Film of the Book: The 39 Steps

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1935)

From the book review of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan:

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know, Scudder, turns up at his door seeking help. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

You can read the full book review by clicking here

I found the book a shade disappointing, with an almost incomprehensible plot that relied far too much on coincidence and got a little tedious in the middle as our hero ran around over the moors of Scotland, dodging the bad guys. I’d seen the Hitchcock film before but my memory of it was vague, although I remembered enjoying it. So time for a refresher!

Hitchcock’s cameo

Ah, Hitchcock! He’s the master! Scudder has been replaced by a mysterious female foreign agent, Annabelle Smith (Lucie Mannheim). Hannay has been at a music hall where, in the midst of a performance by Mr Memory (the clue to his act is in his name), shots ring out causing the audience to flee. Hannay finds himself protecting the beautiful Miss Smith, who begs him to take her to his flat. Once there, rather than burbling incoherently about vague conspiracies in far-off lands as Scudder does in the book, Annabelle tells Hannay (Robert Donat) that there is a plot to steal plans from the British Military and that she must go to Scotland to meet a man in order to stop it. Later that night, she is stabbed and gives a marvellously ham death scene worthy of Jimmy Cagney at his finest. Fortunately she has left a map of Scotland, carefully marked with the relevant location, and Hannay decides to take her place, especially when he realises the police think he’s the one who murdered her.

Lucie Mannheim and Robert Donat – you can tell she’s a mysterious foreign agent by the way she knocks back her whisky…

This actually gives Hannay a reason to go to Scotland and a purpose when he gets there. In the book, he goes to Scotland merely to fill in a few weeks which (for no reason that made sense to me) Scudder had insisted he wait before going to the authorities. So book Hannay wanders aimlessly around the countryside followed by the baddies on whom he chanced by coincidence, while film Hannay goes to Scotland intentionally to thwart the baddies.

Gus McNaughton and Jerry Verno as two commercial travellers Hannay shares a carriage with on the Flying Scotsman train. Their humour seems like a precursor to the characters of Caldicott and Charters in the later The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The second major change that Hitchcock makes – and this should come as a surprise to no-one – is to introduce a blonde! The book sadly lacks female characters in general, and a love interest for Hannay in particular – clearly Buchan didn’t realise that all great action heroes must have a love interest! Hitchcock puts this right. As Hannay travels up to Scotland on the train, he encounters Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). This first meeting doesn’t go well (and frankly, since he bursts into her carriage, grabs her and kisses her, this is not altogether surprising), but the audience know that they are destined to meet again. Pamela is fun – she’s feisty and independent and not easily won over by Donat’s rough wooing, but she’s also a woman of sense and intelligence who, once she’s convinced he’s the good guy, gives him real help. There’s lots of stuff that seems a bit sexist now, but it was 1935, and I don’t care.

Madeleine Carroll as the shocked Pamela – but he only did it to escape from the baddies…

The Scottish scenes are great. Hitchcock clearly hired real Scots for the bit parts of railway guards and so on, with the result that the accents are authentic, and he moved the locations from the lowland moors to the Highlands – much more dramatic scenery, better suited to film, even if the bulk of the film was probably shot in the studio. John Laurie (much later Private Frazer in Dad’s Army) shows up as a grim bullying crofter with Peggy Ashcroft as his put-upon wife.

John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft may only have small roles, but they’re still both great…

The plot plays out well, with a lot of humour in the scenes between Hannay and Pamela, and plenty of drama and danger to provide the thrills. The dénouement, I must admit, is nearly as silly as the one in the book, though quite different – but it’s very well done, both dramatic and quite moving, and at least it makes sense.

The two stars give sparkling performances, but they’re not alone – most of the actors in the smaller roles are excellent too. Poor Lucie Mannheim did remind me a little of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain – she has all the exaggerated over-dramatic gestures of the silent era, especially in her death scene, but it all added to the fun. The film itself shows its age a little at points, such as when Hannay is running and it gives that speeded up impression you get in movies of the Charlie Chaplin era. But on the whole it has held up brilliantly – exciting, fast-paced and thoroughly entertaining.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So the choice is easy this time. Hitchcock’s changes turned an OK book into a great film – a true classic. If you haven’t seen it, you should!

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

THE FILM!

* * * * *

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Hide and Seek…

😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s May 1914 and war is looming over Europe. Richard Hannay has returned from South Africa and is finding England dull. He’ll give it another couple of days, he decides, and if nothing exciting happens, he’ll return to one of the outposts of Empire. But then a man he doesn’t know turns up at his door seeking help. Scudder tells him that he’s discovered a conspiracy, one that, if it succeeds, will shake the world. It’s four weeks until he can reveal what he knows to the authorities, though, and he begs Hannay’s help to keep him hidden till then. When Scudder is then killed, Hannay finds himself possessed of a secret and Scudder’s coded notebook, running from the conspirators who want to kill him and the police who want to arrest him for Scudder’s murder. And so the chase is on…

Buchan described the book as a “shocker” and that’s basically what it is – what we’d now call an action thriller. Published in 1915, its first audience knew that whatever Hannay did, he didn’t succeed in preventing war, so that couldn’t be the point of the conspiracy or of the attempt to defeat it. Not unnaturally, the Germans don’t come out of it well, and unfortunately neither do the Jews (no Jews actually appear in it, but they’re still referred to in what I wish were outmoded anti-Semitic terms) nor the Southern Europeans – thankfully, it’s been a while since I heard the word “Dago” being used. This is always a problem with books of this era and sometimes I find it easier to overlook than others, I think based on whether the author simply uses the words or whether it feels as if he really means to be derogatory. I found Buchan borderline – it bothered me, but not so much I couldn’t look past it and enjoy the story.

The story itself is mostly a simple chase round the moorland in the south-west of Scotland, a place Buchan knew well in real life. This centre section between Scudder’s murder and the dramatic dénouement forms the bulk of the book, and is divided into chapters each of which forms a little story on its own. (In the introduction, there’s an extract from a letter from an early reader, a soldier in the trenches in France, thanking Buchan for this format since it allowed him to read and assimilate a chapter any time he got a moment of calm. “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”) Each mini-story involves someone Hannay meets during his travels – a road-mender, an innkeeper who would like to be an author, an aspiring political candidate, etc. Most of these are educated men, so that the bulk of the book is in standard English, but in the occasional working-class encounter Buchan gives us some excellent Scottish dialect.

Hitchcock’s version. Woman? What woman?? There is no woman!

The framing story of the conspiracy I found frankly incomprehensible for the most part, especially at the beginning when Scudder is clearly referring to all kinds of people and events that were probably familiar to a contemporary audience but mostly weren’t to me. It does become clearer at the end, although it also all becomes rather silly. However, I’m not a soldier in the trenches of WW1 nor even a worried mother waiting at home, so the thrilling aspects of trying to put a spanner in the works of the nasty Hun don’t resonate with me as they would have done at the time. In truth, I was finding it a bit tedious in the middle – there’s an awful lot of coincidence and near-miraculous luck, and it’s one of those ones where the hero just always happens to have the knowledge he needs: how to break codes, for example, or how to use explosives. But when it reaches its climax and I finally found out what the conspiracy was all about, I found myself nicely caught up in it (once I had switched off my over-heating credibility-monitor).

John Buchan

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I actually found the introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition more interesting than the book! Christopher Harvie, Professor of British and Irish Studies at the University of Tübingen in West Germany, gives the usual mix of abbreviated biography and literary context, and does so in clear and accessible English without any academic jargonese. What a fascinating life Buchan had! I had no idea! As well as writing a zillion books, he held all kinds of posts in his life, from Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, to Member of Parliament, to Governor of Canada. Along the way, he also travelled extensively through South Africa, worked in intelligence and rose to be the Director of Intelligence in the Ministry of Information in 1918. (I know any Scottish readers, especially my siblings BigSister and ForeignFilmFan, are currently shaking their heads in disgust at my ignorance, but there it is. Neither of them can play Three Blind Mice on the xylophone – we each have our different areas of expertise in this life.)

