“Ain’t Got a Clue What He Put into this Stew…”

“…Must’ve scraped it off the street.”

–Drinkers, “Master of the House” from Les Miserables

Full disclosure:  I enjoyed the musical Les Miserables, seeing the touring company perform the musical twice in Los Angeles during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

And, just this past weekend, the wife and I had a chance to enjoy the recent film adaptation of the stage musical.

(Warning:  Spoilers follow.)

Rather than turn this post into a full blown review of the film, which, I must admit, I did enjoy, I came across this odd commentary by writer Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times today:

After nearly 150 minutes of Tom Hooper‘s “Les Misérables,” Jean Valjean has said a tearful goodbye to Marius and made him promise to protect his beloved Cosette. It is heartbreaking; it is satisfying. There are tears, and melancholic smiles.

But like a late-night infomercial, there’s more. A wedding follows. Marius and Cosette rejoice. Ah, a nice wedding finish. Wait, why is Sacha Baron Cohen back to make trouble? The movie can’t end with Sacha Baron Cohen making trouble, can it? Of course, it can’t. There is another scene. Candles. A convent. Valjean is still alive! No, no, now he is dead. But wait, he is given a new chance in the afterlife. The end seems to take, well, an eternity, as Hooper seems to grope around for an ending to match Hugo’s novel.

Steven Zeitchik is even more clueless than the drinkers in Thenardier’s tavern.

For starters, Les Miserables, the film, is an adaptation of the stage musical.  Of course, it was based upon Victor Hugo‘s novel, but the musical is, in and of itself, after 27 years, its own distinct creation.

Tom Hooper, the film adaptation’s director, was chosen with the idea of bringing the musical to the screen.  

The movie is not an exact match for the musical.  Director Hooper, on the differences which the set design and the presence of the camera led to specific changes:

What happened is, once we made the commitment to having it sung through, you then realize that any changes you need to make are going to need to be made through the books and the music. So every change I did was in the musical form, by writing lyrics. But because I had the original team, the original lyricist and composer, a lot of the changes are invisible. People aren’t even commenting, they don’t even know that they’re there. There’s a slight perception that we just took the libretto and shot it, and that’s true for quite a bit of it. But there were many interventions we did when we converted it to the screen that were simply about making the storytelling better.

Some weren’t even about lyrics. A really good example of something that struck me again last night, which was a change, was in the first battle, Eddie Redmayne is rushing to get a barrel of gunpowder and then get it torched to blow the whole thing up, and a soldier trains his gun on Marius. In the musical, Eponine’s been delivering a message for Marius, and she arrives at the barricade, she’s already been shot and it happened offstage, and she just happened to get shot as she’s walking down the street.

But the ending to the musical, is also mirrored in the ending to the film.

Because the musical is being filmed.

Did writer Zeitchik even consider this possibility?  Or was he so intent upon disparaging the film, for reasons other than Russell Crowe’s vocals, that Zeitchik hit upon this motivation about film endings to drag “Les Mis” into his hit piece?  The film version of Les Miserables ends in a manner very close to how it was performed at the musical’s 25th Anniversary concert.

The ending to the 25th Anniversary concert at London’s O2 Arena:

OK.  There was a change in the film.  Eponine does not appear in the climatic scene.  (Nor does Nick Jonas in Marius’ role–Phew!)

If the film didn’t work for Zeitchik, the musical would not have worked either.  In that instance, if he didn’t care for the musical, expecting to see something different in what was meant to be as faithful a film adaptation as it could be, was a fool’s errand. If he didn’t like the film, say so.

Last year, Steven Speilberg couldn’t trust the material he was given in adapting War Horse, and the result was a beautifully filmed mess.   In the case of Les Mis, Zeitchik apparently damns the film for being too trusting.  I honestly believe that Zeitchik, for himself, is being too lazy, confusing that impulse with being too clever by half, in seeking some sort of easy way to rip into Les Miserables.  He attacks the ending *as* an ending without realizing that it is, in fact, an ending used by the film’s very source material, the stage musical.

Worse, Zetichik criticizes the choice to not match the ending to Hugo’s original novel–but the final scene in the convent between Valjean, Cosette, and Marius, does, in fact, take place in the novel as well!  The wedding scene in which Thenardier (played by Cohen in the film) attempts to blackmail Marius, is meant to show Marius who it was (Valjean) who had saved his life after Marius was wounded at the barricades during the 1832 June Rebellion, enabling a final reconciliation between the young couple and Valjean before Valjean dies.

Yes, very melodramatic.  Because it’s a tear-jerking musical, for crying out loud–literally!  Hooper’s not “groping around for an ending”, he’s using that of the musical AND the novel.   Perhaps writer Zeitchik needs to take it up with Victor Hugo in the afterlife one day.

“…But listen, there will be more joy in heaven over the tears of a repentant sinner than over the white robes of a hundred just men.”
― Victor HugoLes Misérables


Hold on There Little Buckaroo!

