Tag Archives: movies

On Princesses and the Unreality of Realism

For this year’s New Year’s Eve movie marathon, we watched Star Wars, the original three movies (on VHS, no less. Yup, we still have a VCR). I’m not a huge Star Wars aficionado, so I haven’t got these films memorised, verbally or visually; when I watch them, they’re always quite new-ish to me. And what struck me this time through is how utterly pristine Princess Leia’s appearance is.

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I mean, the first time Luke Skywalker sees this woman, she’s just been through torture (so we’re told – not shown, thankfully), and now she’s imprisoned in a bare cell without even sheets on the bed – no place to hide a comb, let alone a shower or laundry facilities. Yet here she is, with not a hair in her elaborate coiffure out of place, wearing a spotless, unwrinkled white gown.

I used to have long hair when I was a kid, and I can tell you that with fairly straight hair like Carrie Fisher’s was then, pinned-up styles do not stay tidy long. They slip out of their hairpins very quickly, get straggly and messy (which is why I gave up fairly early on trying to put up my hair – I just can’t be bothered). Yet Princess Leia never, ever has even a single strand hanging loose – not even after she goes tobogganing down the garbage chute. And her gown – good grief, wearing white? With all she goes through, by rights she should look like she’s wearing Dobby the House Elf’s ragged kitchen towel.

But she doesn’t. She never looks like anything but – a princess.

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Leia is a wonderful character. Carrie Fisher’s passing has brought out in countless tributes what a great inspiration and role model Princess Leia was and still is for now several generations of viewers – a woman of strength, of determination, of agency; a larger-than-life hero.

And part of that larger-than-life effect comes from having a hairdo that never sheds a single bobby pin.

Disney’s cartoon princesses don’t have anything on Leia. You see, in cartoons we know not to expect realism – we know it’s just a drawing, “just” a story. But in a live action film, we think that what we’re seeing is real. So when we see Cinderella’s flowing golden locks and the gown that just appears on her body with a wave of the fairy godmother’s wand, that’s one thing – but we never think that Leia’s glossy dark snail shells and her snowy robe come under the same heading, because, obviously, they’re real. We can see them with our own two eyes, can’t we? What we’re not seeing is the army at Leia’s (or rather Carrie’s) command, an army not of rebel soldiers, but of hairdressers, make-up artists and wardrobe staff, as befits a princess. (“Ah, Recruit Skywalker – you’re in wardrobe today. The princess spilt oatmeal on her dress this morning; go do your duty to the cause.” “What?!? What about flying a fighter plane?” “Never mind that, anyone can handle that. Go make your mark where it counts!”)

We need that army to make us believe in Leia the Princess. We need her to have the superpower of never-a-hair-out-of-place and never-a-spot-on-her-dress because she is a princess. And princesses are mythical creatures on the order of dragons, unicorns and superheroes. In cartoons, that’s easy to handle, but in “realistic” fiction, it takes a bit more doing. Yet when it’s done well, as it is in Star Wars, the impact is tremendous. Because we believe with all our hearts, informed by our disbelief-suspended senses, that what we are seeing is real, that it actually happened, we also believe in the power of The Princess to do what she has set out to do, which is to save the world.

And in that, there is hope.

Life, the Universe, and the Power of the Unreality of Realism. And here we thought she just had funny hair.

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Lady Susan, or Love and Friendship

We went to see the new Jane Austen movie that just came out. Oh, you hadn’t heard about it? You’re wondering what it is – another Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, maybe Northanger Abbey? Nope, nope and nope. It’s Love and Friendship. What, you don’t know that one? Well, neither does anyone else. That’s because it’s made after an unpublished novella called Lady Susan. Oh, you’ve never read that one either? Yeah, neither had I, until this morning.

Actually, “Love and Friendship” is a legitimate Austen title – it belongs to one of her other pieces of juvenilia, and they cribbed it for this Lady Susan adaptation. Except that Austen spelled it “Love and Freindship” (she seems to have had a bit of a problem with the “i before e except after c” rule). And no, I haven’t read that one yet either; it’s on the TBR pile.

