Monday, April 28, 2014

J is for James

Henry James is a novelist whom I feel I should be reading more of. I was in book love heaven with A Portrait of the Lady. And I was genuinely creeped out by his short story "The Turn of the Screw." But The Wings of the Dove was another matter. I found reading it, uhmm, difficult.

The novel's plot is classic Henry James. A couple, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, are ridiculously in love. However, Kate's aunt, Maud Lowder, is vehemently opposed to their romantic involvement, as Merton is just a lowly clerk without any money. Enter Milly Theale, an American millionaire who's terminally ill. Kate comes up with an idea of Merton accompanying Milly in Italy, hoping that Milly would fall made in love with Merton and leave some of her inheritance to Merton upon her death.

First, there are the characters. For some reason, I couldn't root for any of them. Kate comes off as being manipulative, Merton as a wuss, and Milly as a gullible expat. And am I bad person if I wish that Kate and Merton's romance be doomed? Even Aunt Maud feels a little oily for me.

Second, the narrative feels long and winding. Long paragraphs wherein characters just describe their mood made me want to fling this book at a wall. I almost did it though. Almost. But my A to Z challenge calls, and there's no way I'm going to switch The Wings of the Dove with two other Henry James novels that I have. I don't care about the American expat community in The Ambassadors, nor about the ending in The Golden Bowl, which is the only James novel where everything turns out well for the characters in the end. Blecch. Give me tragedy any time.

The ending of The Wings of the Dove almost had me screaming. Almost. Merton, you should've opened that envelope. You should've allowed yourself just a peek at what Milly left you. You owe it to yourself to have done so. Never mind about Kate. She had it coming. When she asked you to be close to Milly, she basically gave you away. Your falling in love with Milly was but natural.

I love the movie adaptation of this novel though. Helena Bonham Carter and Linus Roache were perfect for their roles. Alison Elliott's acting as Milly Theale was so beautifully subtle. The sense of place of the movie was spot on. However, in the novel, the setting can get a bit confusing, especially with James's penchant for long paragraphs and his focus on the characters' train of thought.

The Wings of the Dove is considered by many to be one of James's brilliant novels. But James was never really happy with it. He felt that his characters aren't that fully realized and that the novel's final structure was defective, whatever that means. I agree with James. I would have loved to read more about Kate and Merton and their relationship with Milly. I would have loved to read more about Milly's eventual falling for Merton. In the novel, Milly just . . . dies.

I'm guessing that The Wings of the Dove is one of those novels that gets better after a reread. It is a classic after all. And perhaps I just had way too many expectations about it. In any case, a reread is definitely in order.

Read this book if:
  1. You love doomed romances.
  2. You have a devious and manipulative romantic partner.
  3. You have a thing for Henry James and his long paragraphs.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

I is for Irving

Totally unexpected, this one. I know all about the big screen adaptation by Tim Burton, but that movie takes a liberal shot at Washington Irving's novella, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Liberal, like 50%. When I think about it, all the movie had in common with Irving's material is the Headless Horseman and Ichabod Crane. And Burton just borrows the name of the latter. Because when you break it down, Johnny Depp's character doesn't share any similarities with the Ichabod Crane that Irving writes about.

All right, so we have Ichabod Crane, who is not a member of the judiciary but is merely a humble schoolteacher. So humble, so insecure, and so clumsy. And he's not really the hero of the story as it will turn out. By the end of the story, Ichabod Crane is just one more casualty. Was he a victim of the Headless Horseman? Or was he just an unfortunate character who's fallen prey to a prank by Brom Bones. Brom and Ichabod are both wooing the town beauty, Katrina Van Tassel. It's really not made clear though if Katrina has directly denied Ichabod her hand. All we know is that at the end of the party, Ichabod leaves with very low spirits.

What caught me off guard was how humorous the story can be. Somehow, we feel that Irving is making light of the people of Sleepy Hollow. He loves them, make no mistake. But it's as if he's inviting the reader to see that these are people who tell creepy stories to amuse themselves. I'm amused as well. I'm amused at the brilliant way that Irving shows us how a town's beliefs, its superstitions, can influence the lives of the locals. And that despite these superstitions, they make do.

It's no wonder that Irving's stories have stood the test of time. These are the kind of stories that you tell each other at the campfire. These are the stories that you share to your friends to creep them out. While the Headless Horseman doesn't really appear till the end of the story, there's a sense of pervading gloom right from page 1 of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. By the end of the story, if you're not creeped out by what happens to Ichabod Crane, then at least it will give you pause to think whether the Headless Horseman is real or not.

Read this book if:
  1. You love short creepy stories.
  2. You've seen the movie, and now it's time to read the book.
  3. Headless Horseman! Headless Horseman! Is there really any other reason for reading this?

Sunday, April 13, 2014

H is for Hardy

First, this is going to be short. I'll be writing a full post on my thoughts about Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native over at The Project Gutenberg Project blog. I've been accepted as one of its contributors, and my first post goes live this Tuesday. The blog's all about discovering forgotten classics in the public domain.