Overall, then, a good read if not a great one. And, as I suspected, it turns out I hadn’t read it before – I just knew it from the various adaptations, none of which have stuck very closely to the plot of the book. I’m now keen to re-watch the ancient Hitchcock version to see how it compares – memory tells me I enjoyed it considerably more…

Book 29 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Film of the Book: The War of the Worlds

Two versions…

Directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry (1953)
Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise (2005)

From the book review:

London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review of the book, I mentioned that, as a story, I might only have rated it as three or four stars on the grounds that it’s full of description rather than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But it earns its place as a five-star classic because of the light it sheds on aspects of Wells’ society and the British psyche of the time. Specifically, it gives a commentary on Britain’s relationship with its Empire, on the centuries-old fear of invasion, on questions of Darwinism and evolution and on the contemporary discussion of the relatively newly-discovered “canals” on Mars, suggesting advanced life there. All of these would be difficult to reproduce in a film, I felt, especially since both film versions promptly transplanted the story to America and brought it forward in time! But I hoped that maybe the films would have something else to offer…

Gene Barry and Ann Robinson in Haskin’s version

Haskin’s 1953 film is set in southern California and has a scientist, Dr Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), as hero, and the time is the then present. To give the story the more human touch a film really needs, Forrester is provided with a love interest, Sylvia, played by Ann Robinson. Empire has gone as a theme, to be replaced by contemporary fears relating to the Cold War and the mass destruction of all-out global nuclear war, and this works reasonably well. There are references to the battle between traditional religious and evolutionary theories and the film gets a little lost in deciding whether Martians, being more advanced, are closer to their Maker, or – and it really glosses over this – are enemies of man’s God as much as man. Let’s just say that the film suggests God plays a significant role in their annihilation. I found it a little messy, but probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t been comparing to the book.

Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning in Spielberg’s version

Spielberg’s 2005 version is also set in its present and the location is in and around New York and Boston. Tom Cruise plays a crane operator who just happens to get caught up in events. Spielberg’s humanising involves the rather clichéd story of an absent father suddenly thrust into peril with his two children, giving them all a chance to learn to understand and respect each other better. It’s a bit saccharin, but then it is Spielberg. Spielberg’s updating of the Empire aspect is to throw in a couple of fairly blatant references to 9/11 – “Is it terrorists, Dad?”, planes falling from the sky and tall buildings being destroyed. But there’s no feeling of depth to these references and I actually felt they were in rather poor taste, to be honest. If there’s anything in the film about evolution, I missed it.

Haskin’s Martian – honestly it looks scarier in the film…

Haskin’s aliens are from Mars. It surprised me that this would still have been considered a possibility in 1953 but wikipedia tells me people were still discussing the potential existence of Martians as late as the 1960s. Spielberg gets round the problem by never saying where the aliens come from. By 2005, he’d have had no other option obviously, but it does mean all the stuff about the red weed choking the earth loses its resonance a little. (Mind you, Haskin ignores the red weed completely – special effects budget overspent maybe?) Neither alien looks much like the one in the book, but since it’s basically described as a kind of round, brown blob, I can quite see why the directors both went for something a bit more exciting!

Spielberg’s alien…

Which brings me to the one thing the films both have that the book doesn’t – special effects. I started with Haskin’s version and thought that some of the effects seem a little clunky now, but that others are still great. Apparently it won an Oscar for them and I certainly feel it was well deserved. The destruction of Los Angeles is particularly impressive and the heat ray is suitably terrifying even if it looks not unlike a big flame thrower. The war machines aren’t really like the ones in the book but they’re very good nevertheless. I was glad I’d watched it first though, because not surprisingly Spielberg’s effects are vastly superior. The destruction of New York is brilliant, and the alien machines look just as I imagined them from the book. Plus Spielberg covers the landscape with the creeping red weed which adds to the feeling of horror.

Haskin’s war machine

Both Gene Barry and Tom Cruise turn in fine performances – Barry more cerebral as a scientist, and Tom doing his action man thing, which works for me. Women and girls in both versions are there very much to scream and be saved by brawny men, I fear. But if I’m ever attacked by a Martian, frankly I’ll scream as loud as I can and hope that Tom comes running to my aid (or Gene, I suppose, if Tom’s busy – a girl can’t afford to be choosy in an emergency), so I forgive them. Both films stick fairly closely to the book in terms of the ending, which was a relief but also means they end somewhat less dramatically than films of this type usually do.

Spielberg’s war machine

All-in-all, I enjoyed both films very much for different reasons and would be hard put to recommend one over another. Spielberg for the effects (and Tom), but Haskin for greater depth. For entertainment value, both deserve…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

* * * * * * *

In the end, though, the final decision is easy.
For the ideas, the depth and the commentary on society’s contemporary concerns…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

Gratuitous and irrelevant Tom pic. Because why not?

 

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The Martians are coming!!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

London, at the tail-end of the nineteenth century, is the largest city on Earth, the centre of the world’s greatest empire; indeed, the centre of the world. As its population grows, its tentacles are spreading out to incorporate the various towns and villages around it into suburbs for the middle classes. A vast swarm of humanity, scurrying busily to and fro, like ants around an ant-heap. A tempting eat-all-you-want buffet for hungry aliens…

The story of The War of the Worlds is so well known that it requires very little in the way of blurb. Martians invade and use their vastly superior technology to destroy everything and everyone in their path. The only question is – will they ultimately win, or will they be defeated? On the remote chance that anyone doesn’t know the answer, I won’t say.

The book is far more interesting for what it says about Wells’ world than for the story itself. The unnamed narrator is on the spot when the first Martian spacecraft lands. He sees the creatures emerge and watches as they fiddle about with equipment. Then he’s as surprised and shocked as everyone else when it turns out they’re not here with peaceful intentions and have no desire to communicate with humans. Instead, they set off on a course of massive destruction. The British Army – the greatest army in the world, the army that has defeated and massacred untold thousands of people in its imperial triumphs around the world – is crushed, its best weapons as ineffective against the Martians’ as a native spear against a machine gun. As the narrator wanders the countryside trying to find his wife from whom he’s become separated, he describes the horror of this invasion – death and destruction only the beginning of the Martians’ terrible plan for the inhabitants of earth…

From the 2005 movie

Britain’s psychological relationship with its empire never ceases to fascinate me. When Wells was writing this, the Empire was at its height, seemingly invincible. But already there were signs of cracks appearing – uprisings, demands for self-rule. Plus there was the question of its moral justification, beginning to be debated. Were we bringing civilisation to the barbarian, or exploiting him? Could we even be sure he was a barbarian? Was victory in war still glorious when one side had weapons the other side had never even dreamt of?

Wells turns the whole question on its head by doing the unthinkable – he makes London the centre of the invasion rather than the home of the invaders. He brings onto our village greens, our city streets, our familiar landmarks, the kind of destruction Britain itself had been perpetrating around the world. Invasion! Perhaps Britain’s biggest fear and biggest boast. This tiny island nation with its massive navy, supreme in its confidence that it was able to defend itself against all comers. No invader had set foot on British soil in almost a thousand years. Our naval supremacy was our protection and our pride. But the Martians don’t come across the sea… they come from above. Was it coincidence that Wells was writing at the time that man was about to successfully take to the skies, creating a new threat that would lead eventually to the massive destruction rained down on us in the middle of the twentieth century?

Schiaparelli’s Map of Mars

To us, the idea of invasion from space is almost laughable. We know there’s no life on Mars, or if there is it’s not of the kind that builds spacecraft; and distance alone makes the likelihood of invasion from other solar systems seem negligible. But to the late Victorians, the idea of life on Mars was real. Schiaparelli had seen the ‘canals’ and some scientists believed they were a sign of a technologically advanced species, trying to harness what little water remained on a dying planet. What more likely than that a species who could do that could build spacecraft? And that, seeing the lush blue and green of planet Earth, they would want to colonise it, exploit it, as we exploited other nations?

The whole idea of evolution, Darwinism, was also at the forefront of the late Victorian consciousness. Suddenly it isn’t quite so clear that humanity is the ultimate species, born to dominate all others. Maybe, just maybe, there are other species out there that have evolved further, or faster. And who’s to say they’ll necessarily be peaceful? Evolution is a recurring theme in Wells’ books – he’d already addressed it extensively in both The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. In this one, he makes the double suggestion that there may be more evolved species out there in space, and also that ultimately man may not be the most resilient form of life here on earth. Scary stuff for a society that had been so sure of its mastery of all it surveyed!

HG Wells

As a story, I might only rate this one as 3 or 4 stars. It tends to be more description than action and the ending is somewhat anti-climactic for modern tastes. But for what it says about the British psyche of its time it fully deserves its place as a classic and the maximum 5. And I haven’t even talked about how influential it’s been on science fiction in books and films over the last century.

