

Unlabeled Chapter Four. Mattie Ross meets LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger. He is also looking for Tom Chaney (actually Theron Chelmsford and other aliases as well), who is wanted for killing a state senator in Texas. He suggests they join efforts, but the two part angrily after disagreeing over what will be done with Chaney/Chelmsford when he is caught. Mattie Ross wants him hanged in Fort Smith, Arkansas. LaBoeuf will earn a considerable reward for bringing Chaney/Chelmsford back to Texas.

Unlabeled Chapter Five. Mattie Ross tells Rooster Cogburn that she will be going with him. Cogburn resists, but after considerable argument, and in exchange for Mattie Ross’s assistance with his claims for payment from his superiors, he agrees. (Rooster Cogburn is not good with paperwork—Mattie Ross hand been handling the paperwork at her father’s ranch.) But the next day, she finds LaBoeuf and Cogburn together. LaBoeuf has access to a bigger reward, and they agree to go on together, without her. She tags along anyway, crossing the river on her pony, into Indian territory/Oklahoma, beating the ferry across. She follows them until they set up an ambush and LaBoeuf takes a switch to her. But Cogburn stops LaBoeuf and decides to let Mattie join them. LaBoeuf  believes they have made a mistake.

Unlabeled Chapter Six. The three track Chaney’s likely whereabouts to a house where they believe Cheney has joined a gang led by Lucky Ned Pepper.  Neither Pepper nor Chaney/Chelmsford are there. They end up killing the men who are there when those men resist Cogburn’s and LaBoeuf’s approach to the house. They get information on where Pepper and Chaney/Chelmsford might be. Cogburn goes into his background, as a Confederate soldier and thief, as well as a U.S. Marshal. Lucky Ned Pepper shows up the following day and realizes his place-to-stay has been compromised. When Pepper fires his revolver, LaBoeuf fires his rifle from his hiding place. Cogburn is unhappy they have given away their position, but takes out some of the gang with his rifle. Two of the gang are killed, the others escape, and no new information about Chaney/Chelmsford is learned. LaBoeuf is hit in the arm.

They bring the bodies to what will become the town of McAlester, Oklahoma. They find out Pepper and his gang have robbed a train, taking considerable loot. Cogburn gets more information on where to go after Chaney/Chelmsford. He tries to talk Mattie into staying behind, but she insists on remaining with them, and this time LaBoeuf agrees that Mattie should come along. They take a long ride. Mattie struggles with the difficult conditions, but won’t admit she is having any problems.

Final Unlabeled Chapter. The next morning, Mattie goes to a stream to fill canteens and comes face-to-face with Chaney/Chelmsford. He mocks her at first, not taking her seriously. But she shoots him, and the only reason she doesn’t kill him is because her gun jams. He is hit in the side. Mattie Ross calls for LaBoeuf and Cogburn. Chaney’s “bandit friends” also come running. But the bandits reach her first and take her. Lucky Ned Pepper threatens to kill her unless Cogburn and LaBoeuf withdraw. Cogburn tries to say he doesn’t care about the girl, but does withdraw when Pepper calls his bluff and threatens to kill her immediately. Mattie Ross explains to Pepper why she wants Chaney/Chelmsford. Pepper seems to take it in, and is not unsympathetic to her. But, he does say, “I will do what I have to do,” meaning if he needs to harm her, he will.

Pepper will not let Chaney/Chelmsford hurt Mattie Ross, withholding his share of the robbery proceeds and telling him he will not get his share if he hurts her. Pepper leaves the two together, instructing Chaney to leave her at another location. Mattie Ross does not like this idea, and asks to walk away on her own. Pepper insists on this arrangement, again saying Chaney/Chelmsford will not get paid unless the she remains safe. Mattie Ross attempts to escape from Chaney/Chelmsford by throwing hot water on him and running. He catches up to her, and she figures she is “done for.” But just then, LaBoeuf comes up on Chaney and thwarts his efforts to hurt Mattie Ross.

