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Character Plausibility in Prose and on Screen

Over the last two years, The Professor and I have gotten really into police procedural TV. We’d been casual fans of NCIS and Criminal Minds for awhile, but when we got Netflix we started to systematically churn through shows like Numb3rs, Lie to Me, Sherlock, White Collar, Bones and most recently, Castle. We tend to like all sorts of flavors in the sub-genre: whether it’s comedic fare like Psych (the Professor asks me to note that she is less of a fan of this one), beyond-the-law like Burn Notice or Leverage, or forensics like Bones, we dig it all. But having recently completed the first season of Castle and simultaneously thinking about characterization for my current WIP, I had a bit of an epiphany:

The plausibility of plot is a conceit I will grant any story, provided the characters are plausible.

At first, this epiphany might seem obvious. But the more I’ve been thinking about it, the more I’ve come to realize it as a bone-deep pillar of solid writing. And that pillar supports all narrative media: prose, comics, film — anything.

Characterization at The Center of Every Story

Mystery — whether in film or prose — is always centered around a small number of crime fighters. Sherlock Holmes/John Watson, Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin, Don and Charlie Eppes, Michael Weston/Sam Axe/Fiona Glennan, etc. They are the heroes of the story, but more than that they are the window through which the plot is revealed. We find the mystery interesting for more than thirty seconds only insofar as we find interesting the heroes through which our experience is filtered.

Engagement with a character rests on that character’s plausibility. If we find ourselves calling bullshit on a character, then we won’t be engaged with them for long. This doesn’t mean that they need to be realistic: some of the best characters are completely unrealistic. Batman? Sherlock Holmes? People like that don’t really exist in real life. But we love them as characters because they are portrayed in such a way that we can conceive of a world in which they do. When an essential character fails this plausibility test, then the narrative’s ability to keep us engaged will be crippled.

A Study in Implausibility: Bones

I have an enormous problem with Bones. Granted, I’ve seen every episode that’s available on Netflix so far (I blame the Professor), but I have a real problem with much of the show’s writing. I find the show’s principal character (Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan) to be utterly unbelievable. I have no problem with her copious knowledge of anatomy, with the all-too-convenient pseudo-anthropological theory she espouses. Instead, my problem stems from the idea that someone so socially maladjusted can function at a high level in human society, and that a person unable to relate to a single living human could somehow write best-selling novels.

When the show opened, Bones was presented as being more Vulcan than Spock (a pop culture reference that she – purportedly a trained anthropologist – would not get). She was shown to have no ability to relate to other people, and only the most abrasive methods of communicating with them. The show took great pains to show us how outside-the-norm she was, and then offered us the hand-wavey justification that she gets away with it because she’s the best at what she does.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There is no way that a person as socially maladjusted as the first season’s Bones could ever rise to a senior position in any field. Because doing so takes at least some modicum of people skills. Which we are clearly shown Bones lacks. Similarly, we are asked to believe that a character who is unable to frame her thoughts so that they are understood by other well educated characters can somehow write New York Times bestseller mysteries/thrillers. It is so completely implausible that — for me — it throws the rest of the show’s weaknesses into sharp relief.

Of course, the writers want to force character growth onto us by making the awakening of Bones’ empathy the show’s central theme (concretized through her relationship with her partner, Special Agent Seeley Booth). Quite frankly, Star Trek: The Original Series did it better, as did both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout. To make a character like Bones plausible is a delicate balancing act, requiring the writers to make sure that she skirts the very edge of acceptable behavior. Rather than toe that line carefully, the writers just cranked the idiosyncrasy dial to thirteen.

From the first episode, I failed to engage with the show’s primary character, and the show was consequently skating on thin ice. As a result, all of the other (much better written) characters had to do double-duty. By the fourth or fifth season, I was engaged with the show’s secondary characters enough to keep me marginally interested. But because I found the show’s principal hero so implausible, its plot conceits jumped out at me for their silliness, sloppiness, or utter implausibility.

A Study in Plausibility: Castle

We’ve recently started to watch Castle, which in some ways combines aspects of Bones with Lie to Me. We’re only through the first season at this point, but already I am sold on the characters’ plausibility. Richard Castle is supposed to be a best-selling mystery/thriller author (like Bones). He’s also a single dad (like Dr. Cal Lightman in Lie to Me) who also has to take care of/put up with his mother.

What makes Castle plausible as a character are two facts: first, he talks like a lot of writers I know. He focuses on story, on fun plot twists, and tries to frame every crime as a story. I think every writer does that. Second, he is multi-dimensional. His daughter, mother, and ex-wives are all totally independent from the crime he is engaged in solving. And because those relationships are written (and acted) well, we find ourselves engaging with a character ostensibly as implausible as Bones.

