Tag Archives: At the Movies

The book is always better than the movie…

…but that doesn’t mean we can’t look forward to a few good literary adaptations in the near future, right?

With the success of recess book-to-screen stories like The Handmaid’s Tale–and the acclaim that the cast and production team consistently gave to author Margaret Atwood, and Big Little Lies, which was options by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon directly from Lynne Moriarty, and the phenomenal success of the recent adaptation of Stephen King’s It, it would appear that we are in the midst of a literary adaptation renaissance.

So, with that in mind, here are a few of the books that will be hitting our screens in the coming months, with plenty of time for you to check out the books and get prepared!

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer:

Area X has claimed the lives of members of eleven expeditions. The twelfth expedition consisting of four women hopes to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, and Tessa Thompson. Oscar Isaac has also joined the cast of the film, which will be directed by Ex Machina‘s Alex Garland.

Release date: Feb. 23, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

In the first book of the Time Quintet, Meg Murry and her friends become involved with unearthly strangers and a search for Meg’s father, who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government.

Ava DuVernay will direct the adaptation, and the three Mrs. have been cast: Reese Witherspoon will play Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling will play Mrs. Who, and Oprah Winfrey will play Mrs. Which. See the whole cast here.

Release date: March 9, 2018

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Cate Blanchett has been cast as Bernadette. Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, and Judy Greer are also set to star.  Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — the writers behind (500) Days of Summer — are writing the screenplay.

Release date: May 11, 2018

Which films are you looking forward to seeing, dear patrons?

Found Footage Horror in Books?

It’s summertime, which means I’ve been indulging my love of horror novels, dear readers.   And I’ve found myself feeling a bit nostalgic…

…How many of you remember The Blair Witch Project?

Though it wasn’t the first “found footage” horror film–‘found footage’ being a sort of sub-genre where the film is presented as amateur video discovered after an event–The Blair Witch Project came along at precisely the right time, harnessing the power of the new technology that was the Internet to whip everyone into something of a tizzy.  Debates sprung up everywhere as to whether the events depicted in the film actually happened, what truly happened to the three young film-makers seen in the footage, and just what the Blair Witch really was.  I remember three people in Blockbuster video (yes, Blockbuster Video)  arguing together about whether the film was a ‘hoax’, and if so, what it meant for the horror genre as a whole that this film had so blurred the line between fiction and reality.

Because that’s what ‘found-footage’ does so well, and why it’s such a fascinating genre.  Found-footage creates a reality in a way that few other movies do.  It’s power comes from its incompleteness.  Real life usually doesn’t play out with a well-plotted beginning, middle, and end.  It’s messy.  There are plotlines that go nowhere.  And, in the end, we don’t get the answers to all our questions.

Horror as a genre allows us to deal with the unpleasant, the scary, and the overwhelming aspects of life in a safe way.  Found footage helps us deal with a reality where something are just un-knowable.  And for creatures whose brains are programmed to think in narrative form, that in itself is pretty terrifying.

Anyways, looking back on The Blair Witch Project today (not the sequel, for which I had such high hopes)…it’s a bit campy.  The plot doesn’t really hold up (they argue for 10 minutes out of an 80-minute movie about a map).  The steady-cam makes everyone a wee bit nauseous.  But what is does beautifully is harness our inherent terror of not knowing.  And even though ‘found footage’ is a tough genre to do successfully, especially with today’s passion for special effects and IMAX panoramas and computer generation, I don’t think that fear of not knowing has dimmed at all.  If anything, it’s probably gotten even stronger now that we have so many resources to look up anything we want, to know all we want…to dispel those shadows lurking in the corner…

But when that ability is taken away, when sentences end with ellipses or a comma, and not a period, when the camera is dropped and there is no resolution–it triggers something in our cave-brain that thinks in narrative to flip out and start climbing the walls.