There’s a scene in 2011’s Rango, where our titular hero is being fitted with his new “Good Guy” outfit, as befits his appointment to sheriff.  He is asked by one of the town’s children to sign an autograph.  Initially surprised, Rango draws his revolver on the child.  Then, realizing that the kid only wanted an autograph, Rango hands him his revolver.


“There’s a bullet in this!”

The child then proceeds to handle the gun in all the ways you wouldn’t want a child, much less an adult, to handle it.  But somehow, in the logic of the NRA, the equation merely has to be about whether or not the person handling the weapon is good or not.  That’ll be enough to keep him or her safe.  At today’s benchmark press conference, the NRA’s first public pronouncement about the shootings in Newtown, CT:

The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President, National Rifle Association

What happens, though, if one Good Guy faces another Good Guy?

One of my favorite films of the 1980s, Rustler’s Rhapsody, actually addressed the question.  In the film, Tom Berenger is a stereotypical good-guy cowboy, Rex O’Herlihan, who is drawn out of a black-and-white film and transferred into a more self-aware setting, an updated cowboy movie, but with the idea that the Good Guy now realizes that he’s caught in the same story arc, albeit in a different setting each time.  All of the features of the classic 1930s/1940s Westerns remain, in that the Good Guy always wins the shootout against the Bad Guy.

Eventually, the Bad Guys also become self-aware themselves, and decide that the only way that a Bad Guy can kill a Good Guy is to hire a Good Guy to fight another Good Guy:

Money quote:

Now hold on there little Buckaroos.  You can’t be hearing language like that.  Get on back to school.  Obey your teachers and study really hard.

And if the NRA has anything to do with it, at that school, there’ll be Good Guys patrolling the hallways looking for shooters, the Bad Guys.

But the problem is what’s going on in the head of the Good Guy.  Alex Sietz-Wald in Salon:

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for anyone, let alone a lightly trained and inexperienced civilian, to effectively respond to a shooter. The entire episode can take a matter of seconds and your body is fighting against you: Under extreme stress, reaction time slows, heart rate increases and fine motor skills deteriorate. Police train to build muscle memory that can overcome this reaction, but the training wears off after only a few months if not kept up.

Or, of even greater concern to me, is when you have armed Good Guys wandering around the campus, in the dark, in search of the one or two armed Bad Guys.  It then becomes a matter of dumb luck that someone doesn’t get killed in the chaos that might ensue, or worse, when the armed police assault team arrives, the police now can’t differentiate between who is a Good Guy and who is a Bad Guy.

While not quite a circular firing squad, how that manages to save lives in such a situation is beyond me.  In light of such advice from the NRA, perhaps the suggestion that we train unarmed kids to bum rush shooters makes far more sense, no?  Of course not.

Karoli, in Crooks and Liars:

Arming teachers isn’t the answer. Scapegoating teachers isn’t the answer. Supporting teachers, making sure they have adequate security, an evacuation plan, enough teachers’ aides and a manageable class size is about the best anyone can do. For all of the stories of tragedy told over the past few days, there are also stories of heroism, of teachers shoving the kids into bathrooms and closets, keeping them safe and shielding them with their bodies.

This is what teachers do. It’s what they’re trained to do. It’s why they’re teachers. Arming them is not the answer. Supporting them is.

Yesterday, at our staff Christmas party, a colleague suggests that perhaps the idea of arming teachers is the right idea.  For my part, as the school’s Union Rep, I try to gently suggest to her how wrong-headed such thinking might be, not to mention potentially harmful, to anyone involved.  I also try to point out that in the midst of unmitigated budget cutting in an era in which teachers are derided as being overpaid, yet are expected to produce magical testing results, to demand that we undertake weapons training, when we’re still trying to maintain a semblance of middle-class living at home, despite furlough days and pay-cuts, is certifiable.  Too many power brokers are content to cut those things necessary to achieve basic academic competencies among our students, yet they would somehow find the funds to pay for armed guards, or, absent that, weaponry for school staff?

Somehow all of that race through my mind to try to be eloquent enough to debunk my colleague’s assertion. But I also realize it’s a holiday gathering, and discerning quickly that my argument was falling on deaf ears, I was glad that the waiter showed up to cause the subject to get changed.

Yet there it was, in an El Torito, Good Guy turning on Good Guy.  I suppose that this was what the NRA wanted to see happen, in order to obfuscate real issues with the nature of the American gun culture.  My only hope as far as eternal punishment for the likes of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre lies with this unattributed quote:

If the devil punishes all the evil people, doesn’t that make him the good guy?

Summer of the Self-Rescuing Princess

In my dreams, I could be a Princess, and that’s what I was. Like most little girls, I believed nothing less than a Prince could make my dreams come true. — Loretta Young

We are trying to raise our little girl to not need a Prince, or any man for that matter, as the only way to make her life whole.  Just like E.D. Kain points out, I am also excited about Pixar’s summer release, Brave.