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition which includes an interesting and informative foreword and notes by Darryl Jones, who is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin. He goes into much more depth on the themes I’ve mentioned and more, and puts the book into its historical and literary context. I highly recommend these OWC editions – I find the forewords, without being overly long, pack in a lot of information and add a huge amount to my appreciation of the books.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

Amazon UK Link
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Film of the Book: The Lodger

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1927)

From the book review of The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes:

London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

This is a silent movie, Hitchcock’s third as director but first real success, and the film that set him on the path of psychological suspense movies. It shows all the signs of his later interest in twisted psychologies, innovative techniques – and blondes. And in taking the basic premise of someone else’s story and then changing it almost out of all recognition…

In the book, the victims are drunken women who, to some extent in the mores of the time, bring their misfortunes on themselves. Hitchcock immediately changes this to beautiful blondes, and makes Daisy Bunting, the quiet, respectable daughter in the book, into a glamorous blonde mannequin (a model for clothes). This allows him to do a bit of innocent titillation by taking us backstage at her girly show and letting us glimpse lots of young beauties in states of semi-undress. It also elevates Daisy to centre stage from the rather small role she plays in the book by making her a potential victim of the Avenger.

The Buntings in the film are a happy little family with no mention of money worries, taking away in one stroke much of the reason for Mrs Bunting’s moral dilemma as to whether she should report her suspicions of her new lodger to the police. Joe the policeman is still in love with Daisy and, at first, she with him. Joe is unfortunately rather ham, and looks considerably more sinister and crazed than the lodger – I’d have had him arrested just on the grounds that he looks as if he ought to be a murderer!

Malcolm Keen as the policeman Joe Chandler – I’m still convinced he’s probably a murderer…

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth the lodger, though, looks beautiful and sinister and tortured. I fell in love with him within about a minute and a half, so could quite understand when Daisy found him irresistibly attractive too. Poor Joe! I bet he preferred the book. As the film goes on, it diverges further and further from the book so that by the time it ends, it really has very little to do with the original in terms of plot.

Ivor Novello as Mr Sleuth… or is he The Avenger?

As so often with Hitchcock, though, the movie is still superb in its own right. I’m no film expert as you know, but some of his techniques feel very modern for the time: the use of flashing words to introduce the concept of the blonde victims and the girly shows; the way he shows the latest news being spread via newspapers (in scenes that reminded me somewhat of the later Citizen Kane) and radio – an interesting update from the book which, 14 years earlier, doesn’t mention radio at all; and a brilliant and completely Hitchcockian (is that a word?) moment when we see the Buntings listen to their lodger pace back and forth in his room above theirs – and then Hitchcock lets us see him pacing from below, filmed through a glass floor. The scene cards (yeah, I don’t know the technical term for those…) look more modern than is usual in silent films too – they are in colour for a start, often flash, and have a kind of jazz age style about them somehow.

Although Hitchcock changes the plot and loses some of the psychological depth as a result, he does a brilliant job with the creepiness and suspense, and again it’s not at all clear whether the lodger is the Avenger until late on. Peril a-plenty stalks our poor Daisy, while Joe does some seriously jealous tooth-gnashing. Mrs Bunting, as the worried mother and landlady, is the stand-out performance for me, though I was impressed by most of the cast, especially the women. Ivor Novello’s performance is variable – sometimes he feels a little ham too, like poor Joe, but at other times he’s so good at being a tortured soul that it’s easy to understand why the women especially so badly want him to be innocent.

Marie Ault as Mrs Bunting with her lodger…

The film was restored by the British Film Institute in 2012 and given a new score by Nitin Sawhney. The restoration is great – the film is pure pleasure to watch, and I wouldn’t often say that about a film of this age. I found the score less successful overall. Sometimes it adds greatly to the atmosphere of the film, but at others it sounds rather incongruous – too modern and not always quite in synch with the action. Halfway through, the orchestral music gives way to a sung love song which, while fine on its own account, simply seems out of place.

Lucky June Tripp as Daisy Bunting. He can’t be a murderer! Can he??

Nearly a century on, I still found the film remarkably watchable, enjoyable and effectively scary, and I heartily recommend it even to people who, like me, normally avoid silent films. (There’s a very good quality copy on youtube, though perhaps illegally – I don’t know. Here’s the link, the decision is yours.) The trailer below gives a good idea of the style of the film and a snippet of the new score…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Although I enjoyed the film hugely, the changes to the plot means it doesn’t quite have the psychological depth of the book, so if I reluctantly have to choose, then…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes

A deadly dilemma…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Mr and Mrs Bunting are becoming desperate. Having left domestic service to run their own lodging house, they’ve had a run of bad luck and are now down to their last few shillings with no way to earn more unless they can find a lodger for their empty rooms. So when a gentleman turns up at their door offering to pay a month’s rent in advance, they are so relieved they overlook the odd facts that Mr Sleuth has no luggage and asks them not to take up references. He seems a kindly, quiet gentleman, if a little eccentric, and the Buntings are happy to meet his occasionally odd requests. Meantime, London is agog over a series of horrific murders, all of drunken women. The murderer leaves his calling card on the bodies – a triangular slip of paper pinned to their clothes with the words “The Avenger” written on it…

Well, what a little gem this one turned out to be! Written in 1913, it’s clearly inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders but with enough changes to make it an original story in its own right. It’s the perspective that makes it so unique – the Buntings are just an ordinary respectable little family struggling to keep their heads above water, who suddenly find themselves wondering if their lodger could possibly be living a double life as The Avenger. Lowndes does a brilliant job of keeping that question open right up to the end – I honestly couldn’t decide. Like the Buntings, I felt that though his behaviour was deeply suspicious, it was still possible that he was simply what he seemed – an eccentric but harmless loner. With the constant hysteria being whipped up by the newspapers, were the Buntings (and I) reading things into his perfectly innocent actions? Of course, I won’t tell you the answer to that!

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

The book isn’t simply a question of whether Mr Sleuth is The Avenger or not, though. What Lowndes does so well is show the dilemma in which Mrs Bunting in particular finds herself. It’s not long before she begins to suspect her lodger – his strange habit of taking occasional nocturnal walks, his reading aloud from the Bible when he’s in his room alone, always the passages that are less than complimentary about women, the exceptionally weird and suspicious fact that he’s a teetotal vegetarian (I’ve always been dubious myself about people who don’t like bacon sandwiches…), the mysterious bag that he keeps carefully locked away from prying eyes. And then there are the “experiments” he conducts on the gas stove in his room, usually when he’s just come back from one of his little walks…

….Mrs Bunting returned to the kitchen. Again she lighted the stove; but she felt unnerved, afraid of she knew not what. As she was cooking the cheese, she tried to concentrate her mind on what she was doing, and on the whole she succeeded. But another part of her mind seemed to be working independently, asking her insistent questions.
….The place seemed to her alive with alien presences, and once she caught herself listening – which was absurd, for, of course, she could not hope to hear what Mr Sleuth was doing two, if not three, flights upstairs. She wondered in what the lodger’s experiments consisted. It was odd that she had never been able to discover what it was he really did with that big gas-stove. All she knew was that he used a very high degree of heat.

But, on the other hand, there’s nothing definite to say he’s the killer, and Mrs Bunting rather likes him, and feels sorry for him since he seems so vulnerable somehow. And, just as importantly, the Buntings rely totally on the rent he pays. Lowndes starts the book with a description of the extreme worry and stress the Buntings have been under over money, which makes their reluctance to report their suspicions so much more understandable. For what if they go to the police, and it turns out he’s innocent? He’ll leave, of course, and what will they do then? But what if he’s guilty and they do nothing – does that make them guilty too? It really is brilliantly done – great characterisation and totally credible psychologically.

Marie Belloc Lowndes

The other aspect Lowndes looks at is the role of the newspapers in whipping up a panic (perhaps not undeservedly in this instance), printing lurid details of the horrific murders, and giving out little bits of dodgy information as if they are facts. The Buntings have a young friend, Joe, who’s on the police force, so they get access to more of the truth, though the police are thoroughly baffled. As the murders mount up, so does the tension, and we see both of the Buntings becoming more and more obsessed with reading every detail of the case, desperately hoping for something that will prove their suspicions wrong.

The story is dark and sinisterly creepy but the gore is all left to the imagination, and the tone is lightened in places by a nice little romance between Joe and Mr Bunting’s daughter, Daisy. It’s very well written and Lowndes, like so many writers of that era, has made great use of the notorious London fogs to provide cover for dark and dastardly deeds. One where I really did spend the entire time wondering what I would have done, and fearing for the poor Buntings – no wonder Hitchcock used this as the basis for his first big success back in the silent movie era. But will the movie live up to the book? I’ll find out soon…

Amazon UK Link
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Film of the Book: The Lady Vanishes (The Wheel Spins)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1938)

From the book review of The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White:

A young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

It surprised me on re-watching the film just how different it is from the book on which it’s based. The basic premise remains the same, that Miss Froy disappears during the train journey and Iris sets out to find her, but the tone of the film is much lighter and Hitchcock has changed the emphasis in several places.