And for those of you looking for a “found footage” fix in a book–there are any number of options from which you can choose.  Dracula and Frankenstein, the very foundations of the horror genre, are themselves ‘found footage’ of a sort, in that they are collections of media produced by the characters.  So let’s take a look as see how this genre has expanded and evolved–just don’t look too closely at those shadows in the corner……

The Supernatural Enhancements: We’ve covered this book here a few times before, but that’s because it’s so flipping good.  The plot centers around a twenty-something gentleman named A., who inherits a house in the backwoods of Virginia from an unknown relative who apparently died after jumping out of a window at the precise age that A himself is now.  Together with Niamh, a mute young woman who is a force in her own right, A sets out to discover the secrets of the house, and of his mysterious family.  The book is a mish-mash of letters written by A to his aunt, of transcripts of conversations between A and Niamh (who writes instead of speaking), and transcripts of video and audio recordings made inside the house.  And codes. So many, many codes.  Because A’s family has plenty of secrets, both fascinating and terrible–and while we learn a good deal of them, there is plenty in this book that is left up to the imagination, not the least of which is what precisely lives in the upstairs bathroom?

House of Leaves: Another old favorite here, and one that very well might take the found footage tale to a whole new level.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s book, ostensibly, is about a family who buys a house that turns out to be bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  And not in a fun, TARDIS-kind of way.  This is a house with a mind of its own, and it’s quite easy to get lost forever.  But if that wasn’t enough, this is a found story about a found story–and, as such, this book is a chilling maze of footnotes, as the multiple layers of storytellers all work through their own issues with this tale–and reveal just how badly this house has affected them all.  This is one of the few books that can make citations scary.  Read it on a beach.  In the sunlight.  Probably, read it outside.  It’s just safer that way.

We Eat Our Own: This is a story less comprised of found footage, and more about found footage–specifically, about the first new found-footage horror movie, the Italian Cannibal Holocaust, which was widely believed to be a ‘snuff’ film when it was first released (a subsequent trial revealed that the human actors all survived, though the scenes of animal brutality were indeed real).  Kea Wilson’s novel follows a nameless, struggling actor in 1970s New York who gets a call that an enigmatic director wants him for an art film set in the Amazon…not because of his talents, but because he so closely resembles the former star who is unable to complete the film.  The conditions on-set are terrible–the atmosphere is so damp that the celluloid film disintegrates, the director himself seems near madness, and there are strange rumors on set about the goings-on in the village around them.  This book is less about Cannibal Holocaust itself than it is a book about violence, and what is does to people who cannot escape it.  It’s a twisty, twisted, thought-provoking, bizarre story that skips perspectives with dizzying ease, and ends with a scene as ambiguous as The Blair Witch Project itself.  Try it, and tell me what you think is going on!

Books–Coming to a Screen Near You!

How do we feel about film adaptations of books, dear readers?

To be honest, I don’t have a personal consensus about this issue, so I doubt we as a group are going to come up with a unilateral stance.  If Games of Thrones has taught us anything, it’s that books can be adapted well…and that they can also get in the way of the books (figuratively and literally!) just as easily.  On that note…stop toying with us, George R.R. Martin.  We are suffering enough.

Anyways, there are precious few adaptations that I enjoyed more than the books–like The Painted Veil with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, as I think I’ve mentioned previously here.  It’s difficult (as I know we’ve discussed here) to stuff a many-hundred page book full of literary symbolism, sensory detail, and emotional descriptions into a two-hour film.  Yet books still form the basis of a significant number of films and tv shows, precisely because they come with so much insight, intrigue, and development pre-packaged.   And, regardless of what Some People say about the death of literature, there is clearly a devoted following of literary fans who make these shows and films popular, and create the drive to make more.

So here, for your reading and viewing pleasure, are a few of the bookish film adaptations that have been discussed recently.  Feel free to air your opinions on them here, and to come into the Library and check out the books before they hit the screens, so as to taunt your friends and family with non-spoilery spoiler hints for months to come!

Little Women: I love Little WomenMy adoration of this book, of Louisa May Alcott, and of her family, has been well-documented.  And for that reason, I personally cannot bear another adaptation of the book, even if it is PBS Masterpiece putting it all together.  It’s like having a little bit of my soul taken out and manhandled by a major production company.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of people who are genuinely excited about this one, and I want there to be a really good adaptation on film, so I can only hope that this is the one that will prove that Little Women can be made into a meaningful, timely, and non-hokey production (if you’ve seen the BBC adaptation from the 1960’s, you know what hokey looks like).  As the Masterpiece website notes, “Little Women is a truly universal coming of age story, as relevant and engaging today as it was when originally published in 1868″, and we need those messages of hope, of strength, of determination, and of everyday feminism and female support that the March sisters learn from each other during their coming-of-age.  So please, please, please, Masterpiece, get this one right.  On the plus side, Angela Lansbury, Tony Award winner and creator of my personal heroine Jessica Fletcher, is slated to play Aunt March.  I will tune in for that, if for no other reason.