We accept Castle as a writer because of the way he speaks, because we see him typing away, because of his attitude towards book launches and reviews, and because he plays poker with James Patterson and Stephen J. Cannell. The show does exactly what film must: it shows us that Richard Castle is a writer by completely incorporating the fact into his behavior.

We accept Castle as a human being because of the way he interacts with both strangers and those closest to him. We like Castle, even though he can be a bit of a jerk, because his relationship with his daughter and mother show us what his priorities really are. And that characterization is made all the stronger through the differences between Castle and his daughter.

The plots of Castle are no less hackneyed or implausible than those of Bones. But because we believe in the character, we’re completely willing to suspend our disbelief and give the show a passing grade on plot.

Plausible Characterization in Prose and Film

Prose and film achieve characterization in very different ways. Although, to be fair, they need not be that different. In prose, especially in today’s writing, we are given characterization through a combination of demonstrable action and internal monologue. Because the narrator can get into the protagonist’s head or otherwise show us a close view of events as-if through their eyes, we are given a ringside seat for both the external (shown action) and internal (experienced action) expression of our protagonist’s character. It’s tempting to say we don’t need to “see” the character’s emotional state expressed in their actions, because we can take a shortcut right into their thoughts.

Visual media (film, comics, etc.) fight the same battle with one hand tied behind their backs. On film, we can’t possible get into our hero’s head or heart. Even with voice-over, we are never able to experience the inner life of the character directly. Books can transport us into the character’s head, but film cannot. Visual media rely entirely on what is shown to communicate character. This is a many-person job: the screenwriter needs to give the words, the director needs to frame the shot, and the actor needs to communicate the emotion. All we know of a character is through what we see/hear them explicitly do/say.

In prose, there are a myriad of devices that we can use to facilitate that characterization. On one end of the spectrum, we can take a page out of Dashiell Hammett’s playbook. Hammett’s descriptions are a masterclass in conveying characterization solely through demonstrated action. We don’t go into his characters heads, we don’t know what they’re thinking. Like the other characters in his stories, all we know is what we see them do. And yet, Sam Spade and the Charles’ are perfectly plausible. We know real people like them, even if we don’t like them very much. It is not a coincidence that Hammett was a mystery writer, by the by.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Vladimir Nabokov, who keeps us locked tight in his characters’ mind and emotions. We experience the story of Lolita through the mind and emotions of the vile Humbert Humbert. But Nabokov manages this deft trick of characterization almost exclusively through his mastery of voice. Yes, we see Humbert’s actions. But we also see his values and thoughts and emotions as he undertakes them. He is plausible not because we know people like him (I would hope not!) but because Nabokov frames the narrative in perfectly unified way, making the character and his actions inevitable. It is interesting to note that Lolita is almost the opposite of a mystery or police procedural: the crime is past, the guilty man caught, and we are shown the story through his eyes.

I suspect that in prose, every story is a balancing act between these two methods of characterization. Likely no two stories will ever or should ever strike the same balance. But as I go forward in my current WIP (and revise the characterization that I’ve been phoning in for the last couple of chapters) I’m definitely going to be thinking about how plausible the characters are. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll start watching the second season of Castle.

Unity, Economy, and Writing as a Revelatory Act

So I’ve finally read Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, which had been strongly recommended to me by many people over many years. It was definitely worth the read, and I was particularly drawn into the essay “About 5,750 Words” which should be required reading for any storyteller in any medium. In it, Delany presents a compelling metaphor for the act of writing, presenting it as a gradual revelation of the story’s essence where each word simultaneously moves the story forward and changes our perception of everything that came before. It puts me in mind of a writer-as-sculptor, chiseling away at a block of marble to reveal the shape beneath. Each strike of the hammer is the next word on the page.

NOTE: Delany is one of those amazing writers who instantly put me in a philosophical frame of mind. So bear that in mind: I don’t know how practical my thoughts are going to be, but they do represent the way my mind is drifting beneath his wind.

Honestly, I was surprised to find the revelatory metaphor so compelling. When it comes to craft, I’ve always fallen into the ultra-rationalist camp. I like to believe that I am (or that I should be) in absolute control of every aspect of my storytelling. Before writing word one, I have always liked to know where my characters and story were going, and how they were going to get there. That doesn’t mean I need to have an entire book in my head before writing, but it does mean I need to know where a particular scene (at the least) is going. Writing as a revelatory act just didn’t – conceptually – work for me. But I find that the more I write, the more my outlook on this is changing. Partially, this is a question of experience and a broadening of my toolkit o’craft. But it also stems from what I consider the driving force of narrative: the quest for unity in storytelling.

When I think of the greatest stories I’ve ever read I find that every level of their storytelling is pulling in the same direction. Stories affect us on a physiological and psychological level, exerting both a rational and emotional influence on us. Basically, when we read, our bodies and minds are like great echo chambers where everything feeds back on everything else, amplifying the essential notes to a thunderous roar. Stories like Hugo’s Les Misérables, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and John Crowley’s Little, Big use their action, emotions, and themes in concert to resonate like a struck gong. I’ve come to believe that the secret to that kind of amplified resonance is a perfect (or near perfect) unity between the story’s action, emotions, and themes and the structure, pacing, and words through which they are expressed.

