Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

The Need for Factual Fiction

Editor’s Note: Last week I wrote a blog post that touched on the relationship between fact and fiction in Sony’s controversial film, The Interview and in another film from 75 years ago, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This week I am honored to present this guest post by Alton Gansky, an accomplished author of more than 40 books and the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Gansky also examines the relationship between fact and fiction, this time in the classic movie, Inherit the Wind. I think you will enjoy his perspective. 

By Alton Gansky

In January of 2015, Baker Books will release my latest nonfiction work, 30 Events That Shaped the Church. It comes on the heels of the 2014 release, 60 People Who Shaped the Church. Some are surprised to learn that I write book-length nonfiction. True most of my books are novels but I also enjoy and see great value in producing nonfiction books as well.

While preparing 30 Events I went through a long list of possible topics. In the end, one chapter caught my attention and so infiltrated my mind that I’m still researching it long after I turned the manuscript in. As I worked through the centuries I came upon a week long event that most of us have heard of but few of us know much about: The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. When I research I try to keep my mind free of bias, which is a difficult thing to do. Still, I thought I knew a fair amount about the “Trial of the Century.” I didn’t.

Part of my preparation was to watch an old movie (1960), based on an older stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind. I remember it being one of the best movies ever made, made all the more memorable by actors like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, as well as Gene Kelly (no dancing in this movie), and Dick York (later of Bewitched fame) who portrayed John T. Scopes (Bertram T. Cates in the movie). This time, I watched the movie with a critical eye and was surprised how far they had strayed from the truth.

To be fair, Lawrence and Lee, as well as director Stanley Kramer, went out to their way to alert viewers that they were watching a movie, not a documentary. The movie begins with these words:

Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own. [. . .] So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre.”

I appreciate the honesty of the writers. Still—and this is the problem with some types of fiction—many took the events as historical fact. To this day, people who have seen the movie think:

William Jennings Bryan was a glutton. (He was a diabetic on a very strict diet at the time of the trial.)

Clarence Darrow crushed Bryan’s beliefs as the latter sat in the witness stand. (Darrow ridicule people of faith but it had no impact on Bryan.)

That Bryan was a buffoon. (He ran for president three times, was a great orator, served as Secretary of State, and was a gifted writer).

That the townspeople of Dayton wanted to hang Scopes from a tree. (Nothing of the sort happened.)

And that Bryan died in the courtroom, the victim of Darrow’s grueling examination and ridicule of biblical stores. (Bryan died five days later from complications of diabetes. He remained active in the days following the trial.)

When I was in college, my psychology professor told the class that the human mind has trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction. It is the reason we jump in scary movies or tear up reading a sad scene.

All of this to say, that we as author’s of fiction need to take care how we represent figures and events in history. Lawrence and Lee went so far as to change the name of the characters (although they also went out of their way to make the actors look like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow). Despite their efforts, fifty-four years after the movie (longer for the play the preceded it) people still think the movie is trustworthy history.

This realization puts a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of novelists. While the novelist’s goal is to entertain, we in the Christian market also want to edify and to do so we need to be as accurate as we can be when portraying real people.

William Jennings Bryan’s reputation and work was sullied by the play and later the movie, despite the authors’ and director’s efforts to make clear their story was only loosely drawn from the real 1925 court case. Nonetheless, many have taken the fiction and see it as fact.

We novelist take some needed liberties in our creation, but when it involves real people from the past (or worse, vaguely disguised characterizations of living people), then we run the risk of doing harm.

 

Alton Gansky has written over 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His latest work 30 Events That Shaped the ChurchLearning from scandal, intrigue, war, and revival releases mid January 2015. He is also the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. www.altongansky.com – See more at: http://altongansky.typepad.com/writersconferences/2014/12/the-need-for-factual-fiction.html#sthash.dBW1l0nG.dpuf

 

 

Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.

Will Novels, Movies and Video Games All Blend Into One?

Is the day soon coming, or has it already arrived, when consumers won’t see much difference between reading a novel, watching a movie, and playing a video game?

Over the past year, I have seen lots of evidence that the boundaries that used to separate these and other categories are breaking down.

For example, until recently, if you planned to read a celebrity’s autobiography, that meant you went out and bought a book, which you would read page-by-page as the author reflected on his or her life.