Alias Grace No doubt the huge popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale, convinced the Powers That Be that adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s books were a good idea.  No doubt Margaret Atwood’s stunning writing and incredible insight helped, as well.  Though one of her lesser known works, Alias Grace is another fascinating (and feminist) book that centers on the 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery in Canada. Two servants of the Kinnear household, Grace Marks and James McDermott, were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged and Marks was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Atwood’s tale is told by the fictional Doctor Simon Jordan, who is ostensibly researching criminal behavior, but finds himself swept up into Marks’ story, and the paradox of the mild-mannered woman he knows, and the horrors she is supposed to have committed.  This new adaptation of Alias Grace will air in Canada beginning in September and will be streamed to Netflix afterwards.  For those eager for a taste of what’s to come, take a look at the trailer here.

Bird Box: One of the newer announcements regarding literary adaptations is the production of Josh Malerman’s dystopian horror novel Bird Box (soon to be starring Sandra Bullock) about a mother and her two small children must make their way down a river, blindfolded, lest they behold the dreadful entity that has destroyed everyone else around them.  Malerman’s use of sensory details and creeping weirdness made for an absolutely immersive page-turner of a book…but it is, nevertheless, a book about about a world that’s been devastated by “The Problem”, and one glimpse of those…’Problems’ is enough to induce a deadly rage into anyone who sees them.  Though there are flashbacks and traditional scenes, the most memorable, heart-pounding moments of this book come when the characters are blindfolded.  So how is that going to translate onto a screen?  Can it?  We’ll see when Netflix brings this adaptation to life…

So what say you, dear readers?  How does it feel to watch books on the screen?  Are there any adaptations you’re eagerly awaiting?

Some thoughts on the Bechdel Test

I don’t know about you, dear readers, but I literally cannot wait for Wonder Woman to appear on our screen on June 2.  I tell random strangers about it.  I rage about the lack of advertising for this movie on a regular basis.  And if it is as….unfulfilling…as the other DC films in this franchise have been, I will eat my proverbial hat.

But I digress…in the midst of scouring the internet for excellent information on this most wonderful of superheroes, I noticed a whole ton of articles regarding the now oft-remarked ‘Bechdel Test’, and I had a few thoughts about it that I wanted to share.

For background, the ‘Bechdel Test’, is not really a ‘test’ in the same way, say, a ‘Driving Test’ is a test, or a ‘Blood Test’ is a test.  It is, instead, a way of thinking about the presence of women in films, the ways in which they are represented, and whether they get to be fully human.  The idea came from American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who drew the follow comic for her regular strip in 1985:

In case you can’t read it, the rules are:

  1. The movie has to have at least two women in it,
  2. who talk to each other,
  3. about something besides a man.

Bechdel based her test on a quote from the great and glorious Virginia Woolf, who wrote in a 1929 essay:

All these relationships between women, I thought, rapidly recalling the splendid gallery of fictitious women, are too simple. […] And I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends. […] They are now and then mothers and daughters. But almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen’s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that

In other words, despite the fact that real women’s lives are shaped by personal relationships with other women, very, very few forms of fiction (particularly film) represent those relationships.  Instead, women are shown as single, isolated entities who support men’s journeys.  If more than one woman is portrayed, it is usually because one (or both of them) is trying to attract the love/attention/desire of a male hero.

The Bechdel Test isn’t perfect.  To highlight one example, the assumption that any discussion of a man makes a movie “anti-feminist”.  But the point of the test has raised a good deal of debate within film circles, and helped to emphasize how far we really have to go to achieve any nominal sense of equality in our representations.  For example, an article in The Wrap cites a study conducted by by Professor Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  The study examined the 100 top-grossing films from 2015 and 4,370 speaking characters for gender, racial/ethnic representation, and LGBT status.  The results?

68.6 percent of named characters were still male, and only 31.4 percent female across the 100 top‐grossing films of 2015 (making a gender ratio of 2.2 male characters to every female). This figure has not changed since 2007.

In addition, females were over three times as likely as their male counterparts to be shown in sexually revealing clothing (30.2 percent vs. 7.7 percent) and with some nudity (29 percent vs. 9.5 percent).