The Essence of Story

On a prosaic level, a story is just a bunch of words or images set down and consumed in sequence. But at the heart of each story, there lies some ephemeral truth that we as artists wish to communicate. Every story ever created might have a very different kind of truth: Zamyatin’s We warns us against the logical extremes of Marxism. Crowley’s Little, Big shows us something about family and the cycles of life. Jackson’s “Flower Garden” points us to the horror of unstated small-town bigotry. These truths could not be more different. Yet they are the unifying elements which tie together the events of their respective story, the structures of those events, their pace, and the words used to express them.

In that sense, I agree with Delany that our job as writers is to identify the underlying essence of the story. That essence is a chimerical questing beast: I don’t think any of us can ever truly internalize every aspect of a story’s essence. Any mere mortal’s brain would probably explode. But we can and should get our reaching fingers around the last, loose strand of that beast’s tail. And having plucked that strand free, to take a page from Baron Cuvier’s playbook and extrapolate the rest of the creature as best we can.

Different writers approach this in different fashions. My own preference is to consciously consider the essence of the story before or during its initial writing. But I know plenty of great authors who don’t give it any conscious thought until after it has been written. Their initial focus is on telling a fun story: they let their subconscious build the story’s essence, tie it into their words, and then try to amplify it during revision. Neither approach is better or worse than the other, and both ultimately lead us to the moment when a story gains meaning and achieves artistry. In my own writing, I’d really like to master both techniques, though I have a long way to go with both.

Words, Words, Words: The Only Things the Reader Sees

Fortunately or unfortunately, we can’t just download the essence of our stories into the audience’s brain (though I imagine there’s a good SF story in that concept, come to think of it). So we have to use symbols and metaphors to approximate that essence, employing language (the most basic symbol) to do so. Which is what brings us to Delany and Chekhov. Consider the following two quotes:

A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine times.

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Samuel Delany Anton Chekhov

The Chekhov quote is often used by folks blathering on about “show, don’t tell” and I’ll put it bluntly: they don’t get it. All writers – yes, even Chekhov – rely on “telling” to a greater or lesser degree, so that truism is only helpful for the most basic writing. Delany and Chekhov are implying the same concept: they are each indicating that the words we use become the very essence of the story we are trying to communicate. Chekhov’s two nouns (his “glint of light” and “broken glass”) communicate more as images than his earlier verb (“shining”). We don’t need to know the story’s plot for those words to evoke emotions. The words themselves and the rhythm of their sequence do all of the heavy lifting. And to Delany’s point, Chekhov’s simple exhortation is effective because he first paints a picture (of the moon shining), and then refines it with more powerful and evocative language.

Word choice and sequence matters, because unless we’re working in a graphical medium, it’s the only tool we have. But when those words align with the emotions, themes, and (manipulative) intentions of the storyteller, then we achieve unity, and by the same token, the inevitability of prose that most folks like to call “style” or “economy”.

Plot and the Essence of Story

When I think about plot, I usually think of it as independent from the essence of my story. The truth of my stories is only tangentially related to the plot. While I find Ayn Rand’s screeds and self-aggrandizement to be incredibly annoying, I love the concept of plot and plot-theme which she introduces in her The Art of Fiction. What she calls the plot-theme is for me the essence of the story. It is what the story is about, its philosophical and emotional core. It is the truth that I wish to communicate. But plot is just Stuff That Happens, which, if I’ve done my job correctly, expresses the plot-theme succinctly and powerfully. And it does so by making the story’s essence accessible for the reader.

Consider the essence of Miller’s brilliant A Canticle for Leibowitz. One can likely reduce it to the warning that if we aren’t careful, we risk repeating the tragic mistakes of the past. Stated so baldly, the power of that essence is blunted. It becomes bland, polemic, and boring. But it is through Miller’s plot (what happens) that the story’s essence is demonstrated in action. Through the characters, and the events they experience, we gain a means of emotionally investing in the story’s essential truth…before that truth is fully revealed at the book’s conclusion. Our engagement with the book becomes emotional as well as intellectual, thus increasing the story’s effect on us.

When done properly, every plot point in a story contributes to the story’s final essence. This contribution, or the story’s essence itself, might not be apparent until the very end of the book. But if when we turn the last page the characters have consistently acted in support of the story’s unstated essence, we will find ourselves satisfied and the story ringing in our hearts and minds.

