Book Review – Golden Boy

bloggbAbigail Tarttelin’s second novel, “Golden Boy”, joins an astonishingly small quantity of fictional representations of  intersex individuals. Despite the approximate statistic that one in 1,666 people are born neither exclusively XY or XX, those who have some form of sex chromosome “anomaly” are appallingly underrepresented in literature and film. Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex”, Kathleen Winter’s “Annabel”, and Lucía Puenzo’s film “XXY” are three notable examples from an extremely meager sub-group. Tarttelin’s eponymous ‘Golden Boy’ is Max Walker, a popular and attractive teenager who hides from almost everyone he knows the fact that he possesses both female and male genitalia. Max, who has always identified as a heterosexual male, has generally ignored his condition and what it might mean for his future. A horrific and brutal assault near the opening of the novel  and the ensuing cracks that appear in Max’s carefully-constructed façade force him to confront and question his identity.

‘Science is unreliable. It can’t tell you who you are or what you’ll want or how you’ll feel.’

At its heart, “Golden Boy” is  a coming-of-age story; yet it is also a family drama, a romance, and a sociopolitical statement. It raises important questions about gender and sex, personal choice, and intersex rights.bloggb3 Tarttelin references the disturbing medical practice that sees parents of intersex babies decide to raise their child as a particular gender, and sees doctors operate on the infant before they’re old enough to know their own name (let alone their gender identity) to remove the unwanted anatomical features. Using Max’s parents as mouthpieces for the two opposing sides of this controversial issue, Tarttelin falls down heavily on the side of Max’s father, who considers early sex reassignment surgery as at best, unnecessary, and at worst, genital mutilation. As Tarttelin contends in “Golden Boy” – why must one identify as any gender at all? Why must we live in a world of binary genders in which those who do not fit the physical “norm”  are made to feel deviant, abnormal, and abhorrent? In “XXY”, Alex Kraken, the intersex protagonist, ultimately decides against both surgery and hormone treatment, and subsequently refuses to conform to rigid societal definitions of gender. I won’t spoil the journey Max embarks upon and the destination he reaches – I highly recommend reading it yourself to experience it alongside him.

‘It takes strength to be proud of yourself and to accept yourself when you know that you have something out of the ordinary about you.’

Although divided into multiple narrative voices, “Golden Boy” undoubtedly belongs to Max. Yet his story and his experience also belong to anyone else who has ever felt marginalized, or anyone who feels like they don’t fit into the categories that have been laid out for them.

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Film Review – Divergent (spoiler light-ish)

blogd1 blogd2“Divergent” made an impressive $56 million during its opening weekend, easily leaving recent YA adaptation box office flops “Beautiful Creatures” and “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” trailing forlornly in the dust. Adapted from Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” trilogy, the film has been hotly anticipated as the potential successor to the colossal “The Hunger Games” trilogy. There are indeed certain cursory similarities. “Divergent” is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago in which society is divided by personality type into five distinct factions. “The Hunger Games” is set in a similarly post-apocalyptic United States, in which an autocratic ‘Capitol’ presidblogd11es over twelve sharply divided districts. Yet while “The Hunger Games” revolves around a teenaged heroine, it never feels like it can merely be enjoyed and appreciated by the very age group it portrays. The idea of a reality program in which children fight to the death as a punishment for their parents’ insurrection is both clever and disturbing; its uncanny parallels with our reality-obsessed society can be appreciated by people of all ages. The premise of “Divergent” is much less inventive. The surviving population of Chicago is separated into factions: Dauntless (the brave), Erudite (the smart), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest) and Abnegation (the selfless). This form of cataloging taps into our obsession with self-categorization and self-analysis, attested to by the sheer volume of ‘Which (insert anything here) are you?’ quizzes on Buzzfeed. To this day I have friends discussing which Hogwarts house they’d be sorted into, or even whether they’d be a House Stark or a House Lannister if they lived in Westeros. Indeed there’s now even a Buzzfeed quiz for “Divergent” fans – see http://www.buzzfeed.com/ariellecalderon/which-divergent-faction-do-you-actually-belong-in (I was Abnegation: apparently if I was Tris I’d have stayed safely in my faction and there’d be no story to tell).