So I was already excited about this movie before the latest trailer, but now I can barely stand the thought of waiting until June 22nd to see the 13th Pixar film.

For one thing, Princess Merida looks tough and fiery, and we finally get a strong female lead in a Pixar flick.

This is awesome for those of us with young daughters who need all the good role models they can get, even animated ones. I’ve told my daughter similar stories, of princesses destined to be married off to some knight or other who become knights themselves instead.

At home, as it has been released to the public, I’ve gradually exposed Katelyn to the film, to the point that she was already recognizing the film’s initial film poster even before she had seen the film’s trailer.

 While my wife sheepishly admits to not necessarily wanting to turn our daughter into one of the acolytes of the cult of the Disney Princess, our kid has nonetheless become a devotee.  As such, the release of Pixar’s latest this summer, has given me the opportunity to show Katelyn that princesses can also kick rear end and take names.  After all, a long while back, when Katelyn asked me which was my favorite Princess, she was totally confused when, instead of answering “Snow White” or “Cinderella”, I answered, “Leia”.

Yes, granted, we should not be necessarily looking to film to find strong female role models for Katelyn. At least however, she realizes that in something like Sleeping Beauty, it’s not Aurora who carries the bulk of that narrative, but rather Prince Phillip and the three Good Fairies.  (Aurora is only on screen for about 18 minutes!) But after seeing how much she enjoyed Tigress in the latest of the Kung Fu Panda films, we get how much she will like a strong-willed proactive character with an entire movie built around her.  Seeing her respond even more excitedly at the prospect of finally “meeting” Princess Merida in Brave, has both my wife and I reconfiguring our plans for our little girl’s upcoming 5th birthday in May.  With a big wedding of a family friend scheduled for around the same time, putting our own plans for Kate’s real-time birthday celebration on hold, we’re gearing up to try to do something instead, around the film’s release in late June.

Granted though, Pixar is just bit late to the party, as Dreamworks’ Shrek quartet of films basically got it right about the self-rescuing princess concept in the first film (and please excuse the Finnish singing, even while my point is made…):

War Horse and the Untrusted Source

For some time now, I had been wanting to share some thoughts about Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse.  With the Academy Awards tomorrow evening, it seems appropriate to revisit the film, which I saw over my Winter Break, shortly after it had opened.  At the time, there was some exigency to my desire to see the film.  I had read the book to my students, and I, frankly, expected a few of them to go and see it in the theater close to my school site.  I figured it wasn’t a bad idea to read them the novel.

As a teacher who makes it a point to do Read Alouds with my classroom throughout the school year, I first became intrigued by the film after having read bits and pieces about the Tony Award-winning stage play of the same name, in particular, it’s use of full-scale horse puppets in the production. (For whatever it’s worth, I am excited that the play is coming to Los Angeles and I hope to catch the production at the time.  From what I’ve seen of the puppets involved, it’s definitely worth trying to convince the wife to go see it:)


Impressive.  The puppetry blows me away on film.  I can’t even imagine what it might be like on stage.

But last Autumn, when learning that Spielberg was planning to release the film over Winter Break, I learned that the source material for both the film and stage play was from a 1982 book by British author Michael Morpurgo.  It was at that point, that I made plans to get the book and read it to my 6th graders before they went home for Winter Break.  Having never heard of the book prior to that time, I was excited to possibly add it to the collection of memorable Read Alouds I have used in my classroom.

I wasn’t disappointed.  It was not the best book I’ve ever read to my classroom by any means, but it was one of the few books I’ve read to my class about warfare in general, and it enabled me to introduce some background knowledge about the First World War that most students generally lack.  It’s not taught at the elementary grades (although it could be taught by the end of a school year, if a conscientious 4th grade teacher decides to keep moving forward after the California Missions and Gold Rush era and not just stop after teaching both…) and what the students do know about World War is generally centered around the Second World War.  Even then, I am beginning to get questions these days asking me “who is Adolf Hitler?”…

So War Horse offered me its share of teachable moments while I read it.  I was also impressed that the book was able to suggest the intricacies of trench warfare and the historic shift from horses to mechanized combat without needing to be graphic, making this ideal for the tween audience for whom I must choose my Read Alouds.  And after teaching the students the elements and importance of point-of-view, it offered an even more unique take on its story–it’s told from the perspective of the horse, who is the main character of the novel, Joey.  The book tells of his travels from his birth, and the humans whose own lives interchange with his:  from the pre-Great War English countryside, to the camp of the British Army cavalry to whom Joey’s sold, and then to 1914 France, to its green fields and a French farm, and then, as the tale reaches its climax through the remainder of the book, the setting becomes the muddy Armageddon of trench warfare.  Through it all, as the characters interact with Joey, Joey’s internal thoughts process these words and drives the story forward, and we get the unique perspective of the horse as being inherently neutral, in that the war itself was not something the horse sought, only how Joey could try to survive what the humans around him were managing to do to each other.