Writing as a Revelatory Act: A Writing Exercise

In his essay “About 5,750 Words”, Delany performs a neat trick: he writes a single descriptive sentence, and painstakingly, word-by-word shows how each word revises and clarifies the initial image that the author has in his head. It’s a neat trick, because it literally puts into practice the concept quoted above. And it shows how one can consciously construct a unified, economical story.

Of course, Delany does this trick for didactic purposes: I suspect that when he sits down to write fiction, he does not weigh each word five or six times before deciding on it. Doing so would likely mean decades spent on a single book. Yet I find myself fascinated by this concept of each word simultaneously revising and building on the words that came before it. Given the underlying essence of story, it makes that story’s expression a revelatory act: likely as surprising to the author as to the reader. And that kind of revelation would be awesome.

Because of the way my brain is wired, I strive to do everything on purpose. But of course, that’s an aspiration and I doubt I ever really come close to meeting it. But sometimes, a reader’s comments really surprise me. For example, one of my beta readers recently sent me her feedback on a draft of a finished novel. In her feedback, she mentioned how much she liked the fact that two opposing characters at different points in the story mirror each other in their personal desires for vengeance. She thought it really added and amplified the philosophical and emotional themes at play between those characters.

And this floored me, because while I wrote the words and mapped out the plot, this was just a happy accident. I wish I was cool enough to do that on purpose. But in fact, it was a revelation to me, because at no point in the process did I tell myself “These enemies will be mirror images of each other along the dimension of vengeance by which their themes will be amplified.” It just worked out that way. And even after I’d written it, I didn’t notice that that’s how the characters and their actions related to each other. Which on one level, just goes to show that even a self-conscious writer’s subconscious has a heavy hand, and that readers will always find something the writer didn’t expect in every story. Of course, on another level it might mean I wasn’t paying enough conscious attention to my story – which if that’s the case is a little more worrying.

Which brings me back to the trick that Delany employs in “About 5,750 Words”. I get the impression that letting the imagination run free and consciously considering each word individually and in sequence may produce the same kind of revelatory experience. If nothing else, I suppose it will exponentially increase my awareness of word choice. It’s probably not a viable technique for writing long pieces, but I think I’m going to do a writing exercise at some point where I write an entire short story one word at a painstaking time…without prior consideration of the story’s essence. On one level, this sounds almost like free-writing (an exercise I always found frustrating and useless). But I think it is actually more its opposite: because each word is carefully weighed and selected, it will hopefully yield some of the most unified and essential writing I could hope for.

At least, that’s the theory. And I figure it’s a worthy experiment to try. Would you like to see the results of the experiment up here on the blog? Since it’s just a crazy experiment (I don’t expect the creature to live), it might be fun to dissect it. What do you think? And how do you approach getting that kind of unity into your stories?

Enter Macduff

So things have been a little hectic today at Casa Chris. And it’s all because of this little guy:

Macduff, Thane of Fife

Macduff, Thane of Fife

Yeah, ain’t he a cutie? His name’s Macduff, and he’s about ten or eleven weeks old. He’s a rescue, apparently some kind of retriever/hound mix. We picked him up today from a local shelter, and he is an absolute sweetheart. And now, after a very trying day of exploring his new home (with minimal mess-making, thankfully!) he’s fast asleep. So fast asleep, in fact, that he missed his doggy bed.

REVIEW: Southern Gods by John Hornor Jacobs

Title: Southern Gods
Author: John Hornor Jacobs
Pub Date: July 26th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A reasonably-well structured debut novel with near-perfect Southern Gothic world-building.

Fiction has been mining myth since the first storyteller hushed a campfire crowd. Myths are – at some level – the foundation of every story, and in speculative fiction we often rely on them to shortcut the audience’s emotional response: to get the reader “in the mood”. In doing so, we rely on the oldest, most primal images: eyes glowing red in the night, footsteps behind us in the fog, etc. These images are rooted in our reptile brains, and there’s no way we won’t respond to them. But what about myths of newer vintage? The kind that haven’t been percolating in our collective unconscious for centuries? In his debut novel, Southern Gods, horror author John Hornor Jacobs does a solid job mining two recent American myths: the Blues, and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Southern Gods tells the story of Bull Ingram, a WWII-vet hired to find a missing radio promoter, and Sarah Rheinhart, a single mother from a wealthy Arkansas family who comes back to her childhood home. The book opens with an incredibly well-written prologue set seventy three years before the events of the main story. Too frequently, I find that such prologues merely delay the story’s real beginning and serve no narrative purpose. And looked at unemotionally, one might accuse Jacobs’ prologue of being superfluous: the information it imparts might have been easily revealed through the principal narrative. But in this case, I am more than willing to forgive Jacobs’ his prologue because it is hands down the best writing in the entire book. The prose is mellifluous, rich, and evocative. It draws you in, and makes you feel every moment of emotional heartache and fright. By the conclusion of the prologue, I found myself thoroughly engaged with the story and the unfortunate character the prologue introduces us to. From a plot standpoint, it might not have been necessary, but from an emotional standpoint it earned my complete engagement with Jacobs’ world.