blogd8 blogd10But (spoiler) some people don’t fit neatly into one category. These people are ‘divergent’. So the film has a very simply premise with a very simple message: people are complicated and conformity is bad. Criticisms of the plot’s basis aside, my reaction to watching much of “Divergent” can be summarized by this gif…

blogd13The film was entertaining and easy to watch. Despite its 139 minute running time, it didn’t feel particularly bloated or inclusive of superfluous material. The extended time meant the film was able to develop the central relationship and flesh out the protagonists’ characters realistically. The hamminess and simplicity of the plot itself was countered by the fun of self-insertion into the narrative. (What faction would I be in? What would my fear landscape look like?) The charisma of, and chemistry between, the two leads really anchored the film and more than made up for the unremarkable story and the vaguely tedious climax. Shailene Woodley proved her acting chops in “The Descendants” a couple of years ago and she proves them again here as the Abnegation-turned-Dauntless sixteen year old Tris Prior. She manages to deliver some fairly cheesy lines with a straight face (which is more than can be said for the cast of “Twilight”) and, like Jennifer Lawrence, is able to convey conflicting emotions and thoughts, described in detail using the first person narrative in the source material, with just a facial expression. I wasn’t sure about Theo James as the semi-Byronic Four when I first heard the casting news but he turned out to be more than a match for Woodley. Just look at the angst and intensity!

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“Divergent” is definitely flawed and, superficial comparisons aside (strong female lead, dystopian setting), it’s definitely no “The Hunger Games”. It is, however, a highly gratifying experience if you try not to compare it to anything that’s come before it. Masquerading as an action piece, it’s effectively a straightforward and slightly hokey romance and coming-of-age story centered around a futuristic sorting hat. And I’m looking forward to the next helping in March 2015.

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Book Review – Matched

blogma‘Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’

Ally Condie’s “Matched” is yet another YA dystopian offering, once again dealing with an oppressive government regime and a teenaged girl who opposes in some form her subjugation by the state.  This territory has certainly been well-covered of late (see “Divergent”, “The Hunger Games”, “Pretties” and “Delirium”, to name just a few). Yet while “Matched” is indeed in some ways a patchwork of derivative elements, it utilizes its borrowed materials well to produce a highly enjoyable, if at times familiar, addition to the YA dystopian oeuvre. The first of a trilogy, “Matched” is narrated by seventeen year old Cassia Reyes and details the events following her ‘matching’ ceremony, an obligatory process by which citizens are paired off and socially organised by the authorities.

There are clear parallels to be drawn between Condie’s “Matched” and several classics of the dystopian genre. In Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451” books are outlawed  – inspired by both the Nazi book burnings and Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’, in which writers and poets were arrested and executed as a form of ideological repression. Comparably, in the futuristic soblogma1ciety in “Matched”, the government has culled archaic examples of poetry, music, art and literature, leaving only one hundred appropriate (non-incendiary) choices of each category preserved.  Cassia memorizes illegal copies of Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade”; this preservation of prohibited literature is both a liberating and highly perilous act of political dissent. Additionally, the deterioration of written language in correlation with the digitisation of text is reminiscent of the advent of newspeak in George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, an anti-evolutionary trimming of the English language, which alsblogma2o aims to curtail and impede written expression.”Matched” perhaps shares the largest amount of thematic similarities with Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel “Brave New World”. Huxley depicts a supposed utopian society, stabilized by and structured upon population control, artificial reproduction and predetermined social and economic positions. In Huxley’s vision, recreational sex is fundamental to social cohesion and the nuclear family is considered both abhorrent and obsolete. “Matched” subverts this design and instead places the pater familias at the crux of society. While the society in “Matched”, then, is antithetical to the society portrayed in “Brave New World”,  Condie, like her dystopian predecessors, is particularly concerned with the concepts of free will, individualism and freedom of artistic expression.blogma4 The best dystopias are those which are eerily familiar, those which the reader is able to understand and inhabit without stretching his or her imagination beyond the bounds of credibility and possibility. Orwell predicted 24-hour surveillance; Huxley prophesied the gradual irrelevance and eradication of the family unit; Margaret Atwood in “The Handmaid’s Tale” warned women not to become complacent in their just decades-old professional and personal liberty. What makes these authors’ imagined worlds terrifying is their relatability. Just as Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy exaggerates the contemporary penchant for reality television and celebrity, and Scott Westerfeld’s “Uglies” series satirizes cosmetic surgery and superficial conformity, Condie seems to reference the modern dating world and the perceived necessity of marital union. The mathematical nature of the matching process is not so distant from online dating. For example, look how disturbingly similar the dating app ‘Tinder’ is to the world Condie has created…

