Sunday, 19 January 2020

On 2 new Jane Austen adaptations [updated]

This blog post was originally published on 23/11/2019. I’m now adding an addendum to argue against myself, and republishing it. 

Original text on 23/11/2019:
1/ Sanditon (2019): 

The trailer for the series doesn’t look too bad, except that the music feels off. However, I have no intention of watching it because of Andrew Davies. I have criticised him several times and will say it again: he adapts classic works with the delusion that he is improving them, and sexes up everything from Jane Austen to George Eliot and even Tolstoy. He is responsible for the misrepresentation (and misunderstanding) of Jane Austen in popular culture, and ruins everything he touches.
A few months ago, whilst reading Little Dorrit, I considered watching his adaptation. But then I came across his crude remarks about Dickens and Amy Dorrit, and thought that someone who had such thoughts wouldn’t have enough understanding and sensitivity to adapt Little Dorrit.
So I’ve never seen it.
To go back to the adaptation of Sanditon, I read the book in 2016. It’s more worrisome that it’s an unfinished novel, which means that Andrew Davies would have had more freedom with characters and storyline. I’ve also seen a few reactions here and there that make me think I wouldn’t like it.

2/ Emma (2020):

Do we need another Emma? Not really. But I’m going to see it anyway.
So far I’ve seen the Kate Beckinsale one, the Gwyneth Paltrow one, and Clueless. Clueless is the best—such a radical adaptation (moving Emma’s story to modern day’s American high school) explains Jane Austen’s universal appeal and adaptability. It also shows that a loose adaptation with changed settings may retain the author’s spirit a lot better than many adaptations that appear faithful on the surface.
Regarding this new adaptation, it looks mad. It makes me think of Love and Friendship (adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan). Maybe I’ll like it. Maybe I’ll hate it. I don’t know. But it’s very different from the 2 adaptations from 1996, in tone—that is, if the film is like the trailer.


Addendum on 19/1/2020: 
Have you ever felt convinced that you’ve watched a film, only to realise later that you haven’t, and there’s no reason for you to have thought so? 
Because that’s me with the Emma adaptation with Kate Beckinsale. Unbelievable. But the wrong has been righted—I saw it yesterday. 
Since I wrote the text above a few months ago, I’ve seen the Kate Beckinsale’s Emma, rewatched Clueless, and seen a longer trailer of the 2020 Emma twice at the cinema, and my thoughts have changed.  
1/ I previously had strong words about Andrew Davies, and my stance remains the same regarding the adaptations where he sexes it up and ruins something, especially Daniel Deronda and Pride and Prejudice. However, he’s the writer for the Kate Beckinsale’s Emma, and I must say it’s a very good adaptation. 
I can’t compare it to the Emma film with Gwyneth Paltrow, which came out the same year (1996), because I don’t remember that one. But I remember not thinking much of Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Emma, whereas I think Kate Beckinsale is good and very lovable as Emma. Which leads to: 
2/ Now, having seen the long trailer twice, I’m convinced I’m going to dislike the new Emma.  
Why? Because of the cast.   
Emma Woodhouse, in my opinion, is very difficult to cast, because the audience are meant to like her in spite of her faults. Emma can be thoughtless, snobbish, and meddlesome; she may misinterpret everything, make mistakes, and hurt others; but deep down she is kind, means to do well, tries to help others, and has self-reflection (like other Jane Austen heroines). It is important that Emma is charming and lovable. A miscast Emma may appear haughty, contemptuous, shallow, egoistic, annoying, and so on.  
Kate Beckinsale, to me, is perfect as Emma. Alicia Silverstone also has the qualities to make her likable as the modern-day version. 
I’m not so sure about Anya Taylor-Joy. 
I also don’t like Johnny Flynn as George Knightley (especially after seeing Mark Strong), nor Callum Turner as Frank Churchill—I don’t think Johnny Flynn has the right look for Knightley, and Callum Turner looks too obvious as a scumbag and doesn’t seem to have the charisma of Frank, but maybe it’s hard to tell from the trailer alone. 
A friend of mine who also likes Jane Austen thinks the new Emma seems to have too much comedy. That may or may not work (Love & Friendship is hysterical, and it’s excellent). But the cast? I have my doubts.