Additionally, this is also a great time to talk about the enormous disparity in film makers, as well.  How are we supposed to tell new stories without new storytellers?

But in studying this material, I couldn’t help but think–what about men?  How many men can you name in film or literature that have meaningful relationships with other men?

This week, Vulture magazine published an article that stated:

…but nothing has troubled filmmakers as enduringly as the mysteries of female bonding. For whatever reason — our inherited medieval imaginations, the cycles of the moon, perhaps — in their short life the movies have been perennially haunted by a fear that when two or more women are left alone together, some kind of dark magic will inevitably rear its head.

Interestingly, though, The Atlantic published an article a few years ago that discussed the very real difficulties that men suffered, especially in later life, keeping friendships.  The reasons cited were: jealousy over friends’ personal and professional achievements, a lack of communication skills, and a society that teaches men not to express emotion.   All of which indicate to me that this gendered structure we’ve set up here is hurting both women and men, forcing them to perform to strange, unrealistic expectations that are harming all of our individual and collective abilities to make connections.

So I figured we could explore some books today that celebrate close relationships that help pave the way towards thinking about relationships differently.  If we’re going to make the world a better place, after all, it’s nice to have some blueprints!

Three Comrades: We’ve discussed this book a lot since our Classics Book Group met this book last year.  Most people were introduced to Erich Maria Remarque through his novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which focuses on the experience of young German soldiers in World War I.  But Remarque wrote a great deal more than that, including this novel, which focuses on three German veterans of the First World War and the auto body/mechanic shop they open.  The narrator of the book falls in love, yes, with a woman named Pat, but that love only brings these friends together more–indeed, rather than shunning her, or shying away from the couple, Pat becomes a member of their circle of friends.  This is a story about love, friendship, loyalty and acceptance, and is absolutely unforgettable.  Also of note here is the way in which Remarque portrays Berlin at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power.  His love letter to a world about to fall is as heartbreaking as any experience of his titular Comrades.

Boy, Snow, BirdHelen Oyeyemi is a marvel at re-imagining traditional fables and fairytales with a contemporary edge, and feminist observations, and this book is a showcase of her remarkable talent.  This story, which echoes the Brothers Grimm’s  “Snow White”, emphasizes the female hatred so often found in fairytales, but with the broader canvas of the novel, and a richer story-line, Oyeyemi has woven a tale of racial tensions, familial jealousies, and complex relationships between the women. Though for much of the novel half-sisters Snow and Bird are separated by Bird’s mother, Boy, they begin to write letters to each other sharing snippets of family history as well as their own secrets and girlish curiosities about each other. Their friendship, in the end, is not about men, but about their mutual quest for a stronger kind of bond, and the sense of themselves they find in communicating with each other.

Ancillary JusticeAnn Leckie’s novel doesn’t so much pass the Bechdel Test as leave it behind in the dust, as her Radchaii empire don’t care much about gender, and their language does not make distinctions between male and female.  Moreover, Leckie’s choice to make the default gender distinction (which, in English is “he”) female makes the world of this book feel strangely alien.  Once, the heroine of this tale, Breq, was a Justice of Toren –a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of corpse soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.  Now, she has nothing left but her desire for revenge against the many-bodied, near-immortal Lord of the Radch.  But the real power of this book lies in Breq’s relationships with One Esk and Lieutenant Awn–two characters who are difficult to describe, as Leckie does such a wonderful job letting the reader conceptualize them on their own.  Though not always an easy book to read, the characters and their bonds are so real and so believable that this story becomes a visceral treat that even readers who aren’t big sci-fi fans will enjoy.

The Kite Runner: Not only is Khaled Hosseini’s story an emotionally wrenching tale of male friendship, but it also a perfect example of our “Reading Without Walls Challenge” books, too!  The novel follows the story of Amir, the privileged son of a wealthy businessman in Kabul, and Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant. As children in the relatively stable Afghanistan of the early 1970s, the boys are inseparable, spending idyllic days running kites and telling stories of mystical places and powerful warriors–until an unspeakable event changes their friendship forever.  Amir and his father flee to America as the monarchy begins to crumble, but the ties between these two young men is too powerful to be severed, and years later, Amir’s yearning for his friend’s forgiveness will lead him on a journey to a home he can no longer recognize.  Though this book deals a great deal with the pain that relationships can cause, Hossenini reminds us over and over again that they are still absolutely worth the pain, because they remind us who were truly are.