blogma6 blogma5The society at the heart of “Matched” is ultimately a mishmash of other people’s fictional nightmarish worlds (see the glaring reference to the red and blue pills found in “The Matrix”), with the arranged marriage process the most interesting and original feature of the novel. Condie includes the mandatory YA love triangle and the coming-of-age of her heroine, and yet manages to construct from this both a believable and touching romance and an intimate character study. “Matched” is very engaging and worth a read – despite the sense that we’ve seen most of this before. Look out for my reviews of the sequels “Crossed” and “Reached” in the near future.

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Book Review – Fangirl

blogfan“Fangirl” by Rainbow Rowell was Tumblr’s first book club selection. This certainly seems a poetic choice: the microblogging website Tumblr provides an interactive space for different fandoms and “Fangirl” is thus effectively the coming-of-age tale of a Tumblr user. Now a mini fandom exists around “Fangirl” itself and the novel has consequently evolved into something resembling metafiction. This is Rowell’s third published novel and her second YA novel, following “Attachments” and the New York Times bestselling “Eleanor & Park”. The eponymous fangirl is Cath, a phenomenally popular online author of Simon Snow slash fan fiction (in a clear homage to the “Harry Potter” fandom), and the introverted other to her extroverted identical twin, Wren.

‘Real life was something happening in her peripheral vision.’

I began and completed reading this book on a three hour train journey from Durham to London and found my own inner fangirl rearing her ugly head. Even if you’ve never read or written fan fiction (which I may or may not have done…), anyone who’s ever felt withdrawn or socially inept will be able to relate to the constant conflict raging within Cath. She engages passionately with fantasy and forms emotional attachments to fictional characters, yet avoids social interaction outside of this avid interior life. Her abrasiveness masks awkwardness, her paralyzing anxiety concealed by a facade of misanthropy. She automatically says ‘no’ to invitations before even wondering whether she really wants to say ‘yes’. She ignores boys who subtly express an interest in her before turning to her laptop and writing wonderfully constructed romantic scenes. The irony is palpable. blogfan4At times Cath’s resistance to change and her total reluctance to meet new people is a little grating. Yet  Cath’s personality develops as the book goes on, and the reader becomes witness to Cath’s admirably intense loyalty and the paradoxical amalgamation in her character of self-doubt and self-respect. While Rowell, through Cath’s eventual social growth, illustrates the importance of interaction with the world outside of fiction, she never discourages or apologises for Cath’s love of fandom. Instead she validates this subculture and this form of imaginative expression, while demonstrating that Cath, at times, uses fan fiction as a creative safety net and as a way to avoid developing her own original voice.

‘The whole point of fanfiction,’ she said, ‘is that you get to play inside somebody else’s universe. Rewrite the rules. Or bend them. The story doesn’t have to end … You can stay in this world, this world you love, as long as you want, as long as you keep thinking of new stories—’

Fan fiction is used as a metaphor throughoutblogfan2 the novel: just as Cath is afraid of original creation and uncertain whether her words are powerful enough to construct an imaginary world from scratch , she is afraid when beginning college to branch outside of the life and social surrounding she has become accustomed to in order to forge new bonds. Rowell’s description of the writing process also provides an interesting metaphor for the unpredictable nature of life:

‘Sometimes writing is running downhill, your fingers jerking behind you on the keyboard the way your legs do when they can’t quite keep up with gravity.’

Cath’s relationship with Levi, a decidedly anti-Edward Cullen (complete with widow’s peak, vague illiteracy, sexual experience and lankiness) is developed slowly and realistically, and refreshingly challenges the Mormon values pervading much YA literature. Her relationships with Wren, her unstable father and her estranged mother are likewise well-realised, and steadily add multiple facets to Cath’s initially one-dimensional character.