100 latest films I've just watched

From December 2018 to January 2020 
In bold: films that I consider good

1/ Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander- Sweden- 1982)- 312-minute version- again
2/ One, Two, Three (1961)- again
3/ The Death of Stalin (2017)
4/ Roma (2018)
5/ The House of the Spirits (Germany, Denmark, Portugal- 1993)- again
6/ Io sono l'amore (I am Love- Italy- 2009)
7/ Touch of Evil (1958)- version re-edited by Walter Murch according to Orson Welles's notes- again
8/ Otto e mezzo (8 1/2- Italy- 1963)- again
9/ The Favourite (2018)
10/ Nightcrawler (2014)
11/ Le notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria- Italy- 1957)- again
12/ A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
13/ Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face- France- 1960)- again
14/ Un condamné à mort s'est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut (A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth- France- 1956)
15/ Abducted in Plain Sight (2017)
16/ Green Book (2018)
17/ Vice (2018)
18/ Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
19/ Baby Driver (2017)- again
20/ L'amant double (Double Lover- France- 2017)
21/ The Greatest Showman (2017)
22/ I vitelloni (Italy- 1953)- again
23/ The Firm (1993)- again
24/ Chinatown (1974)- again
25/ Airplane! (1980)
26/ Groundhog Day (1993)
27/ The Lobster (2015)
28/ The Conversation (1974)- again
29/ 菊豆 (Ju Dou- China, Japan- 1990)- again
30/ Collateral (2004)
31/ Eighth Grade (2018)
32/ Black Narcissus (1947)
33/ Hai Phượng (Furie- Vietnam- 2019)
34/ Сталкер (Stalker- Soviet Union- 1979)
35/ Mississippi Burning (1988)
36/ Lost in La Mancha (2002)
37/ Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
38/ Przypadek (Blind Chance- Poland- 1987)
39/ ライク・サムワン・イン・ラブ (Like Someone in Love- France, Japan- 2012)
40/ The Usual Suspects (1995)
41/ Русский ковчег (Russian Ark- Russia, Germany, Canada, Finland- 2002)
42/ The Bourne Identity (2002)- again
43/ The Bourne Supremacy (2004)- again
44/ The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)- again
45/ 噂の女 (Uwasa no onna/ The Woman in the Rumour- Japan- 1954)
46/ The Strange Thing About the Johnsons (2011)
47/ The Trans Women Athlete Dispute with Martina Navratilova (2019)
48/ Le Bonheur (Happiness- France- 1965)
49/ Surviving America’s Most Hated Family (2019)
50/ Secrets of Sugar Baby Dating (2019)
51/ The Inbetweeners (2008- 2010)- 18 episodes
52/ The Upside (2017)
53/ Sunset Boulevard (1950)- again
54/ Call Me by Your Name (2017)
55/ Generation Porn (2019)- 3 episodes
56/ Talking Pictures: Orson Welles (2013)
57/ The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)
58/ Natalie Tran: White Male Asian Female (2017)
59/ The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991)
60/ Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994)
61/ Enemy (2013)
62/ Fight Club (1999)
63/ Life: Creatures of the Deep (2009)
64/ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
65/ Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)- again
66/ 万引き家族 (Shoplifters- Japan- 2018)
67/ Joker (2019)
68/ Johnny English (2003)
69/ Suspiria (2018)
70/ Hard Eight (1996)
71/ Friday Night Dinner (Series 1-5: 31 episodes)
72/ When Cruises Go Wrong (2019)
73/ Jon Venables: What Went Wrong? (2011)
74/ The Ripper Hoaxer: The Real Story (2006)
75/ Mystery of the Man on the Moor (2017)
76/ Aladdin (1992)
77/ The Verdict (1982)
78/ The Irishman (2019)
79/ The Yorkshire Ripper Files: a Very British Crime Story (2019: 3 episodes)
80/ The Nice Guys (2016)- again
81/ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
82/ Searching (2018)
83/ The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)
84/ Home Alone (1990)- again
85/ Scrooge (1970)
86/ Finding Dory (2016)
87/ Death Comes to Pemberley (2013: 3 episodes)
88/ Johnny English Reborn (2011)
89/ Little Women (2019)
90/ Johnny English Strikes Again (2018)
91/ Jestem mordercą (I'm a Killer- Poland- 2016)
92/ The Sting (1973)- again
93/ Knives Out (2019)
94/ Little Women (1994)
95/ Seven (1995)
96/ The Big Lebowski (1998)- again
97/ Louis Theroux: Selling Sex (2020)
98/ 1917 (2019)
99/ Emma (1996)- Kate Beckinsale version
100/ Clueless (1995)- again 

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Mansfield Park: in defence of Fanny Price

Of Jane Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park is the least popular. I’ve been rereading the book lately. In this blog post, I’ll respond to the common complaints, one by one.  
“Fanny Price is insipid.” 
She is quiet and introverted. 
Compared to some other Jane Austen heroines, especially Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Fanny may not have the same vivacity and charm, but at the same time, her circumstances are different. Readers who complain that Fanny is quiet and boring usually forget that she’s sent to live with her rich relatives since a child, and always conscious of her own place. 
From the start, Sir Thomas makes it clear that she would not be equal to her cousins: 
““There will be some difficulty in our way, Mrs. Norris,” observed Sir Thomas, “as to the distinction proper to be made between the girls as they grow up: how to preserve in the minds of my daughters the consciousness of what they are, without making them think too lowly of their cousin; and how, without depressing her spirits too far, to make her remember that she is not a Miss Bertram. I should wish to see them very good friends, and would, on no account, authorise in my girls the smallest degree of arrogance towards their relation; but still they cannot be equals. Their rank, fortune, rights, and expectations will always be different...”” (Ch.1) 
Mrs Norris is always there to remind Fanny of her own place: 
““The nonsense and folly of people's stepping out of their rank and trying to appear above themselves, makes me think it right to give you a hint, Fanny, now that you are going into company without any of us; and I do beseech and entreat you not to be putting yourself forward, and talking and giving your opinion as if you were one of your cousins—as if you were dear Mrs. Rushworth or Julia. That will never do, believe me. Remember, wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last; and though Miss Crawford is in a manner at home at the Parsonage, you are not to be taking place of her. And as to coming away at night, you are to stay just as long as Edmund chuses. Leave him to settle that.”” (Ch.23) 
She can make no claims, and can never put herself forward. She is raised among snobs—Sir Thomas is kind but condescending towards her, and her cousins except Edmund think that her ignorance of geography and languages and her lack of accomplishments is due to stupidity, not lack of education. 
In such circumstances, how can she be as active, vivacious, and fun as Elizabeth Bennet? Or Mary Crawford? 