Rooster Cogburn is watching for the other bandits. LaBoeuf and Mattie move around a pit with snakes in it. They see the other gang-members riding away from them. Rooster Cogburn charges at four armed bandits. “Fill your hand you son of a bitch!” he yells at Ned Pepper after he refuses Pepper’s request to step aside and starts his charge. Mattie Ross is now convinced: Rooster Cogburn has “true grit.” Cogburn kills two of the four. One escapes. Ned Pepper is shot but still on his horse. Rooster Cogburn’s horse is dead. He takes shotgun pellets in his face and shoulders. Pepper goes after the horseless Cogburn. LaBoeuf shoots Pepper dead with his rifle from long distance.

But as they start to celebrate, Tom Chaney/Chelmsford smashes LaBoeuf’s head with the rock. Mattie Ross grabs her pistol. This time it doesn’t jam, and she shoots Chaney/Chelmsford in the head, killing him. But the kick from the gun sends her into the mossy pit where she breaks her arm and lands in a group of rattlesnakes. A dazed but still able LaBoeuf, and Rooster Cogburn, extricate her, but not before she is bitten by a rattlesnake. Cogburn takes her to the nearest doctor. She recovers, but loses her forearm.

Mattie Ross never again has direct contact with Rooster Cogburn. She writes him more than once, but receives no replies. She makes sure she sends him the balance of his payment, and corrects any blame attributed to him for her injuries. LaBoeuf retrieves Chaney/Chelmsford’s body to get the reward in Texas. Years later, Mattie Ross finds out Cogburn is playing in a wild-west show in Memphis, Tennessee. She takes a train to see the show, but finds out Cogburn has died a few days before her arrival. She claims his body and has him buried with a marble headstone in her family plot. She has become a prosperous single woman/banker, an “old maid,”—she says of marriage: “I never had time to fool with it.”

True Grit

True Grit

True Grit (movie starring John Wayne)

Books-Into-Movie Commentary: Gulliver’s Travels January 25, 2011

Posted by rwf1954 in books, books into movies, Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift, movie commentary, movies, movies based on books.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
3 comments

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

Once upon a time (a few weeks ago), I was writing a blog called “Books-Into-Movies.” I have since then discontinued that blog. But before I did, I started reading Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, in anticipation of the upcoming movie of the same name. This book was published in 1726. I have to say, the book surprised me—the writing style is tough and dated, but the content is entertaining and still relevant. I laughed out loud in places when reading it.

It doesn’t appear that “Gulliver’s Travels” will be a big hit movie. Critics are generally panning it. But I have to comment about this book. The movie critic from my local paper wrote that the satire in Gulliver’s Travels is outdated. I could not disagree more! As if to compound these errors in the popular culture, Book of the Month Club offered Gulliver’s Travels as a selection for children! Some of the fantasy elements of Swift’s story are fun for children, but this is decidedly not a children’s book! As I discuss details of the book below, my assertions will become obvious.

I write these words after reading the book but before seeing the movie. I’ll add a comment at the end of this post about the movie, but most of my comments will be about this wonderful book.

Two surprises:

  • When we think of Gulliver’s Travels, we think first of Lilliput, the Lilliputians—big, huge Gulliver among a bunch of tiny people. We might also think of the reverse scenario on his journey to the Brabdingrab—tiny, tiny Gulliver among a bunch of huge people. But these two “travels” are only half of this book.  Some of my favorite parts of the book are from the second half; the island in the sky, and the land of the horses.
  • When we think of English literature classics, we think of stuffy proper people, and slow-moving dramas. Gulliver’s Travels is full of action, and contains numerous crass and vulgar (also hilarious) moments. I will be interested to see how many of these get into the movie starring Jack Black. I give examples of these as well.