Without giving away too much of the book’s storyline, what struck me the most was the manner in which Morpurgo created circumstances that while, in some respect, would normally appear far-fetched to a cynical cuss like myself, are situationally organic deriving from the manner in which the narrative unfolds.  I enjoyed how it was able to create situations that had a plausibility about them in order to bring its story around to the full circle that Morpurgo intended.  It made sense to me.  The characters, from Joey, to his first owner, Albert, to Captain Nicholls, the German hospital orderlies and artillerymen who encounter Joey when he’s capture, a French girl and her grandfather who care for Joey, and Joey’s horse comrade Topthorn, and, finally, the British Tommys working at a veterinary hospital, all of them make those particular types of character choices that move the narrative forward, but also don’t appear to be logical stretches that can defy believability and ruin a plot’s outcome.

I thought to myself that I would definitely be curious about what Spielberg could do with this material.  But in reading about the book was adapted for the stage play, there had to be some changes to the way the story was told.  For starters, how do you present a play when the narrator’s internal monologue was from a horse?  I wasn’t the only one.

Having read the book, it is clear that a film or stage adaptation will have a different flavor for a couple reasons. The first is that the element of horse narration will be lost. The second is that as a children’s novel much of the brutality of war can be easily glossed over with simple lines that summarize briefly battles, death, and animal brutality. But in a film version, a picture is worth a 1000 words, and the pictures of these war sequences will have a different flavor in color than with simple words (from the perspective of a horse).

And so the final product will admittedly be different from the initial 1982 packaging, and I can imagine that being ruined in many ways, or hopefully under the hands of the respected director Steven Spielberg, and the Oscar nominated screenwriters Lee Hall (Billy Elliot) and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral) the final project will be it’s own masterpiece.

After the anticipation of reading the book to my students, when Winter Break arrived, and we had discharged the inevitable family obligations around Christmas, a family movie day meant a trip to a theater that was showing both Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked as well as War Horse.  I was fortunate that day that my wife understood my desire to see the latter, so she excused me from the torture of the former, and I sat down to watch the film.

As with all Spielberg’s films, it is beautifully photographed.  But I have to agree with film critic Andrew Pulver in The Guardian:

Spielberg is presumably attempting to infuse his film with a fairytale, fabular quality – but all he does is provide it with a directorial straitjacket, with the audience instructed (through insistent camera angles, nagging music, and strategised lighting) exactly what it’s supposed to be feeling at any given moment…[i]n the end, while you can’t doubt Spielberg’s commitment to telling a putatively heartwarming and emotion-wringing tale, War Horse is just too calculated to do what he wants to do.

He has the entire arsenal of film-making at his disposal, but can’t seem to snap out of a now-habitual mode of vitality-erasing, dewy-eyed affectation. There are flashes of the old genius there, but not enough. If only he would loosen up.

I actually could forgive the sins above, had Spielberg chosen to trust this original narrative. Understanding that the director went back to the book for the film’s story line, rather than the stage play, he nonetheless saw fit to add one sequence that wasn’t in the original story, about two young German deserters (but it works) and make specific changes to Albert’s (Joey’s original owner) wartime role in the story (from an orderly attached to a veterinary unit to a British infantryman who suffers from a poison gas attack), disrupting the organic plausibility that stretched the novel just a bit, but made sense in terms of the story’s outcome.

Realizing that this was Spielberg’s first film about the First World War, it seemed like he intended to add every component associated with that war into a single 2 1/2 hour time period.  He needed to back off and trust his source material.  He did not.  This was one giant experience that I was being told that I was supposed to like, but as much as I tried to jettison my knowledge of the book in order to allow myself to go over to the film’s story, I couldn’t, for the very reasons I preferred about the book:  the book’s storyline had a logical sense to the plot’s progression.  The characters discover each other through situations that follow each other.  While both the film and book find their denouement through a reunion, the film’s content to treat it miraculously, while the book is able to hint at the miracle but treat it matter-of-factly, even adding an element of suspense and pathos to the miracle that Spielberg’s film was only able to achieve in Captain Nicholl’s tragically ill-fated cavalry charge against a German bivouac guarded by machine guns.

While the film, in Roger Ebert’s words, was made with superb artistry, I have found it hard to give it the accolades that others have given it (Oscar nomination).  I am left thinking that the film is being heralded because of who directed it, rather than the quality of the storytelling that the film actually brings to the screen.  While a beautiful film, its effect is not unlike artificial sweetener.  Sadly, while Morpurgo offered up source material from his book that hinted at Sugar-in-the-Raw, Spielberg chose to instead give us a Costco-sized box of Splenda.