Firstly, Iris is not particularly likeable in the book. She starts out as one of a rude, noisy crowd in the hotel, alienating the other guests and being insufferably superior to all and sundry. She is travelling alone on the train because she has had a falling out with one of her friends who is annoyed because her husband was flirting with Iris. The Iris in the film is completely different. She’s still extrovert, but charmingly so, and clearly loved by her friends. She’s travelling home alone to marry a man her father has more or less chosen for her, out of a sense of duty.

Iris (Margaret Lockwood, centre) saying goodbye to her friends…

Hitchcock introduces the two other major characters in the hotel before the journey begins. Max the engineer from the book has morphed into Gilbert the musician and his first meeting with Iris is a typical rom-com instant antagonism scene, signalling the romance that will inevitably follow. They are more equal in the film, sparring partners at first, and it’s not long before their mutual attraction becomes obvious. Much more fun than the patronising male attitude Iris had to tolerate in the book.

Gilbert the musician (Michael Redgrave) with some comedy foreigners…

Miss Froy appears in the hotel in order to develop the motive for her disappearance – an entirely different motive than in the book. The change means that Miss Froy, like Iris, is an active participant in her own story rather than the passive and unwitting victim of the book. I’m intrigued that Hitchcock’s version of the female characters feels considerably more modern than the portrayal of them in the book. It feels as if there’s been a generational shift somehow, which is rather odd since there’s actually only a two year gap between them. But it does mean that White’s insightful picture of the subordination of women – the treatment of them as inferior, hysterical, and to be controlled by the men around them – is largely lost. Perhaps White’s portrayal is more English, and Hitchcock had one eye on the less socially restricted American audience?

Iris, Gilbert and Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty)

In general, though, White’s story harks back to the past – the England of the dying days of Empire – while Hitchcock’s refers to the future, his changed motive and thriller ending clearly influenced by the coming war. The result is that, while White was being somewhat snarky about the self-proclaimed superiority of the English abroad, Hitchcock reverses this to show that, in a tight spot, the English will ultimately band together when any one of them is threatened, and show the old bulldog spirit in the face of danger. The one English character who doesn’t go along with this is seen as a coward and a weakling who gets his just desserts. In other words, White’s English characters think they’re superior to Johnny Foreigner, whereas Hitchcock’s actually are. I guess bolstering the national ego on the eve of war is forgiveable. (Fellow Scots, I thought about saying British all through this paragraph, but both film and book feel distinctly English rather than British to me.)

Banding together in the face of adversity…

The other major change that Hitchcock makes is to do away with the sections of the book that show Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved child – scenes which give the book an unexpected emotional depth. Instead, Hitchcock inserts some humorous scenes involving two additional characters – the delightful cricket fanatics and archetypal bluff Englishmen, Charters and Caldicott. (Apparently this pairing was so successful that the characters later appeared in other films and even got their own TV series, though by that time they were being played by different actors.)

Caldicott (Naunton Wayne) and Charters (Basil Radford) listen avidly to Miss Froy’s reminiscences…

The film also has a scene in the luggage compartment involving some magician’s props that is more or less slapstick. These changes alter the tone entirely, making the film much more humorous than the novel. And hugely enjoyable!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So it’s hard to pick a winner this time, since apart from the basic premise, they’re pretty much chalk and cheese. Great chalk and great cheese, though: the book darker, with a wicked edge to the occasional humour; the film frothier, funnier, as much comedy romance as thriller, and with a distinctly patriotic edge. I thoroughly enjoyed both, though for different reasons.

But if I really have to choose… after much swithering…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

THE FILM!

* * * * *

Film of the Book: Slaughterhouse-Five

Directed by George Roy Hill (1972)

slaughterhouse-five-poster

From the book review:

The narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim. Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

The film begins by showing us Billy typing a letter to a newspaper, explaining that he is ‘unstuck in time’, travelling backwards and forwards through his own life. This is quite an effective short-cut, though unlike in the book it’s not really expanded on later to show why Billy had decided to make his story public. In the book, we are told Billy’s story by a narrator who makes us aware that it’s a fable, a form he is using because he feels he wants to say something profound about the bombing of Dresden. This isn’t mentioned in the film, so that the viewer is put in the position of having to assume that Billy’s life is “real”, which in turn means that the events perhaps take precedence over the meaning – the reverse of what happens in the book.

Then the film starts to move through Billy’s life, concentrating on his experiences in WW2 as a prisoner of war first in the camps and then later in Dresden before and after the bombing of the city. Although it shifts in time, the film feels as if it takes a more linear approach to Billy’s life – more or less starting at the beginning and ending at the end, but with detours along the way. The book seems more jumbled, more fragmented, and therefore gives, I feel, a clearer picture of Billy’s disorientation.

slaughterhouse-five-arriving-in-dresden

When I look at the notes I took while watching, it turns out it’s primarily a list of things the film misses out. This is a pity, since I’d say it’s a brave and partially successful attempt to bring a complex and difficult book to the screen. Michael Sacks as Billy gives a good performance though I felt that somehow he made film Billy fit his life better than the Billy in the book did. He doesn’t seem as scared in his early army career, nor as disconnected in the later scenes, and he’s played a little more for laughs – and is perhaps more likeable, in fact. For example, in the book we know he doesn’t ever really love his wife – the major reason for him marrying her is that she happens to be the daughter of his boss. I didn’t feel that came across much in the film – she is made rather annoying, but we don’t get inside Billy’s head to know how he feels about her. I’m not normally a fan of having a narrator doing a voiceover in a film, but with a book that is so concerned with what’s happening inside the main character’s head, I began to feel it would have helped to fill some of the gaps.

While I don’t think the book is really science fiction, nonetheless Billy’s visits to the planet Tralfamadore are central, and I was surprised at how underplayed this aspect is in the film. For a start, Hill has wimped out of showing the odd-looking Tralfamadorians, turning them into an invisible species instead. And, rather annoyingly and completely in line with ’70s cinema (my unfavourite decade of film), Billy turns up on the planet in his respectable night wear, whereas the girl turns up nicely naked and with plenty of pert nipple action, so that the lascivious males in the audience have something to drool over while the lascivious females have to make do with their imaginations, unless they happen to have a dressing gown fetish. And then they wonder why we became feminists…

slaughterhouse-five-arriving-on-tralfamadore

The science fiction author from the book doesn’t appear either, though I didn’t feel this was a great loss since he seemed a bit extraneous anyway. Much more oddly, the phrase “So it goes” is entirely missing from the film. Anyone who has read the book will know that it’s used as a chorus every time a death occurs, as a sort of semaphore to mark both the inevitability and futility of war. I can see that, without a voiceover, it would have been quite difficult to shoehorn this in, but without it, I felt the point was left rather unclear. In fact, the film seems to send another message, focussing on a small (and rather trite) part of the Tralfamadorian philosophy, that life is made up of moments and we should concentrate on the good ones. Very little is made of the, to me, deeper part of their philosophy – the part that draws Billy into this particular delusion – that if one can travel backwards in one’s life, one can in a sense keep people alive by visiting them in the past, thus reducing the finality of death. Part of this message comes from another scene that’s also missing – where Billy sees old war movies running in reverse, so that it appears that the dead come back to life, and that the Germans, rather than shooting planes down, are in fact lifting them back into the sky. The omission of this central and moving scene is a strange decision indeed.

slaughterhouse-five-dresden-after-bombing

Unfortunately the film left me entirely unmoved in the end. While it’s quite entertaining in parts, and has its shocking moments, overall it lacks the depth and power of the book. It’s too linear, we don’t get a real idea of what’s going on in Billy’s mind, and I felt that some of the major points in the book were either omitted entirely or weren’t sufficiently explored. The rather odd “happy ending” that is tacked on therefore came as less of a surprise than it should have done.

★ ★ ★

So an easy decision this time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

slaughterhouse-five

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

Film of the Book: Moby Dick

Directed by John Huston (1956)

moby-dick-poster-2

From the book review:

Our narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

Having slated the book of Moby-Dick, it took me some time to work up the enthusiasm to watch the film despite knowing that it had a pretty good reputation. After all, lots of people unaccountably seem to think the book’s good too! I was cheered by a couple of things – the running time is only 1 hour 50 minutes, so clearly a lot of the extraneous digressions must have been cut – hurrah! And Huston wrote the screenplay along with Ray Bradbury who, unlike Melville, knew a thing or two about how to tell a good story.

