Category Archives: Reading

Storytelling versus spectacle

Watching the trailer for I, Frankenstein I yet again feel sad that no one has so far filmed a faithful version of one of my favourite books.

While it’s poor form to slate a film you haven’t yet seen (and, in this case have very little enthusiasm to watch) the trailer does set out the stall of the movie: action, explosions and don’t-know-when-to-stop spectacle.

(As an aside, the film isn’t exactly winning the hearts of critics. Mark Kermode gives it one star – I suspect because zero stars isn’t an option – his review is nothing short of damning.)

I, Frankenstein is yet another in a long line of spectacular yet dull movies churned out by Hollywood – a neat enough idea perhaps, but with all the money going to big stars and big CGI rather than investment in the script.

It seems to me that, when it comes to storytelling, television increasingly has the edge over cinema. Television doesn’t have the same budgets as cinema (though it’s inching closer) so there’s much more of a focus on storytelling. Plus, the medium itself inherently has something that Hollywood doesn’t – oodles of time.

Take Breaking Bad, one of the best character-driven dramas ever. Walter White’s slow decline from Mr Chips to Scarface takes place over six seasons. That’s 62 episodes with a usual runtime of 60 minutes. As a film, that would be just over two-and-a-half days. Quite a commitment but one that’s manageable on television. The format allows characters to be explored, subplots to thrive, red herrings to be teased continually. How would you shoehorn that into a couple of hours?

Breaking Bad isn’t alone. Game of Thrones, The Wire, The Sopranos, Rome, 24 – the list goes on. At the heart of all of these is great storytelling (though, to be fair, Game of Thrones has its share of decent – if not exaggerated – special effects). And decent television dramas don’t have to be bottom-numbing epics, either. Broadchurch spanned just 8 episodes of 45 minutes each. At roughly 360 minutes, that’s still comfortably longer than an epic film such as Lawrence of Arabia (222 minutes in the original release; 228 minutes in the restored version).

True enough, the three Lord of the Rings films made for 558 minutes in the theatre and 726 minutes on Blu-ray; there are always exceptions – Lord of the Rings combines spectacle with storytelling brilliantly.

It seems to me that because television’s found strong storytelling feet in the long-form drama, Hollywood is hitting back in the only way it can: mostly with explosions and CGI. While there’s some long-form cinema (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings are just a few) there’s the inescapable fact: they have to be good stories to survive that kind of runtime. They are exceptions because they are good, character-driven stories.

Thor, Iron Man, The Avengers and Marvel’s other superhero films don’t really count. They’re not one long story, they’re really standalones with some connectivity bolted in; they’re also pretty hit-and-miss – typically further examples of thin plot and thick spectacle, smartly linked to create a pleasing universe in which to wallow.

By and large, enough people must be watching these vacant blockbusters to make them worthwhile – and keep the studio suits convinced that bigger, louder explosions equals audience satisfaction. Thank goodness that’s not the extent of cinema and that some good stories do make it on the big screen.

Sure, television’s not flawless. For every Breaking Bad there are dozens of tired, clichéd serials. And don’t get me started on cooking shows, makeover shows, celebrity challenges or whatever. But at least long-form television drama proves that massive audiences want great stories too.

Both Hollywood and television compete for our money, so they’ll make what mostly succeeds commercially. Yet I can’t help thinking that as a general trend, the Hollywood suits are backing spectacle over storytelling – perhaps in the hope that we won’t spot the threadbare plot in the middle of so many awesome explosions.

The Chrysalids – review

It feels slightly odd sitting down to write a review of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. I first read it when I was ten or eleven – about the same age as the book’s protagonist, David Strorm, when we first meet him. Since then, I’ve read it many, many times – and enjoyed it as much each time.

Falling for that reader’s temptation to spend time with an old friend, I’ve just finished reading it yet again – in fact, it’s one of the first books on my new Kindle Paperwhite.

The story is set at some point in the future. We don’t really know when, but it’s safe to assume that at least a thousand years have passed since today. Civilisation has fallen long ago – and is now trying to claw its way out of a largely non-technological agricultural era. What became of mankind, we’re not told for sure – but a large-scale nuclear war seems the safest bet.