In Cath, Rowell creates a fictional character that many readers will identify with; she is the perfect candidate for narrative self-insertion. Cath does not undergo a physical or emotional makeover in “Fangirl”, but rather comes to a gradual realisation that her own voice deserves to be heard and her own story deserves to be lived. The New York Journal of Books deems “Fangirl”  a ‘nerd power ballad’. Rowell indeed champions the introverted and the awkward, and refuses to have her bookworm take off her glasses in order to be called beautiful.

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Book Review – The Fault in Our Stars

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I know I’m late to the party on this one, and John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” is now so ubiquitous that this review will serve as little more than a mere shout of praise into the void. For all Green’s novel does to upend clichés, I’m going to use one of my own: I couldn’t put this book down. Narrated by Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old diagnosed with Stage 4 Thyroid cancer with metastatis, it’s not one for the emotionally fragile. Be warned, here’s a typical tumblr response after having read the book…

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Fans are now eagerly awaiting the release of the film adaptation on June 6. There was recently a fair amount of controversy surrounding the film, specifically its tagline – ‘one sick love story’ – from those who felt this play on words was a glib and crass marketing strategy. On first reading about this online I agreed with critics that such a tagline seemed insensitive due to its source material’s serious subject matter. Yet, after having read “The Fault in Our Stars” myself, I’m not sure that this tagline doesn’t actually wholly encapsulate the tone and message of the novel: sick teens are still just teblogfaultens, experiencing those same thoughts, desires and anxieties experienced by their physically healthy peers. They’re certainly confronted with their own mortality a whole lot earlier, but that doesn’t mean they want to be treated by strangers as though they’ve already got one foot in the grave. The literary paradigm of the kid with cancer as the heroic and ethereal martyr who teaches a life lesson to those left living is challenged and disproved repeatedly throughout “The Fault in Our Stars”. Instead Green writes about a cancer patient egging his ex-girlfriend’s car and smashing up a basement. He writes about cancer patients mocking their support counselors and sneaking bottles of champagne and worrying about losing their virginity. The characters are teenagers, eye-rolling, video game-playing teenagers, desperately angry about the injustice of their diagnoses and alternating rapidly from sentence to sentence between treating their medical situations with ironic humour and with utter despair. They’re not saints, nobly touching the lives of those around them. Nicholas Sparks’ “A Walk to Remember” this is not.blogfault4

Nicholas Sparks writes in “A Walk to Remember”: ‘Without suffering, there’d be no compassion.’ I’m pretty sure Hazel and Augustus would take Sparks’ novel and shove it up his ass. Green writes:

‘”Without pain, how could we know joy?” This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.’

blogfault6blogfault7“The Fault in Our Stars” shares similarities with Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die”, (adapted to film as “Now Is Good”) which follows Tessa, a teenage leukemia patient, as she attempts to complete her bucket list. Tessa, like Hazel, doesn’t want to be defined by her diagnosis. Adam, like Augustus, helps her to live a little. Yet I found the central romance in “The Fault in Our Stars” more touching, perhaps due to the pains Green goes to in order to develop his protagonists’ individual personalities. I initially feared the romantic lead, Augustus Waters, a seventeen year old in remission from osteosarcoma, would be a thinly drawn character, too idealised to illicit any sort of real response from the reader. He  initially seemed  a character who existed only within the confines of a narrow literary purpose: to express attraction towards Hazel. He seemed a boy written conveniently to bring her back to life (a male Manic Pixie Dream Girl, if you will). Despite my initial misgivings, Augustus evolved into a fully-fledged character in his own right.

“The Fault in Our Stars”, according to the Daily Mail, belongs to a genre of YA “sick-lit”. Apparently disease, and other real issues faced by countless young people, are topics unsuitable for the very children and teenagers who may be affected by them.  Like Jenny Downham’s “Before I Die”, “The Fault in Our Stars” refuses to patronise its young readers. The book tackles universal themes through its cancer-afflicted protagonists: the desire to feel like you’ve impacted the world in some way, the desire to live an extraordinary life. Augustus wants to be loved widely as well as deeply. His greatest fear is oblivion. Hazel wants to kiss Augustus but worries that she’s a grenade, ready to explode and hurt those closest to her. If dealing with life, death and all the stuff in between is “sick”, then all good literature should belong to this genre. Green should wear this categorisation as a badge of honour.