Happy reading dear friends!

At the Movies: Reading the Nominees

Last week, we considered the art of the adaptation in film, the pros and cons of taking a novel and making it into a film.  As we discussed, it’s not an easy process, and takes a lot more creativity, diligence, and daring than many of us can, I think, appreciate.

Today, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominations for the 2017 Academy Awards–in a new format, over which we were, apparently, supposed to be very excited.  While that part of the pageantry was lost on me, what I did notice was there there are a number of literary adaptations that, in some way or another, made it onto the Academy’s lists.

This is pretty exciting news for us.  Granted, it’s not that difficult to get us excited about books or movies, but when we can talk about both of them (and perhaps put together a few fun Library Displays in the bargain), it’s always a good time.  And, while the Oscars generally seem like a glittery diversion (at best) or a bit of a waste of time (at worst), in comparison to the everyday world, maybe a little bit of glitter now and then is just what we need to keep going, right?

So I thought, for the next few Wednesday that are not graced with Melissa’s super-terrific “Wednesdays at the West” posts, that we would spend some time looking at the films nominated for Academy Awards this year, and the books that, directly or covertly, inspired them.  That way, by the time the Oscars do come around (and the DVDs of the films are all finally released), you (and I) will have added to our ‘To Be Read’ stack of books, as well as our ‘To Be Viewed’ pile of films….and we all will, of course, have decided what to wear.

Best Pictures:

FencesNominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Supporting Actress (Viola Davis) and Best Adapted Screenplay (by Denzel Washington), this film has been generating talk about awards ever since the first trailer was released.  August Wilson’s 1983 play focuses on  Troy (played by Washington), a 53-year-old Black man living in Pittsburgh, who is struggling to support his family, which consists of his wife, Rose (played by Davis), his son Cory, and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel, a veteran whose war injury to his head has caused him noticeable psychological damage.  Though once a promising baseball player, Troy was never able to break the color barrier in baseball, and, after spending time in prison for an accidental murder he had committed during a robbery, he now works as a trash collector.  This is a work about relationships, the ones we break and the ones we chose to mend, and about the barriers that we put between and around ourselves in life (as symbolized by the fence itself that is built throughout the play).   Though one reviewer commented, at the play’s Broadway debut, that it was “very heavy and with its nearly three hours of lost hope and broken dreams it can feel long and depressing”, it won a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1987–and has proven its power once again.

Hidden Figures: In 1935, the NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, a precursor to NASA) , hired five African-American women as “computers” in their program, less out of a desire to be inclusive, or to hire the best people, but, as NASA Historian Bill Barry points out, because “The women were meticulous and accurate… and they didn’t have to pay them very much”.  Nevertheless, the contributions of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden, were crucial to the space program and, especially, to the US space race.  Margot Lee Shetterly’s book of the same title puts these women’s lives, and their enormous contributions to science, back into American history, while also taking into account the institutionalized racism and sexism, as well as personal antagonism they encountered (they were known as “West Computers”, because they were sequestered, along with other Black workers, to a building on the west campus of Langley, with separate facilities and cafeterias).   This film has been named by a number of outlets as one of the best films of the year, and also netted nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, who plays Dorothy Vaughan.

ArrivalThis film is a bit different from the other two, in that is was actually adapted from a novella by Ted Chiang, entitled Story of Your LIfewhich won the 2000 Nebula Award for Best Novella.  If you haven’t seen this film or read Chiang’s work, it’s really hard to describe the plot without giving the whole thing away….suffice it to say that both film and book are narrated by Dr. Louise Banks, who is hired by the US military to study a race of aliens that have made first contact with humanity.  She discovers that the heptapods (so named because of their seven legs and circular appearance) have a spoken language and, more significantly, a written language that is, essentially, circular.  Her study of their language–and, in so doing, their culture–she begins to think like them, as well (known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis), and realizes not only the nature of the world, and her place within it.  Though Eric Heisserer, who wrote the Academy Award-nominated screenplay (for Best Adapted Screenplay) stated that this was his favorite science fiction book, he also talked about how difficult it was to bring a book that relies so heavily on physics and complex linguistics to the screen.  Ultimately, though, as he notes, “While all of that science and language work went through a hundred iterations, what remained constant was the main character Louise’s emotional journey”.