After the prologue, the story jumps seventy three years to 1951 and introduces us to our real hero: Bull Ingram. The main story opens with a classic noir setup: a world-weary and battle-scarred vet is just scraping by as muscle for a Memphis gangster when he gets hired to do a seemingly simple job that turns strange and very dangerous. Noir fiction is just as much about feeling as it is about its tropes, and Jacobs executes very well by taking his time. While the prose in the main storyline is not quite as evocative as the prologue, Jacobs focuses just enough attention to give us a real feel for Ingram’s values and personality. We understand that he is a hard man, able and willing to do hard things when he has to. But he’s also not a bad guy: he’s just trying to get by, like everyone else. By not rushing into frenetic action, Jacobs more fully earns our investment in his hero and our engagement with his southern world.

I found Sarah Rheinhart, the female protagonist, to be far less engaging than Bull. While thematically much of her story arc revolves around re-establishing her own agency (we first meet her leaving her abusive husband), I nevertheless found found her overshadowed by supporting characters for much of her storyline. In particular, her childhood friend Alice upstages Sarah throughout the book’s first half, only to recede to unimportance in the book’s second half. I understand that Sarah’s storyline is necessary for the book to function as a whole, but the role she is given is by nature more receded than I would have liked. If the supporting character of Alice were less engaging, or evidenced somewhat less agency than she does, perhaps I would not have noticed this relative weakness. But as it stands, I found Sarah to be less engaging than Bull.

Bull gets hired by a Memphis music promoter to find a radio promoter who went missing somewhere in rural Arkansas, and to track down Ramblin’ John Hastur, a mysterious Blues musician whose powerful songs are played on a pirate radio station that nobody knows anything about, and which drive people to commit primal acts of lust and rage. And here, within that one sentence description of the book’s plot, we already have the merging of those two quintessential American myths: Hastur’s name is itself taken from Ambrose Bierce’s short story “Haita the Shephard“, from which it was lifted by Robert W. Chambers and then H.P. Lovecraft, and August Derleth in turn. This progression – from benign god of shepherds in Bierce’s story, to the spawn of Yog-Shoggoth in Derleth’s work – is plainly an example of the “folk process” at work on fiction. It also gives the reader an immediate insight into the Cthulhu-flavored horror that awaits them as the book progresses.

Jacobs’ depiction of Ramblin’ John Hastur also reconfigures the legend of Robert Johnson’s Faustian deal, in which the Delta blues legend supposedly sold his soul at a crossroads at midnight in exchange for mastery of the guitar. This legend is probably one of my favorite aspects of the Blues as American myth, and I love encountering it time and again whether it’s in books like Southern Gods or in the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Both this legend and the harsh peripatetic lifestyle of early Blues musicians infuse Jacobs’ lush descriptions of the music, his immersive imagery of the early 1950’s rural south, and especially his characters’ dialog.

Jacobs has an excellent ear for southern dialect, and his characters’ speech patterns do a fantastic job of grounding the story in its setting. He does a particularly good job conveying characterization through his characters’ sentence structures, which is done so subtly that I didn’t even catch the mechanism until my second read through of the book. The dialog is easily my favorite part of this book’s writing, because unlike the prose, it is consistently excellent throughout the entire book.

Much as I enjoyed Southern Gods, I did find a number of weaknesses. I have already mentioned the relative weakness of the female protagonist. But in addition, I felt that themes, characters, and plot points introduced in the first half either fade into insignificance in the second, or get ignored fairly completely. Alice, a strong, compelling supporting character is marginalized once Bull and Sarah get together. The intimation of Alice’s ability to perform little acts of magic is dropped with only a cursory handwave. And I found a frustrating asymmetry between the themes of family explored in Sarah’s storyline and the corresponding themes in Bull’s arc. And finally and perhaps most significantly, I found the treatment of religion to be the one glaring weakness in Jacobs’ otherwise excellent world-building.

The Cthulhu Mythos have a long and complex relationship with Judeo-Christian religion. In one sense, the Great Old Ones are an American myth purposefully divorced from traditional religious concepts. But regardless of the cosmogony employed by Jacobs and gradually revealed in the text, the human characters in his Deep South setting would be steeped in their own more traditional religious heritage. Yet religion is almost completely absent from Southern Gods, unless one counts a Roman Catholic priest’s proclamations of atheism. The story repeatedly references Ramblin’ John’s Faustian deal as a deal with the devil, yet nowhere is there any other religious dimension applied to the whole affair, or even referenced in passing. I would have expected some nod towards Southern Baptist or Pentecostal traditions, but I didn’t find any.

