Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Masterpiece Theatre: David Copperfield

Of his seventh novel, Charles Dickens wrote "… like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield." Masterpiece Classic continues its "The Incomplete Charles Dickens" series with an encore presentation of the BBC's 1999 adaptation of what is considered by many to be Dickens' greatest work.

In my opinion, David Copperfield serves as a classic example of what a good BBC period drama looks like. All of the elements are in perfect order from the costumes to the sets to the music. But there are two things that stand out in this adaptation and really make it a must watch.

The first is the acting, which is nothing less than superb. Both of the actors who played David (Daniel Radcliffe and Ciaran McMenamin) gave well-rounded performances and really helped the audience to sympathise with their character. I also really enjoyed Maggie Smith as Betsey Trotwood and Pauline Quirke as Peggotty. But really, there was no weak link among the actors. All of the them from Ian McKellen to Alun Armstrong to Imelda Staunton gave the solid performances that we have come to expect from them.

The other thing that made this film stand out among the others from this season was its ability to engage my emotions. It's been awhile since I became so engrossed in a Masterpiece production. I found myself cheering for Betsey Trotwood when she almost chokes Uriah Heep, crying over the death of sweet Ham Peggotty, and thinking of cruel and tortuous ways to kill Edward and Jane Murdstone. Frankly, I just really enjoyed this adaptation.

I absolutely recommend this film to anyone, especially period drama fans. From its stellar cast to its engaging story, David Copperfield reminds us why we watch Masterpiece Theatre. Though perhaps not as breathtaking as Bleak House or Cranford, it is still a solid production and a great way to spend an evening.

Up next: "The Incomplete Charles Dickens" continues with a new adaptation of Little Dorrit starring Matthew MacFadyen, Tom Courtenay, Claire Foy and Andy Serkis.

Friday, March 27, 2009

On Re-Reading

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. There is hope for a man who has never read Malory or Boswell or Tristram Shandy or Shakespeare's Sonnets: but what can you do with a man who says he 'has read' them, meaning he has read them once, and thinks that settles the matter? -C. S. Lewis from On Stories.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lack of Posts Explained

Sorry for my lack of posting the last week or so, but I have been very sick. I was out of work basically all of last week and in bed most of the time. I'm hoping to gradually get back into my posting, but it will probably take some time to get back into the groove of things so please bear with me. I do have some reviews coming down the pike such as Masterpiece's "David Copperfield", Rebecca, Peace Like a River, and Kidnapped so keep an eye out for those. Looking forward to getting back to life!

"Health is not valued till sickness comes."-Thomas Fuller

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Weekly Geek: Worst Movie Adaptations

Weekly Geek 2009-10

Worst movie adaptations: The recent release of Watchmen based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore got me thinking about what I thought were the worst movie adaptations of books. What book or books did a director or directors completely ruin in the adaptation(s) that you wish you could "unsee," and why in your opinion, what made it or them so bad in contrast to the book or books?

Okay, I try to be forgiving when it comes to adaptations of books. You can't simply slap scenes from the page onto the screens. Cinematic art requires that stories be interpreted and changed to fit the new medium. However, I do feel that the essence of the story and the author's feelings on certain subjects should remain intact. Here is the film that I feel did the worst job in translating its story from book to screen.

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

By the time I got around to seeing Prince Caspian, my expectations were already kind of low. I had lots of misgivings about the first film, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the reviews that I was reading on the Internet were not all that great. I was willing to give it a shot, however, and I REALLY tried to go into it with an open mind. By the end, I wanted to throw something at the TV. C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors, and though I'll grant that Prince Caspian is probably the weakest book in The Chronicles, it still deserved a better interpretation than this. Here are some of the problems:

  • Characterization: I barely recognized any of the main characters. Caspian was WAY too old and had WAY too much confidence in himself. Peter was not the natural leader of the book, but rather a spoiled teenager with a power complex who needed a kick in the pants. Susan "The Gentle" became Susan "Warrior Princess". And Aslan was nowhere to be found. The only characters that remotely resembled their book counterparts were Lucy and Edmund.
  • Themes: Lewis' main themes in Prince Caspian are loyalty and authority. Throughout the novel, everyone, including Caspian, looks to Peter and follows his lead. Susan is constantly being told to "obey the High King" and Trumpkin tells Caspian that he will take his orders, even though he does not agree with him. These themes are completely lost in the movie. Caspian and Peter are in a constant power struggle when there should not have been one, and Trumpkin is never shown to have actually disagreed with Caspian, making his obedience less powerful.
  • Lord of the Rings Rip-offs: There are so many things that Andrew Adamson stole from The Lord of the Rings movies that Peter Jackson should sue him. Trees that walk and defeat the enemy (they are actually dryads in the book), the ground splitting open during the final battle, Susan throwing arrows ala Legolas, the list goes on and on. Don't believe me? Here's the clincher: in The Fellowship of the Ring, Boromir has the following line, "This isn't a mine. It's a tomb!". In Prince Caspian, Peter has the following line, "This isn't a fortress. It's a tomb!". You're right, I was just imagining similarities.