This is the Droid You’re Looking For

My son enjoys them, although we have held off in having seen the first trilogy since we want him to understand it in the first go….think Space Odyssey seen by a 7 year old, they will quite not get it.” — immv, Slate.com commenter

A few weeks back, I began to search for informational/expository pieces that would make good supplemental material for my students to read while we work through the informational reading standards.  I found this article on the TV series The Clone Wars (where I found the above advice…) Thinking I had a winner, I printed the article and prepared it for distribution to my class.  But while I had scanned it, it wasn’t as carefully as I should have been;  while prepping some sub plans, I went back over the story, and finally caught some phrasing about Wookies that were less than appropriate for use in school.

So, back to square one, and we spent time looking at the animal massacre in Zanesville Ohio instead.

But Star Wars wasn’t necessarily going away.  It followed me home.

Some time back, when Katelyn was first starting her little obsession with the Disney Princesses, she began to bug everyone within ear shot as to who her favorite Disney Princess was and inevitably, she decided to ask her daddy.

I thought for a moment, then replied, “Princess Leia”…

For a while now, Katelyn, when discussing Princesses, was always sure to point out that I like Princess Leia.  Beyond that however, I didn’t detect any real interest in watching Star Wars.  At her preschool though, a playmate had got her hooked on pretend play using the movie, and Katelyn, from what her instructor told me, immediately seized upon the idea that she could be Princess Leia.  Amber, who has never really seen the films, was mortified to find out that Katelyn was pretending to shoot a pretend phaser, not realizing that Carrie Fisher packs heat in the movies at various points.

Then, on Halloween night, at Disneyland’s Mickey’s Halloween Party, Katelyn was not only asking to take photos with the famous Disney villains, out that night but also asking (asking?) to take photos with the stormtroopers at one of the photo spots!  I knew, at this point, that my daughter was crossing over…

But as for the original movie itself, I had tried it once, but as the above commenter noted at the start of this post, I gathered that she lost interest pretty much by the time the movie was really getting started and have moved into Luke Skywalker’s early scenes with his aunt and uncle.  The positive about that early experience was that she lasted longer into Star Wars than she had something like Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2 (good) or The Incredibles (sad). On the other hand, I have begun to notice that my daughter was already starting to show an ability to handle slightly heavier themed films, so when she asked today to watch Star Wars, I asked her a couple of times to make sure she knew what she was asking to see.

“You want to see Star Wars?”

“Yes, I am playing it with D. outside today.”

“You want to watch it?”

“Daddy, do you know that Queen Amidala is Luke’s mother?”

I’m stunned.  “Who told you that?”

“I. my friend.”  Kate’s friend’s father, whom I met, is a comic geek.  Considering the source of her little friend’s introduction, I’m no longer shocked, thinking, at this point, if another 4-year-old is able to retain that much info from the inferior second trilogy of films, maybe Kate is ready to watch the better quality original.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Kate’s godfather recently decided to introduce Kate’s godmother to Star Wars by starting with Episode I.  Big mistake, and no shock that her godmother is now even more determined not to watch any more of the other films.  Hayden Christensen seems to have that affect on people.)

So, out of the DVD case Star Wars came and into the player.  As I type this, she’s made all the way through the scene in the Death Star’s trash compactor before bedtime interrupted her viewing.  As I tucked her in, she wants to watch the rest while she gets ready for school in the morning…

By George

Last week, I briefly mentioned why I was staying away from the film Moneyball.  Coming across this missive in The Atlantic, it pretty much deconstructs a lot of what I instinctively felt about the film going in.  Basically, I’d rather spend my money paying a babysitter on something else.  Something like:

Nevertheless, the curiosity is piqued by the film’s source material, Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North”, which my wife and I had the pleasure to see at the Geffen Playhouse in W. Los Angeles back in mid-2009.  Starring rising star Chris Pine, the play also featured Chris Noth, and Olivia Thirlby, who originated their specific roles when the play opened off-Broadway, the previous year.   Leaving the theater, the wife and I inevitably started asking about how this particular play was going to be featured on the screen–if it was to come to pass.  Sure enough, a little internet digging told us that George Clooney’s name was attached, along with Leonardo DiCaprio.  Now we just had to wait to see when the film would finally reach theaters.  Once before, I had seen Clooney’s name attached to a project, an adaptation of James Ellroy’s final “LA Quartet” book, White Jazz, even to be directed by David Fincher, only to see both actors drop out, leaving the film in a development limbo.