Lady Susan is also a very early work (although not quite “juvenilia”), from ca. 1794 when Austen was 18, before she even wrote the earliest version of S&S and P&P. There’s good reasons it never got published – apart from being short (60 pages in the edition I have), compared to her finished works it’s quite crude and unsophisticated. This being Austen, of course her crude & unsophisticated teenage pieces still beat other writers’ works to flinders, but it’s noticeably simpler and more satirical than anything she wrote later. It’s also an epistolary novel, i.e. it’s told in letters, not narration, a form that Austen abandoned entirely later on.

To give you a brief synopsis (Spoiler Warning!), the novel is about the eponymous Lady Susan Vernon, who is, to put it quite frankly, a bitch of the first water. Lady Susan, a widow, goes to stay with her brother-in-law and his family, where she proceeds to make her sister-in-law’s brother, Reginald De Courcy, fall in love with her against his better judgement, while still keeping the married Mr Mannering on one string and the dimwitted Sir James Martin on another. Actually, the latter she intends to force on her daughter Frederica, a shy girl who is terrified of her and can’t stand Sir James. We learn about all this primarily through Lady Susan’s letters to her friend Alicia, and those of Mrs Vernon (the sister-in-law) to her mother Mrs De Courcy. Lady Susan is a manipulative, immoral deceiver, mean as can be to her poor daughter (who, of course, is also in love with Reginald De Courcy). Fortunately for the upright and honourable folk in the story, Lady Susan is found out, her machinations are stopped, and the tale ends with the promise of a happily-ever-after for all deserving parties.

If the storyline of “Shy girl is bullied by an authority figure, has an unwanted suitor thrust on her, and is in love with an honourable man while having to watch him fall prey to a seductress” sounds familiar, it’s because Austen recycled it later on. In fact, Lady Susan is a Proto-Mansfield Park. But here, the characters are flat as pancakes, and we see the story not through the eyes of the put-upon young girl, but those of the wicked woman who, in this version, is both bully and seductress. There are elements of this story in several of Austen’s later characters and storylines. Lady Susan’s two-faced-ness and lying letters crop back up in Isabella Thorpe of Northanger, her charm and beauty as well as deception of an honest man in Mansfield‘s Mary Crawford, her bullying in Mrs Norris. Frederica Vernon is not unlike Fanny Price; Reginald like Edmond. There’s even a very slight touch of her manipulativeness in Emma.

The latter comparison might not have occurred to me were it not for the fact that Kate Beckinsale played Emma back in 1996 – and now she’s brought Lady Susan to life on the screen. The movie is some lovely eye candy for lovers of period drama. Quite appropriately, it’s set in the late 18th century, with poufed-up hairdos with single curls trailing over white shoulders; tightlaced, busked and panniered silk dresses in all colours of the rainbow; and swirling many-caped greatcoats that accentuate the broad shoulders of the manly and handsome gentlemen (So manly! So swirly! So great-coated!).

The translation from epistolary novel to film is fairly successful. The screen writers introduce a couple of extra characters for Lady Susan to monologue at instead of putting those lines in a letter, or have the characters actually meet and talk to one another instead of communicating the same information in writing. However, in a few spots the attempts to stay as faithful to the text of the novella as possible makes for, quite frankly, somewhat boring viewing. It might be that I’m extra-tired today, but I found myself getting sleepy in places through yet another monologue (which has to be a first – I never fall asleep in the movie theatre, it’s usually far too exciting). But this is a minor complaint.

The changes that the film makers do make to the plot seem reasonable – some events are moved around or arranged differently to make for a better flow on screen; some characters and happenings are added to the story for the sake of exposition. There is one notable instance towards the end of the film where an event is made up of whole cloth that is a little flash of brilliance on the part of the film makers – and I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I enjoyed it so much I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s a case of “It’s not in the book, but it should be.”