 Part I: A Voyage to Lilliput

  • Here is the Gulliver’s Travels story known to everyone. Gulliver wakes up after a shipwreck tied up by a swarm of people six inches tall. This is a high-concept idea, with many options: allegory, pure adventure, satire—Swift plays it for satire.
  • Swift skewers religious fanaticism, an issue alive and festering today. The state of Lilliput and the state of Blefuscu are in a state of war over religious differences. The specific controversy is over which end of the egg to open up, the small end or the big end. The government of Lilliput considers “Big-Enders” to be heretics.
  • In one of those great examples of crassness and vulgarity, Gulliver puts out a fire in the Empress’s palace by urinating on it. It does not appear to Gulliver that the citizens, with their thimble-sized buckets, will be able to put out the fire. So, he uses a natural hose to snuff out the flames.
  • Gulliver’s own abilities lead to big troubles. It is against the law to urinate in the Empress’s palace. This, coupled with Gulliver’s lack of enthusiasm for helping Lilliput’s military efforts to reduce Blefuscu to a province—in Gulliver’s mind consigning free and noble people to slavery—gets Gulliver accused of treason. They decide not to kill him; they ask that he report in three days to have his eyes put out.  Gulliver defects to Blefuscu, then quickly leaves the lands of the six inch high people.

 Part II: A Voyage to Brobdingnag

  • He’s a little guy here—a Lilliputian among giants—role reversal. In this world, he holds no power, and struggles to survive, mainly from the threat of being killed by the casual negligence of the huge humans he deals with, and the ambitions of oversized creatures like rats and household pets.
  • At first he’s exploited for profit by the farmer who finds him, and nearly driven to fatal exhaustion in the process. The farmer sells Gulliver to the king when Gulliver appears to be losing his health. Only the farmer’s daughter, a young girl under ten, seems to care about his welfare. She joins the king’s service to continue taking care of him after the sale.
  • When Gulliver describes the customs of English nobility, and some of the history, the King concludes “by what I have gathered from your own relation… I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of odious little vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the service of the earth.” Gulliver takes exception, but we get the idea that Swift agrees with much of the sentiment of the ruler of Brobdingnag.
  • Gulliver proposes to help Brobdingnag’s king manufacture guns and gunpowder, technology they don’t have. “The King was struck with horror at the description I had given of these terrible engines…” He describes the King as “amazed how so impotent and groveling an insect…would entertain such inhuman ideas…” Gulliver again finds this ruler’s ideas “narrow”—shortsighted and naive.
  • But the King seems insensitive to Gulliver, treating him like a pet, hoping to breed him to start a line of tiny humans, only held back by his inability to find a female partner for Gulliver. Gulliver escapes in a box with a makeshift sail.

 Part III: A Voyage to Laputa, Balnibarbi, Luggrigg, Glubbdubdrib and Japan

  • Gulliver visits an island in the sky, a place little concerned with practicalities. Every aspect of this world seems based on abstract applications of geometric shapes. The ruling king seems little interested in anything related to practical reality.
  • Gulliver visits an academy with some very strange projects. He enters a room with a horrible stench. The academic in that room gives Gulliver a warm welcoming hug, a hug Gulliver can do without. This man’s project? Turning excrement back into food.  He has not yet perfected the idea.
  • In another room, mathematical formulas are inscribed on paper-like wafers, and fed to students in an effort to have the students absorb the mathematical concepts more quickly. This project is also far from success—the students keep vomiting out the wafers.

Part IV: A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhmns

  • The Houyhnhmns are horses. This society is run entirely by horses. This is the Planet of the Horses a few centuries before Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. Humans (known as “Yahoos” in this society) are brutal, base creatures—filthy disgusting, and utterly without sophistication or higher reasoning power. The Houyhnhmns are baffled by Gulliver, who clothes himself and exhibits so many advanced traits. And they find it doubtful that an advanced society run by Yahoos could exist, or that that society could possibly treat Houyhnhmns in any way subservient to Yahoos.  But when Gulliver relates the details of human society—contemporary society and through human history— the leader of the Houyhnhmns experiences the grim realization that Gulliver’s description of his society is consistent with what Houyhnhmns know about Yahoos.
  • Gulliver, who has an extraordinary aptitude for languages, struggles with the nays, brays and whinnies of the language of the Houyhnhmns, but he does master it over his three years with them. When he returns to England, his speech retains a Houyhnhmn accent; horse-like tones become part of his normal vocal patterns.
  • Gulliver finds it hard to return to human society after his time with the noble horses, creatures who don’t even have a specific word for lying. He finds humans/Yahoos disgusting—even his wife has to sit at the “far end of a long table” for him to agree to dine with her. He ends the book implying he never wants to experience the company of humans again.