At the Movies: Live By Night

The Guardian describes the newly-released adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel “Ben Affleck’s love letter to – and hopefully death knell of – the classic Hollywood gangster flick.”


And while the first part of this is definitely true, I think the latter part of that statement is unfair.  Its’ true that Ben didn’t seem able to decide what he wanted with this film–it’s a movie that tries to be both a faithful adaptation and a contemporary commentary on the period in which it’s set; it’s also a movie that is so dedicated to looking and sounding like a “classic” film (Affleck’s goal in writing/director/starring in the thing) that it forgot to feel.  But what I think is really the problem here is the one that book lovers despair over every time they go see an adaptation like this one.

The book was better.

Generally speaking, this is true because a book gives you several hundred pages, typically, to get to know a character, to learn to feel something (love, like, hate, curiosity) about them, and to watch their story unfold.  Unless you speed-read or skim, books generally take a number of hours to consume.  Movie give you two hours, give or take thirty minutes or so.  Even the most subtle of screenwriters can’t jam all the events, all the emotions, all the logistics of a novel into a script.  And no actor, however gifted and experienced, can spell out on screen the mental processes that you can on a page.  So choices have to be made.

From FilmmakerIQ.com
From FilmmakerIQ.com

Sometimes, that works out well.  Because, while movies can’t describe things the way books can, books can’t show things the way the movies can.  In this way, I think Live by Night succeeds.  The costumers, the scenery, and the props are stunning, and, even if those 1920s Packards are driving far faster than the real ones were capable of doing, they allow you a glimpse into the world of the book that isn’t always easy to do in your imagination.  I, for one, can’t imagine Florida without the urban development and sky-scraping condos I’ve seen on postcards.  This film gave the the panorama of the coast without those buildings, and made it really easy to understand the potential that Joe Coughlin, our erstwhile hero, and his business partners saw upon their arrival.

2426609Sometimes, films can provide options that books can’t.  Douglas Adams, for instance, substantially re-wrote his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for every adaptation, which allowed him to try new plots and character development each time around.  Other adaptations explore moments that books intentionally don’t–my mind goes right to the Red Room scene in Jane Eyre, which is a seminal, if understated, moment in the book, but generally a hugely important scene in films.  For me, the recent adaptation of Maugham’s The Painted Veil was incredible, because it made explicit through film the elements that Maugham couldn’t.  Because the events of the book are only seen through the heroine Kitty’s eyes, we can’t see clearly the effect of her choices on her husband Walter.  But this film let’s us meet Walter more clearly, and, even though it is a faithful adaptation, it also allows us to see more of their relationship than Maugham did (and more of Hong Kong itself, which is a huge bonus, too).

From The Painted Veil

But sometimes, it just doesn’t work.  And that is where Live By Night becomes a bit of a cautionary tale.  This isn’t Ben Affleck’s first time adapting Dennis Lehane.  He adapted Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone in 2008.  But my problem with both these films is that they are books in the middle of series.  Granted, they might be the strongest books in the series (though I would disagree about Gone Baby Gone.  Darkness, Take My Hand will always be my favorite book in the series, hands down…).  But the fact remains that you are, essentially, forcing a movie-going audience to come to enter a conversation that’s been going on for days.  Or invited them to the high-school reunion of a school they didn’t attend.  Or, perhaps most appropriately, to a book club where they didn’t read the book.

2750514-1This isn’t fair to a book-loving crowd who knows these characters well and don’t need the necessary introductions you have to cram into the film to get everyone up to speed on who’s who.  And it isn’t fair to the crowd who haven’t read the books, because you there is so much work to do to establish relationships and history and desires and trajectories that are fully covered in other books.  In The Given Day (the first book in Joe Coughlin’s three-book tale), we come to understand the devastation the First World War had, not only on the bodies of those who fought in it, but on their outlook, on their belief in their country and themselves, and the xenophobia that took root across the United States during this time.  In the film, this is summed up in two lines and some stock photos.  In Live By Night, we get to see the results of those events, and understand why Joe is the way he is…not because the voice-over told us, but because we were there with him.  In Live By Night, we get to reference the racial tensions that the Coughlin family encounters, but they remain background noise to Joe’s life story.  In the books, race and identity are a crucial and deeply complex parts of the story, so much so that without them, the plot doesn’t hang together correctly.  Joe is a man shaped by those around him, but this film can’t afford the time to show his creation, so he emerges as a man with some incredible suits and the right words to say, but without a soul or a heart.  And while the film Live By Night can take us to some stunning places, it can’t get us inside the characters the way three books could.

