Saturday, January 19, 2008

Books on Film

In the last week I have seen two film versions of favourite novels of mine, The Golden Compass and Atonement. Although both were generally well done, it's a strange experience seeing a novel you love as imagined by others.

The film of The Golden Compass was probably always going to be a bit disappointing for me as I love Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so intensely. The Hollywood version is true to the book and visually stunning but, as is common with films of books, the story is simplified and some of the harder edges are removed. The ending is considerably changed to make it much happier than the cliffhanger that concludes the book, which is understandable given that the film is aimed at children, but also a little patronising to the audience. The quite strong anti-organised religion message in the book has also been toned down by the film-makers making this a rather anaemic version of Pullman's very interesting and challenging ideas.

It also didn't help my enjoyment of the film that I have a probably quite unreasonable dislike of Nicole Kidman, who I think has a kind of anti-charisma on screen. I'm aware that not everyone shares my opinion on that though. Friends who have seen the film without reading the book loved it, so perhaps I had unrealistic expectations of this one.

On the other hand, I thought the film adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel Atonement was just stunning. The film-makers managed to capture the subtleties of the novel quite cleverly and the film is visually stunning. Keira Knightly is surprisingly good and looks just gorgeous in the 1930's fashions her character wears, and James McAvoy, well, let's just say I have a serious crush on the guy and could spend hours watching him on screen no matter how bad the film. In this case though, his acting is great and the film is really quite good. If you tend to cry in films though, be warned, I cried for a least half of the film. I'm pretty sure I was joined by a majority of the audience at the film's devastating end.

There are some very interesting ideas about personal responsibility and truth in McEwan's novel and these translate well to the screen. In fact, seeing the film reminded me how visual the novel is, particularly the early events that revolve around glimpsed scenes and moments that are mis-interpreted by the young child Briony. While the more post-modern aspects were a little distracting for me in the novel, they worked well on film.

I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks of either film.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

On the Jellicoe Road

I read On the Jellicoe Road, a novel for young adults by Australian author Melina Marchetta, on a rainy night while staying in a caravan on holidays at the beach. Branches were brushing the roof and the wind howled and screeched, rocking the caravan. I could have been at sea, lost in the blackness of night. Perfect reading weather. Perfect for reading this un-put-downable novel until it was finished in the early hours of morning.

When it was released, lots of Melina Marchetta's fans didn't really know what to make of On the Jellicoe Road and now I can see why. Her first novel, Looking for Alibrandi, was (and still is) very popular with teenagers in Australia and was made into a popular film. While I found Looking for Alibrandi entertaining and realistic, I also thought it was a little too simple and straightforward. On the Jellicoe Road is a much more sophisticated novel and one which rewards the reader's patience as the plot lines are slowly revealed. I loved this new style but some young readers might miss the straightforwardness of Marchetta's previous books.

It feels like Marchetta has found her voice in On the Jellicoe Road. She has developed a complex, but highly engaging plot about a young girl, Taylor, who lives at a rural boarding school in western New South Wales. Taylor is trying to negotiate the annual turf war between her school, the kids in town and the local cadet unit, at the same time as she tries to solve the mystery around her friend Hannah's disappearance which is somehow connected to Taylor's abandonment by her mother when she was a young child.

The story is told through Taylor's eyes, interspersed with excerpts from a manuscript for a novel being written by Hannah. Slowly the manuscript and Taylor's story become entwined. There is a sense of menace that lingers just under the surface of the story; there is talk between the students about a serial killer who targets children and speculation about which adult might be the killer. Marchetta also vividly captures the violence and secretiveness of youth as the young teenagers wage their quite vicious wars right under the noses of the mostly ineffective and oblivious adults in the story.

Marchetta also develops a romantic storyline between Taylor and the leader of the Cadet unit, Jonah. This is one of the most successful parts of the story. It is realistically and sensitively portrayed and the tension between Taylor and Jonah really propels the story.

It is so refreshing to read books written for young adults that are challenging and complex. While not everyone will love On the Jellicoe Road I think that if this is the direction that Marchetta is taking with her writing, then I can't wait to read what she comes up with next.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Reading in the New Year

I haven't posted for ages, instead choosing to do some reading, eating, drinking and much playing of cards as the rain continues to fall at my beachside holiday location. I never seem to have much luck with holiday weather. Nevertheless it is pretty good weather for reading and I've managed to get through a couple of novels.

Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres is certainly not light summer reading. It is over 600 pages long and takes a few hundred pages to really get going. The story follows the lives of a group of people from a small village in Turkey and through these people de Bernieres essentially follows the history of Turkey in the twentieth century. I found the book similar in some ways to Captain Corelli's Mandolin, the only other novel of his that I have read, but it was less emotionally engaging, perhaps because there was just so much history to cram in, often at the expense of plot and character development. I learnt a lot though, and found the parts about Gallipoli, told from the Turkish perspective, particularly interesting. De Bernieres has a nice, readable style but I'm not sure I'd go out of my way to read anything else by him.

After reading about the horrific and violent history of Turkey I turned to Rachel Pine's novel The Twins of Tribeca for some light contrast. Pine is a former employee of Miramax and this is a 'tell-all' novel in the style of The Devil Wears Prada. The tone is light and gossipy, and there is lots interesting inside information on the way films get made (especially the bad ones). Pine never really finds a narrative arc for her story though. Lots of times it felt like something dramatic was about to happen but then... nothing. It's a fun read but fairly forgettable.

I'm still considering plans for reading in 2008. So far the only thing I've thought of is that I should read more classics. In particular I want to read Tristram Shandy this year. I've been planning to read it ever since I saw the great film version with Steve Coogan. Hopefully I will come up with some more plans before the year is half over.

Hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year.