But now, Clooney’s film is about to be released.  DiCaprio is no longer in the film, Ryan Gosling is playing the role.  In short, the film encompasses the basic strokes of the stage play within its broader reach.  But, whereas I had anticipated that Clooney would be playing the role that Chris Noth had portrayed in New York and here in L.A., that of Paul, the veteran campaign manager who is the boss of Stephen (Chris Pine in LA, John Gallagher in NYC), instead, Clooney is playing a role that was uncast in the original play, the presidential candidate himself.   Phillip Seymour Hoffman steps into the campaign manager’s role.  And, from what it appears, the mentoring relationship between the campaign manager and the campaign’s press secretary that drove the stage play, has had the same relationship transplanted between the candidate himself, Clooney, and Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Stephen.  In addition, the stage play’s setting, the Iowa Caucuses, has been moved to the Ohio primary, usually held in March–hence, the film’s title, The Ides of March, which also encompasses the idea of betrayal and assassination, as in Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar.

For anticipatory purposes, I’m at a crossroads with respect to the film.  Having very much enjoyed the play when I saw it, I will likely be stuck making direct comparisons between the portrayals of each of the characters in the film.  This isn’t necessarily like watching adaptation from book to film, it’s watching different people bring back to life characters who have already have had their own separate existence apart from their existence upon the screen.  Years ago, I saw the stage play A Few Good Men, before Rob Reiner turned it into the Tom Cruise/Jack Nicholson/Demi Moore star vehicle.  What struck me about that adaptation was how Reiner felt he needed to “school” Sorkin on how to transition stage material to the screen.  Yet having seen both, there are some key differences between the play and the film that not only affect how the plot plays itself out, but appear to have been made specifically to “upgun” the character of Lt. Kaffee who was played by Tom Cruise.

Truthfully, I am worried that something similar could happen in Ides.  But, given how much Clooney has worked to make this project happen, I would hope that he’s more interested in story over stars.  Worst case, he’s able to create one of my favorite old films, 1964’s The Best Man.  

Messing Around with "The Help"

The Help.  And no, it’s not about making babies with former governor Schwarzenegger.

Have I read the book?  Do I have plans on seeing the movie?   Now the mere fact that my mother-in-law likes The Help should have been damning enough.  But I digress. Let me explain, in a very roundabout way, why I will not see The Help.

Truth be told, the issue of whether or not someone can opine about whether or not they’d see a film based upon a book they’ve not read is moot, in my opinion.  But it’s not easy for anyone who is a teacher to readily dismiss either, simply because in some respects, the movement of source material from book form to movie form is something that, at times, we deal with in classrooms each and every year.  If you think about the “Harry Potter” films, the recent release of “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” this summer, or last year’s “Where the Wild Things Are”, inevitably, for teachers, there is the struggle between trying to work between literature appreciation of the source material and a student’s understanding of it, and then, how it competes with the movie version of the story–particularly if an author’s vision of a specific character runs up how a film chooses to portray a character on film, especially given the actor chosen.  Think this versus this.

What I think teachers forget, is that often, the movies are not a reflection of the book.  Take Ray Bradbury’s classic short story “All Summer in a Day”.  Here’s how what the ending looks like, from a PBS/Disney project called WonderWorks:


Not exactly the eviscerating ending of the original short story.  In my uninformed opinion, the story loses the power of the original work, in order to give the children a “feel good” experience at the end of the story.  Hollywood often operates in much the same way, for instance, in random conversation this past weekend, my wife and I were discussing the Disney denouement of The Little Mermaid versus the the original fairy tale.  Whatever the movie, whatever images or understandings that the reader derived through their interaction with the text gets replaced by the images to be found in the visual medium in which this story takes places on the screen, regardless of its size.  While I read fairy tales to my little girl, and she has several “wannabe” versions of princess cartoons as well, inevitably, the images or story wind up competing with the Disney version.

But that’s an entirely different subject.

Professor Carol Booth Olson, UCI Writing Project Co-Director in the Reading/Writing Connection (2007) notes “(w)hen people visualize, they often talk about making a movie inside their heads…” But, truthfully, while the meaning of a novel is controlled by only one person — the author — the meaning we get from a film is the result of a collaborative effort by a large number of people.   Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle sees it as a partnership:  “[y]ou create a partnership which creates a film together…you always look good as a director, you get all the credit, if you can achieve those good performances, but to do that you’ve really got to work together as a team.  When we start we always try to start as me, the writer and the producer, and then we expand it out into the cameraman and the designer and the editor. You try to keep as many people involved as you can, you know. Just from a purely practical basis, they work harder as a result if they feel involved. It makes it feel like it’s their project, and it really should because it is.”

For some viewers, film does not allow for the same freedom a novel does — to interact with the plot or characters by imagining them in our minds. This lack of interaction, for some, is often the most frustrating aspect of turning a novel (or short story) into a film.  On the other hand, a film’s visual images stimulate our perceptions directly, while written words do this indirectly. Reading the word “chair” requires a kind of mental “translation” that viewing a picture of a chair does not. Film is a more sensory experience than reading — besides verbal language, there is also color, movement, and sound. Yet film is also limited: for one thing, there are no time constraints on a novel, while a film must generally compress events into two hours or so–less, if we’re talking about a short story.