By its very nature, Lovecraftian horror operates in opposition to traditional Judeo-Christian religious concepts. That is one of the reasons why Cthulhu and his ilk are so unknowable and terrifying: they are gods inimical to our more comfortable conception of divinity. And yet Jacobs leaves this opposition implied, without even a cursory exploration in the text. In a less well-written book, this weakness would not have stood out so strongly for me. It is precisely because the rest of Jacobs’ world-building is so excellent that this omission becomes so prominent.

Nonetheless, Southern Gods is a very well realized debut novel. It is atmospheric horror that skews into blood-and-guts when necessary. From a violence standpoint, it is not for the faint of heart, and yet both the execution and the narrative purpose of its violence is well considered. When Jacobs depicts violence, he does so well and for a good reason. Nevertheless, squeamish readers may find it a little off-putting. Fans of Southern Gothic will particularly enjoy the book’s first half. Fans of the Cthulhu Mythos will probably get a kick out of the book in its entirety. Southern Gods is a really solid book, and I am definitely looking forward to Jacobs’ next book (This Dark Earth, due out from Simon & Schuster in July 2012).

And to close out this review, here’s a clip of Robert Johnson playing some awesome Delta blues:

Moving Across Mediums: Assessing the Adaptations of Hugo and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

In the past month, I got to see two very different film adaptations of books that I loved: Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (which adapts Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) and Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (an adaptation of John le Carré’s novel of the same title). Although both feature science fictional elements (if you don’t believe me about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then check out my earlier blog post on the subject), they could not be more different. Hugo is a children’s story, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is as far from middle-grade as one can get. And yet, their screen adaptations got me thinking about the nature of prose and film, and on the differences in storytelling between the two mediums.

Why The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are Compelling

Both Selznick’s middle-grade novel and le Carré’s spy novel are excellent works of fiction, captivating and moving on multiple levels. What makes these books so good is the way in which they unfold with unity of plot, theme, and character. At its most basic level, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the story of how a young orphan named Hugo finds a family, and how an old man named George finds himself with Hugo’s help. Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the story of how an old retired spy is dragged back into the murky world of betrayal he had (ostensibly) left behind.

Selznick and le Carré are very different storytellers. More than half of Selznick’s book is told visually through gorgeous drawings. A picture is worth a thousand words, and as a world-building device Selznick’s drawings perform beautifully: his opening sequence introduces us to 1930s Paris, to the Gare Montparnasse, to our hero Hugo, and to the old man at the train station. In a handful of drawings, Selznick quickly draws us into Hugo’s world and engages us with his two primary characters. When Selznick switches into prose, we already suspect what comes next, even if we can’t articulate it. Selznick uses his drawings to lend emotional immediacy to his story, thus accelerating the rate at which we invest in his characters.

Le Carré doesn’t use illustrations. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is all told in prose, and deals with the very difficult themes of betrayal, loyalty, and motivation. Although the book follows George Smiley, it actually features a broad cast of characters. Le Carré’s omniscient narrator takes us in and out of their heads smoothly, giving us insight into everyone’s motivations, concerns, and emotional states. And while Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a spy novel, a great deal of its prose focuses on the (seemingly) banal personal relationships of Smiley, his wife, and his friends. By showing us both the intellectual game of espionage and its more private underside, le Carré earns our investment in the character: we understand the degree to which Smiley is conflicted with his charge, we understand the degree to which the chase both excites him and disappoints him, and we understand why his companions and quarries act the way they do. His personal concerns, and those of his friends and enemies, serve to establish moral equivalence, to humanize them for the reader.

Both books feature multiple, related plotlines, and all of these plotlines oscillate around the same themes. The different converging plots involving Hugo, his father’s automaton, the old toyshop owner, and the Station Inspector who hunts the orphan child all swirl to greater or lesser extent around the question of family and acceptance. The same holds true for George Smiley: the A plot of Smiley’s hunt for the traitor puts into concrete action the themes of le Carré’s B and C plots (Smiley’s relationship with his deceased mentor, and Smiley’s relationship with his wife). This unity of action, theme, and emotion closes the emotional distance that would otherwise have been built between the characters and the reader. And ultimately, it is this unity that makes the stories compelling.

The Differences Between Film and Prose

Obviously, there are many differences between text and film. However, I like to believe that good storytelling transcends the medium and that the underlying goals of storytelling are universal: we want the audience to be engaged, we want them to be interested, we want them to turn the page. However, different techniques are employed in different media to achieve our intended narrative effects. In a real sense, authors and film-makers are master manipulators: it is our job to evoke some kind of response on the part of our audience. If we evoke the response we intended, then we’re doing a good job. If we evoke a different (or the opposite) response, then we’ve made a mistake.

Narrative Tools in Prose: Events Shown, Information Shared, Language Used

The Narrative Tools in Prose

In prose, our primary tools are the events that we depict, the information we impart to the reader, and the language we use to do both. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification: I could probably talk about choosing a single metaphor for a day or two if given the chance. Yet nonetheless, it is our job as creators to choose what we want to present and how to present it. In prose, all of these tools are in the author’s control (although to be fair, good editors have their say, too). When we write, we make conscious choices as to what information our reader needs, when they need to get that information, and how that information is delivered to them.