“Fanny is not as fun as Mary Crawford.” 
To some extent, I don’t disagree—Mary Crawford is more fun, she is clever and a good judge of character, and charming in her straightforwardness. 
But so what? I for one make a distinction between being fun and being interesting. Mary might be more fun, but Fanny has sensitivity and self-reflection, and also a richer mind. Mary might be perceptive of people, but she doesn’t have Fanny’s sensitivity and depth of feeling to appreciate nature nor feel anything when visiting a house (Sotherton).  
Fanny can sit in quiet and contemplation, whereas Mary gets restless. An example is when they visit Sotherton, Mary can’t sit for long and gets restless and needs to get up to go.   
When Maria and Julia go away, she turns to Fanny, because she always needs excitement, needs someone to talk to. 
Later, when Edmund is also away: 
“What was tranquillity and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary. Something arose from difference of disposition and habit: one so easily satisfied, the other so unused to endure; but still more might be imputed to difference of circumstances.” (Ch.29) 
All these things show that Fanny has a richer mind. Look at what Edmund says to her:  
““I am worn out with civility,” said he. “I have been talking incessantly all night, and with nothing to say. But with you, Fanny, there may be peace. You will not want to be talked to. Let us have the luxury of silence.”” (Ch.28) 
This is something he can’t do with Mary—she is shallow, so she has to fill the emptiness with talk talk talk. 
In addition, people say that Fanny is boring, but look at this passage: 
““This is pretty, very pretty,” said Fanny, looking around her as they were thus sitting together one day; “every time I come into this shrubbery I am more struck with its growth and beauty. Three years ago, this was nothing but a rough hedgerow along the upper side of the field, never thought of as anything, or capable of becoming anything; and now it is converted into a walk, and it would be difficult to say whether most valuable as a convenience or an ornament; and perhaps, in another three years, we may be forgetting—almost forgetting what it was before. How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”
Miss Crawford, untouched and inattentive, had nothing to say; and Fanny, perceiving it, brought back her own mind to what she thought must interest…” (Ch.22) 
It is clear in this passage that she is the interesting one, and Mary can’t follow her and has nothing to say. 

“Fanny is a prig—she makes a fuss about others acting in the play.” 
People who make this complaint don’t seem to think of the context and the rules of the time (Mansfield Park was published in 1814). In No Name, Wilkie Collins also writes about the impropriety of private theatricals, especially when 2 young unmarried people play the roles of lovers. You can’t judge it by modern standards. 
That being said, most of the opposition to Lovers’ Vow comes from Edmund, who openly and repeatedly condemns it. Fanny mostly doesn’t support it because she knows Sir Thomas wouldn’t like it, and it’s not right to do something he wouldn’t approve of, in his absence. 
Mostly, she’s disappointed in Edmund for opposing the play and then agreeing to act in it—he appears inconsistent, and in a way, it’s like he lets the others win.

“Fanny is judgmental.”  
This criticism is mostly because she seems judgmental towards Mary Crawford. What if she’s just a good judge of character? 
Note that the people who use the word “judgmental” for Fanny like Mary, and don’t seem to realise that Mary is actually the judgmental one, who makes sweeping generalisations about the entire Navy and all of the clergy, merely because of the Admiral (her uncle) and Dr Grant (her brother-in-law), and a few things she has heard. 
Mary is also a snob—whilst approving of Fanny’s character, she’s still conscious of the fact that Fanny is beneath her brother, and later, she congratulates her for being liked by Henry. 
Most importantly, Fanny is being called judgmental, but she notices everything and always sympathises with the underdog—she notices Maria’s avoidance and helps Mr Rushworth learn his lines, feels bad for him when Maria and Henry go off without him and he goes back to fetch the key for nothing, notices Henry playing with Maria’s and Julia’s feelings, and feels sorry for Julia for being slighted by Henry. 
In contrast, Mary might step in when Fanny’s scolded and accused of ingratitude by Mrs Norris, but doesn’t help anyone, and doesn’t care when knowing that Henry plays with Maria and Julia without caring about either of them. I do like that she recognises that Maria is also at fault for being intimate with someone else when she’s engaged, it’s not all Henry’s blame, but still, she doesn’t care. 
If you read the book carefully, you can see that Fanny is most critical of herself—she has self-reflection, thinks that she is shy, weak, timid, awkward, nothing special, ponders over her own actions, wonders if she’s ungrateful or unfair, and so on.
It should be noted too that Fanny doesn’t explain to Sir Thomas her reason for refusing Henry, so as not to incriminate Maria and Julia, and she accepts the consequences herself. 

“Fanny is weak and passive.” 
She is physically weak indeed, but mentally strong. Think of the pressure from every side, but she still says no to Henry Crawford. 

“Fanny marries her cousin, ew.”
This complaint is judging the story through modern lens, and should be disregarded. 