So, can I give my opinion about a movie based on a book that I haven’t read?  Yes, given there’s no requirement being made that I have to read the book prior to having bought my movie ticket, or prior to renting the DVD, etc.  Also too, having not read the book, I can therefore treat the film as a independent piece of literature, much as I would have done had I decided to have read the book.

Roger Ebert, ostensibly responding to the film “Thor”, but addressing the issues of film adaptations in general:

It is impossible for most critics to be familiar with the source material of most movies, and that doesn’t bother me. A movie must contain whatever the audience requires in order to enjoy it. It’s not required to be “faithful” to its source, as if adaptation were adultery.
And adaptation therefore means changes to the basic story line that might have originally emerged from the author.  HBO’s “True Blood” or Showtime’s “Dexter” are two examples of successful television programs, each derived from a series of novels that provide the world in which its characters inhabit.  But in both instances, the stories have diverged from its source material.  To expand upon what Ebert asserts, at that point, the audience must be allowed to enjoy the viewing experience on its own merits (or reject it, for that matter), as it stands alone.  That means that a character that has a small role in the books, might instead grow into his own in the television series, if the producers choose to take those characters into such a direction.  

For myself, I enjoyed the adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, while just hating the adaptation made of Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia.  On the other hand, James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line, made into the film of the same name by director Terence Malick back in 1997, was a disappointment in that I could see that many components of Jones’ original story–for instance, a homosexual encounter by two of the soldiers in the story that leads to a deadly betrayal later on–appeared to have been filmed, but in a film that had hours of footage (the original first cut of the movie was five hours long!), it had to be honed down to a more manageable time frame.  Nevertheless, I can still enjoy certain components of the film by divorcing myself from the idea that there was more out there that could have been added.  I can also “fill-in” those gaps by the background material that serves as the gap filling provided to me by Jones’ original novel.  

By extension, on the subject of James Jones, this same technique is somewhat harder in reconciling his From Here to Eternity with the classic 1953 film.  

Reversing the idea of book to film, there’s also the notion of seeing the film first, and then becoming interested enough to pursue the book afterwards.  Public Enemies , Michael Mann’s 2009 film, starring Johnny Depp, is one such personal example for me.  Another was Gustav Hasford’s book The Short-timers, which was the influence for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.  In this latter instance, you can see how even minor deviance from the source material can change the book’s transition to the screen. 

Now the entire idea of even seeing The Help was never on my radar.  It generally is not something that I would seek out.  My wife, having the read the book, has expressed a desire to see it.  In fact, this past weekend, with Kate at Grandma’s, we are spent our entertainment dollars at the cinema, to see this.  The Help is playing at the same theater.  But the wife and I have agreements about what we’ll see together, which, thusly, frees up certain films for her to see with her friends.  

But my decision to eschew The Help, even if I had been attracted to the subject matter, would come down to a similar decision that I made when the 2002 John Woo-directed film Windtalkers was released.  I am the type that tends to measure his entertainment time by not simply going upon how a film might be hyped, but through the idea of reading film review and notices, especially if a film is supposed to be based upon a historical time period.  In Roger Ebert’s review of Windtalkers, he notes:  

“Windtalkers” comes advertised as the saga of how Navajo Indians used their language to create an unbreakable code that helped win World War II in the Pacific. That’s a fascinating, little-known story and might have made a good movie. Alas, the filmmakers have buried it beneath battlefield cliches, while centering the story on a white character played by Nicolas Cage. I was reminded of “Glory,” the story of heroic African-American troops in the Civil War, which was seen through the eyes of their white commanding officer. Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories?

For whatever it’s worth, I liked the film Glory.  But it’s a point well-taken that I had not considered until I was doing the research for this response.  As much as I enjoyed Matthew Broderick and Cary Elwes in the film, they truly should be secondary players.  Interestingly enough though, prior to considering the earlier film, Ebert’s concerns about Windtalkers are many of the same concerns that I have about The Help.  Why does Hollywood find it impossible to trust minority groups with their own stories?

Now Ebert actually liked the film but had this to say:

I was drawn into the characters and quite moved, even though all the while I was aware it was a feel-good fable, a story that deals with pain but doesn’t care to be that painful. We don’t always go to the movies for searing truth, but more often for reassurance: Yes, racism is vile and cruel, but hey, not all white people are bad. 

Nevertheless, this point is reiterated by Matt Seitz at Salon.com: 

American historical films are forever refighting old wars, congratulating themselves for being on the right side, and encouraging viewers to pat themselves on the back for being on the right side, too. They view the war from the general’s tent up on a distant hill and imagine that they’re right in the thick of it. That’s how Paul Haggis’ “Crash” swept the Oscars in 2006 — by serving up a contemporary story of Los Angelenos who said and did brazenly racist things in public constantly, as if it were 1967 and everyone was wearing love beads, Afros and hard hats. The characters seemed crude and primitive, lacking in self-awareness, unenlightened; this made them easy to label, judge and dismiss. A variation on this strategy has enabled another race drama, “The Help,” to become an instant hit, a likely Oscar contender, and yet another reminder that when mainstream cinema depicts discrimination, it tends to ask the same two questions: “How did this affect white people?” and “Aren’t you glad you’re not bigoted like the creeps in this movie?”