Narrative Tools in Film

Narrative Tools in Film

In film, it’s a little more complicated. At the most basic level, movie-makers have the same two basic tools as authors: they select the events they wish to show, and decide the information they wish to impart to their viewer. However, language is only one of the many devices they have available to accomplish both goals. Actors convey a wealth of information on multiple levels: their facial expressions, movement, and tone of voice all are part of the storytelling and are only partially (at best) under the screenwriter or director’s control. Then, directors choose what visuals are presented in the film, how shots are set up, how a scene gets lit, and how it gets staged. This is conveyed visually, but can be used to elicit an emotional or intellectual response in the audience. And the soundtrack adds an emotional undertone to the visual events, guiding the audience into a certain desired state. And finally, we get the language that is used in the dialog itself.

This is not to say that there are more moving parts in film-making. There aren’t, despite what movie makers might say. It’s just that the moving parts are very different from those faced in prose, and I think that when writing and directing an adaption it is incumbent upon us to bear in mind the differences in technique that both mediums work with.

Why Hugo Works as an Adaptation

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is probably one of the best film adaptations I have ever seen for the simple reason that it tells the same story that the book told, hitting the same narrative notes and evoking the same emotions in me as an audience member. While Scorsese may have chosen different events to show, different information to share with the audience, and of course made his own choices on cinematography, soundtrack, etc., his adaptation stayed true to the overarching flow of Selznick’s story. Hugo achieved the same type of unity in plot, theme, and character as The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and as the original book’s story was excellent, so too was its film adaptation.

To be fair, Scorsese’s task was made easier by Selznick’s beautiful illustrations. The book was itself already heavily cinematic, with illustrations that conformed to most of the classic structures of visual storytelling: establishing shots, action shots, close-ups to communicate facts and emotions, etc. Since half of Selznick’s book consisted of detailed illustrations, much of the visual storytelling had already been done. I expect this made Scorsese’s task at least somewhat easier, since Selznick had already made a slew of decisions regarding the story’s visual narrative.

Of course, this is not to suggest that Scorsese, the actors, and the screenwriter John Logan didn’t have a lot to do with the finished product. But it is very clear that they were heavily influenced (as is only right for an adaptation) by Selznick’s original book. By letting Selznick’s illustrations and storytelling influence their choices, they were able to capture his thematic and tonal focus, leading to a finished work as beautiful, compelling, and moving as the original.

Why Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Does Not Work as an Adaptation

Unfortunately, Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does not work nearly as well as Scorsese’s Hugo. It remains a good movie: the cinematography is solid, the music is excellent, the acting great, and the writing good. It clearly tried to stay true to the original source material, but by de-emphasizing the characters’ personal lives it weakened the overall product.

The film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy engages us on an intellectual level: George Smiley (played well by Gary Oldman) and company keep the audience at an emotional distance, presumably just as they keep themselves emotionally removed from the sordid work that they do. That leaves us with the intellectual mystery of the whodunit: we are engaged with the story because we want to identify the traitor…not because we care about what happens to any of the characters.

Superficially, this is consistent with the book: le Carré portrays most of his characters, and Smiley in particular, as emotionally distant. Yet le Carré shows us that their reticence to engage emotionally is a sham: by showing us their emotional reactions to their personal lives, we know the characters to be living, breathing, feeling human beings. Alfredson chose to de-emphasize this emotional dimension of the story, and his movie suffers for it.

It is telling that the two characters who I found most engaging in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy were the two shown to be emotionally invested in their own stories: the naive Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy), who tragically falls in love with a Russian agent, and Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch), who kicks his lover out of his flat to keep him safe. It is precisely because these two characters are shown to be more than cold-blooded apparatchiks that they evoke an emotional response. We can identify with their concerns, and can feel empathy for their troubles.

The emotional concerns of the other – more principal – characters are merely alluded to, and not really explored. It could be argued that those concerns are purposefully left between the lines, there for the discerning viewer to pick up and project onto the screen. That may well have been the reasoning, but I for one found the effect flawed: if that was the intent, it didn’t work for me. The movie was engaging on an intellectual level, but fell short of the unified intellectual/emotional impact evoked by the original book.

Advice for Book-to-Movie Adapters

It seems to me that putting together a good film adaptation of a great book relies on a careful examination of why a book worked, and then translating the techniques that worked in prose form to film. If the method by which a book worked were correctly identified, then a good filmmaker should be able to achieve similar effects using the tools available to them. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially in a Hollywood driven by consensus decision-making.

What are some other examples of good adaptations? Why did they work? Or how about some terrible adaptations, and why did they fall apart? Love to have some more perspectives!