“Fanny should choose Henry Crawford.” 
I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll say it again: anyone who thinks so misunderstands not only Mansfield Park but Jane Austen in general. 
Anyone who truly understands Jane Austen knows that she distrusts charming men, disapproves of men who play with women’s feelings, and doesn’t believe that a woman’s love can reform a man. 
For a large part of the book, Henry plays with Maria’s and Julia’s feelings, going back and forth between the 2, charming each of the Miss Bertrams at one time and slighting her another moment. For example, on the trip to Sotherton, he sits at the front with Julia, neglecting Maria, then afterwards goes with Maria, having fun with her, leaving Julia behind, then on the way back, sits again with Julia on the carriage.  
During the play rehearsals, he flirts with Maria and gives her lots of attention, hurting Julia’s feelings and thinking nothing of the engagement, but without any intention of proposing to her and persuading her to break off the engagement with Mr Rushworth. 
Later, when Maria has got married and gone away: 
“Her two absent cousins, especially Maria, were much in her thoughts on seeing him; but no embarrassing remembrance affected his spirits. Here he was again on the same ground where all had passed before, and apparently as willing to stay and be happy without the Miss Bertrams, as if he had never known Mansfield in any other state. She heard them spoken of by him only in a general way, till they were all re-assembled in the drawing-room, when Edmund, being engaged apart in some matter of business with Dr. Grant, which seemed entirely to engross them, and Mrs. Grant occupied at the tea-table, he began talking of them with more particularity to his other sister. With a significant smile, which made Fanny quite hate him, he said, “So! Rushworth and his fair bride are at Brighton, I understand; happy man!”” (Ch.23) 
He is clearly a douchebag, having no remorse. 
I don’t say it’s impossible that Henry falls in love with someone like Fanny—in real life that happens often. But she has every reason to distrust it, and even Mary, the popular Mary, doesn’t think it would last either: 
““… I know that a wife you loved would be the happiest of women, and that even when you ceased to love, she would yet find in you the liberality and good-breeding of a gentleman.”” (Ch.30) 
There’s another detail I forgot after my first reading of Mansfield Park several years ago: Henry declares his feelings to Fanny right after telling her about her brother’s promotion to Lieutenant, thanks to his doing. It is distasteful—it is like he wants to manipulate her and pressure her into accepting him, to avoid being accused of ingratitude. Afterwards, he makes her more uncomfortable by showing up at dinner, instead of leaving her alone for some time to calm down and decide. 
Not only so, Henry speaks to Sir Thomas about his intentions, despite Fanny's reaction. 
All these actions show that, despite his declarations of love, and his belief, Henry doesn’t have the sensitivity to care about Fanny’s feelings. It baffles me that some people may claim to be a Jane Austen’s fan and think Fanny should end up with Henry. 

In short, this is my response, once and for all, to the idiocy that has been said about Fanny Price and Mansfield Park.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

A riff on “dead white men”

1/ Whenever someone criticises the Western canon for having too many “dead white men”, I’m amused. You’re talking about the Western canon—it was mostly white men who had the opportunities, mostly white men who had “a room of their own” (as Virginia Woolf put it), so naturally it’s mostly the works of white men that dominate the Western canon. 
2/ The “problem” with the dominance of the Western canon is that readers, including me, sometimes forget that other cultures too have great classic books worth reading. 
If you want real diversity, the thing to do is to read classic works from other cultures that have stood the test of time, not to expand your reading by only reading books by (contemporary) female and/or non-white writers in the West. 
3/ Not all countries are equal when it comes to literature. 
4/ Whenever someone says that books by “dead white men”, or books about “white experience” in general, are irrelevant and unrelatable to them, I’d like to ask how they think the works of Tolstoy or Melville or Dickens or Gogol or Nabokov are relevant (in that sense) to me—a Vietnamese girl brought up in Vietnam and Norway, and now based in the UK. 
5/ Whenever someone says that books by “dead white men”, or books about “white experience” in general, are irrelevant and unrelatable to them, I’d like to ask why they think the works of those “dead white men” are translated into multiple languages, and read and beloved around the world. Go talk to the non-Western tourists visiting the Bronte Parsonage Museum or Dickens Museum or Maison de Victor Hugo, for example. 
6/ Whenever a teacher says that books by “dead white men”, or books about “white experience” in general, are irrelevant to students of colour and should be removed from the curriculum, to be replaced by books reflecting students’ experience, I think that teacher should stop teaching. 
7/ You don’t have to attack “dead white men” to praise female and/or non-white authors and call for diversifying the reading list. 
8/ Stop saying “decolonise the bookshelf”—it’s meaningless and dumb. 
9/ Stop telling others to diversify their reading if you only read books originally written in the English language. 
10/ New writers have the perfect right to take an existing work as a starting point to create a new one, but if you write a feminist or “diverse” version of a classic novel, your work should be judged on its own artistic merit, not on how many boxes it ticks. 
(Also, please don’t say that you’re taking a classic book and making it relevant to today, the arrogance is embarrassing). 