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In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”, Cassius says to Brutus: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.’
The title of Green’s novel says it all. Sometimes life is truly unfair and random and cruel. The respective fates of Hazel and Augustus and Isaac are not within their control. The fault is in their stars. Their situations are expressed by Green with compassion, sympathy and understanding, but never with moralising or condescension. Green blends the comic and the tragic and consequently creates a story which reflects the reality of everyday life.

But don’t take my word for it. Just go and read it. Okay? Okay.

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A bildungsroman for the twenty-something: where is the fiction for the flailing graduate?

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The stage between living with your parents and entering the real world as a fully-fledged adult is fraught with emotional and financial peril. I’m a member of the so-called ‘Peter Pan’ generation.  We millennials (it’s claimed) are entitled underachievers who expect jobs to be handed to us on a plate upon completion of our highly theoretical degrees – despite our evident lack of vocational expertise. Nothing can prepare the ambitious graduate for the jarring realisation that no one cares about his or her thoughts on Foucault. Employers, fairly enough, just want to know whether a potential employee is able to photocopy or make a drinkable cup of coffee.

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In correlation with this bitter sting of professional disappointment, many graduates succumb to deep existential angst. They suddenly realise they might not be able to become the Prime Minister or the Director-General of the BBC with the ease they had once assumed. They realise their CV is identical to thousands of others sitting in a stack collecting dust on a desk. They also realise there’s a good chance they might end up being the person sitting at the singles’ table at their friends’ weddings for the next few decades. Being forced to suddenly readjust or discard the dreams and assumptions you’ve held since you were a child leads to an awful lot of soul-searching. This is no new phenomenon, although the media certainly has a renewed interest in the flailing graduate of late, perhaps as a result of the recession coupled with the perpetual discussion around HBO’s “Girls”.

Deemed the quarter-life crisis, representations of this specific and highly-relatable stage of life are now pervasive in film and television. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that we are now living at home for longer, are our parents’ financial dependents for longer, and are likely to marry and enter full-time employment later rather than sooner. Back in the day, a child reached maturity at the age of 18 and the apron strings were abruptly cut. The bildungsroman, meaning ‘novel of education/formation’, was a termbloggrad28bloggrad27 coined in 1819, and was characterized by a protagonist’s emotional and physical growth from childhood to adulthood. Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”, George Eliot’s “The Mill on the Floss”, Olive Schreiner’s “The Story of an African Farm” and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” are just a few nineteenth-century prototypes of this genre. This format, of course, is now represented more widely by the standard ‘coming-of-age’ novel. Books like Jeanette Winterson’s “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” and S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” constitute prim?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????e examples of this genre.

Yet the collegiate, and particularly the post-collegiate, phases are largely absent in literature. This is a huge gap in the literary market that ought to be capitalised upon. Originally touched upon by “The Graduate”, this angsty and awkward phase of life was mined by Lena Dunham for her TV series “Girls” and her debut film “Tiny Furniture”, and she has reaped the rewards in critical accolades and column inches for this astute move. There is something simultaneously so disturbing and so captivating in seeing your own life in all its grim detail mirrored so accurately in art. The unpaid internships, grotty flats, disillusioning relationships and irrational life decisions Dunham writes about are surely something all twenty-somethings can relate to. The eponymous character in “Frances Ha”, a 27 year-old aspiring dancer, also suffers from arrested development. Both “Frances Ha” and “Tiny Furniture” are clearly inspired by the mumblecore movement, a sub-group of films identified by their penchant for naturalism. “Funny Ha Ha”, credited as thbloggrad31e original mumblecore film, bleakly follows its protagonist, Marnie, as she shuffles between her temp job and romantic disappointments without any real sense of purpose. “Reality Bites”, following a group of Generation X college graduates, rather than our Generation Y, is perhaps the pinnacle of those films depicting the post-graduation psychological slump. Lelaina’s (Winona Ryder) mournful comment –  ‘I was really going to be something by the age of 23’ – perhaps encapsulates the disenchantment characteristic of that age group. “Like Crazy” and “Felicity”  also demonstrate the painful fact that angst endures well past high school graduation. All of these films also serve as a snapshot of the simultaneous idealism and anxiety young adults face in their personal and professional lives.