While Hardy may not be considered "forgotten," I feel that he's not as popular these days as some classic authors. Jane Austen, for instance, has had numerous adaptations of her novels. Shakespeare has been reworked to death. Henry James and E. M. Forster enjoyed a revival due to the wonderful Merchant-Ivory films. But Hardy? Quite few and far between, if I may so.

Second, The Return of the Native caught me by surprise. Oh, Hardy, why did it take me this long to read you? The novel opens very slowly. But the drama that enfolds lures you in. Here are tragic characters all set out to enact the story that unfolds beautifully. Here's a novel that lets you look into the lives of provincial characters—their superstitions, their upbringing, their beliefs and mores.

Perhaps it's the depressing themes that make people shy away from Hardy. Yes, The Return of the Native can indeed be a downer. You wallow in it. You get lost in all the frustrations, the what-could-have-beens, the missed connections, and the futile romances of the people of Egdon Heath. But you know what? I'd gladly return to the fictional Wessex of Hardy, if only to read his brilliant stories. The themes may be depressing, but the writing is glorious.

Started reading this while waiting to board a plane
Read this book if:
  1. Depressing novels are your thing.
  2. You've always wondered about Hardy's fictional Wessex.
  3. You know what it's like to return to your hometown after years of being away.
My post at the Project Gutenberg Project blog is now up. Read it here.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The screenplay, the movie, and everything in between

When I was a kid, there was nothing more magical than entering the cinema with snacks in hand, parting those thick red curtains, finding the seat with the best view, and waiting for the entire room to get dark. For a couple of hours, I was far removed from reality. I guess I will always love watching movies in the big screen. And I will always look forward to seeing a story unfold itself.

The story—the screenplay—is the movie's lifeblood. And a good screenplay can be quite a challenge to write. This is what I learned after reading Ricky Lee's Sa Puso ng Himala, a book that tells you everything that happened from the screenplay's inception to the making of the movie "Himala." It's a good story to tell, especially if the movie has been hailed as the best that Philippine cinema has to offer.

No, this book is no longer a manual for today's brand of filmmaking. Sa Puso ng Himala can be seen as a historical record, a piece of important collections of what people in the movie industry did back in the day. The daily toil, the grit that gets in their fingernails, the politicking to get funding, the non-digital manipulation of sound and dubbing, the thousands of extras that need to be hired—everything's in this book. If you watch the movie "Himala" now, you'll be transfixed by the inspiring performances of the cast, the timeless strength of the material, the texture of the production design. The book, Sa Puso ng Himala, tells you how they got there.

The movie's origins and production are a remarkable piece of storytelling in itself. Here are candid anecdotes of people who were involved in the movie. At that time, they never really knew that they were making Philippine cinema history; they just wanted to get it over and done with. The director was a perfectionist, the shoot location was a barren landscape, the extras were difficult to control, the budget was limited. Basically, there were problems at every stage. But you can never go wrong if you have a brilliant screenplay and a very talented cast.

Reading Sa Puso ng Himala is like finding yourself part of the crew. The book's author, Ricky Lee, who is also the screenplay writer of the movie, recounts the several changes his story underwent. The cast and crew reminisce about working with legendary director Ishmael Bernal, he of the impossibly high standards. (A couple of hundred extras needed first thing tomorrow morning? Done.) There are even articles about the movie's post-production stages, the production design, the poster, the local and international reception of the movie, and the day-to-day grind on set. It's a perfect book for classic movie buffs.

I have always believed that reading the screenplay is just part of the process. One gets to fully appreciate the magic of the movies when you see the words come to life in the big screen. It's like reading Shakespeare, yes? Shakespeare's plays become more vivid when you see them enacted on stage. That was, after all, Shakespeare's goal. After turning the last page of Sa Puso ng Himala, I did not just love the movie even more; it made me develop a deep respect for the craft, a fascination for the discipline that this form of media demands from its people. And that's why you stay for the credits at the end of the movie. Respect, people.

The different personalities involved in creating the film
The cast, the crew, the people in publicity,
and even a daughter of President Marcos
A page showing Ricky Lee's notes
Again proving that good writing requires several revisions
Ricky Lee conceived the screenplay with Nora Aunor in mind.
Quite amusing to read the perspectives of the cast and crew
Cat fights on set? Check. 20-hour days? Check. 
Lots of behind-the-scenes material in the book
Juicy, gossipy stuff
The book has lots of photo essays such as this spread. 
The devil is truly in the details.
How Bernal wanted to shoot the pivotal last scene
A study in organized chaos
Every aspiring writer should read Ricky Lee's screenplay. 
The book also includes the English translation of the screenplay.
On the left page is the visionary, Ishmael Bernal.
Read this book if:
  1. You find movies magical.
  2. You love reading screenplays.
  3. You're looking for a gossipy read.