This is a good read:
This is the opening paragraph: 
“Last month the Huffington Post published an essay by Claire Fallon entitled “Was this Decade the Beginning of the End of the Great White Male Writer?” Fallon celebrated the notion that white men are losing their prominence in contemporary American literature and that the best books being published in America today are being written by a wider variety of authors than ever before.” 
Kevin Mims, the author, then says: 
“Are contemporary National Book Award (NBA) winners and nominees a more diverse lot than those of previous eras? Actually, no, not unless your only criterion for diversity is skin color or ethnicity. By any other measure, the authors honored by the National Book Foundation over the past decade are a surprisingly homogenous group. Almost all of them are products of what has come to be known, among supporters and critics alike, as America’s “MFA Industrial Complex.” They all tend to matriculate at the same elite colleges, acquire advanced degrees in English or Creative Writing, and then go on to teach in the same circle of elite schools.” 
I don’t want to quote much, because the article should be read in full. The main point is that Kevin Mims looks at NBA winners and nominees throughout history: compared to the winners and runners up in Lisa Lucas’s era, earlier honourees were a lot more diverse, in terms of class, background, education, and also political views. More importantly, many of their books became cultural landmarks: Gone with the Wind, From Here to Eternity, Invisible Man, The Adventures of Augie March, The Catcher in the Rye, The Caine Mutiny, The Old Man and the Sea, East of Eden, Giovanni’s Room, Atlas Shrugged, The Ginger Man, Lolita, The Haunting of Hill House, Goodbye Columbus, etc. 
In contrast: 
“Over the past decade, the National Book Foundation has honored works of fiction such as Great House, I Hotel, So Much For That, Binocular Vision, Refund, The Throwback Special, The Association of Small Bombs, and a lot of other books whose authors not one in 10,000 Americans can probably identify. Decades from now, when people look back on the Lisa Lucas era at the National Book Foundation, they may see a whole lot of ethnic diversity and not much more—except for a lot of forgotten and out-of-print titles.” 


To make it absolutely clear and prevent strangers from twisting my words, I’ve never said only “dead white male” or “white male” authors could be great.  
I think we all should read widely. Expand your reading. In fact, this year I’m intending to read more books by female authors and more books from countries with which I’m not very familiar.  
Currently on my TBR list are Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.
Now excuse me, I’m going to get back to Mansfield Park, to read about “white experience” to which I can’t relate.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Some news

1/ I’ve just joined Twitter: @hdinguyen11 
Please follow me so I don’t look like I’m just talking into the abyss. 

2/ My short film Footfalls won Special Recognition for Most Original Concept at Prodigy Film Festival in 2019. 

3/ My short film No More Than This has just been selected for the 16th IAWRT Asian Women's Film Festival, which will be held in New Delhi from 4-7 March 2020. 

4/ I have started rereading Mansfield Park by Jane Austen if anyone wants to join the read-along.

Monday, 6 January 2020

On film adaptations and the strange criticism of Greta Gerwig’s Amy March

I’ve just seen quite a few comments on Youtube, criticising Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) for altering Amy March to fit the modern audience”—Amy in the new adaptation, they say, is not Amy in Louisa May Alcott’s book. 
Isn’t this such a strange criticism? 
I cannot compare the 2019 Amy (played by Florence Pugh) to Alcott’s Amy, as I haven’t read the book, but a director has the perfect right to make changes when adapting a book into a film. As some director once said, why would you make an adaptation if you have nothing new to say? 
Even if you give the same screenplay to 100 different directors, you still get 100 different films, because of the different decisions in casting, location, style, look, pace, tone, camera angles, editing, and so on, not to mention alterations to the script (how many directors passively take a script and make no changes?). When it comes to film adaptations, different directors have different approaches to the same material, highlighting some aspects and omitting others, sometimes making changes. A writer-director is under no obligation whatsoever to be faithful to the book—the film is their film, they use the book as a basis, a foundation, to explore the themes they’re interested in, and say what they want to say.
An adaptation is an interpretation of the book, an adaptation can also be, and should be, its own work. A writer-director has the perfect right to modernise a text (Clueless from Emma, 10 Things I Hate About You from The Taming of the Shrew), move the settings to another country (Untold Scandal from Dangerous Liaisons, The Handmaiden from Fingersmith), whilst retaining the essence and spirit of the book. A writer-director also has the right to change the tone/ genre (Dr Strangelove from Red Alert), or simply take an existing work and create something new (Ran from King Lear). The question is whether the film is good, as a film.
Of course sometimes you can watch a film adaptation and think a character is miscast, but it’s not necessarily because of the character in the book—I’m sure that there are times you watch a film not based on anything, and think some actor is miscast. Or sometimes you watch a film adaptation and see the changes, and feel like the filmmaker thinks they’re improving on the book but they actually make the story a lot worse, but that is because the changes don’t work, not because there are changes.
To go back to Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, I don’t know the novel to know that she brings out more depth and emphasises the clear-headedness and practicality in Alcott’s character, or expands and changes Amy to make her a more complex and likeable character. In either case, she has the right to do so, and Amy March in her film works well as a character.
Amy can be a spoilt, selfish brat as a kid, and grow up to be the Amy we see in the film. Amy in the new film is still practical and not at all romantic, and she is mercenary, but if you place the 2019 film next to the 1994 film (I have nothing else for comparison), Amy in Greta Gerwig’s writing is deeper, for knowing her own place in the world and knowing what she wants. Florence Pugh in her performance also brings a groundedness to the character, and makes her a perfect toil to Jo. Both Jo and Amy know what they want, but they want different things, and go different ways.
The new depiction of Amy also explains why Laurie chooses her in the end—she is clear-eyed, sensible, ambitious, and straightforward, she is better for Laurie than Jo is.
Moreover, I like that Greta Gerwig tells the story of the March sisters, not only Jo, which shows women’s limited options in the 19th century. If you have talent and want independence, you can have a writing career like Jo, or have to choose between marrying for love, like Meg, or marrying for money, like Amy (if you don’t sit at home and die, like Beth). I can’t help thinking of the book I’ve just read, No Name. Wilkie Collins’s book and Little Women are nothing alike, but No Name also shows women’s limited options—the 2 sisters get disinherited and cast out on the world with nothing, one schemes to get her money back whilst the other resigns to her fate and works as a governess, and they depend on being rescued by rich husbands.
But I’ve digressed.
I like Florence Pugh’s Amy, and I like that the feminist statements don’t only come from Jo, but they’re shared between her and Amy.
Now watch this clip from the new Little Women

