From Page to Pixel

So Hollywood has made a hash of Anna Karenina. That’s a disappointment. Joe Wright and Keira Knightley have teamed up before in films based on significant novels, with mixed success. Viewers liked or didn’t like their Atonement for the same reason they liked or didn’t like the book and its last-minute emotional switcheroo. Before that, they made the really awful Pride and Prejudice—a box-office success that made Austen fans cringe. (The last scene, yuck! Yuck!)

When I heard Knightley would play Anna, I admit to being skeptical. Perhaps it’s the way she’s photographed, but she’s always too “on,” too aware of her external self, her perfect face, never revealing anything inside. Is anything inside? As Anna, “there’s nothing to discover in her face because she’s too much in ours,” said New York magazine critic David Edelstein.

Alas, what gives many novels their power is that internal stuff. Somehow moviemakers have to move the story and the characters with their balled-up and conflicting desires/histories/strengths/flaws from page to pixel. This week, at the last session of my class on Dickens, we watched excerpts from a 1983 video/film adaptation of one of the books we’d read, Dombey & Son. Squeezing a 950-page novel into even 300 minutes (10, 30-minute episodes) inevitably loses a lot, especially a book like Dombey, where the main plot drivers are characters’ internal “heart,” not external events. (That would be A Tale of Two Cities.) Still, it captured much of the essence and was not nearly so awful as 1998’s “modernized” Great Expectations.

It isn’t easy to modernize the classics, though Clueless did just fine in updating Emma. Pip’s determination to “be a gentleman” doesn’t resonate today. Dombey’s wife’s desire for a divorce doesn’t carry the same shock as 160 years ago. Pages of exposition that help readers today understand the characters’ view of the world and why particular issues are fundamental to them are necessarily lost. When they are put before us on screen without all that context, they feel like cardboard cutouts, “a bright red heart without a beat,” as film critic Peter Howell said of the new Anna.

Lack of a heart, a center, isn’t confined to films of the classics; even movies of modern books can be frustratingly opaque. Those are the films where you say to yourself, “What does she see in him?” or “Why is he doing that?” Oddly, what would seem an unlikely novel to make a successful transition to film was Life of Pi. The filmmakers used the long stretches at sea to present uncluttered narration that revealed Pi’s character. The movie works because the people in it and their motivations are understood, viewers can empathize with them, and they find a little piece of Pi’s struggle within their own hearts.

“30 Days and Nights of Literary Abandon”

The first question almost everyone asks when they learn I’ve written a novel is, “Do you plot everything out in advance, or do you figure it out as you go?” The answer is “Both.” I have a general idea of where I will end up, and I point the plot in that direction, but the route is unclear until I get there. Thousands of people—many of whom have never written a book before—are discovering their fictional paths this month.

We are reaching the middle of National Novel Writing Month (awkwardly abbreviated NaNoWriMo). Participating authors from countries around the world already report they have set down some 1.2 billion words. Skimming the long list of NaNoWriMo participants whose books drafted during this annual literary frenzy were ultimately published, I found Hugh Howey’s Wool, Kindle Book Review’s 2012 Indie Book of the Year. I happen to be listening to Wool on my iPod. I’ll bet there are authors in the list whom you know, too.

NaNoWriMo encourages participants to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days. In its first year, 21 writers participated, and six reached the finish line. (I use that term loosely, since completing the first draft of a novel is pretty darn far from anything resembling a “finish.”) Last year, the 14-year-old program had 256, 618 participants, 14 percent of whom reached the goal. Though they undoubtedly will have further work to do, this is a tremendous accomplishment.

The whole idea of NaNoWriMo appeals to me as a helpful boot camp for writers, aspiring or accomplished. It stresses the importance of writing every day—sustained effort—and shows writers they are capable of actually finishing something. Too many of us have promising, half-complete manuscripts languishing in drawers and Word files,  awaiting the return of a Muse who has apparently decamped to Brazil. NaNoWriMo’s fixed and tight deadline requires writers to power through at a blistering 1700-words-a-day pace, barely leaving time to roast the Thanksgiving turkey.

NaNoWriMo offers moral support and coaching through regional support groups. It took my breath away to learn that my region (Central New Jersey) has almost 3500 NaNoWriMo participants! The “shared experience” this encourages is based on the founder’s first experiment with the concept in July 1999. “We called it noveling,” he says. “And after the noveling ended on August 1, my sense of what was possible for myself, and those around me, was forever changed.”

A wistful look comes over people’s faces when they find out I’ve written a novel and published short stories. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” they say. If they do, there will be a rocky road ahead, but what I tell them about is the joy in traveling it. In future, I’ll also tell them about National Novel Writing Month.

As the NaNoWriMo folks say, “Win or lose, you rock for even trying.”

Sandy, Sandy

Such an easy-going name, and such a wallop. Rain, wind, and fire. Six days later, the aftermath continues. For some, it will never end. For people who have lost loved ones—tragically, preventably. For people who must rebuild their lives from nothing but determination and an abundances of resources they will not find at Home Depot.

When he came back inside the store [as the storm approached], a woman was sitting at the bottom of a rolling ladder in the cabinet fixtures aisle, crying. She had her face cupped in her hands. He thought to sidestep the hassle and let someone else explain that the store was sold out of everything she would need. “Waterwalkers” in Corpus Christi: Stories, Bret Anthony Johnston, 2005.