REVIEW: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre by Tzvetan Todorov

Title: The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre
Author: Tzvetan Todorov
Pub Date: 1970 (French)
1975 (English)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A relevant exploration of a narrow sub-genre within fantasy, applicable beyond its borders.

Happy New Year! Now that the formalities are out of the way, I thought I’d take a few moments to share with you what I did between Christmas and New Year’s: In addition to remodeling our library, and turning our dining room into a library annex, I also spent the week slowly and carefully reading Tzvetan Todorov’s classic book of genre criticism, appropriately titled The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre.

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Our Library Annex (aka the Dining Room)

Of course, I’d read about Todorov many times before. I’d even read a couple essays he’d written (I particularly recommend his typology of detective fiction). But I figured that it was best to see for myself what he had to say. And though in the end I was very satisfied, this book really defied my expectations.

The book’s title is misleading. From the adjective-cum-noun “Fantastic” it is a short leap to the modern genre of “fantasy” – and so when I first bought the book, I expected to find a master critic expressing his own Unified Theory of Fantasy, like a Northrup Frye or a Wayne Booth for the speculative genre (for two excellent analyses more in this vein, I recommend Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Brian Attebery’s Strategies of Fantasy). Instead, Todorov uses a much narrower interpretation of fantasy, placing it on a spectrum between stories where ostensibly supernatural events are explained through rational means (which he calls the “uncanny”) and stories where supernatural events are shown to actually be supernatural (which he calls the “marvelous”).

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

Todorov's Spectrum of the Supernatural

To put it another way, Todorov’s uncanny stories are Scooby Doo episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are ostensibly beyond mortal ken (ghosts, monsters, strange worlds, etc.). But by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences are explained away in a naturalistic and rational fashion, thus erasing the supernatural from the story. It’s like Old Man Withers being unmasked by the gang. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Todorov’s “marvelous” stories are Buffy episodes: during the action, the characters and reader experience events which are beyond mortal ken, but by the end of the story, all of the ostensibly supernatural experiences can only be explained by an acceptance of their supernatural reality. Todorov’s “fantastic” genre, however, is the Twilight Zone: neither the characters nor the reader is ever really certain whether the supernatural events are to be accepted.

This is a much narrower definition of “the fantastic” than “fantasy” would imply. It excludes almost all secondary world fantasy, and almost all science fiction. Even most wainscot fantasies would fall into Todorov’s “marvelous” camp. Which is a shame, because anything beyond his narrowly defined borders gets brushed off as beyond the scope of his analysis.

The first half of The Fantastic is an interesting, if dry, exercise in critical philosophy and semantic hair-splitting. He defines what he means by the fantastic, and provides a definite set of criteria for use in its identification. Given my (incorrect) expectations, the book initially frustrated me. I wanted to gleam sweeping insights with applicability across a broad swathe of fantasy titles and sub-genres. Todorov’s painstakingly detailed definition of “hesitation” or what I would call ambiguity: the uncertainty felt by the character and the reader as to their implied frame of reference for experiencing the story. According to Todorov, if a story has no ambiguity, then by definition it falls outside the bounds of his fantastic. Now, I love ambiguous stories. But most fantasy, and most science fiction, eschews the degree of ambiguity described by Todorov. Let’s face it: there are few Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever or There Are Doors out there.

Yet once Todorov establishes his definitions, he begins to dissect his ambiguous stories in much more painstaking detail, parsing their themes and structures. And here, The Fantastic becomes a treasure trove of insight. The conclusions Todorov draws regarding the fantastic are not, in fact, particularly interesting. They may be thought provoking, but they have limited applicability beyond his caged genre, and furthermore I suspect his reliance on the psychoanalytic school of criticism ignores too many other factors. Yet the techniques that Todorov applies, independent of the genre against which they are applied, are quite impressive.

In a very real sense, Todorov draws the treasure map to a very narrow sub-genre. But by doing so, he shows us how to draw such maps for any other genre in existence. I wish that Todorov had taken the trouble to do the same for both his uncanny and marvelous genres. But the process of structural analysis that he applied to his ambiguous stories can just as readily be applied to secondary world fantasy, portal/quest fantasies, wainscot fantasies, liminal fantasies, intrusion fantasies, and all the rest. And that is why this book remains significant: on the one hand, it adds to our critical toolkit, and by using much-analyzed “classic” texts of the Gothic age, it helps to bring the tools of genre criticism into the “respectable” light of academia.

In that sense, later critics like Farah Mendlesohn or Brian Attebery both benefited from Todorov’s work. On the one hand, they apply to a broader body of work the universal techniques that Todorov pioneered. And on the other hand, they benefit from the fact that Todorov dragged ghosts and demons into the light of critical respectability.

All in all, this is a book on criticism well worth reading. But not for its conclusions: more for its methods.

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