And that’s not sacrilege, presuming to improve on Austen – she obviously felt herself that Lady Susan could be better, because she did. Improve the story, that is, by taking some of its elements and working them into her later, published works, while leaving Lady Susan in the drawer. It was just the warm-up – but it’s an Austen nonetheless.

Life, the Universe, and Lady Susan turned into Love and Friendship. Oh, if you want to know what that little bit at the end is, go read the book, and then watch the movie. It’s worth it.

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Zootopia and The Power of Story


I’ve been thinking about the importance of Story again. My friend E. L. Bates recently posted the transcript of a talk she gave at her local library on that topic (read the full thing here, it’s well worth it). “This is what stories do,” she says, “they sink into our hearts and give us the tools we need to live more fully, more richly, in the everyday world around us.” Yes, exactly.

Last weekend, we went to see the new Disney movie, Zootopia. I’d heard that it was good, so while I wasn’t expecting any great profundity of the flick (it’s a Disney talking-animal movie, after all), I went into it hoping to be amused for a couple of hours and not have too many groaner moments. And those hopes weren’t disappointed.

But what bowled me over was the message of the film. That’s right, a Disney talking-animal flick with a message that I actually found really meaningful. And not the standard follow-your-heart-you-can-be-anything-you-want-to-be one, either (which nowadays just causes an eye-roll reflex in me, but that’s a rant for another day). Now, I don’t want to give any spoilers, the movie still being as new as it is. But what I found astounding is that the makers of Zootopia, who have been working on this movie for, I dunno, years, put out a film that hits right smack-dab at the bull’s eye of the current social issues. It’s as if they’d had a premonition of what the political and social climate of March of 2016 was going to be like, and they set out to tell a story that makes its point far more effectively than any sermon or political rant could do.

And that’s something I found profoundly encouraging. Because, you see, young children aren’t going to go to political rallies. And, let’s face it, most of their parents and grandparents won’t, either. But they’ll go to this movie, because it’s Junior’s birthday and you’ve got to do something with that horde of little hoodlums he’s insisted on inviting. So you take them to the movies to see the story of a perky little bunny rabbit from the country who wants to be a big-city cop, and hope that her and her sly-fox sidekick’s adventure will keep the kids quiet for a couple of hours. And in the process, Junior, his friends, and Mommy, Daddy and Grandma, without even noticing it, are being taught some lessons that couldn’t be more important in this moment in history, lessons about the insidiousness of fear and prejudice and of the power of acceptance.

But let me quote E. L. Bates again: “But [the stories] are not instruction manuals thinly disguised as entertainment! Perish the thought! If you set out, in writing a story, to point a moral or teach people something, you have failed before you’ve even begun.” In the case of Zootopia, Disney most certainly did not fail. It’s a well-told story in its own right, full of endearing characters that will enter the Disney canon, with great animation and jokes (including quite a few that will zip right over Junior’s head, but provide Mom & Dad with a good chuckle – including the teensy little Mafioso shrew with his nasal Godfather drawl). We’ll keep watching this film for decades to come for its story, because it’s a good movie – and in the process, its profound message is going to be absorbed into our collective psyche.

The pen (or in this case, film camera) is mightier than the sword – and that is something that can give us all hope.

Life, the Universe, and Zootopia. Story wins again.

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Marmalade

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A Paddington Bear notebook my daughter got for me at Paddington Station

So I promised you a post on marmalade, didn’t I? Well, now’s the time. We went and saw the Paddington movie last night, and when can you write about marmalade if not fresh from a viewing of a film starring The Bear With a Worrying Marmalade Habit? (The latter bit is a quote from Mr Brown, the movie version. The one in the book doesn’t seem to be worried about it at all.)