The film starts off much like the book, with our narrator Ishmael arriving in the town of New Bedford to join a whaling ship. There he meets Queequeg the cannibal, a South Sea Islander. Imagine my surprise on discovering that this “dark-complexioned” man is played by a white actor! I couldn’t decide whether it would have been better or worse if they’d at least tried to make him look black-ish. But scuttling quickly away from that thorny issue towards another, I couldn’t help but note that the film had also omitted the YA instalove between Ishmael and Queequeg that led to (implied… or possibly just inferred) gay sex romps in the book – I can’t begin to express how happy I was at that decision! Melville’s obsession with hands squeezing blubber while fantasizing about squeezing other things has left me with emotional scars…

Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg
Friedrich von Ledebur as the quaintly coloured Queequeg

So it was obvious from an early stage that there were going to be significant differences between book and film. Huston did indeed strip out pretty much all of the digressions and a good deal of the philosophising, though I felt he and Bradbury had managed to condense the main points so that the film doesn’t lose too much of the depth. We still see Ahab’s obsession with getting his revenge, and Bradbury (I assume) creates some fairly sharply focused dialogue between Ahab and Starbuck that I felt actually made the whole religion/blasphemy point much clearer than Melville managed in the book. Plus, to my joy, Ahab mostly speaks in standard English rather than the cod-Shakespearian horrors employed by Melville. There’s still a bit of ye-ing rather than you-ing, but nothing too out of place for its 19th century context. The major difference is that the movie keeps the action going – Ahab appears within the first few minutes and it’s not long before the Pequod sails – unlike in the book, where I had nearly died of boredom before we even saw the ship. Then, boom! Ahab persuades the crew to take an oath to kill the Great White Whale, and the hunt is on!

Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck
Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab and Leo Genn as Starbuck

On the whole, the acting is good, rather than excellent, but the action and drama made up for any weaknesses in performance. Gregory Peck is not at all my idea of Ahab, but once I got used to him I thought he does a fine job, at points when he does his raging speeches reminding me of Orson Welles. Which is a coincidence since Welles himself appears in a great, if oddly superfluous, cameo as the preacher giving a sermon before the voyage, thundering away about Jonah and the whale.

Orson Welles thundering...
Orson Welles thundering…

Despite his unlikeliness for the role, Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg stands out, as does Harry Andrews as Stubb. But really the success of the film is all down to Huston’s direction in the end. Not just the big action scenes, but little touches like the women standing in silence as the ship sets sail – where did he find those amazing faces? (In a small town in Ireland apparently.) With no words at all, he manages to create a real sense of the dangers of the voyage just from the worn and fatalistic expressions of these women watching their men sail out, perhaps never to return.

The special effects are great for the time, and the way Huston films it gives a real sense of the power of the sea and the constant peril to the sailors leaping about the dizzyingly high rigging of the fragile-looking ship. The scenes with the whales work brilliantly, though they can get a little gory for modern tastes (mine, at least), and when Moby Dick finally appears (after only an hour and a half, unlike in the book when it took roughly six weeks 😉 ) he is terrifying! The storm is fantastic, with Ahab ordering his men up the rigging in defiance of howling wind and lashing rain; and the birds hovering over the hunting scenes create a real atmosphere of wild menace – man against nature. And I loved the St Elmo’s Fire scene (or, as Melville would incomprehensibly put it, the corpusants scene).

moby-dick-st-elmos-fire-2

I loved the way much of the film is in subdued tones of blue and grey and brown, almost as if it’s in black and white, giving extra dramatic effect to sudden flashes of bright colour – the blood of the whales, or the green of the St Elmo’s Fire. I’m going to admit that during the climactic finale, as Ahab and the whale fought their final battle to the death, the tears were pouring down my face as I frantically cheered Moby on!

In short, this is the story I hoped for when I read the book! No lack of narrative drive here! No long hours of tedium while Melville shows off his knowledge of whales, religion, Shakespeare and anything else he can think of. Extract the gem of the story from the dross, get a great scriptwriter to polish it, hire some decent actors, work a few miracles with effects, and hey presto! A magnificent film is born!

Thar she blows!
Thar she blows!

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So without the slightest hesitation I say: chuck out the book and watch the film instead!
I hereby declare…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

moby-dick-dvd

THE FILM!

* * * * *

The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White

…aka The Lady Vanishes

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-wheel-spinsA young Englishwoman, Iris Carr, is travelling home alone from an unspecified European country. Suffering from sunstroke, she nearly misses her train but a helpful porter shoves her into a carriage at the last moment. The people in the carriage clearly resent her presence – all except one, that is. Miss Froy, another Englishwoman, takes Iris under her wing and carries her off to have tea in the dining carriage. When they return, Iris sleeps for a while. When she awakes, Miss Froy has gone, and the other passengers deny all knowledge of there having ever been another Englishwoman in the carriage…

This is the book that has been made into more than one version of a film under the title of The Lady Vanishes. The basic plot is very similar – Iris is struggling to get anyone to believe her story, partly because she has made herself unpopular with her fellow travellers, and partly because each of those travellers have their own reasons for not wanting to get involved in anything that might delay the journey. But Iris is determined to find out what has happened to Miss Froy, as much to prove herself right as out of genuine concern for the other woman.

We first meet Iris when she and a group of her friends are staying at a hotel in the mountains. They are modern and loud, with the arrogance of youth, and are entirely unaware and uncaring that they are annoying the other guests. When Iris has an argument with one of her crowd, she decides not to travel home with them, but to wait a day or two and go on her own. But as soon as they leave, she begins to realise how lonely and isolated she feels, especially since she doesn’t speak a word of the local language. White is excellent at showing the superior attitude of the English abroad at this period – the book was published in 1936. When the locals don’t understand her, Iris does that typically British thing of speaking louder, as if they could all just understand English if only they would try a bit harder. White also shows how Iris and her gang use their wealth to buy extra attention, and Iris’ assumption that money and looks will get her whatever she wants. All this makes the book interesting reading, even if it doesn’t make Iris a terribly likeable character.

The Hitchcock version - The Lady Vanishes
The Hitchcock version – The Lady Vanishes

Once the mystery begins, White adds an extra dimension to Iris’ concern for Miss Froy by making her begin to doubt her own sanity. There are shades here of the way women were treated as ‘hysterical’ – not really to be depended upon, creatures of emotion rather than intellect. There’s an ever-present threat that the men, baddies and goodies both, may at any time take control of Iris’ life, deciding over her head what’s best for her, and that the other passengers would accept this as normal. With no friends and no language skills, Iris finds herself very alone for almost the first time in her life, and growing increasingly afraid. Oddly, it reminded me a little of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – the idea that a woman could so easily be declared unstable or even ‘mad’, and find herself treated so dismissively that she might even begin to doubt herself.

Ethel Lina White
Ethel Lina White

There’s also one of those romances of the kind that would make me snort with outrage if it happened in a contemporary book, but which works fine in a novel of this period. You know the kind of thing – man meets ‘girl’ and falls instantly in love even though he thinks she’s a hysteric and quite possibly insane, because she’s very pretty, after all; and she loves him right back even though he treats her like a slightly retarded three-year-old, or maybe like a favourite puppy, because he’s awfully handsome and quite witty. Admittedly the rest of the men are all so much worse that I found myself quite liking him too…

White’s writing is excellent and, although the motive for the plot is a bit weak, the way she handles the story builds up some great tension. She’s insightful and slightly wicked about the English abroad and about attitudes to women, both of which add touches of humour to lift the tone. And she rather unusually includes sections about Miss Froy’s elderly parents happily anticipating the return of their beloved only child, which gives the thing more emotional depth than I’d have expected in a thriller of this era. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and am looking forward to seeking out more of White’s work, and to re-watching the Hitchcock version of the movie.

Book 4 of 90
Book 4 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: The Kite Runner

Directed by Marc Forster (2007)

the-kite-runner-poster

From the book review:

Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

For the most part, the film is a faithful rendering of the book with all the most important plot points (bar one, which I’ll come to later) and lines of dialogue included. The book is written in English, but the film varies the language depending on location, so that much of it is subtitled. Personally, I’m not keen on watching subtitled foreign language films, but I do think the decision makes sense in this film – it would have felt very false if the boys were speaking English in the Kabul sections of the film.