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Such films validate the experience of us twenty-somethings and perhaps tell us it’s alright to not have our shit together at this stage of our lives. Yet such literary consolation is few and far between. While adults in their twenties are still able to identify with the universal discontentment of Holden Caulfield and other angst-ridden youths, few books deal with explicitlybloggrad7 twenty-something problems. Helen Fielding’s epistolary novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary” expresses the prevalent dissatisfaction, confusion and crushing weight of disappointment felt by graduates as they enter the so-called ‘real world’, yet only succeeds in notifying us those feelings will last for at least a decade more. Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” details the interior life of a college student who expresses an emotional numbness and a lack of conviction in his life choices. Aside from these, I can’t think of any immediately relevant written material. The transition from child to adult is bumpy, and despite the implications inherent in the volume of YA fiction produced, emotional development occurs not primarily at puberty but at the point at which the overgrown child is flung from the nest. This time of life, at once full of confusion and potential, is abundant with creative possibility and I predict that this will soon be reflected in our literary choices.

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From Page to Screen: YA Book-to-Movie Adaptations

blog39blog41With “Divergent” due for release on March 21 and “The Fault in Our Stars” coming up on June 6, it seems an apt moment to look at the successes and failures of other prominent YA book-to-film adaptations. I’m going to look at this hazardous transition and what we can expect from the upcoming releases.

THE BEST

It goes without saying that “The Hunger Games” falls in the ‘best’ category. Both a commercial and critical success, the first two films have respective lifetime grosses of  $408,010,692 and $423,969,843 and ratings on rottentomatoes.com of 84% and 89% fresh. The filmmakers had some difficult hurdles to overcome in adapting this trilogy. They had to make a film about kids killing each other and yet somehow get a certificate which meant kids (their target audience) could go to the cinema, fork out the money for a ticket and actually watch the film. They also had to take a book written in the first person present tense, in which we are able to know the protagonist’s every passing thought, and somehow see those thoughts translate on the screen.

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To counteract the first problem, the director of the first film, Gary Ross, employed a shaky hand-held camera technique when filming the vicious fight scenes. Gifting the scenes with a frenetic and tense energy, this astute maneuver also meant details of the violence were blurred and, most importantly in terms of certification, bloodless.  Casting Jennifer Lawrence, whose talent has since been recognised with a Best Actress Academy Award (for her role as Tiffany Maxwell in “Silver Linings Playbook” last year), was a masterstroke. Lawrence is able to convey so much with very little dialogue, making the need for a corny and intrusive overlaying narration (I’m looking at you, “Twilight”), obsolete. Ross has also discussed the potential benefit and greater artistic freedom in moving away from first person narration:

‘In the book, Katniss speculates about the game-makers manipulations… in the film, we can’t get inside Katniss’ head, but we do have the ability to cut away and actually show the machinations of the Capitol behind the scenes.’

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In some ways, “The Hunger Games” was always bound to make a seamless transition from page to screen. Suzanne Collins has an M.F.A. in dramatic writing and thus self-admittedly paced and structured her novels like a play. While she adapted the books herself, she also noted the necessity of creative subjectivity, leaving superfluous material on the cutting room floor and out of the subsequently sharper screenplay. These films serve as powerful companion pieces to their respective novels and highlight the trilogy’s pervasive themes. Similarities between the Capitols’ vicious voyeurism and their obsession with the cult of celebrity, and our own society’s fixation on reality TV are all the more perceptible when visible on screen, the visual parallels between the games with shows like “The X Factor” and “Big Brother” all the more evident. With Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland adding weight to the cast, a strong female protagonist and some really dark material explored,  these films show that youths aren’t just interested in watching films about sparkling vampires.