With this, Swift brings his biting, satirical look at humanity to a close, clearly not an admirer of the species! The first three journeys examine different human worlds, with strange scenarios, but leading each time to some form of failure due to perceived deficiencies of human nature. It is only the society encountered during his fourth journey that Gulliver experiences any admiration for. Swift is clearly a cynic, not hopeful about basic human nature, or the ultimate fate of the human species. That gives his wonderfully creative stories a modern edge.

But, I don’t share Swift’s apparent sentiment. We can find our better natures, as opposed to our worst, and progress close to the noble society Swift describes in Part IV.  And, maybe that’s what Swift really wanted to do—keep us thinking about our deficiencies while dreaming of what we can be. We Yahoos have the choice!

——-

These comments are written after I have seen the movie:

  • I think Jonathan Swift would have liked this movie. No, the movie did not follow the book much at all. But Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is a book with a sense of humor, and the movie retains the comic tone. At the end, the ensemble songs-and-dance, with the people of Lilliput and Blefuscu singing “War” captures Swift’s themes of social commentary.
  • In my opinion, the critics were too hard on this film. Was it a great masterpiece of film-making, turning a great classic of English literature into a classic film? No. But the film takes some high concept ideas from the book and turns them into an hour and a half of entertainment that offers some smiles, chuckles, and even a few good laughs.

How does the book compare to the movie? This is a movie that takes concepts, and little else, from the original book. I will not attempt a comprehensive comparison and contrast. I’ll list a few observations:

  • Lemuel Gulliver in the book is a ship surgeon and later a Captain, a sophisticated man, educated and eloquent. (In the movie, he’s a loser in the mailroom of a newspaper.)
  • In 1726, Jonathan Swift does not need to call on the Bermuda Triangle to take the story to exotic lands. Back at that time, parts of the globe had not been explored.
  • There is no showdown scene in Lilliput between Gulliver and a machine to run by an antagonist. There’s no happy reconciliation between Lilliput and Blefuscu. Gulliver leaves the area for England, and both factions are glad to see this oversized consumer of resources gone.
  • In the book, we do not have any romantic story, nothing like the princess and the commoner in Lilliput, or Gulliver’s own romance with the travel editor at the newspaper. Gulliver is married with a family, though we are left to wonder how his wife and family feel about his long absences.
  • Gulliver’s personal journey is different in the book. He becomes disgusted with humanity, particularly after his stay with the Houyhnhmns. In the movie, the journey is simpler, more mundane—he finds himself and his love mate, becoming a travel writer himself.

But I believe someone in connection with this movie was quite familiar with the book:

  • Gulliver urinating to put out a fire is straight out of the book, and representative of Swift’s humor throughout Gulliver’s Travels.
  • Gulliver’s gathering of the enemy fleet, and lack of desire to use his physical domination to destroy Lilliput’s enemy is also from the book.
  • The movie focuses mainly on Part I, the voyage to Lilliput. But there is a brief visit to Brobdingnag, where Gulliver is tiny. Here, he is the doll of a young girl, as opposed to the exploited pet of a farmer and then a king, taken care of by sympathetic young girl.  This brief scene in the movie helps Gulliver understand how it feels to be tiny and powerless, as he was at the newspaper, in contrast to what he was in Lilliput.
  • “Yahoos” show up in the newspaper copy during the end credits. There may have been other similar references that I did not get a chance to see.

 ——-

I love Gulliver’s Travels the book, and I thank moviemakers for giving me a reason to read it!  I like “Gulliver’s Travels” the movie as a fun entertainment, not profound and ambitious as the classic book was, but with enough of the book’s charm and humor to make it worthwhile.

Gulliver's Travels

Gulliver's Travels

Opportunity in Adversity: A Personal Note October 9, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in alternative medicine, books, books into movies, chiropractors, historical fiction, laryngitis, movies, movies based on books, paresis of the vocal cords, Richard the Lionheart, the crusades, third crusade.
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I called this blog “creativeeccentric.com.” I have devoted most of it to posts about issues related to my recently published novel, The Swords of Faith. But when I got started, I knew I would want to use this channel of communication for more than just discussing my novel. I am truly a “creative eccentric.” I have interests in many areas, and I have not hesitated to go where those interests lead me.

