Stand By Me

I’ve noted before that I’m a child of the movies, and that it was two movies in particular that drove me to write, even if it was novels, not films, that appealed by way of form. The first film was Jaws, which I saw when I was about 6 or 7. I wrote my very first story the next day. The other film was Stand By Me, which I saw 20 years ago this weekend.

Stand By Me is based on Stephen King’s semi-autobiographical novella The Body, which is about 12-year-old boys growing up in small-town America in the 1950s. The main character is Gordie LaChance (played by Wil Wheaton), a quiet boy whose much-loved older brother has recently died, and who dreams of being a writer. His friends include damaged Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and wannabe rebel Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), but it is the wholly innocent Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) who sets the story in motion. He overhears reports about a missing boy, suspected of being hit by a train somewhere out in the woods. Gordie and his friends set out on a quest to find the body.

Stand By Me is the only adaptation of a Stephen King story that he himself says improved on what he wrote. The changes are very subtle. Indeed, the dialogue is lifted almost entirely from the novella, and even most of Richard Dreyfus’s narration comes from the prose. But the screenwriters changed the focus of a key scene near the end, giving Gordie the gun instead of Chris. It shifts the story emphatically into being Gordie’s rite of passage, accepting his brother’s death and coming out from his brother’s shadow. Gordie’s brother may have become the famous football player everyone expected him to become, but now Gordie’s going to become the famous writer.

I decided I would become one too (and shortly thereafter permanently set aside my other goal of inventing time travel). I was already writing by then, of course, and had already sent one silly seven-and-a-half-page novel to a publisher, but it was seeing Stand By Me that made me realise there was a subtle difference between writing and being a writer.

The same day I watched the film, I started keeping a diary which I have kept to this day. From the very first entry I made it clear to posterity this was going to be the log of adventures I would seek, with the attention of one day mining them for wonderful novels. I had somewhat missed the point of the film, of course. It’s not really about finding a dead kid’s body. It’s not even really about looking for it. It’s about the things Gordie and Chris say to each other on the way, things that can’t be unsaid, and how those things change everything, and forever. Looking back at them now, that’s what the diaries would ultimately become too.

It’s impossible for me to watch the film objectively these days. Every time I see it I still think it’s perfect. It may just have been the case that I was the perfect age for it when I first saw it – the same age as the characters. It didn’t matter that it was set half a century before. Twelve-year-old boys hadn’t changed, and I doubt they have in the last couple of decades either.

Les Miserables (blog 2)

At the end of my review of the original novel, I smugly scoffed at and happily dismissed this year’s film adaptation of Les Mis, without actually having seen it. I now have, and I think it’s only fair to recant (to a certain extent). I have also watched the 1998 straight adaptation of the novel starring Liam Neeson, which I thought would be more up my street. Funnily enough, I preferred the musical.

My main concerns with the musical were what from the 600,000-word novel it would leave out of its two and a half hour running time, and just how miscast it could manage to be, even if it didn’t feature Sofia Coppola. Yes, Jean Valjean is too young and Madame Thenardier is too thin, but apart from that, the only castmember that doesn’t rise to the occasion is Amanda Seyfried, playing Cosette. And that was mainly down to the fact that she has a shrill singing voice, like a goat being gelded.

Hugh Jackman has exactly the right presence for Jean Valjean, though his savagery in the early part of the film can be as much credited to the make-up artist as the script. Russell Crowe might not be the strongest singer in the piece (though he’s better than the gelded goat), but his Inspector Javert is preternaturally angry and self-important. Even Eddie Redmayne manages not to disappear behind his lips for once, and captures the romantic and idealistic side of Marius perfectly.