The overwhelming reaction among my local friends is, “We were lucky.” There may be a 40-foot tree resting on the roof, they may have no power (or heat or light or refrigeration), the Internet may be down, work and school may be closed, gasoline may be rationed, the quiet inside may be deafening, and outside, the drone of chain saws like a wasp in the brain, but, “We were lucky.” A response that displays a sense of perspective and respects the storm’s startling power.

How a confluence of natural forces can create a “perfect storm” was minutely examined in Sebastian Junger’s 1997 book, whose title has become an overworked metaphor for catastrophic events of all kinds. Junger’s straightforward descriptions don’t allow misinterpretation: “A mature hurricane is by far the most powerful event on earth . . . and could provide all the electric power needed by the United States for three or four years.” No surprise, then, that such a storm could turn oceanfront homes into kindling in a matter of hours. Yet, for some, even the term “mandatory evacuation” didn’t command sufficient attention.

Not giving ground to Nature is a persistent human error. The poor folks who settled around Lake Okeechobee in Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, saw the Seminoles, the buzzards, then all the animals leaving the low-lying area around the lake in a determined procession. Some folks heeded these signs and the hurricane warnings, but others paid a hard price for waiting too long.

Another man clung to a cypress tree on a tiny island. A tin roof of a building hung from the branches by electric wires and the wind swung it back and forth like a mighty ax. The man dared not move a step to his right lest this crushing blade split him open. He dared not step left for a large rattlesnake was stretched full length with his head in the wind.

Writers, painters, composers–all have worked to capture the fury of wind and water and the terror and searing grief people feel in the grip of uncontrollable forces.

The King’s son, Ferdinand, with hair upstaring—then like reeds, not hair—was the first man that leaped, cried, “Hell is empty, and all the Devils are here.” Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act I, Scene ii.

Stuck in Italy—Really?

[Post by Eugenia Clarke, the fictional heroine of the Eugenia Clarke mysteries by Victoria Weisfeld]

I glimpsed a magazine story headline the other day: “Stuck in Italy for Thanksgiving,” and it started me thinking. In my opinion, the only place to be on Thanksgiving Day is at my brother’s house, eating turkey, enjoying the vegetables from his organic farm, trying to decide, pumpkin or pecan?, and watching the Redskins on TV. But if you don’t have a family cornucopia like ours and if Grandma has taken off with her boyfriend to St. John . . . Italy will do! Like everyone else who travels, I’ve been stuck at airports more times than I can count. And I’ve sure been stuck in D.C.’s Beltway traffic. (Pause for lengthy string of obscenities.) But “stuck” in Italy? How is that even possible?

I say this even though my most recent Italian adventure had some pretty dark moments. Last month I was in Rome researching an article and was mugged. My fault, wasn’t thinking. I didn’t follow the mounds of advice I’ve dished out to my readers like mashed potatoes on Turkey Day. I ended up with broken ribs and stuff (don’t ask!), which meant I couldn’t fly for a while, so technically I was stuck, but I made new friends, met a man (do ask!), and spent a couple of weeks staying out of sight and out of the reach of the mafia freaks who wanted to finish the job—something I accomplished only imperfectly, I’m sorry to say.

Safe home in Virginia now and back to the gym, my yoga class, and starting some intensive lessons in Arabic. Enough to get me past the stage where my brain just shrieks “foreign language!” and pops out a word at random. Could be Greek, German, whatever. It’s a language stew up in there sometimes.

Even under the incredibly trying circumstances–recovering from my injuries, looking like hell, my nerves a wreck, the meds–Italy was a fabulous place to be, and I did finish my article on deadline. Do you see me patting myself on the back? The piece is about “everything new” Rome has to offer. You can read it in the March issue of My Mapps, and you’ll find The Eternal City still has awesome surprises up her fashionable sleeve.

Happy—and safe—travels.

P.S. I hope to tell you more about my Rome adventure—someday!

[Note to readers—My Mapps exists only in Eugenia’s world, where deadlines are reasonable, the copy-editing actually helpful, and payments are prompt.–vw]



Endings and the Reader’s Imagination

“I wished it would never end.” How many times have readers said that as they closed their book with a sigh. I’ve caught myself reading slower and slower over the last few pages of a book I’ve loved, just to delay the inevitable!

For a class on Dickens I’m taking this fall, I just reread A Tale of Two Cities. At the end, the travelling coach carrying Lucie and her daughter, Doctor Manette, Mr. Lorry, and the unconscious Sidney Carton speeds away from Paris in its desperate escape. We know that the unconscious man is really Lucie’s husband Charles and that Carton has taken his place in the tumbrils headed for the guillotine. I waited in vain for identity of the slumbering man to be recognized, for Charles to wake up and realize he had been “recalled to life.”

But Dickens doesn’t give us that scene. He leaves us to imagine it. I can see amazement and joy mixing with horror and guilt when the realization finally comes to them, and they understand what Carton has done. What, in fact, he told Lucie he would do, some 200 pages earlier: “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.” I see Lucie’s misery, as she recognizes the implications of Carton’s vow and feel the unbearable weight of her promise to keep it secret.

My vision of that scene—and yours—is beyond the covers. Our own ending to solve and resolve.

Sunday we saw the new movie Argo. A lot in that movie takes place by inference. As in the real world, the participants don’t have complete information and neither does the viewer, though we have the benefit of some multiple perspectives. Glimpses of the treatment of the main body of hostages let us imagine the rest. Likewise, details of the escape of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, also in deadly peril, must be mostly created by the viewer.

Have you imagined final scenes involving the characters of stories you read, see, or listen to? Share!