This year was set to be a year of three major projects. The Swords of Faith, my novel about the clash between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin, was set for publication. The book, of course, was already written and editing basically complete. (The sequel, The Sultan and the Khan, was also on its way to completion and will be completed by the end of the year.) So there was time to pursue other interests.

The second of the major projects is another writing project, this one written in collaboration with my friend, chiropractor Dr. Alan Fluger. This is a novel, Dying to Heal, revolving around about the combination of conventional and alternative medicine. We expect to have this book out by the end of the year. Dr. Fluger will carry the publicity ball on that one. (But have no doubts—I am proud of my work on that book, and believe it has some timely things to say about health care, a hot issue in our society right now.)

On a very different creative track, I rediscovered my love of creating music. Back in 1977, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue the music dream. My creative focus drifted to writing, but recently, after performing a duet with my daughter at my brother’s wedding, I rediscovered just how much I love this creative activity. I started putting together a viable performance package—a drum-bass machine backing me up as I sang with a stage piano. I also discovered a love for covers I never had when I was younger. I mastered five sets of a total of over fifty songs, about a third original, the rest covers. (There are one minute clips of eleven of these songs at my website). So here was the third project. This would be the year I would start performing my music again. No, I am not expecting to play in arenas or sell millions of CDs. But baby-boomers are coming to retirement (my generation). They/we will have more leisure time, and hopefully a reasonable amount of disposable income. They will want to hear their music live. True, artists of that generation are performing, but at high prices, in difficult venues and on infrequent occasions. I will come in with familiar songs, as well as some new songs in a familiar style, at easy-to-access venues and affordable prices.

The first half of the year went along with me pushing hard on all three of these projects: knee-deep in publicity for the July 4th publication of The Swords of Faith, finishing up Dying to Heal, and starting out my music performances with seventeen hours at the San Fernando Valley Fair in mid June, anticipating there would be more performances ahead. The second half of the year started with a focus in July on getting The Swords of Faith launched effectively. By August, I was ready to get back out to some more performance venues. The first week of August, a sore throat hit. It developed quickly into laryngitis. And the laryngitis just plain hasn’t left. I can barely speak, much less carry a tune. Music would have to wait again.

At this point, I have completed three different courses of antibiotic treatment, and other medications. The last week of September, I had a CT scan of my throat and sinuses, and a chest x-ray. The diagnosis is a paresis/ partial paralysis, of a nerve running along the side of my left vocal cord. Basically, that means the left side of my vocal cords doesn’t work, so the right side has to work extra hard to get any sound to come out of my voice. This was probably brought on by a virus. The scans and x-rays ruled out cancer, and other more exotic (no one wants “exotic” in this situation) conditions. But the doctor is saying this could go on for six months. (And that didn’t sound like any certain time frame.) That puts a crimp in the music ambitions, and hampers my ability to get on the phone or participate in other activities that involve using my voice to sell books. That is a little unwelcome, unanticipated adversity.

Let me add right away that I have been an extremely fortunate person. This is the worst ailment of my adult life. Others of my age have faced much more serious health problems. My healthy, health-conscious brother had a stroke last year (luckily with little permanent damage). My step-nephew’s fiancé, about one-third my age, faces surgery for a brain tumor. So I am not offering this as some kind of tragedy. My voice gets just a little better each day. I expect to recover completely. Unfotunately, the recovery will apparently take some time, and it does put a damper on one third of this year’s planned three-pronged creative campaign.

But, this adversity presents an opportunity. Speaking is difficult right now, with speaking on the phone being the worst. So I cannot be effective using that tool for publicity. What is the opportunity? I am not willing to roll up in a ball and wait this out. Reading and writing are not affected by my condition. I am not really ill. I become fatigued only after extended periods using my voice, especially on the phone. Otherwise, my full energies are available. So what is the opportunity? Focus.

I recently had a brief consultation with a career counselor. I told him all the things I was working on. He told me he suspected I lacked focus. Focus is difficult for me. I love it all so much, and feel I have a contribution to make in so many areas. If I let down in one area, I could be letting down in the one area that will break me through to a large number of people. This weird illness gives me focus. Whether I like it or not, focus has descended upon me.