Isn’t that fantastic? Such good lines. I don’t know why some people are complaining.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Little Women adaptations: 2019 vs 1994

Note: this blog post will compare 2 adaptations of Little Women—2019 (dir. Greta Gerwig) and 1994 (dir. Gillian Armstrong), without comparing them to Louisa May Alcott’s novel, which I have not read. 

For years, the 1994 film was called the definitive version of Little Women. The release of the 2019 film sparked a debate, as many people thought it surpassed the 1994 film. 
I’ve just seen both of them recently. 
Which one is better? It is hard to say.  
In quite a few ways, I think the 2019 film is better. Whilst the 1994 film focuses mostly on Jo (Winona Ryder), the 2019 version gives more space to the other March sisters; depicts more of the friendship between Beth and Laurie’s grandfather; shows Meg’s struggle in her marriage, which contrasts her choice with Amy’s ambitions; and most interestingly, makes Amy a deeper, more sympathetic figure, worthy to be Jo’s rival. The 2019 film gives Amy many good lines, devotes more to exploring the dynamics between her and Jo, and expands on her relationship with Laurie, which makes it understandable that Laurie chooses her in the end. 
It also depicts more of Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan) writing career in New York and her fights with the editor. 
Both films make a point, over and over again, about gender inequality and women’s limited options, but if in the 1994 film, most of the lines are spoken by Jo, in the 2019 film, the lines are spread between Jo, Amy, and Aunt March.   
However, the main weakness of the 2019 adaptation is Professor Bhaer and his relationship with Jo. Professor Bhaer only appears a few times, his friendship with Jo is barely seen, and their love story is not just a contrivance but looks like an act of perversity. Even though it could be argued that that and the character’s insignificant present in the film fit in with the 2 endings, the scene of him commenting on Jo’s stories is still very weak. Professor Bhaer says the stories are not very good, without explaining that Jo has talent to write something better, and should write something more serious (actually, the film doesn’t make it very clear what kind of stories Jo writes before writing Little Women). Their quarrel is never resolved when Jo returns home, and he offers neither explanation nor apology when he turns up at the house later. It seems random when she goes after him afterwards and asks him to stay. 
The 1994 film devotes more time to depicting and developing Professor Bhaer’s relationship with Jo. When I saw the 2019 film, without having read the book nor seen any other adaptations, I was very dissatisfied with Professor Bhaer and already thought one particular scene was very weak. Now, having something for comparison, I’m more dissatisfied with this part of the new film. 
In the 1994 version, it makes sense that Jo falls in love with Professor Bhaer, after years of renouncing marriage (which is something I can personally relate to). It also explains why Jo rejects Laurie earlier—Jo and Laurie may be close friends and have lots of fun together, but it is with Professor Bhaer that Jo is truly compatible, in the mind, and he encourages her to do something better, to write from the soul.  
Regarding cast, let’s compare one by one: 
- Marmee, the mother: I prefer Susan Sarandon’s face (1994), but Laura Dern has fewer sermons. 
- Mr March, the father: too insignificant in the story to be compared. 
- Aunt March: Mary Wickes (1994) is all right, but Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. 
- Mr Laurence, or Laurie’s grandfather: Chris Cooper (2019) is the obvious choice, because John Neville has barely anything to work with. 
- Theodore Laurence, aka Laurie, aka Teddy: Christian Bale (1994) is not bad in the role, but I can only see him as Christian Bale, whereas Timothee Chalamet is perfect for the role and has all the fun, charm, and frivolousness of the character. Timothee Chalamet also has more chemistry with Saoirse Rohan as Jo, than Christian Bale with Winona Ryder. 
- John Brooke: James Norton (2019) looks less boring and more likeable, but I don’t know the book, Eric Stoltz might be more suitable for the role. 
- Professor Bhaer: Gabriel Byrne (2019) is much better, but comparison is unfair to Louis Garrel because in the 2019 film, Professor Bhaer is barely a character. 
- Beth: this might be a personal preference, I can’t explain why I prefer Eliza Scanlen (2019) to Claire Danes, other than that I don’t really like Claire Danes’s facial expressions in the film. 
- Meg: Emma Watson (2019) may have more to work with, but she doesn’t have the right face or the right qualities—I can’t imagine her marrying someone poor like John Brooke. Trini Alvarado has a delicate look and a gentle face that make her perfect for Meg. 
- Amy: I understand the issue with age, but I think it is a right decision in the 2019 film to have only 1 Amy. Florence Pugh (2019) is striking and memorable in the role—at the beginning of the story, Amy is spoilt and thoughtless, but she grows up to be clear-headed and realistic, and she knows what she wants. In the 1994 version, Kirsten Dunst is very good as young Amy, but Samantha Mathis pales in comparison, whether you place her next to Kirsten Dunst or Florence Pugh. 
- Jo—the most important role and therefore saved to last: this is very hard to compare, because I like both Winona Ryder (1994) and Saoirse Ronan as actresses, and I like both of their performances. It’s also difficult because they approach the role differently and bring different qualities to Jo. For now, I slightly lean towards Winona Ryder, but I like them both, so let’s see if there are any changes over time. 
In terms of style, both films look good, the 2019 one has faster pace. In a way, the 2019 film is bolder, switching between timelines and having 2 endings. However, I see the 2 adaptations as having different approaches to the same material. The 1994 film tells the story chronologically and shows how the characters, especially Jo, grow up and develop over time. The 2019 film focuses more on “the present”, framing the earlier years as memories or inspiration for the book, and in this way, also creates more balance between Jo and Amy, contrasting their personalities and choices. It also focuses more on Jo’s writing career, and the metafiction aspect (the 2 endings) is a brilliant way to have the ending in the book and the ending Louisa May Alcott thought she should have written.
So what’s the verdict? 
Well, what shall I say. My answer is a boring one, but it is what I think: the 2 adaptations have different strengths and weaknesses, but both are very good, and worth watching.   
I’d like to add though, I’m now very interested in Greta Gerwig as a director, after Lady Bird and now Little Women. I’m expecting good films from her in the future.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Random musings on No Name (2), with a question of ethics