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The 2012 adaptation of the 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” received an 85% rating on rottentomatoes.com and has been embraced by a new generation of teens, despite its inability to please its original fans. I didn’t read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” when I was a teenager and thus never had the strong emotional connection with the book that so many others my age experienced. Some of my friends refused to watch the film on the basis of supposed incorrect casting choices. Indeed, for a book about and embraced by outsiders, it’s difficult to reconcile the misfit literary characters you identified with as an awkward teen with the attractive actors and movie stars portraying them. Logan Lerman, however, I believe succeeds in his portrayal of the introverted and thoughtful eponymous wallflower. Emma Watson, despite a questionable American accent, manages not to be too annoying, which is all we can really ask fblog34or. Ezra Miller really shines as a charismatic dissident who doesn’t express his discontent by offing a load of classmates this time around (see “We Need To Talk About Kevin” – but probs not on Mother’s Day). “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is an epistolary novel and retaining this important sense of communication between narrator and reader subsequently offered a challenge to the filmmakers. This is an occasion in which a voice over feels both necessary and well-utilized. Stephen Chbosky, like Collins, adapted his own novel and noted the importance of remaining unconstrained by the source material. He stated:

‘I think that the process of turning ‘Perks’ into a movie was the most gratifying and challenging work I’ve ever done professionally,’ he said. ‘I had to do a real adaptation — I couldn’t just film the book. It was a real balancing act to simultaneously be emotionally very inside the piece and at the same time always be outside of it to keep it on the train tracks.’

blog33I’m sure fundamentalist fans of the original book have found plenty to complain about. Yet as Chbosky, and Collins, recognise, films and novels are different species of fiction. Sometimes, fans of a book will embrace its film counterpart. In this case, fans of the film have instead been introduced to the book. It’s difficult to bring a book as unabashedly sincere and saccharine as this to life without making its viewers want to vomit and, for succeeding in that mission, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” deserves commendation.

Honourable mentions: “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging” – coming-of-age films which manage to retain the warmth and wit of their source material.

THE WORST

I’m not one of those people who rubbishes a book or film without having read or seen it. I’ve read all four books in the “Twilight” series, and I’ve seen all five films. I can, therefore, say in all confidence that they are all truly atrocious. “The Twilight Saga” had an uphill struggle from the very beginning. How does one even begin to start adapting lines like: blog45

‘You are exactly my brand of heroin.’

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‘And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.’

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‘You are my life. You’re the only thing it would hurt me to lose.’

The only way Melissa Rosenberg (who wrote the screenplays) could have made this film series not laughably bad would have been to completely change the dialogue found in the books. Yet this would in all likelihood have upset the rabid “Twilight” fan base and, consequently, Rosenberg lifts verbal exchanges verbatim from Stephenie Meyer’s abysmal text. The plots in the books are terribly thin, a fact made painfully obvious by their film adaptations, which serve doggedly as an almost literal page-to-screen transcript. There are moments of the first film which are almost enjoyable –  such as the use of Pattinson’s original music during a surprisingly effective and atmospheric montage of Edward’s relationship with Bella near the film’s conclusion.

The acting is extremely wooden, but I don’t actually believe either Robert Pattinson or Kristen Stewart are terrible actors. Go watch Stewart in “Speak” or “Into the Wild”, and Pattinson in “Cosmopolis” if you don’t believe me. I don’t think anyone could have made those words work and, in the end, the actors just gave up. Pattinson himself has mocked “Twilight”, saying it ‘seemed like a book that wasn’t supposed to be published.’ He observed:

‘I was convinced that Stephanie was convinced she was Bella…It’s like, this woman is mad’ and added ‘the more I read the script, the more I hated this guy, so that’s how I played him, as a manic-depressive who hates himself.’ Check out Pattinson’s response to Jimmy Fallon’s comments about the series ending and fans getting sad:

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There’s even a whole tumblr page dedicated to Pattinson’s personal hatred and derision of the series. See http://rpattzhateshislife.tumblr.com if you fancy a LOL. In fact, for a LOL in general, watch “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” right now. If it had been marketed as a comedy or a satire I’m positive it would have been critically lauded as a pinnacle of the genre.

