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Archive for October, 2011

Bummer

FilmThe hubs and I started watching Luther for a couple of reasons. First, our younger son had recommended it, and second, it starred Idris Elba whom I’d come to respect for his work in The Wire, one of my all-time favorite shows. We’ve now watched the entire first season of Luther, and while it’s well done with a fascinating premise (detective establishes unwilling connection with woman he knows to be a psychopath), it’s also a major downer. In each episode the main character, John Luther, seems to become more obsessed with his own personal demons and seems closer to unraveling.

This places Luther squarely in the ranks of other BBC series that seem to specialize in bumming out the audience: Wallender and Torchwood are others in the same category. And I should point out, I’ve stopped watching both Wallender and Torchwood for that very reason. I don’t mind a dark point of view, but I’m not particularly into bleak.

But you might ask why, in that case, I’m so fond of The Wire, one of the bleakest series ever produced on American TV, and why I’m equally fond of Treme, which is produced by the same people. The reason, I think, is that they’re American bleak, and American darkness has always been leavened with black comedy.

Treme, which takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, is full of bitter, frustrating moments (one of the characters commits suicide at the end of the first season), but it’s also full of weirdly joyful ones. Steve Zahn plays a wacky but ultimately endearing musician who’s continually seesawing between the ridiculous and the sublime. The great Wendell Pierce is a struggling trombone player who alternates between financial problems and faintly hilarious predicaments, including a poker game with some legendary New Orleans musicians (Irma Thomas cleans his clock). And the other characters drift in and out of bad times and good times (with the exception of the wonderful Khandi Alexander, whose life seems to be one disaster after another).

The dark series on the BBC don’t really have that alternation. Once it’s dark in Luther, it stays dark, and you’re not going to see Idris Elba smile (a real waste if you ask me). Frankly, I get sort of tired of that approach. If I know a show is going to end with a miserable resolution and that a character I’m supposed to like is going to suffer endlessly, I’m not going to watch it with anything like enthusiasm. After a while, I got tired of Torchwood’s tendency to kill off its characters and to end every episode with misery.

I’ve already written about the contrast between Kurt Wallender and Raylan Givens on Justified, and I stand by my assessment that Raylan is a more interesting character. But now I think I’d expand that to say that I prefer American darkness to the European kind. At least with dark American series, you know there will be some variety rather than unrelieved black.

At the end of the first season of Treme, the characters have a panoply of reasons to feel like crap—they’ve lost family and friends, their livelihoods are in serious jeopardy, and it’s not at all clear that the city will be able to recover. But the final episode of the season includes a jazz funeral that ends with the traditional dance back from the cemetery. And the characters, even those with every reason to be heartbroken, dance. Bless ‘em.

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Chemistry

BooksI recently read a romantic suspense novel from an author I really like—I think I’ve actually read everything she’s ever written. The plot in this one is up to her standard—intricate, complex, and growing out of a confluence of motives that are tough to anticipate. And the hero and heroine have zero chemistry.

I thought about this when I reached the midpoint of the book. The h/h kept looking at each other lustfully, reacting to broad shoulders and a neat feminine figure. And the hero keeps saying (in the requisite husky voice) that he plans on going to bed with the heroine. But I never believed it. I kept thinking if they went to bed together, the only thing they were going to do was sleep.

I’m not sure what makes for believable chemistry between a hero and heroine, but I think first of all readers have to find them attractive in their own right. In other words, we have to like them first before we can believe their significant other would fall for them. In a way, we have to fall for them too. That’s the problem I have with a lot of the eighties-style caveman alphas—I don’t much like them personally and I have a hard time believing any sane woman would feel otherwise.

But it isn’t just the hero who has to be likeable. Take Mary Shannon in In Plain Sight. Mary is irascible, pigheaded, and sometimes seems to dislike everyone around her. But she’s also honorable to those she cares about and surprisingly vulnerable for someone so seemingly immune to public opinion. I like Mary a lot. But I didn’t like the heroine of this novel, who came across as altogether too cold and invulnerable. She was very good at her job, but she didn’t seem to feel much for anyone else. Around the fifth time she told the hero she wasn’t interested in him (the point at which you normally mutter yeah, right), I began wishing he’d take her at her word.