(In case you’re wondering, Steve didn’t come to the movie; they don’t have bears as a category at the ticket counter. Seniors, Children, and Generals, but no Privates, Corporals, or Bears. Also, even though I would have smuggled him in in my purse, he’s a little leery of watching things on a big screen. If you’re six inches high, even a large-screen television can be a little overwhelming.)

marmalade (1)So. Marmalade. Oh, the movie was quite good. However, I have to inform you that it presents a quite serious factual inaccuracy: they’re using the wrong kind of oranges for their marmalade. Yup. The movie shows Paddington and his Aunt Lucy making marmalade out of ordinary sweet oranges, the ones you get year-round in the grocery store – you know, navel oranges. How do I know that’s the ones? Because they chop them open, and they’re way too juicy on the inside. No, no, no. Just wrong. Marmalade is made from Seville or bitter oranges, which are a different thing; their flesh is quite dry.

Now, the funny thing is that nobody in my family actually eats marmalade except for me; and I only have it occasionally with a bacon-and-egg breakfast (the bitter taste offsets the grease something wonderful). It’s one of those acquired tastes, and I’ve acquired it in order to be able to feel more British. Well, yeah. It allows me to say “Pass the squish!” like Lord Peter Wimsey, and reminds me of the line in Gosford Park where Mrs Wilson, the housekeeper, asks Mary if her employer couldn’t have strawberry jam for her breakfast: “Only, we’ve run out of marmalade. Dorothy [the stillroom maid] didn’t make enough last January.” And then Lady Trentham (played by Maggie Smith at her most snobbish), the next morning on lifting the cover off her breakfast tray: “Boughten marmalade! I call that feeble.”

marmalade (2)Marmalade oranges are only available for a couple of weeks in January – hence the fictional Dorothy’s failings in producing enough for the household; if you don’t make it in January, you’ve missed the boat for the year. And I think that might be one of the reasons I like making marmalade: it’s the one preserve that you make in the dead of winter. The canning jars and rings and lids, the funnel and tongs, all the paraphernalia of canning season, which live in the kitchen all summer long, are put away in the storage room in the basement from October to June. But this one short stint of once again stirring the fragrant amber bubbling away in the big pot, of whirling around the kitchen to get the steaming hot jars out of the dishwasher and ladling the sticky-soft sweetness into the glass, clapping on the lids and then listening for that satisfying little snap when they seal – it’s an unmistakable reminder that even though the snow flies outside, summer’s warmth and harvest will be back.

I don’t have a worrying marmalade habit myself – although I might have a marmalade-cooking habit. And I have friends who are quite happy to support me in that habit by taking the product of my hands – or they say they are, anyway. Maybe they’re just being polite, being English and all? Paddington is a very polite bear – it’s the English way.

Life, the Universe, and Marmalade. Pass the squish.marmalade (3)

PS: Here’s the recipe, the short version: 2 lbs marmalade oranges, 8 cups water, 4 lbs sugar. Cut up oranges, take out pips. Chop whole oranges in food processor, boil with water for 1 1/2 hrs together with the pips tied in a little bag. When the orange peels are soft, take out the bag of pips, add the sugar, and boil for about 15 minutes, proceeding like for any other jam. Makes about 8 half-pints of marmalade. (Pardon the imperial measurements – I got the recipe from an older pre-metric English cookbook. Seems kind of suitable.)

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What SEVENTH SON Is Not

SeventhSon_CVR_XSMLThe other day someone asked me, once again: “Did you write Seventh Son?” Well, yes, yes I did. However, that’s actually not what they’re asking. They don’t want to know if I wrote a fantasy novel called Seventh Son; it’s something else they have in mind. And so, to answer that question, let me enlighten you about what my SEVENTH SON is NOT.

My novel is not the source text for the movie Seventh Son that is coming out next week (well, in North America it is; the release date is February 6th). The film has been several years in the making,  and stars Ben Barnes (heartthrob!) in the lead role. The source book (or, as they put it, “inspiration”) for that movie is actually not even called Seventh Son, but The Last Apprentice: Revenge of the Witch (original UK title: The Spook’s Apprentice), and it’s written by Joseph Delaney.