I do continue to practice my music. I can’t sing, of course. But I have programmed a sixth set of songs (twelve) and five songs of a seventh set. (A complete list of the songs I perform when healthy is at my website.) It sometimes seems a little cruel that someone who loves performing songs would be afflicted with an illness that prevents singing. But I cannot whine about this when there are many others less fortunate than I am, with worse afflictions. I accept and appreciate the gift of focus. I will regain my voice. Until then, there are other places to direct my energies.

Where should the focus go? Into projects that require writing and reading, of course. How can I expand what I am doing now? This blog got the most views when “The Pillars of the Earth” mini-series was running, and I was offering comments about the series, particularly comparing the mini-series to the book. This was an opportunity to expose The Swords of Faith to people interested in period epics. Suppose I did that with all major theatrical releases based on a book? Well, that’s what my new Books Into Movies blog will do. Not book reviews—not movie reviews; a discussion of the comparison between the books and the movies that have been made from them. That blog will launch at about the same time as this post. I will have to step up my reading and writing to make this happen. What a shame, more reading, more writing… not! Poor, poor me… not! (Update – Books-Into-Movies was discontinued at the end of 2010.)

So a little ailment forces focus. I will perform music soon, when this ailment ends. In the meantime, I am grateful to have so many creative outlets—I can simply shift to another during this period. I am also grateful for focus. This will make me stronger!

Movie Commentary: Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Crusades” August 24, 2010

Posted by rwf1954 in Cecil B. DeMille, historical fiction, movie commentary, the crusades, Uncategorized.
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3 comments

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

Before Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” Hollywood made two other crusades epics, the 1935 Cecil B. DeMille black-and-white production of “The Crusades,” and the 1954 “King Richard and the Crusaders,” with Rex Harrison as Saladin. This post will discuss the Cecil B. DeMille effort.

(I have written about the Ridley Scott movie: “Kingdom of Heaven:” Sorting Fact from Fiction.”)

Honestly, it feels a little rude and unfair to beat up on an old movie. But one measure of the success of a piece of art, and that includes film, is how that piece of art stands the test of time. So while wanting to respect a revered film-maker like Cecil B. DeMille, we cannot drop standards when looking at his work.

Looking at historical accuracy in “The Crusades,” we find so much that is blatantly wrong that it is easier to point out the few accuracies:

  • The admirable, noble qualities of Saladin are largely present in “The Crusades.”
  • The peace terms that end the movie are essentially the same terms that ended the Third Crusade” (the conflict between the forces led by Richard the Lionheart and Saladin). The movie turns around one major detail involving the peace—in “The Crusaders,” Saladin refuses to allow Richard to enter Jerusalem; in truth Richard was invited to go but refused to go to the city he had failed to recapture for Christianity.
  • Richard does refuse to marry Alice, sister of King Philip II of France, and instead marries Berengaria of Navarre, though the true circumstances are completely different from those depicted in the movie.
  • In the film, Conrad of Montferrat comes across as a slimy schemer against Richard’s interests. And Conrad certainly was an enemy of Richard during the Third Crusade, though not in the way depicted in the movie.
  • Richard the Lionheart does marry Berengaria on the way to the Middle East (He meets up with her in Sicily and marries her in Cyprus), and she comes with him to Acre and stays with him throughout his time in the Middle East. (She never does join him in England.)

Cecil B. DeMille was known for huge spectacles, and at times, “The Crusades” lived up to that reputation. But more often, this black-and-white film looked like a filmed stage-play shot on hastily constructed soundstages. Also, as in “Kingdom of Heaven,” DeMille has us viewing flaming balls. Though they look dazzling on screen, they are not accurate historically. The Muslims had Greek fire, which was delivered as a liquid. The action is often underscored with huge choruses and fanfares, backing up moves made by the Christian forces, seeming to glorify the Christian military activities. This seems out of place given the current attitude toward the crusades, as misplaced wars of religious fanaticism. So even as a spectacle, the movie falls short.