Now, however, that is the old-fashioned way to do it. Today I saw an article about the actor Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography, which takes a much different approach. It is an interactive autobiography, which shares similarities to a video game. The description of the “book” on Amazon.com asks, “Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”?” The reader of Harris’s book doesn’t simply read about the actor’s life, but lives it: “You will be born to New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp….Even better, at each critical juncture of your life you will choose how to proceed. You will decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. You will decide whether to spend years struggling with your sexuality. You will decide what kind of caviar you want to eat on board Elton John’s yacht.”

All these choices have consequences for the reader: “Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas.” As if that were not enough, the book also contains recipes, a song, and magic tricks!

The Hobbit: Book, Movie, or Video Game?

Another example of category-blending that stands out to me is the most recent Hobbit movie, Desolation of Smaug. The category-blending I’m referring to is not the fact that I first experienced The Hobbit as a book, and now it is a series of films. Books and films are still separate categories. I am talking about the blending of categories within the film itself.

As I watched the movie, there were times when I couldn’t help but think I was actually experiencing a video game, especially in battle scenes that felt entirely different from anything I remember from the book. In one part, for example, dwarves rush down a raging river in barrels as orcs (many orcs) attack them and as elves attack the orcs. I half expected the elves to get 100 points per orc or dwarves to get bonus points for making it past certain barriers. It was an exciting scene, but it didn’t feel like a movie in those parts.

Many actions movies have that video game feel now, as bad guys (or creatures, or robots, or other villains) get wiped out in large numbers in battle sequences that seem to go on for a very long time. Think of the Transformers movies or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or many others. Many scenes could be transferred almost directly into a video game.

As Movies Become Games, Games Become…Movies? Books?

Of course, as films become more like video games, many video games, with their more elaborate plots, complex characters, and lush and realistic visuals, now feel more like films. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they have begun to resemble television series, like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, with storylines that extend over longer periods and characters that can become as familiar as the real people in our lives.

That depth of character and plot sophistication found in recent TV series such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey remind many viewers and readers of yet another category of storytelling, the novel.

“Reality” now merely another story category

Now, even the category known as “reality” is breaking down. I don’t mean reality television, which is its own category-blending genre, but I am talking about real life itself. It used to be that video games copied reality. You played a game to feel what it was like to fight in a battle, or race a car around a track, or ski down a slope. Now experiences are being created to reverse that, in other words to bring the thrill of video games into real life.

The New York Times reported this summer on an experience called Escape Rooms, in which people are trapped together in a room and are given clues and puzzles and codes to solve in order to escape. It’s a video-game-like experience, but without the video. You’re in a real room with real people, and you’re really trapped (although you’re eventually set free even if you don’t solve the clues).

Not everybody likes these trends. When some people go to a movie, for instance, they don’t want a video game stuck in the middle of it. They want their categories pure. On the other hand, there has never been time when people had more ways to enjoy storytelling in every imaginable form. My prediction is that as time goes on, the categories will break down even further, and more and more viewers/readers/players will come to expect the inventive techniques.

OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading

Creating a Perfect Opening for a Novel—Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep”

In the California literature Honors course that I am teaching at Azusa Pacific University this semester, we are studying Raymond Chandler’s novel, The Big Sleep, a classic of hardboiled detective fiction that features private investigator Philip Marlowe solving mysteries in a noir-ish and unforgettable Los Angeles setting.

After the students read the book, one of the first ways we studied it was simply to read out loud and analyze the first few pages. Chandler wastes no time. His opening establishes the novel’s tone and atmosphere, captures the personality of the narrator Marlowe, and propels the plot into motion. It isn’t easy to do all those things at once. If you don’t believe me, try it.

Take a look at The Big Sleep’s first two paragraphs:

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high. Over the entrance doors, which would have let in a troop of Indian elephants, there was a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armor rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. he didn’t seem to be really trying.

What information do we learn from these two paragraphs? A private detective has dressed up in a nice suit in order to call on a wealthy client who lives in a mansion.

Those are the facts, but Chandler’s words tell us much more. Why describe the outfit in such detail, even down to the socks? If you pick up a hint of sarcasm in that little bit of over-description, it is confirmed in the next sentence: “I was neat, clean shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.” That declaration conveys more than the surface meaning of the words. As one of my students put it, “Someone who is usually sober doesn’t need to point out that he is sober.” The same is true for being clean and shaved. Marlowe may be revealing a few weaknesses in that sentence, but also a few strengths: he’s frank, down-to-earth, and he has a self-deprecating sense of humor. I like him already.