Of course, “The Twilight Series” was a huge hit financially and it has as many supporters as detractors. In theory I’m a fan of any book series that encourages teenagers to read. Yet “Twilight” is disturbing to me for its central validation of an essentially co-dependent couple, and for its casual inclusion of a female protagonist who utterly falls apart when her boyfriend leaves her and who has no interests or real discernible character traits outside of her romantic relationship. This isn’t romantic, and I find the series’ popularity troubling. “The Twilight Series” illustrates that a film adaptation is only as strong as its source. The studio is the one laughing though: no matter how bad these films were, they raked in the money.

Honourable mentions: “Beastly” – lack of chemistry between leads, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” – lack of chemistry between leads, “The Princess Diaries” – completely removed the charm and individuality of the series, Disney-ified the book and changed almost everything, something Meg Cabot mocked in later books.

THE MIXED BAG

It pains me to say anything critical about my beloved “Harry Potter” series . Yet consisting of eight films, the series was directed by a total of four directors, each leaving their individual stamp and subsequently gifting the series with an inconsistent tone and uneven style. While “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” changed from director Gary Ross to Francis Lawrence, the transition was smooth and the directorial style remained remarkably similar, creating a sense of continuation from the world Ross had crafted in the first film. The first two “Harry Potter” films, directed by Christopher Columbus, constituted faithful adaptations of the books.

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There was much to admire about them: they were family-friendly, wholesome and managed to astonishingly capture the magic and originality of the books. I still remember the way I felt when I first saw Diagon Alley, Hedwig, the cupboard under the stairs, and a Quidditch match, or when I first heard John Williams’ score. These first two films are probably a little bloated and the child actors are no Anna Paquin in “The Piano”, but they are still incredibly watchable. The third film saw Alfonso Cuaron take the helm. Often cited as the best film across the whole series, Cuaron took a completely different approach. His approach was much more stylized, and he cut anything he deemed inessential to the plot. The result was a great film, yet missing a few of the smaller details meant some of the humour, charm and characterisation of the novel was lost. Mike Newell, who directed the fourth film, described his task as ‘compressing a huge book into the compass of a movie.’ This was achieved by ‘putting aside’ all those parts of the novel which did not directly relate to Harry and his journey. Unfortunately, Harry and his journey are not the most interesting parts of “Harry Potter”.

I think the “Harry Potter” books are so enduringly popular because the characters and the world they inhabit feel so real. The beauty of the books was in the small details – knowing each of the main characters’ letter-writing styles, or what they bought each other for Christmas, or what they ate for dinner. There is also a vast array of supporting and minor characters, and spells, and fantastic creatures. Yet such extraneous details are almost impossible to capture on film. Some of the most charming parts of the fourth book – the house-elf Winky, Hermione’s S.P.E.W, the Wizarding World Cup game, and Dudley eating the Weasley twins’ ton-tongue toffees, to name a few – had to be eliminated.blog51

The final four films were all directed by David Yates, which meant a greater coherence in style as the series trundled over the years to its conclusion. Filmed over a decade and with an almost completely undisturbed cast, the series is a phenomenon if only for the fact that we got to witness the child actors grow up over film, and the fact that we were able to see some of our favourite literary moments and imaginary locations brought to life. The series is far from perfect (the hideous epilogue being the main culprit), and it’s certainly a legitimate case of the old ‘the books were better’ argument. After all, the magic we imagine inside our own minds can never be matched, even by a stellar special effects team.

We’ll soon know where “Divergent” and “The Fault in Our Stars” will fall in terms of critical and commercial success. Both are based on bestselling novels with armies of stringent fans on their sides. Both books have also managed to attract adult readers in addition to young adults – a hugely important factor in gaining revenue. Both films coincidentally star Shailene Woodley, who was praised for her performance in “The Descendants”. The trailers were promising and they’ve already both garnered more significant buzz than “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” and “Beautiful Creatures”, recent YA adaptations which performed  disappointingly at the box office. Hopefully both of these adaptations will be able to discard the unnecessary and to recognise the difference between books and films, while retaining those characteristics and quirks which gave the novels their individual flair and made them popular in the first place. I hope this is the case, as there’s something so special about rediscovering your favourite book all over again in another form.