I'm not saying that you can't enjoy this film. There are many people who can, like my younger sister. I just know that, as someone who loves Lewis' original creations, I find adaptations like these to be detrimental to the stories. It is especially depressing when I hear a young person say how much they love the stories, and yet have never actually picked up the books. They don't know what they are missing.

How about you? Is there a film adaptation of one of your favorites that you wish could be destroyed and forgotten?

Friday, March 13, 2009


Though British author Rudyard Kipling is best remembered for his work of short stories, The Jungle Book, it is his 1901 novel Kim that is considered by most to be his masterpiece. It is a tale of adventure and intrigue and offers us a fascinating glimpse into the varied and vibrant cultures of India during the British Raj. This is Kipling at his best. This is the India of our imagination.

The Plot:

Young Kim (Kimball) O'Hara is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier who earns his living by begging and running small errands in the streets of Lahore. His only link to his heritage is a small pack of papers and a "prophecy" from his father that "a red bull on a green field" would be of help to him. One day, he meets a Tibetan Lama who is on a quest to free himself from the Wheel of Things by finding the legendary "River of the Arrow". Kim decides to become his chela (disciple) and accompany him on his journey.

This journey will take them all over India from the pulsing city of Bombay to the remotest parts of the Himalayas. One evening, Kim encounters the "red bull on a green field" from his prophecy. He soon finds himself at one of the most prestigious English schools in India, being trained as a spy for the British government. Kim is thrilled with this chance at adventure, but he finds it hard to reconcile his native habits with his new found English ones. The time then comes when he will need all of his skills, both English and native, to accomplish his role in The Great Game.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I have long had a fascination with India, especially the period of the British Raj, so Kim really appealed to me in that way. Kipling's writing style has a lovely poetic quality that brings out the beauty of this region. The heat, the noise, the colors, the spices; it all seems to float right off the page.

At its heart, Kim is a celebration of the many cultures and religions that call India home. From the Islamic horse trader Mahbub Ali to the Buddhist Teshoo Lama to the various Hindu citizens, we encounter so many different groups that it can be very confusing at times. I found it especially hard to keep track of which religion believed what. Kim, however, has no problem relating to the different cultures. His life as a beggar has taught him what to say to each group to gain their favor. Mahbub Ali even calls him "friend of all the world". This ability also helps Kim in his role as a spy in The Great Game.

Which brings us to the other part of this story; The Great Game itself. The Great Game refers to the rivalry and conflict between England and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. The period is generally regarded as extending from the Russo-Persian Treaty of 1813 to the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. But though this rivalry existed for almost 100 years, it was not introduced into the mainstream public consciousness until Kim. Because of the strong feeling of imperialism found in Britain at the time, British readers found it thrilling to read of a young boy who was using all of his wits to help protect the "jewel in the crown" of the Empire. Today's readers are less likely to find it quite as thrilling, seeing as how most of us lack that strong patriotic fervor for the British Empire. Nevertheless, Kipling's writing style still gives us that feeling at times, and the espionage aspects of the novel will certainly keep you on your toes. One piece of espionage that readers should pay special attention to is the game Kim plays at Lurgan Sahib's jewelry shop. Forms of this game are still played today, especially in the Boy-Scouts and some branches of the military. It is often referred to as "Kim's Game".

Overall, Kim is the perfect novel to simply escape into. Kipling does a beautiful job at immersing us into a far-off and exotic land full of interesting people, vibrant cultures, and thrilling exploits. I would especially recommend it for younger (early teens) readers who are just beginning to wade into the classics. It is a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The Movie:

There have been 2 main versions of this story adapted for the screen. The first is the 1950 film starring Dean Stockwell, Errol Flynn, and Paul Lukas. The other is the 1984 TV version starring Ravi Sheath, Peter O'Toole, and John Rhys Davies. I haven't seen either version, but their Amazon.com ratings give both of them pretty fair marks. If you have seen either version, please feel free to share your impressions of them.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Explore New Worlds

This commercial is a part of a series created by the Library of Congress' Lifelong Literacy campaign. This is what reading is all about. Love it!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club

In 1836, publishers Chapman & Hall approached many authors about writing accompanying text for a series of engravings by renowned artist Robert Seymour, to be published monthly. They were turned down by several writers before asking a 24-year old upstart writer named Charles Dickens. Dickens accepted, on the condition that the engravings be made for the story, not the other way around. Chapman & Hall agreed and in March of 1836, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club appeared, setting its young creator on the road to immortality.