David lives with his family on a farm in Waknuk, part of what we know now as Labrador. Life isn’t easy. ‘Deviations’ (mutated crops and animals) are feared as the work of the Devil and have to be guarded against, rooted out and destroyed to guarantee genetic purity. ‘Abominations’ (mutated people) are sterilised and cast out to the Fringes, a land where little grows true and life expectancy is short.

Physical deviations are easy to spot – an extra finger, long arms and so on. But David deviates in a way that people can’t see with the eye: he can communicate over long distances, with his mind. He’s one of a group with the same curse, or gift. As he grows, it becomes increasingly hard for the group to hide their deviation – and discovery can only end in one way.

In a land that is driven by religion (the Bible being only one of two books which survived the Tribulation, the passing of the old people) David’s father is one of the most fervent zealots, who wouldn’t hesitate to hand over one of his family to the authorities.

So, enough plot. I don’t want to spoil it if you’ve not read it.

To readers of science fiction, much of the above will seem like familiar territory. But remember: this was written in 1955. The Chrysalids is very much one of the first carts to cut grooves into science fiction’s muddy lanes.

It could certainly be said that some of the writing is of its time. A little formal for today’s eyes; a little proper; perhaps – now and again – a little stilted. But what can’t be said is that the book is ever anything less than absorbing – and its tale of prejudice, judgement, intolerance and fear is as relevant today as the day it was written.

If the book has a flaw, for me it’s a grand speech given towards the end – by one of the characters. Again, I don’t want to spoil things for you – but it retreads the themes of the book in a less than subtle way, needlessly repeating and reinforcing the book’s core messages. It’s not a great crime – but possibly something of a stumble.

I personally consider this to be Wyndham’s finest book. The characters are stronger than in The Day of The Triffids; their relationships more realistic, moving and engaging. The prose is wonderful. The plot keeps moving – raising the stakes until it reaches the conclusion.

I can’t deny my deep fondness for this book. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Its values and sensibilities have helped to shape mine. I’m affectionate towards it, as you would be with a loved old friend. It also was responsible for instilling in me a romanticism; a high regard for relationships based on deep love. In a time where most science fiction writers were somewhat emotionally constipated, Wyndham paints the relationship between David and his cousin, Rosalind, in a way that those of us who can’t connect with our minds – and are restricted to physical senses – can only envy.

Full Dark, No Stars – review

Don’t ask me why, I’d just not got around to reading this one, even though I’d bought it a couple of years ago. Full Dark, No Stars consists of four (loosely) thematically linked novellas.

The first story, 1992, is a man’s first-person confession of a killing – and in many ways owes more than a tip of the hat to Poe’s A Tell-Tale Heart. The second story, Dig Driver, is darker still – the revenge of a rape victim. The third, Fair Extension, deals with a pact and its consequences – though this is far from being The Monkey’s Paw. The final story, A Good Marriage, deals with the horror of discovering that the man you’ve lived with most of your life isn’t what he seems.

Stephen King describes these stories as harsh. It’s an accurate word. Although there are hints (and sometimes more than hints) of the supernatural, these are really tales of the dark that is within us all – those parts of human nature which we tell ourselves don’t exist, or occur only rarely. We may tell ourselves this, yet we know even as we do that this is self-deceit. Such darkness is around us – we only have to watch the news to know this is the truth. Sometimes the darkness is close to us. Sometimes it is inside us.

It can be the case with a collection of shorter stories that there’s one stand-out story and at least one lame duck. Not so here. Each story is as strong as the next – an engaging plot that’s driven forwards by believable, though flawed, characters in horrific situations.

None suffer from ‘clockwork plot’ syndrome (that you can tell instantly where things are going and nothing falls in the characters’ paths). None miss a step. None dawdle or linger. None flinch in the face of giving the reader the truth – the truth that’s a bone, broken, with skin and flesh torn away. These are examinations of human nature; the dark with the light – though of course mostly dark.

Yet, the stories never become salacious. This isn’t horror porn, it’s our dark selves under scrutiny. What someone might do if tempted, pushed or cornered.