Almost every sentence in these two paragraphs has something to commend it. For example, take at “I was calling on four million dollars.” A lesser writer might have settled for something like, “I was calling on a wealthy client.” Chandler’s sentence is better than that in both tone and content. We now know how wealthy General Sternwood is (his four million is in late 1930s dollars), and more importantly, the tone indicates Marlowe is not over-awed by money.

His sarcasm toward ostentatious displays of wealth is extended in the second paragraph, when he describes the Sternwood mansion. He doesn’t need any direct comment about how gaudy he thinks the place is. The fact that the entrance doors “would have let in a troop of Indian elephants” tells the reader plenty about Marlowe’s attitude toward the house. His commentary on the stained-glass artwork tells us as much about the unpretentious detective as it does about the questionable artistic taste of the Sternwoods.

The opening paragraphs of The Big Sleep let us know we are starting a journey with a narrator who knows what he’s doing, both as a detective and as a storyteller. We like him from the start, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He doesn’t disappoint.

Is Literature Necessary? (Part 4) “Consumed by Story”

Note: This is the fourth in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

To view the first post in this series, scroll down or click here. To view the second post, scroll down or click here. To view the third post, scroll down or click here.

Consumed by Story

By Kate Sullivan, APU Honors Student

Throughout all of mankind humans have connected with stories. As Renita J. Weems says in an essay on the womanism movement, “Stories offer readers an inner script to live by, glimpses into the way things are, and more importantly reason and a way to talk about things ought not to be” (Weems 36). We were not simply content with knowing we live on the Earth, instead we make up stories to explain why we are here and make sense of the universe in which we are immersed. As humankind has evolved, the love for stories has not dissipated. Quite the opposite outcome has occurred. Instead of a vanishing media for story telling, a plethora has showed up. A challenge now arises as we go forward: where does literature fit in this high tech era? I hold that literature will always remain important and unique because it captures the imagination in a way different from any other type of media.

Literature connects with the imagination on a deep level because as a reader we dream up a story that is uniquely our own. Although the words are the same for each reader, the characters and imagery are unique to the possessor of the story. This is a quality no other media outlet can really claim, for in movies, TV shows, and video games the character and scenery are created by the authors, and the viewer simply joins their world. The limitation of such media is the viewer only imagines what is set before them. Literature is free from this problem for in reading, the imagination is only led by the words and the rest is entirely within the discretion of the person enjoying the story. This connection gives the reader a type of ownership to the story that surpasses other media sources.

This ownership gives literature its greatest asset that no other media can capture. The deep connection to a body of literature drives a passion for the story and the ideals held in that story. William Jong comments, “Literature preserves the ideals of a people; and ideals–love, faith, duty, friendship, freedom, reverence–are the part of human life most worthy of preservation.” (Jong). The more I connect with a piece of literature, the greater it consumes me and begins to affect my life. Literature has such a tremendous power to consume a reader as they read and as they carry the story on in everyday life.

There is no question that literature will continue to survive in the high tech era that surrounds us, the question is why does it continue to be a favorite medium of so many. It will always be my favorite because literature offers a way for me to escape the reality around me and enter a completely different world. Unlike other media where I am only a visitor, in stories on paper I am the co-creator with the author. No other media has the power to make me stop, think, cry, smile, and laugh quite as well as novels. Socrates’ writings did not survive because of the special effects and sound track, they survived because they captured the mind and heart. The power of literature will always be that the author never truly owns a story; it belongs to each person who sits down and is changed by what they find.

(Note: Kate Sullivan blogs at http://collegegirlonthemove.wordpress.com/.)

 

Works Cited

Jong, William J., PH.D. English Literature: Its History and Its Significance for the Life of the English Speaking World. N.p.: Gutenburg Ebook, 2004. Gutenburg.org. Gutenburg Press, 6 Jan. 2004. Web. 21 Aug. 2012. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10609/10609-h/10609-h.htm#chap1>.

Weems, Renita J. “Re-Reading for Liberation: African American Women and the Bible.”Voices from the Margin: Interpreting the Bible in the Third World. Ed. Sugirtharajah, R. S.  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2006. 27-39. Print.

Is Literature Still Necessary? (Part 2) “Literary Labor”

Note: This is the second in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

To view the first post in this series, scroll down or click here.

Literary Labor

by Bethany Wagner, APU Honors student

After a long, exhausting day in the classroom or at the office, a book offers what no movie or TV show or video game can: the chance to kick back on the couch with a steaming mug of tea…and get to work.