The two young child actors who play Amir and Hassan are very good, both managing to give their performances a feeling of naturalness. In fact, the casting in general is fine – no performance stood out for me as particularly great, but equally none were bad, so it has the feeling of a true ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle.

the-kite-runner-amir-and-hassan
Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada as Hassan and Zekeria Ebrahimi as young Amir

When watching a film soon after reading the book, I find it can be quite hard to know how well the story is being told. In this case, I felt that I may well not have got the nuances had I not read the book. The story has two main strands – Amir’s guilt over what he sees as his betrayal of Hassan, and the parallel being drawn between the breakdown of their friendship and the horror of what is happening to Afghanistan. Amir’s desire for redemption is a personalisation of the question of whether Afghanistan can ever be put back together again with its own divisions healed. In the film, I wasn’t convinced that Amir’s guilt came over terribly well, meaning that he actually came over as rather unlikeable and unsympathetic. (Admittedly, I didn’t sympathise with him in the book as much as I felt I was expected to either.) But I didn’t think the parallels between the personal and political came over clearly in the film at all, leaving it as simply a story of Amir’s personal journey rather than a symbol of the nation’s struggle.

Homayoun Ershadi as Baba
Homayoun Ershadi as Baba

Part of my problem with it is that, in an effort to condense it to a filmable length, it becomes a series of episodes rather than the free flowing story in the book. The book is narrated by Amir, so that we are privy to his innermost thoughts and emotions – always hard to portray in movie form, of course, and here I didn’t feel the film really captured it. As a result, I found I was distanced from the characters on screen, even Amir – watching their actions, rather than feeling their emotions. Sometimes the script tries to shoehorn in a shortcut to replace the stuff for which there hasn’t been room, and this can come over as totally false and forced. For example, adult Amir and his wife Soraya are unable to have children, which is not only a source of sorrow to them, but is important in their reaction to the child that Amir brings into their lives in the latter part of the story. In the film, this is portrayed by Soraya referring to Amir’s newly published book as “your baby” with heavy significance, rolling her sad eyes portentously and receiving a consoling hug from Amir. Hmm! This was the point where I first giggled inappropriately…

Khalid Abdalla as adult Amir and Atossa Leoni as Soraya
Khalid Abdalla as adult Amir and Atossa Leoni as Soraya

…but that wasn’t nearly as bad as my second bout of unseemly laughter, which I do feel really bad about, since the subject matter certainly isn’t amusing. When Amir has returned to Kabul as an adult, he is trying to contact a man who might be able to help him find Sohrab, the boy he’s looking for. He attends a football match, and at half-time the officials bring on a man and a woman who have been found guilty of adultery. In a scene of horrific brutality, the woman is then stoned. In the book, it’s a particularly powerful moment, showing the utter inhumanity of life under the Taliban. In the film… well, unfortunately, the profusion of false beards suddenly made me think of The Life of Brian… look! Here’s a screenshot… is it just me?

the-kite-runner-crowd

I fear it probably is… but whether or not, it totally destroyed the drama for me as all I could hear in my head was Brian’s mother saying “He’s a very naughty boy!” And I must say, the film’s superficial portrayal of the horrors of the Taliban regime felt about as authentic as Monty Python too.

After that, the film never really recovered for me, I’m afraid. So when, for reasons entirely unexplained, the director chose to turn the major climax into a kind of action thriller scene and followed it up by totally omitting the bit that explains the final trauma which drives young Sohrab into muteness, I wasn’t as bothered as I otherwise might have been, since I’d been thrown completely out of the story by then anyway.

the-kite-runner-kite-flying

I know this sounds as if I hated the film, and I really didn’t. As I said, it’s mostly a faithful reproduction of the book and is worth watching. But, for me, it didn’t achieve either the depth or the feeling of the original, and in the end felt workmanlike rather than wonderful.

★ ★ ★

So the choice is easy this time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

the kite runner2

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Brutal and humane…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

slaughterhouse-fiveThe narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.

Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I’ve always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Billy’s time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.

The main story is of Billy’s time as a POW in Germany, when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it’s hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of ‘So it goes’ every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.

Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy’s mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can’t handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation… But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.

Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

A story of Kabul…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the kite runner2Two young boys grow up side by side in Kabul in the 1970s. Though in some ways they are best friends, they are not equal. The narrator, Amir, is the son of a rich man, whom he calls Baba, and Hassan is the son of Baba’s servant, Ali. Both boys are motherless: Amir’s mother died in childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away not long after he was born, leaving her husband to bring Hassan up alone. Amir is being educated, Hassan is illiterate and likely to remain that way. Hassan acts as Amir’s servant as well as his friend. But, more importantly in an Afghanistan divided along lines of class and religion, Amir is a Pashtun Sunni, part of the ruling class, while Hassan is a Hazara Shi’a – a group reviled and mocked. One day, during a kite-fighting competition, something will happen that will drive these friends apart, in a foreshadowing of the wars that will soon break the country apart. Many years later, as Amir returns to Kabul from his new home in America, his mission to put right some of the things left unresolved from his childhood mirrors the question of whether this broken country can ever find resolutions to its bitter divisions.

The first half of the book, which tells of the boys’ childhood and the event that changed their lives, is beautifully written, full of emotional truth. It is written in the first person from Amir’s point of view and he is a harsh judge of his younger self. He shows himself as weak and cowardly, traitorous even, while Hassan is all that is good and loyal and brave. Amir feels his father blames him for his mother’s death, and is jealous that Baba often seems to show as much fondness for Hassan as for himself.

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

While Hassan is a little too good to be true, it feels as if this is deliberate – that Amir’s guilt over his own actions has led him into idealising his childhood friend. And the reverse of that is that Amir’s depiction of himself also has to be seen as being affected by the same guilt, so that while sometimes it’s hard to like him, it’s still easy to empathise – to remember that he was a child and to look at how both boys had the prejudices of their society instilled into them from birth. We also see how Amir is affected by the struggle to gain his father’s affection despite feeling that he could never be the kind of boy his father wants his son to be.

For me, the second half of the book didn’t completely match up to the excellent standards of the first. Amir and his father flee the wars and end up in America. There is a lengthy section about their experiences there, and perhaps I’m just a little tired of the “immigrant experience” storyline now; it seems to have been done too often over the last couple of decades, and I didn’t feel this one added much to either that subject or this story. It feels like something of a hiatus, and a little contrived – a device almost, to allow Amir to return later to Kabul, looking at it through fresh, adult eyes. And when he does go back to Kabul, to show the horrors of life under the Taliban, it begins to verge on the polemical.

     In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. “You want to know?” he sneered. “Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son’s eyes that this is the first time you’ve ever worn a pakol.” He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. “Am I close?”
     “Why are you saying these things?” I said.
     “Because you wanted to know,” he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”

Khaled Hosseini
Khaled Hosseini

This is a minor criticism though of what is, overall, a great book. I was thinking as I read the second half that it may well have affected me differently thirteen years ago when it was first published – I would have known far less about Afghanistan and almost nothing about the Taliban, and I suspect I would have found the book more shocking and gut-wrenching as a result. Now, if anything, the picture he paints seems a little muted – how easily we become conditioned to horror. Now the first half seems beautifully novelistic, but the second half feels almost journalistic, and the ending didn’t convince me nearly as much as the story of Amir and Hassan as children. I’m glad to have read it, though, and highly recommend it. I suspect it’s a book that will find its full impact again if and when we ever reach a point where this never-ending conflict is past and fading into history.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: Murder, She Said (4.50 from Paddington)

Directed by George Pollock (1961)

murder-she-said-2

From the book review of 4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie:

When Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

murder-she-said-gallery

As soon as the delightful title music of Ron Goodwin starts up, it’s clear this is going to be a fun romping version of Agatha Christie’s story. Apparently Christie disliked these Margaret Rutherford adaptations, and I can see why. They are not what you would call faithful to the originals and Miss Marple is not the sedentary observer of human nature we all know and love. But for once I don’t care – the films are brilliant and just as entertaining as the books, if in a different way. Murder, She Said was the first of the four Miss Marple movies in which Rutherford starred and, despite some major changes, actually sticks fairly closely to the basic plot of the book. As the series went on the divergences from the books grew ever wider and the final movie, Murder Ahoy!, wasn’t even based on any of the books at all.