 But what drew me to Seitz’s point-of-view was how he connected The Help to a long line of Hollywood “white-washing”–all the way back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and that includes incredibly popular films like Sandra Bullock’s The Blind Side.   In many respects, it’s almost as if the minority character(s), be it Windtalkers, or The Help, are less important as characters, and more important as part of a story’s setting.  They remain static, rather than dynamic, because the “hero’s journey”, so to speak, can never involve a person of color, especially if such a story can’t be expected to draw all that well at the box office.  

After Seitz’ denunciation, comes this Kimberley Egonmwan broadside, in effect, trying to provide a response to some of my friends who are fans of the The Help, and who have asserted how the film speaks about friendships that crossed the barriers of the time.  I’m immediately taken aback from the standpoint that I find it difficult to see how a friendship between employer/employee could be seen as “equal”, especially given the historical time period, or the power relationship vis-a-vis intimidation, but Egonmwan is even more succinct on the same point:

It’s tiring that no matter how much she is abused, the black maid on the silver screen (in The Help, Viola Davis takes on this role, along with others) is shown to love her boss’ family as much, if not more than, her own. She takes care of their children as if they were her own, teaching and spoiling them. Her character finds her place in the household more honorable than anything she goes home to, because her home life is never developed to stand on its own merits. This is a total fantasy. This woman never existed in real life; why is she always in a movie?

Contrary to every blindly devoted black maid you’ve ever seen on screen, when a black woman took care of another person’s home and children, it was to serve one purpose and one purpose only: to ensure the continued survival of her own family. There’s no question that these women quite often suffered indignities and slights at the hands of their superiors because, in truth, especially before and during the civil rights era, domestic service was only a few steps away from slavery. It was just about the only work a black woman was allowed to do. She cleaned other people’s homes to raise and educate her own children.

She knew firsthand – largely from the example set by the family for which she worked – that money did not equal class, and that pedigree did not ensure good breeding. She had to carry herself a certain way to combat the stereotypes that continually dogged her skin color. Her struggle produced the generations of black women that live today. And, just as I’m sure she would want, it’s time to put that character to rest.

Ironically, the idea of a family home life for a story involving a main black character, was something that was the critical motivation for Tiana in Disney’s The Princess and the Frog It’s rare that one might mention a Disney animated film for trying to be more sociologically deep than a live-action Hollywood production such as The Help.

Finally, there’s the Association of Black Women Historians:

In the end, The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.

I was mortified by the in-law who admired the film for “showing them talking the way they talk”, thusly engendering my response about “how do they talk?”:

Both versions of The Help also misrepresent African American speech and culture. Set in the South, the appropriate regional accent gives way to a child-like, over-exaggerated “black” dialect. In the film, for example, the primary character, Aibileen, reassures a young white child that, “You is smat, you is kind, you is important.”

As I noted when I began this reflection, it’s this recommendation that sealed my decision to shy away from The Help.  
In the end, I am left to again quote Roger Ebert:

But I suppose the Stockett novel has many loyal readers, and that this is the movie they imagined while reading it.
So fans of the book, and I know a couple, should be happy to be seeing on screen what they’d been keeping in their heads all this time.  For me, having had little desire to see the film in the first place (and I was in the dark that my wife had even read the novel), the objections to the film’s historical accuracy were alarm bells.  It’s folly to expect Hollywood to accurately reflect real life experiences when given controversial subject matter, especially with its history on how it’s portrayed the Civil Rights era.   Nevertheless, the objections to the film are worthy of being addressed and should be addressed, rather than dismissed out of hand. My own lesson learned through this thinking exercise would be to skip Stockett’s book, take advantage of recommended reading that might be of even greater value to understanding the eraUltimately, even for those who might choose to view the film, consider the legacy of those which went before.  As has been pointed out, Hollywood and

…[t]he film industry was as much a pillar of institutional racism as any business in this country. To indict American racism is, by definition, to attack the machine that created decades of stereotypes…[b]y denying the casual, commonplace quality of racial prejudice, and peering into the saddest values of the greatest generation, Hollywood perpetuates an ahistorical vision of how democracy and white supremacy comfortably co-existed. 
I can at least understand why a story might need to be crafted in order to draw the largest possible audience to the movie theater.  And, in many respects, “popular” entertainment involves varying levels of pandering.  But in trying to decide how to spend my own entertainment dollar, I don’t have to be part of that audience if I choose not to be.