But the worst part of “The Crusaders” is the mess made of history. I will offer a long list of my biggest grievances—and this does not reflect all the inaccuracies:

  • The initial preamble for the film mentions Saracens sweeping from Asia into Jerusalem, as if they came from somewhere else, leaving aside the fact that Muslims ruled Jerusalem from 638 until 1099, when Christians “swept” down from Europe to take the city. The preamble almost seems to take its information word for word from the exaggerated propaganda used to galvanize support in western Europe for what became known as the crusades. That propaganda was at best a stretch of the truth, and often utterly false.
  • The movie has Saladin ordering “gospels cast into the flames” without even making a passing reference to the “People of the Book” concept of Islam.
  • Philip II of France commits to the crusades before Richard, with Richard depicted as a reluctant crusader only taking the vow to avoid marrying Philip’s sister Alice. In fact, Richard committed to the crusade before Philip or Richard’s still-living father Henry II of England. Because of this, Richard was open to criticism for taking the cross as a prince, before consulting with his father.
  • Blondel (played by Alan Hale, who would go on to play the skipper in the television series “Gilligan’s Island”), did not go on the crusades as shown in the movie. Legend has it that Blondel found Richard by serenading castles in central Europe while Richard was held for ransom by the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI.
  • At one point in the movie, Richard says “I am content in England.” Richard spent very little of his reign in England. Between the crusades, his captivity in central Europe and dealing with the battles to retain his holdings in France, Richard’s priorities during his reign kept him out of England.
  • In a peculiar and gross departure from history, Conrad of Montferrat schemes with Richard’s brother John all the way up in England. His aim is to take the throne away from Richard so John can make him King of Jerusalem. There is not a hint in the historical record that Conrad’s concerns went that far northwest, or that John had any dealings with him.
  • In the movie, Richard marries Berengaria in Marseille to get food for his forces in the movie. Richard sends Blondel in his place and has Berengaria marry his sword as a proxy. In fact, Richard married Berengaria in a lavish ceremony in Cyprus, with enthusiasm. Richard had an eye for the pomp of his office and tried to dress and look the part of a glorious monarch. Some elements begun during his coronation ceremony in 1189 still exist in British coronation ceremonies today.
  • Alice and Berengeria are on board the same ship for the Holy land! (Alice was nowhere near the Third Crusade.)
  • The arrival at Acre by Richard and Philip offers no sense of the long stalemate that had existed at the siege of Acre months before their arrival. The battle of Acre seems to start when Richard and Philip arrive.
  • The film has Philip arranging direct talks with Saladin; Saladin comes to the crusader camp where he is greeted by German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (died the year before) King William of Sicily (died a few years before) as well as other European rulers from as far away as Russia. In fact, Richard asked Saladin for direct talks, but Saladin refused, telling Richard that kings do not meet face-to-face while at war.
  • The film does a fine job of depicting the famous scene from The Talisman during which Richard breaks an iron bar with his sword, while Saladin slices a thin cloth with his sword. This is a masterful invented scene by author Sir Walter Scott, showing the different attitudes toward power by the two leaders. But this scene is completely fictional as these two men never met personally.
  • All of the Berengaria storyline; her attempts to go between the lines at Acre, her pleas for peace, her capture by Saladin, her offer to marry Saladin if he will save Richard’s life—this is all utter nonsense.
  • To be frank, Berengaria’s fictional captivity sends the film off the rails. Richard’s forces take Acre by storm (Acre was actually taken through a negotiated surrender) after which Richard immediately starts toward Jerusalem to rescue Berengaria (Richard’s forces went through a difficult summer march down the coast before getting into position to march on Jerusalem).

Cecil B. DeMille and the writers of “The Crusades” seem to take the historical crusades as a point of departure for an adventure epic. Though references were still made to the crusades at that time, the period did not generate the same sort of controversy that it does today, so it seems less attention was paid to historical accuracy or the sensibilities of people who could be interested in the period, particularly as it might relate to the present day.

I think for film aficionados, this would be considered an obscure old film, nearly eighty years old, and not mentioned as one of the great classic films of the 1930s, with good reason. Those who do view it? We hope they don’t think they’re getting a history lesson!

Cecil B. DeMille Collection (includes “The Crusades”)

Cecil B. DeMille Collection (includes “The Crusades”)