First of all, poor Elspeth McGillicuddy has been cut completely, as has housekeeper and assistant sleuth, Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Now it’s Miss Marple herself who sees the murder through the train windows. When the police fail to find a body, Inspector Craddock (Charles Tingwell) tries to persuade Miss Marple that she must have seen a couple… ahem… honeymooning, as he so delicately puts it. On Miss Marple pointing out in no uncertain terms that, spinster she may be, but she can still tell the difference between a bit of “honeymooning” and strangulation, Inspector Craddock subtly suggests that she must be dotty.

murder-she-said-inspector-craddock

So Miss Marple, after consulting her close friend Mr Stringer (who is played by Margaret Rutherford’s real-life husband Stringer Davis), decides that they should investigate themselves. After a lovely scene of these two rather, shall we say, mature people searching the railway tracks, Miss Marple gets herself employed as the new housemaid at Ackenthorpe Hall – Rutherford Hall in the book, and changed to prevent confusion over the coincidence of the house sharing the same name as the star of the film. Why they changed Crackenthorpe to Ackenthorpe defeats me though, as does the fact that Miss Marple apparently now lives in Milchester rather than St Mary Mead…

murder-she-said-railway-tracks

While the purist in me is shaking her head disapprovingly about these wholesale changes, I do understand them. Unlike Poirot, often Miss Marple doesn’t have a huge role in the books, tending to perform her miracles somewhat in the background of the action. She doesn’t really investigate as such – she merely listens and applies her knowledge of human nature to get to the truth. In this book, Lucy Eyelesbarrow is the central character with only occasional appearances from Miss Marple herself. But if you’ve booked the wonderful Margaret Rutherford to star in your movie, you want her pretty much in every scene, or else you might find yourself lynched by an angry mob of disgruntled Rutherford fans… including me! So this version of Miss Marple carries out all the investigative work herself, helped only a little by Inspector Craddock and the ever-faithful Mr Stringer.

murder-she-said-james-robertson-justice

The cast is a nice line-up of British character actors of the period, plus a few up-and-coming stars of the future in bit parts. James Robertson Justice guest-stars as grumpy old Mr Ackenthorpe, and his exchanges with new housemaid Jane are total comic joy. Muriel Pavlow is excellent as poor put-upon Emma, Mr Ackenthorpe’s daughter. The various Ackenthorpe brothers are an unpleasant bunch, as they are in the book too, and all played by well-known faces even if the names are less familiar to me – Thorley Walters, Conrad Phillips and Gerald Cross, with Ronald Howard as brother-in-law Brian Eastley. For reasons unknown (to me), an American actor, Arthur Kennedy, plays Dr Quimper and I must say I find his American accent a bit discombobulating amongst all these Brits. A youngish Richard Briers appears in a tiny role, and who should pop up as the daily cleaner at Ackenthorpe Hall but the woman who would later in her career become the definitive Miss Marple – our very own Joan Hickson! There’s a lovely bit where she gets chased by a goat…

murder-she-said-joan-hickson

In the book, I loved the interplay between the two boys, Alexander and his friend Stodders, and the various adults. Stodders has been ruthlessly done away with in the same mass culling that took Elspeth and Lucy. But Alexander is delightfully played by Ronnie Raymond. (Wondering whatever happened to him, I checked it out and IMDb informs me he quit acting and became an undertaker! I kinda wish I hadn’t checked now…) In the film, he’s an arrogant, cheeky little so-and-so who quite frankly would benefit from a swift kick up the pants, but Jane soon gets him onside and he becomes a kind of assistant sleuth. He and Rutherford work beautifully together and provide much of the film’s humour.

murder-she-said-alexander

Just to add to the general jollity, the film throws in some light-hearted mild horror elements – people hiding behind curtains, storms and thunder, lights going out at unfortunate moments, and a gardener of the scowling sinister variety. Because of the disappearance of Mrs McGillicuddy, the ending is changed (though the solution is not), and builds up to a tense face-off between Miss Marple and the murderer. As Inspector Craddock points out, she’s a very brave lady!

murder-she-said-torch

OK, OK, I know Christie fans are probably gnashing their teeth right now, but honestly, it’s so much fun! Try to forget that the real Miss Marple is unlikely to disguise herself in dungarees! Ignore the unlikeliness of her possibly having romantic inclinations towards dear Mr Stringer! Go along with the idea of her creeping about the grounds in the middle of the night with a torch, searching for corpses! In fact, just try to put out of your mind that it’s got anything to do with the book at all and enjoy it for what it is – a great British comedy thriller starring one of the finest comedy character actresses of all time. You surely won’t regret it…

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It kinda breaks my heart to choose from these, so…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

4-50-from-paddington-2

THE BOOK!

murder-she-said-dvd

AND THE FILM!

* * * * *

This post is part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. Do pop through to find links to all the great Poirot posts from yesterday, and check back with them over the next couple of days for links to today’s Miss Marple posts, and tomorrow’s posts on anything else Agatha Christie related.

AgathaChristie

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

24-carat Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

4.50 from paddingtonWhen Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…

This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.

But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.

Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle.
“I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.”
“That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?”
“Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”

For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said
Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said

Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…

Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version
Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version

Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?

“Please, sir, can we see the body?”
“No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?”
“Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…”
“Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!”
“Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”

Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)

Miss Marple is one of the sleuths selected by Martin Edwards for his list of Ten Top Golden Age Detectives – an essential inclusion!

I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!

classics club logo 2
This is Book 1 of my Classics Club list.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Film of the Book: Enigma

Directed by Michael Apted (2001)

Enigma poster

From the book review:

It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

In my review, I described the novel as a masterclass in how to write a book, so the film had a high standard to reach. Unfortunately, this is one case where making a direct comparison worked significantly to the detriment of the film.

The first thing I noticed was how brightly shot and coloured the movie is. England looks like a green and pleasant land. Normally I’d appreciate this kind of visual treat, but the book shows a much bleaker England, where everything is cold and grey, where three years of war have taken their toll on the land and environment as much as on the people, who are tired and undernourished. The film mentions briefly the lack of normal foodstuffs, but gives no real feeling for the deprivations people were undergoing. The same applies to the cold – with coal rationing meaning that even indoors heating was barely adequate. In the film, the sun shines constantly. As a result, the atmosphere that Harris creates in the book of a country struggling to survive, desperate for the supplies sent from the US on shipping convoys, never really materialises.

Dougray Scott, Saffron Borrows and Kate Winslett as Jericho, Claire and Hester
Dougray Scott, Saffron Burrows and Kate Winslett as Jericho, Claire and Hester

While both Dougray Scott and Kate Winslett give fine performances, neither of them convinced me as the characters from the book. Scott is too old to be a man so thrown by losing his first love that he has a breakdown. One wonders why he has never been in love before, and also why he would have been naive enough to fall so heavily for Claire or believe that she had fallen for him. Winslett, one of my favourite actresses, is way too beautiful to be Hester. I had an urgent desire to tell Apted that sticking a pair of specs on a beautiful woman does not make her plain – I thought we’d got past that stereotype around about the same time as we came out of rationing.

Of course, it was important in the film that Hester was beautiful because the decision had been made, in typical Hollywood style, to have Jericho and Hester fall in love, and women, as we know, can only attract a man by being beautiful – in Hollywood. I don’t know whether that’s more insulting to men or women, in truth. But it did make me laugh that as she evolved into the love interest, Hester wore her specs less and less till eventually they disappeared altogether. Apparently it’s still true that men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses!

enigma 1

Apart from the insertion of the love story, the film sticks pretty closely to the underlying plot of the book, though in a somewhat abridged form due to time constraints. However, there are some major changes towards the end in the way the story plays out. I could understand why this had been done – the climax of the book doesn’t have the level of action we’ve come to expect from movie thrillers – and it didn’t hugely affect the overall storyline. But it did lead to some clumsiness that again took away from the authenticity of the wartime atmosphere. Trying to avoid spoilers, the idea that Jericho could suddenly decide to drive hundreds of miles with no word of where he might have got strictly rationed petrol was nearly as ridiculous as the suggestion that the police could search a car and not notice a massive great machine hidden under the folded-down roof. I didn’t mind that they changed the way the story played out, but I was irritated by the fact that they didn’t make enough effort to keep it credible.

enigma 3

The abridgement of the story also led to an awful lot of plot explanation being done by the device of characters telling each other things they would already have known. At the beginning, Jericho kindly explains to the Americans how Enigma worked – considering they had been working on building their own code-breaking machines for months, this seemed a little unnecessary. And the code-breakers too kept explaining to each other how they went about their jobs. Again, possibly for time or budget constraints, some scenes that I felt would have worked brilliantly on screen simply didn’t appear and again were quickly glossed over with a line or two of dialogue – for example, the heroic retrieval from a sinking U-boat of the original codebooks that gave the codebreakers the information they needed to break the Enigma codes.

Specless!
Specless!

I know I’ve been highly critical of the film, but the criticisms are mainly in terms of comparison to the book. Without that comparison it’s an enjoyable movie, though it doesn’t have the same levels of atmosphere, depth and authenticity that made the book so exceptional and, where changes have been made, they’ve been made clumsily. One where I think the movie would actually have worked much better for me if I’d watched it before I’d read the book, and thus had lower expectations.