Work? Who would want that at the end of the day when The Bachelor is on? Yes, reading is work, oftentimes hard work. But it is not the tiresome work of scrubbing food off plates or hauling stacks of dirty clothes to the Laundromat.

It is the work of figuring out what Dickens meant by that mysterious allegory, and deciphering exactly what apozemical means, and trying to solve who killed so-and-so before Sherlock Holmes does. Most of all, it is the work of finding how your story—where you come from, who you are, what you believe—fits into the story you hold in your hands.

Would I have been able to refuse the White Witch’s Turkish delight? Would I have been unselfish enough to make the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton? Do I agree with this character’s philosophy? Do I agree with that author’s depiction of religion? Some questions are harder to answer than others, one book more difficult to place yourself in than the next, but all pull the reader into the story, and all call the gears of the mind to work—not to monotonous drudgery, but to a joyous, satisfying work that engages the imagination.

Compare the feeling of finishing a movie or video game to that of finishing a piece of fine literature. At the end of the average movie, I might think something along the lines of, Well that was cool…I guess it’s time for bed. A particularly good, thought-provoking movie perhaps leaves me with stronger feelings of contentment or conviction. Finishing a video game might leave me feeling a bit more accomplished, although there is always the nagging thought in the back of my head that maybe…just maybe…all those hours in front of the screen pressing buttons might have been better spent elsewhere.

But after turning the last pages of A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Divorce, Paradise Lost—even books like Harry Potter, a little bit less of a “task” to read—I have no regrets. I did it. I read the words, entered the world, took my part in the story, added my voice, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even when I came across words like apozemical).

As I write this I am sitting on the floor in between bookshelves in one of those buildings that are testaments to the wonders of literature—a library. Books of all sizes and colors and topics, each with its own story, surround me, and though I will sadly never read them all, I feel a sort of kinship to each one. I know that if I were to pick up any one of them, crack open its cover, and begin reading, that book would allow me to enter its world as a partner in its authorship.

A movie is a two-and-a-half-hour performance where I can tune out the world and relax. A video game lets me in a little bit deeper by allowing me to press a few buttons that result in the death of an Orc or a sword fight here and there. But it is the book…and only the book…that fully engages the mind, calling me to enter into its story, and at the same time allowing me to work at telling my own.

On the Necessity of Cultivating a Secret Life

When people hear of someone having a “secret life” or “secret self,” their first impression is probably negative. They might think of someone having an affair or extorting money from his company. They might think of a politician using secret funds to hide and mistress and a baby.

But a secret life—or lives—doesn’t have to mean hiding something illicit. I would go so far as to say that for me, maintaining a secret life is necessary for holding on to my joy and sanity.

One of the most popular novels of all time—Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—is about a secret life. I teach this book in an Honors literature course at my university, and every student who approaches it already knows the basic story, even though most have never read the original novel. The story is so popular that near 100 films and TV shows have been made of it. The story has been retold in comic books and in other forms. It has been translated into many languages.

Why is the Jekyll and Hyde story so popular? Some see it only as a morality tale about a man’s evil side taking over once that evil has been given free reign. I do think that’s partly what the book is about, but I think its deeper appeal is that it touches readers’ desires for a self that can experience lives other than the mundane, somewhat Continue reading

Why I Don’t Watch Movies Based on Books I Care About

I have never seen The Lord of the Rings movies and probably never will. Whenever I have mentioned this to anyone, the most common response is, “But they’re so good.”

The fact that they’re good makes me want to see them even less.

Why?

I read the books many years ago, and the experience was so powerful that I walked around for days only partially aware of my own reality. Scenes from those novels played in my mind almost as vividly as my own real memories. I don’t want anyone else’s scenes to replace the ones in my head, any more than I would want someone’s film adaptation of my childhood to replace memories of my actual childhood.

That’s why I have stopped going to movies made of books that are really important to me. Doing so has usually led to disappointment. The worst examples are movies made from the books of Ernest Hemingway, who is an important writer to me. I have never seen a satisfying movie based on one of Hemingway’s better books. The better the book, the worse the movie. If I had never read the books, maybe I could have enjoyed some of those movies, but I regret seeing every one of them.

I watched the Robert Redford version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby long before I had adopted this practice of avoiding such films. It is a decent and enjoyable movie, but now I can never read Gatsby without picturing Continue reading