Another book my Seventh Son is not is the 1987 novel of that title by the great Orson Scott Card. His book is the first in his series The Tales of Alvin Maker (which he still hasn’t finished, as far as I know).

Hmm, now that I look it up, it appears there’s another work called Seventh Son I was unaware of – a 1926 silent film from Germany. I’ll  have to check that out; maybe Youtube has it.

So, just for the record: none of these stories are mine. And I’m not ripping off any of their ideas, either. In fact, I had written the text and decided on the title of my book before the forthcoming movie was even filmed; and didn’t read the Card book until several years later. Really, what all these stories, mine included, have in common is the old folklore trope that the seventh son of a seventh son has special powers – magical ones, generally. And that’s about all that’s similar, other than the title.

My book is a light romantic fantasy (well, yes, they’re all fantasy stories) about a young woman named Catriona, who looks into a turquoise pottery bowl and suddenly finds herself whisked off to a magical medieval village called Ruph in which the – you guessed it – seventh son of the seventh son has just gone missing, and she has to figure out not only how she ended up where she is and how to get out of that predicament, but what’s been happening in this town. I call it a Cosy Fantasy – you know, like a Cosy Mystery, but in a fantasy environment.

Card’s and Delaney’s stories are much more classical fantasy. Delaney’s would probably classify as Sword and Sorcery – well, definitely the sorcery bit (there’s a very nasty witch); while Card’s is the alternative-history variety – a different 19th-century USA with magic. The stories are darker than anything I would ever write; actually, they get darker yet as the series progress – I gave up on Delaney with the second book, and on Card with about the third volume. They’re well-written books, but I don’t enjoy reading that sort of thing, let alone writing it.

However, “dark” is a matter of definition. Both Delaney’s and Card’s “Seventh Son” stories are also Young Adult novels, at least these first books in the series are, in that the protagonist, the seventh son of the seventh son, is a young boy – twelve years old in the case of Delaney’s Tom Ward, even younger in the case of Card’s Alvin Maker. So what I call “dark” here is really very mild, by fantasy standards – it probably wouldn’t even warrant the term for most readers (yeah, well, I’m super-sensitive. So sue me).

And that’s another thing my book is not: a YA novel. My Catriona is not a teenager, she’s twenty-eight; and the Seventh Son in question is not a twelve-year-old, but right around Cat’s age, too. But that’s not to say that YA readers wouldn’t enjoy the story; in fact, I have it on good authority (i.e. word of mouth/keyboard) that several of them already did.

Incidentally, the movie that’s coming out is not a YA, either. The screen version of Tom Ward is most emphatically not twelve years old – in fact, Ben Barnes is over thirty. I have a feeling the movie might not have a whole lot to do with Delaney’s book. But whether it’s dark or not, I’ll have to go see that film; gotta check out the competition, dontcha know. But more importantly, while I’m a big fan of BB’s, there’s another young actor in that movie I can’t wait to see on the big screen: Lilah Fitzgerald, who plays Tom’s little sister Cate – I’ve met her in real life, although she probably doesn’t remember it (she was quite small then). Her mother is a friend of mine.

When I first heard that a movie with the title Seventh Son was coming out, I seriously considered changing the title of my book (I was going to go back to Septimissimus, which was its working title). But then I thought, No. I picked it first. Actually, Orson Scott Card picked it first, and they didn’t ask his permission about the movie title, as far as I know. Titles aren’t copyrighted, you can use whatever you want. And the basic idea we’ve all named our stories for is something none of us can claim credit for – the originator of that trope is lost in the mists of folklore.

So there you have it: Life, the Universe, and What My Seventh Son Is Not.

Incidentally, speaking of BB – a little side-track-advertising here: there’s a Ben Bauer in Cat and Mouse, the sequel to Seventh Son.  You know, just sayin’ – book release is in just five days! You can pre-order the ebook right now!

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