The Plot:

The novel itself is really a loose collection of the adventures of four friends: Samuel Pickwick, retired businessman and founder of the Pickwick Club; Nathaniel Winkle, avid sportsman (or, so he thinks); Augustus Snodgrass, poet (who has never actually written any poetry); and Tracy Tupman, a middle-aged bachelor with a weakness for ladies.

Together, the four men set out on a tour of England, looking for adventures and things of interest. Boy, do they find them. The men are caught in the middle of many situations, most of them absurd, all of them hilarious. As the story rolls along, the Club members meet with many varied and interesting characters like Alfred Jingle, Bob Sawyer, and Sam Weller, all of whom play a part in bringing the long and winding tale to its happy close.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

The Pickwick Papers was the next book in my attempt to read all of the works of Charles Dickens. I think that the importance of this book lies primarily in its popularity at the time it was written, its humor, and its foreshadowing of Dickens' later works.

Its popularity (not just in Britain, but all over the world) at the time of its publication is nothing short of phenomenal. At it's height, it sold 40,000 copies a month. And it continues to be popular today, along with his later works such as A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield. Without the success of The Pickwick Papers, we may have never had the later masterful works that defined Charles Dickens as THE premier Victorian novelist.

If you had to define this novel in one word it would be "hilarious". Dickens' wit and irony are here in full force. I had to be careful when I was reading this at work, because I would find myself laughing out loud and my co-workers wondered what on earth was so funny. Of course, there are some jokes that aren't quite as funny to us as they were to Dickens' original audience. Time and culture changes have caused some of them to fade. But there is plenty to keep the reader in stitches for most of its 56 chapters. Don't believe me? Check out this little poem ("Ode to an Expiring Frog") found in Chapter 15:

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see they dying
On a log,
Expiring frog!

Say, have fiends in shape of boys,
With wild hallo, and brutal noise,
Hunted thee from marshy joys,
With a dog,
Expiring frog!

To me, the most fascinating things about this novel are the many foreshadowings of Dickens' later works. Though perhaps not as polished as the masterpieces, Dickens' style is familiar and well-done. Anyone who has read even one other work by Dickens should be able to pick up The Pickwick Papers without knowing the author, and within a few chapters know that this is a Dickens novel. The characters, though unique, remind us of the many eccentric characters to come. Other major Dickens themes such as the unjustness of the court system (seen again in Bleak House) and the inhumane debtors' prisons (seen in Little Dorrit) make appearances here as well, though in a more comedic fashion than in later works. But one of the most striking similarities is found in "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton", which shares many elements with Dickens' most famous work: A Christmas Carol.

None of this is to say that The Pickwick Papers is Dickens' best work. It tends to drag in the beginning, not really hitting its stride until the appearance of Samuel Weller in Chapter 10. In fact, I would say that Dickens wouldn't have had much success in this work without this lovable, hilarious cockney. And the 56 Chapters (848 pages in one edition) can seem rather daunting at times. Nevertheless, I feel that this is a must read for anyone who likes Dickens or great Victorian literature. And it deserves our love and admiration, if for no other reason than it introduced the world to the hero of great literature for the common man. I know Mr. Pickwick would be very proud of this.

The Movie:

There are two movie versions of this story. The first was made in 1952 and starred James Hayter, James Donald, Lionel Murton and Alexander Gauge as the four Pickwick Club members.

The second version was made by the BBC in 1985 and stars Nigel Stock, Clive Swift, Alan Parnaby and Jeremy Nicholas.

I haven't seen either version, but many of the reviews I have read say that both versions are adequate and enjoyable.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Happy Birthday To:

The man who gave us The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hears a Who, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Butter Battle Book.

Theodor Seuss Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss)
March 2, 1904

Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad reading these stories to me, some of them so often that he could quote them in their entirety. My favorites included I am NOT Going to Get Up Today!, Wacky Wednesday, and Hooper Humperdink...? Not Him!. I can't think of a better author to read to young children. Got a favorite Dr. Seuss memory? Please share!