★ ★ ★ ★

So it will be no surprise to learn that…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

enigma 2

THE BOOK!

* * * * *

gone fishing

Did you know?

…that the venue for the US Open at Flushing Meadows is built on the site that apparently inspired the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby?

 

See you soon!

Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

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*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

Film of the Book: 2001: A Space Odyssey

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (1968)

2001 eye gif

From the book review:

A tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

Film of the Book

This is a film I’ve tried to watch a few times in the past, and on each occasion have given up halfway through in order to prevent death from boredom. So I was intrigued to see whether reading the book would change my opinion of the film.

And, boy! Yes, it does!!

2001 monolith

What I never realised before is that both book and film were written simultaneously as a joint venture between Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. The film screenplay is credited to Kubrick and Clarke, in that order, and apparently the book was originally intended to be credited to Clarke and Kubrick, in that order, to highlight the specific influence of each man on each medium. They developed the basic idea together based on some earlier stories of Clarke’s, although the film does diverge somewhat from the book, especially around that mystical ending. The book, while still leaving much open to interpretation, tells the story much more clearly, while the film concentrates on visuals and effects to create a kind of mystical experience that, in Kubrick’s words, “hits the viewer at an inner level of consciousness, just as music does, or painting.”

OK, then. That probably works for people who instinctively “understand” music and painting, but I’m strictly a words kind of gal, which is probably why the film didn’t initially work for me. But having read the book, on this viewing I wasn’t trying to work out what it all meant, or sighing with exasperation at the lack of dialogue. Instead, I was able to watch it as intended – as an amazing visual and sound experience that, once I could get into the flow, took me on a trip as acidy as anything that came out of the ’60s.

2001 man-apes

The first section, the dawn of man, works much better in the book in terms of giving a real insight into the society of the man-apes and how the alien monolith influenced their development. In the film, it’s beautifully shot with some truly glorious imagery, climaxing with the fabulous Also sprach Zarathustra music. The man-apes themselves do unfortunately look somewhat like men in ape costumes occasionally, but I suspect that’s because years of CGI have set our expectations too high. But knowing what was happening meant that it didn’t matter that the film perhaps didn’t get the full meaning across – the book was in my head almost like an explanatory (and unobtrusive) voice-over.

The section on the moon is probably the most dialogue-heavy part of the film, which helps to explain a little what’s going on. It also humanises the film a little, being almost the only place where we see people interacting with each other.

The space journey to Jupiter (unlike in the book, where Saturn is the destination) gives Kubrick the chance to play brilliantly with special effects, especially of weightlessness. The fact that these effects still work some half a century later is pretty amazing, and great to see how he interpreted Clarke’s detailed descriptions of how space flight works. Using Strauss’ Blue Danube waltz as the music during the space sequences is inspired – it works so well with the floatiness of everything that happens in and out of the ship. The film cuts a lot of the sciency stuff out, though – no sampling the crust of comets, nor sling-shotting around Mars and so on – but I did feel in the book that this section got a little bogged down in science, so the film worked well for me here in concentrating more on technical stuff and in moving the story along.

In the film, I’m not at all sure if I would have caught the reasons why HAL, the ship’s sentient computer, begins to malfunction but, again, the book explains this much more clearly, while the film makes it a rather more emotional sequence, I think. There’s very little opportunity for the actors to shine, since they don’t do much except turn switches on and off and talk to the computer, but actually I was impressed by Keir Dullea’s performance as Dave Bowman. In some scenes, the camera stares directly into his face for extended periods and, with little dialogue, he manages to get across a range of changing emotions very well.

2001 - Dave

But the star of the show (and in the past I’ve always given up before I got to this bit) is the surreal and truly psychedelic sequence in the fourth and final section. All done to some beautifully dissonant modernist music composed by Georgy Ligety, the effects are wonderful – a kaleidoscope of amazingly imaginative spacescapes, ever-changing but in a flow, creating a real feeling of infinity and the awful grandeur and possibilities of the universe. Then a totally surreal section by which, frankly, I would have been baffled if I hadn’t read the book, and finished with what seems like a fairly major variation from the book, but which, on reflection, is certainly within the same philosophical ballpark. I’m telling you, man, it totally blew my mind! Awesome!

My dear friend wikipedia (to whom thanks for all my newly acquired background knowledge) tells me that Clarke said “I always used to tell people, ‘Read the book, see the film, and repeat the dose as often as necessary’”. I heartily concur, and have an urgent desire now to read the book then see the film all over again. And next time I read the book, I’ll have the fabulous images and music from the film running in my head. Two parts that are differently great but which, together, become something uniquely wonderful.

★ ★ ★ ★★

And so, for the first and perhaps only time…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

2001 both1

BOTH TOGETHER!

 

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

Far out, man!

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

2001 a space odysseyA tribe of man-apes is visited by aliens who use a strange artefact to stimulate their minds, thus setting them on a course to become fully human and develop the intelligence that will eventually allow them to dominate their world. Millennia later, mankind has reached the moon, only to find hidden another similar artefact, one that this time will send them on a journey to the furthest reaches of the solar system and perhaps beyond…

Well, it’s easy to see why this one is considered a sci-fi great. It has everything a good cult classic should have – lots of hard science, a just about feasible premise and a completely incomprehensible ending that leaves the door open for readers to make up their own interpretation, which they have apparently been doing with varying degrees of wackiness since the book was first published in 1968.

The first section about the man-apes is brilliant. Their lives are precarious – foragers living with the constant threat of starvation in a world full of predators. We must surely all have wondered at some time what inspired man to tame fire, create the first tools, decide to do that really strange thing of cooking dead animals for food. Clarke gives us an answer and makes it believable within the context of the book. The aliens don’t directly interfere in the man-apes’ existence, merely give a subtle nudge to the thought processes of the most intelligent, but this is enough to change the future development of the species. We see them develop the first beginnings of tribal society, the team work and innovation that will in time lead mankind to wish to understand the workings of their universe. It’s written incredibly well, with a very clear feel for the man-apes being delicately balanced between extinction or survival.

From the Kubrick film
From the Kubrick film

We then jump to the near future (at the time of writing) – 2001. The first colonists on the moon have discovered an ancient monolith and one of Earth’s greatest scientists has been sent to investigate. Again, Clarke is excellent on the imaginative details of how a lunar colony would work. Obviously some of the future details have turned out to be wrong – not least that mankind still hasn’t managed to colonise the moon, much to my regret. But mostly the scientific aspects feel very sound to my non-scientist mind.

A mission is sent off to Saturn. Like the crew, the reader doesn’t exactly know why, though we’re one step ahead in that we assume it’s something to do with the monolith, about which the crew know nothing. Three of the crew are in stasis for the journey, while the ship is being run by Poole and Bowman with the crucial assistance of their advanced computer HAL – an artificial intelligence, and the only one who knows the true nature of the mission. Unfortunately (and haven’t we all had this problem?) the computer starts to malfunction and the mission begins to go seriously wrong. This section is chock full of the then known science of the planets and space travel, and occasionally begins to read just a little too much like a text book for my liking. However, it’s intriguing to compare Clarke’s projections with what we now know and to see that some of the experiments he had his characters carry out have since happened in real life – sampling the crust of a comet for instance.

2001 moon monolith

The final section is where it all goes a bit woo-woo (I think that’s the technical term). It all gets terribly mystical or even spiritual if you’re that way inclined. Clarke said…

“…because we were dealing with the mystery of the universe, and with powers and forces greater than man’s comprehension, then by definition they could not be totally understandable. Yet there is at least one logical structure—and sometimes more than one—behind everything that happens on the screen in “2001”, and the ending does not consist of random enigmas, some critics to the contrary.”

He is talking of the movie here, but much the same could probably be said of the book. (I wasn’t aware that the book and the movie were produced as a kind of joint venture, although apparently they ended up with differences in emphasis and interpretation – I’m intrigued now to see the movie and make the comparison for myself.)

Arthur C Clarke
Arthur C Clarke

As far as my own interpretation of the ending goes, hmm… well, my first reaction was to find it deeply disappointing and a bit silly. But it’s one of those that left me pondering – on what makes humanity human, on what makes God God, on the creational relationship between man and God – so I guess you can tell I’m going with the spiritual explanation. In fact, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say it puts forward a credible scientific explanation of God, I do think it’s philosophically quite intriguing and thought-provoking. Though if I was an eighteen-year-old smoking a spliff in my student digs with a bunch of other students, I’m pretty sure I’d be summing it all up as “Woo! Far out, man!” Assuming this was still the ’60s, of course.

Film of the Book comparison coming soon… should be groovy!

Psychedelic, man!
Psychedelic, man!

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