1/ It’s interesting that Captain Wragge completely steals the scene in Scene 4, but when he’s gone, in Scene 6, Magdalen becomes prominent and interesting again.

2/ Look at the end of Scene 5—Progress of the Story through the Post.
Some of the letters say “From Mrs Noel Vanstone to Mr Loscombe” in the headline, but they are signed as Magdalen Vanstone.
The signature should be Susan Vanstone. Mr John Loscombe is Noel Vanstone’s lawyer, and Magdalen’s assumed name when she marries Noel Vanstone is Susan Bygrave.
This must be Wilkie Collins’s mistake, because it happens more than once and Mr Loscombe says nothing about it.

3/ I forgot that George Bartram was mentioned early in the book, so had to go back to check. He’s the son of Mr Andrew Vanstone’s dead sister (Mr Andrew Vanstone is father of Norah and Magdalen).
Magdalen Vanstone marries Noel Vanstone, and if my prediction from the end of Scene 4 is correct that Norah Vanstone would marry George Bartram, both sisters marry their cousins. 
Not only so, George Bartram looks like Mr Andrew Vanstone in his younger days. That’s kinda gross, no?

4/ From the point of morality, how bad is Magdalen? Who are we meant to sympathise with?
Let’s go back to the beginning—why do Norah and Magdalen lose their entire inheritance? It’s because they’re illegitimate, their parents’ recent marriage makes the father’s previously made will become invalid in the eyes of the law, and the sudden death cuts off the possibility to make a new will. 
In short, stupid laws and unfortunate circumstances. It is clear that if not for the accident, the father would create a new will to provide for them.
So the entire inheritance (£80,000) goes to the dead man’s brother, Michael Vanstone. Norah accepts her situation and is forced to work as a governess to earn her keep, whereas Magdalen thinks the money should belong to her and her sister, so she tries to get it back. Other characters think of it as revenge, but is it not righting an injustice?
As I read the book, I was rooting for Magdalen. Norah might be seen as more virtuous, but Magdalen works to get back what is unfairly taken away from her. Later, when the money goes from Michael Vanstone to his son Noel, Noel is a miser anyway, who doesn’t want money to go out of his pockets and therefore never spends any of his money unless he absolutely has no other choice. Maybe I just really loathe misers.
I have disliked Miss Garth from early on, for having prejudices about forces of evil in Magdalen, based on nothing. I dislike her more for interfering and helping Mrs Lecount. It is partly Magdalen’s fault, for not warning her and Norah, the same way she’s careless with Mrs Wragge, but the old governess is also meddlesome and naïve, easily taken in.
I also dislike Mr Pendril, the lawyer. As I read the exchanges between Miss Garth and Mr Pendril, between the old governess’s treacherous meeting with Mrs Lecount and the news of Noel Vanstone’s death and Magdalen’s 2nd disinheritance, I’m appalled at their reaction. Is there no sympathy? Is there no understanding? Mr Pendril shows no pity in his letter; instead, he warns that Magdalen would continue, and Norah must be careful. 
(This is a comment on the characters, not a criticism of the book).
Miss Garth and Mr Pendril both are insufferable in their virtuousness—they have no empathy.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

No Name: is Magdalen’s struggle about ethics?