All in all, the musical is faithful to the novel, in spirit if not always in terms of what makes it from page to stage (or screen, in this case). Fantine is dispensed with in barely half an hour, but that’s enough time for Anne Hathaway to earn her Oscar. Pretty much the entire middle third of the novel has gone, so that Marius and Cosette meet only a few minutes before the revolution. This is the Hollywood idea of instant, magical love. But to be fair, Victor Hugo didn’t do much better – he had Marius and Cosette just looking at each other from afar for over 100,000 words, whilst he got distracted with rants about monastic life and describing the Battle of Waterloo. And the musical makes the final revelation of who saves Marius a lot less convoluted than Hugo managed to do, it must be said.

The 1998 straight adaptation fails on so many levels. It is a largely monotonous, po faced film written by someone who clearly didn’t read the novel until they were hired to adapt it. It veers from slavishly following every story beat in the novel (the first third of the novel comprises almost half the running time of the film) to audaciously rewriting key scenes for no discernible reason whatsoever. The result is uneven and top heavy, rushing the revolution whilst plodding through Jean Valjean’s years since leaving prison but before meeting Fantine. The Thenardiers, so important to both the novel and the musical, are basically reduced to a single-scene cameo.

The only castmember who hasn’t been miscast is Geoffrey Rush, who makes a splendid Javert. He is officious and vindictive, a different interpretation to Russell Crowe’s, but probably closer to how I imagined the character. Liam Neeson plays Jean Valjean like Qui Gon Schindler, rushing around to save the world’s wounded with a grave look on his face, and cursed with some truly appalling dialogue that would have made Victor Hugo’s teeth fall out. Marius and Cosette (here played by Claire Danes) are reduced to whiny spoilt brats. And whilst Uma Thurman can’t be blamed for staying in the film too long, she can be blamed for a one-note performance that goes from lethargic to weary and back again.

My biggest problem was with how the scene where Jean Valjean and Javert confront each other for the final time was rewritten. Pretty much everything the novel has to say culminates in that scene, but here it is completely changed to make it more theatrically dramatic. But the result is quite the opposite. As such it typifies everything that is wrong with the adaptation. It is a superficial film made by people with only a superficial understanding of the novel. Even though it doesn’t have any songs, it’s still more of a pantomime than the musical.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aog8680PVmU

Except for a few pages to send me off to sleep (For Whom the Bell Tolls is still working a bit too well in that regard), most of the fiction I read I do so on my twice-daily commute. I only read on the mainline leg of my journey. Once I get on the Tube it’s only 10-15 minutes to the office, so it’s hardly worth the time. In fact, there is only one book I have ever read on the Tube, about five years ago now: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Faced with the prospect of going a full working day without getting to read any more, I grabbed those 10-15 minutes and kept going. After I finished reading it I felt somewhat bereft, and read two young adult novels about nuclear war one after the other.

I do believe there’s a right time to read certain books. I probably read The Catcher in the Rye too late. I probably read The Great Gatsby too early. The way things are going, I’m not sure there would ever be a suitable time to read For Whom the Bell Tolls. In my first year at university I read Less Than Zero and The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis. That was definitely the right time. I tried rereading Less Than Zero again a few years after graduating. I didn’t get very far. For the same reason, though I will never get rid of my copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, I have barely dared open its pages in the last five years, because then its place in my heart will remain perfectly preserved.

Reading the Independent’s review of the new film adaptation of the book, I also think there are certain books that can only appeal to certain types of people. Perhaps I am just not the right type of person to take anything from For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s obviously beloved by enough people to have garnered the reputation and the sales that have kept it in print so long. The dismissive reviewer for the Independent obviously enjoyed high school too much to get anything from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which is the story of a teenage loner discovering where all the other loners hang out together and his being taken under the wings of two older kids.

The film has been marketed as Emma Watson’s step away from the Harry Potter films, but neither the film nor the book revolve around her character. Indeed, of the three leads, she is the least strongest (it would be unfair to say the weakest, because I thought of her as Sam rather than Hermione throughout). The two male leads inhabit their roles perfectly, the kid playing Charlie especially. It’s disjointed in places, but in much the same way as the book, epistolary as it is.