At the Movies: Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon

Are you a film buff?  Do you come into the Library and make a beeline for the new DVDs?  If so, today is a day worth celebrating–it’s the anniversary of the first commercial film screening.

Auguste and Louis Lumière
Auguste and Louis Lumière

Film History actually goes back to the 1830s, as various European inventors worked on creating spinning disks with images inside them that, when spun, produced the illustion of action.  Thomas Edison demonstrated his “peepshow’ Kinetoscope in 1891, a machine that, essentially, worked like a flip-book.  A single viewer would peer through the viewer at the top and a reel of special film would be run through the machine to show an image.  But though the Kinetoscope was the model of the modern film projectors, it was limited at the time because only one person could use it at a time.  Two of the people who saw the machine when Edison brought it to Europe were Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas and Louis Jean Lumiere, who worked in their family’s photographic plate factory in Lyon, France.

A view of the Kinetoscope that shows the inner workings of the film through the machine
A view of the Kinetoscope that shows the inner workings of the film through the machine

When their father saw the Kinetoscope in 1894, he declared (as many proud parents have throughout history, I’m sure) that his sons could do better.  And so, they did.  By 1895, they had developed the Cinematographe, a machine that was considerably lighter than Edison’s ponderously heavy projector, used a good deal less film to project an image, and was capable of displaying images on a screen, thus enabling groups of people to watch the same film projection at the same time.  Though other inventors had shown ‘moving pictures’ to an audience before, their designs were clunky and immediately supplanted by the remarkable Cinematographe.

a918b7da6f806bdf22254eb9c04fa04fThe Lumiere Brothers debuted their invention at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895.  In an evening of technological and cinematographic history, they screen ten films, each less than a minute long (each film was approximately 17 meters long).  The program consisted of films shot in and around Paris by the brothers themselves, though it is thought that they used Léon Bouly‘s cinématographe device, which was patented the previous year (just to show you how much inventors were focused on moving pictures at this point).  The order of the films screened were as follows (you can read more about each film in the link in the titles):

  1. La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon (literally, “the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon”, or, under its more common English title, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory), 46 seconds
  2. Le Jardinier (l’Arroseur Arrosé) (“The Gardener”, or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”), 49 seconds
  3. Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon (“the disembarkment of the Congress of Photographers in Lyon”), 48 seconds
  4. La Voltige (“Horse Trick Riders”), 46 seconds
  5. La Pêche aux poissons rouges (“fishing for goldfish”), 42 seconds
  6. Les Forgerons (“Blacksmiths”), 49 seconds
  7. Repas de bébé (“Baby’s Breakfast” (lit. “baby’s meal”)), 41 seconds
  8. Le Saut à la couverture (“Jumping Onto the Blanket”), 41 seconds
  9. La Places des Cordeliers à Lyon (“Cordeliers Square in Lyon”—a street scene), 44 seconds
  10. La Mer (Baignade en mer) (“the sea [bathing in the sea]”), 38 seconds

These films are also hailed as the first primitive documentaries, since they show real people going about their real lives–particularly the workers exiting the Lumiere factory–as well as the first comedies, since “The Gardener” is an early form of slapstick comedy.

largeThe effect their invention had on popular culture was immediate and enormous.  People flocked to see screenings across Europe as the Lumieres took their invention on tour.  The Lumieres opened theaters (which they called cinemas) in 1896 to show their work and sent crews of cameramen around the world to screen films and shoot new material.   New Orleans’ Vitascope Hall–the first cinema in the United States–opened that same year (admission was 10 cents), and The New York Times published its first film review in 1909.  However, neither brother believed that ‘cinema’ had a future, and decline to sell their camera or disseminate their technology, which didn’t earn them many friends.  Though they would go on to develop new kinds of photographic color plates that revolutionized photography, their involvement in film history was quite brief…but no less important for that.  hith-lumiere-brothers-poster-113493490-ab

So why not come into the Library today and check out some of our impressive DVD collection in honor of the Lumiere brothers?  Or, at the very least, to prove to them how remarkable their invention truly was?