For attraction to be genuine, then, it has to be based on something real. You have to believe the h/h could actually fall for one another. If they’re going to go around denying their attraction, as is common in romance, you have to feel that deep down they know it’s a lie. Deep down they know they want each other bad. And for all of that to happen, you have to feel attraction yourself. You have to feel that, yeah, that guy really is pretty hot and yeah, that woman probably could kick up a hormonal rush or two.

If you don’t feel that way, and I didn’t in this particular book, it’s really hard to believe anybody else would either. By the end of that book, I found myself hoping the h/h there would shake hands and head off into the sunset—with somebody else.

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Film ReelA couple of weeks ago, the redoubtable PG Forte and I had an extended debate on Twitter (as we’re wont to do) about the merits of True Grit. PG preferred the Henry Hathaway/John Wayne version. I’m a fan of the Coen Brother/Jeff Bridges one. I don’t want to rehash the entire discussion here, but the gist of my argument was that the Coen Brothers were more true to Charles Portis’s book than Henry Hathaway was.

Which is, of course, not much of an argument. Books and movies are two different genres, and movies are by no means required to be true to their sources. All of us can cite some terrible example of a movie that did violence to a favorite book (my mother could never mention the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh without grimacing). At the same time, there are movies that are actually better than the original book (The Godfather and Silence Of the Lambs leap to mind). So saying a movie did a good job of adapting a book is faint praise, although I still think it accounts for the different tone and look of the Coen Brothers True Grit.

The problem in adapting a book for the screen is obvious—books take place in your head, and movies…don’t. This problem doesn’t have to be insurmountable, but it’s always going to be there. And sometimes, for some people, the problem will be acute. My prime example of this is True Blood.

Now I’m a huge fan of Charlaine Harris’s work. In fact, I had already read books in two other series she wrote (her Aurora Teagarden books and the Lily Bard series) before I read the first Sookie Stackhouse. Harris always writes in first person and her voice is distinctive. Although all of her heroines sound different, they also sound faintly similar. And that voice conveys certain qualities—her heroines are frequently damaged or hurt in some way (Harris’s most recent heroine, Harper Connelly, develops the ability to find dead bodies after being struck by lightning), and they’re all survivors. After hearing Harris’s voice in the Sookie Stackhouse books, I’d developed a definite idea of Sookie’s character. She was tough but vulnerable, an intriguing mixture of innocence and hard-edged practicality.

I approached the HBO series with a certain amount of trepidation—would they present a convincing version of Bontemps, Louisiana? Would they be able to get Sookie right? The answers to these questions, at least for me, were yes and no. Bontemps looked and sounded right, and I loved some of the actors who managed to reproduce Harris’s characters effectively—Sam Trammell, Stephen Moyer, and Andrew Sarsgard in particular. But I just couldn’t buy Anna Paquin as Sookie.

It isn’t that Paquin isn’t a good actress—she is. And I’m sure she’s playing the role the way her producers and directors want it played. And I’m also sure (because I’ve been told repeatedly) that other Harris fans think she’s wonderful. But she’s not the Sookie I heard in my head as I read the books, that tough but vulnerable survivor with her mixture of common sense and yearning. To me, Paquin’s Sookie has a sort of Jessica Simpson quality, and I was thinking more Julia Stiles.

Is this the fault of the series? Nope. My guess is that everybody who reads Harris will come up with their own version of Sookie Stackhouse. And for many people, Paquin may be a close approximation of the Sookie Stackhouse who lives in their heads. But that’s the central issue with creating a visual version of something that’s not visual at all. Books are, after all, a medium that requires the reader to do the visualizing. And chances are we’re all going to visualize the characters somewhat differently. For me, Anna Paquin just isn’t the Sookie I knew.

And in case you’re wondering PG, I still prefer Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn to John Wayne.

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