The ending made me reconsider the ending of the book, something I might not have been prepared to do had the film not been directed by the author of the book. I was sceptical whether, as author, he would be too close to his material to adapt it himself. Perhaps the Independent’s reviewer is right. Perhaps he hasn’t. And perhaps I am just too close to what he created for me on that Tube train several years ago to be able to view it objectively either. I don’t think so, however. I can see teenagers catching the film randomly on TV a decade from now, and the next day they will wake up and things will seem slightly different somehow, in much the same way as after I saw Stand By Me randomly one weekend in December 1993. I hope it inspires them to read the book. As satisfying as the film was, it could never be as good as the book.

Prometheus

Though the main thrust of this blog was always going to be about books and writing, I’ve been such a big fan of the Alien films for almost two decades now that I had to write about Prometheus – even if, having seen it, I’d now concur with director Ridley Scott’s claim that it isn’t actually a prequel to Alien.

Still, it’s very much of the same mythology, and as such becomes the odd middle child. Alien and Aliens were the ones that went off to university, Alien going on to postgraduate studies, whilst Aliens did very well in the corporate world. Alien 3 also went to university but dropped out and got a minimum wage job, and Alien: Resurrection, well, that one just sits around at home all day getting high, just like it has for the last decade. Prometheus, on the other hand, disappeared whilst on a gap year trip to the Far East and returned five years later as high priest of its own hippie cult.

Prometheus is very much its own beast. It’s fair to say those who identify as Alien fans are just as split as they have been about most of what gets released under the banner. It’s not a small, claustrophobic horror film or a big, bombastic action film. It reminded me most of 2001: A Space Odyssey, except with a few monsters instead of the starchild at the end. It takes ideas that were always present in Alien (if not the sequels) and runs with those instead.

Almost inevitably this led to my biggest criticism of the film – that whilst Alien and Aliens had modest ambitions but met them perfectly and then surpassed them, Prometheus has ideas that are so far above its station that they dwarf what it’s capable of pulling off in two hours. It’s a noble failure, in so far as they even attempted to make something intelligent and philosophical out of a ‘franchise’ that in recent years has been led down the path to the gratuitous exploding headshots of Aliens vs Predator: Requiem.

What we’re left with is a solid but sometimes ponderous thriller about mankind going to investigate the possibility that we were intelligently designed, but by another race, rather than gods. Needless to say, this being in the Alien universe even if it is not an Alien film, if indeed Earth was seeded with engineered life then there’s a good chance that whoever introduced life to our planet also did so on others, and maybe the others evolved malevolence that ended with sharp teeth rather than atom bombs. This isn’t a monster movie in the sense that there’s a slimy beastie stalking corridors, picking off the cast one by one, but it does explode the Alien universe out – for better or worse – from those tiny, claustrophobic confines that many fans have loved for so long.

I have been an apologist for the latter Alien sequels since I first saw them. Alien 3 is a poorly scripted mess, two hours of unlikeable characters we never get to know being gorily slaughtered, but elevated by Sigourney Weaver’s brilliant turn. Alien: Resurrection is even harder to apologise for, so many of its laughable bits almost reducing it to a parody of the earlier films, and its redeemable qualities coming from the same school of redemption as those redeemable qualities from every dull action movie – a few good set pieces. Which is sad given the director’s talents, Jean Pierre Jeunet having directed Delicatessen before and A Very Long Engagement afterwards. Blame is very easily laid at the foot of the writer, a certain Joss Whedon, whose other contributions to cinema include Waterworld, Titan AE and the execrable Avengers Assemble movie. Of course, everyone else involved had the opportunity to better the film, and they didn’t – or couldn’t – either.

I recognise Prometheus will prove divisive, probably more so amongst people who hold the Alien films especially dear than those who simply liked the first one enough to watch the rest. But it’s the first film set in this universe made since 1986 that I don’t feel, as an obsessive fanboy, the need to apologise for, even if it’s not as good as Alien or Aliens.