King remains a gripping writer. Someone who is able to conjure characters that are as solid and believable as your own neighbours, friends and family. He’s also someone who’s a master of not just the novel but also the novella – so unfashionable elsewhere, perhaps, but here the stories are exactly right for the word count.

Kindle Paperwhite

Kindles have come a long way in a very short time. My first Kindle, not much more than a couple of years ago, was a clunky, blocky affair. My second, the previous non-Paperwhite Kindle (the one with the keyboard) was much better – but still a little bulky.

The New Kindle Paperwhite (late 2013) is an altogether more natural feeling device. It’s compact and light – very easy on the hand. Apart from the on switch, it lacks buttons of any kind, being a touchscreen device.

New Kindle Paperwhite

New Kindle Paperwhite

My assumption was that this would be a weakness – that, like the iPad, it would be a fingerprint magnet which required frequent cleaning. Not so. It takes the lightest of touches to move from page to page; even my often sticky hands don’t seem to be making a negative impression on its screen. If I’m honest, I’d still prefer the button to be at the side of the screen – ergonomically, this seems to make the most sense, as you don’t have to even move your thumb to turn a page. But the touchscreen does work well, though I seem to have a habit of moving forwards more than one page, when I’m a little careless.

The build quality is excellent. This is a sturdy piece of kit. While the plastic on the front is smooth, the reverse is matt – just enough of the sheen removed to allow you to grip it properly. As usual, adding a case gives you more protection – but adds weight and bulk.

The screen is excellent. It’s backlit, so – for the first time with a Kindle – you can read in the dark. Indeed, you can read in almost any lighting condition. You can adjust the level of backlighting until you’re comfortable. The refresh when you turn pages now has far less of a distracting flash. Type is clear and legible.

The Kindle Paperwhite’s performance is snappy – it positively zips along when moving from page to page.

Battery life is claimed to be much better. I have to say that, with the wireless turned on, I’ve not found this to be the case – I certainly didn’t get the claimed weeks of life from it. I’ve now turned wireless off and we’ll see how much of a difference that makes.

At just over £100 (without 3G) it’s also very good value – more performance and a better screen for around the same money.

Was it worth the upgrade? I’d say yes, without a doubt. It’s lighter, more comfortable to use and it’s wonderful to be able to read in the dark, or dim light, without an add-on light. I expect that many a Christmas stocking will have one of these inside it this year.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children: a review

I’m sure the person who bought me this as a present has no idea that one of my fascinations in life is old photographs. Many’s the time I flick through them in junk shops, wondering, what exactly is the story behind each picture? Those two people, posing – lovers? Friends? Friends having an affair that no one ever found out about? That building – where is it? Does it still exist? Who lived there? Who died there?

Such is the premise behind the at first charming, at times puzzling and frequently dark Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Young Jacob’s fascination for his grandfather’s old, other-worldly photographs leads him into a world he couldn’t suspect existed – as he tries to come to terms with tragedy and with memories he knows must be impossible.

The prose is punctuated by the photographs themselves, giving the book not just something visual as an anchor but creating a deeper, more brooding atmosphere.

It’s a book of many different tones. Its language is efficient, keeping the reader moving. Its ideas sparkle with originality, fun and fear. Like the peat-bog in the story itself, the narrative keeps shifting under the reader’s feet – as you’re led into strange dark places that grow darker still as you read on. It’s also frequently gripping, with a real sense of jeopardy that increases in scale as the book progresses.

Jacob sets out to discover the truth behind his grandfather’s past at an orphanage on a remote Welsh island, but finds only the crumbling ruins of the past – the children long gone, the orphanage a ruin being reclaimed by nature. Yet as Jacob explores, he finds that the past may not be as far away as he thought.

That’s enough spoilers. I’ve had something of a ‘reading dry spell’ and this was exactly the right kind of book to break it. It seems light to begin with, but soon pulls you into its dark world. The children are not the prissy youths of so much fantasy fiction, but streetwise, sassy and conflicted. It’s well-written, with just one passage feeling oh-so-much like a scene from Woman in Black – but the rest shimmered with originality. It’s also a book that’s hard to categorise – young adult? Possibly? Horror? In parts. It dances between genres niftily, stealing from them what it will and deftly avoiding sinking in any of them.