Several years ago, discussing No Name, Tom at Wuthering Expectations wrote this post about ethics:
“"Evil" seems awfully strong, and "ripening ground of the undeveloped Good" is ridiculous, although I too have been lazily accepting the governess’s ethics by describing Magdalen's motivation as "revenge."  What if, instead, she is righting an injustice?  In her mind, sometimes it's the one, sometimes the other, but still, Evil?” 
I agree. Big deal! 
The ridiculous part is that Miss Garth’s worry about good and evil in Magdalen comes right after they talk about the unjust situation, i.e. before Magdalen knows how she’s going to take revenge and try to get her money back, perhaps even before she makes up her mind to do it. 
Miss Garth’s concern about the forces of evil in Magdalen, at that point, is based on nothing. 
Tom wrote another post about ethics in No Name, this time Magdalen’s ethics:
The argument is that Magdalen wrestles with her conscience, fearing that “her carefully planned, entirely justified fraudulent marriage will be an evil act”, and the ethics in No Name is not the author’s, but Magdalen’s. Magdalen struggles with ethics. 
But does she? Is her struggle about ethics? 
I didn’t read the chapter (S.4, ch.13) that way. 
“By slow degrees her mind recovered its balance and she looked her position unflinchingly in the face. The vain hope that accident might defeat the very end for which, of her own free-will, she had ceaselessly plotted and toiled, vanished and left her; self-dissipated in its own weakness. She knew the true alternative, and faced it. On one side was the revolting ordeal of the marriage; on the other, the abandonment of her purpose. Was it too late to choose between the sacrifice of the purpose and the sacrifice of herself? Yes! too late. The backward path had closed behind her. Time that no wish could change, Time that no prayers could recall, had made her purpose a part of herself: once she had governed it; now it governed her. The more she shrank, the harder she struggled, the more mercilessly it drove her on. No other feeling in her was strong enough to master it—not even the horror that was maddening her—the horror of her marriage.” 
I read it more as fear of the marriage, repugnance for the future husband, and hesitation about sacrificing herself for a purpose. 
She later says: 
““Thousands of women marry for money,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I?”” 
Again, I don’t think it’s about the ethics of marrying for money, which “thousands of women” do, but about the prospect of marrying someone she despises like Noel Vanstone and pretending to like him. Earlier in the book, Wilkie Collins may not describe the seduction, but he lets readers see that Magdalen finds Noel Vanstone repulsive, and each time meeting him she feels sickened and needs fresh air afterwards and doesn’t want to see more of his face. Once she even decides to go away for a few days just to avoid Noel Vanstone. 
To marry him is indeed to sacrifice herself (imagine being intimate with that sickly, temperamental, stupid, and cruelly stingy Noel Vanstone, ew).
However, Magdalen would have to choose between the sacrifice of herself and the sacrifice of her purpose, but she seems to have chosen to live for the purpose, especially after Frank’s abandonment. She’s like Captain Ahab, and the family of Michael Vanstone and Noel Vanstone is her white whale.  
I wasn’t entirely serious there, but I wasn’t really joking either. 
Magdalen hopes for something to happen, some kind of accident, before the wedding, because she can’t choose. She doesn’t want to marry Noel Vanstone, so an accident would be a convenient way to stop the marriage without her having to intentionally give up her plan. 
Similarly, she wants to kill herself, because now she only lives for a purpose—the revenge, but deep down, she doesn’t want to do it. The man is disgusting. Death would end it all. No more doubt, no more pretence, no more suffering.
She already seems depressed, and in her mind, she has nothing else to live for. Death would end it all. 
When the chapter is read this way, that Magdalen’s struggle is not about ethics, I have to think about the question of ethics in No Name differently.

My quarrel with the Oscars

This post is going to make me sound like a contrarian. 
Academy Award for Best Picture: 
The winner: Green Book 
The film I think should have won: The Favourite 
The winner: The Shape of Water 
The film I think should have won: Phantom Thread 
The winner: Moonlight 
The winner: Spotlight
The winner: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The winner: 12 Years a Slave
The winner: Argo 
The film I think should have won: Les Miserables 
The winner: The Artist 
The winner: The King’s Speech 
The film I think should have won: The Fighter or Black Swan 
The winner: The Hurt Locker 
Haven’t seen it 
The winner: Slumdog Millionaire 
The film I think should have won: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 
The winner: No Country for Old Men 
The film I think should have won: There Will Be Blood 
The winner: The Departed
The film I think should have won: Babel 
The winner: Crash 
Haven’t seen it 
The winner: Million Dollar Baby 
The film I think should have won: The Aviator 
The winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the Kings 
Not sure, probably agreed 
The winner: Chicago 
The film I think should have won: The Pianist 
The winner: A Beautiful Mind 
The winner: Gladiator 
Not sure, probably have seen it but don’t remember very well 
The winner: American Beauty 
The film I think should have won: The Sixth Sense or The Green Mile 
The winner: Shakespeare in Love 
Not sure, probably agreed 
The winner: Titanic 
The film I think should have won: L. A. Confidential 
The winner: The English Patient 
The winner: Braveheart 
Haven’t seen it 
The winner: Forrest Gump 
The film I think should have won: The Shawshank Redemption or Pulp Fiction 
The winner: Schindler’s List 
Haven’t seen that one, but I’d go with The Piano 
The winner: Unforgiven 
Not sure if I’ve seen it 
The winner: The Silence of the Lambs 
The winner: Dances with Wolves 
Haven’t seen it 
I’m going to stop here. 
The past few years at the Oscars haven’t been very good. I mean, The Shape of Water, really? It’s stupid. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the film most people expected to win, I found quite corny. The good ones were Phantom Thread, Lady Bird, and Call Me by Your Name. I should see Phantom Thread again. 
Then last year, apart from Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, and A Star Is Born, which I haven’t seen, the others were Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, and Vice, none of which was really good. I only preferred The Favourite to the rest, but I was glad Roma didn’t win, as it’s overrated (the film isn’t even proper B&W). 
The upcoming Oscars would be much more interesting, because of Little Women, The Irishman, Joker, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.