Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon Book and Movie

There are so many differences between the movie and the book for How to Train Your Dragon . . . so here goes . . .

While both the book and movie have Vikings and dragons, the relationship between the two species is very different.  In the book, the dragons are more like working pets, going out and hunting for their Viking owners.  Only dragons are not the most cooperative creatures, due to their high intelligence apparently, and hard to control. 

Hence, the initiation ritual in the book.  The ten boys are sent into a cave where there are several thousand baby dragons and must retrieve one and, after bringing the dragon home, train it in time for the big festival. 

In the movie, the Viking/Dragon relationship is antagonistic and when the youth are initiated it’s in an arena where they first train to learn about how to fend off various dragon attacks.  And then there’s the girl, Astrid, who is also trying to be a Viking warrior.  I suppose this was Hollywood’s way of making the movie more universally appealing and I can’t argue that it didn’t work.  However, let’s be honest:  it’s not very historically accurate.

Nevertheless, when Hiccup happens to seriously injure one of the most fearsome types of dragons, he begins learning how to train a dragon.  Albeit, his fearsome dragon can’t fly (it’s wounded, after all) and at first he thinks it’s toothless, which is why he calls it Toothless. 

And that is what book Hiccup calls his dragon because his dragon actually is toothless.  And very tiny.  And not of the most fearsome breed.  Throughout the book, Hiccup tries to manipulate the dragon through various means to win it over but the dragon is not easily fooled.  (Remember, they’re clever creatures.)  This is different from movie Hiccup who actually is inspired by compassion to find a way to connect with the dragon. 

This is why I feel the movie is better than the book.  I prefer the compassionate Hiccup to the frustrated and manipulative one.  Both are fearful and both prove to be courageous.  Even Toothless is far more likable in the movie than he is in the book where the tiny Toothless is petty and narcissistic.

Both have a very large dragon that must be defeated but how this is accomplished is completely different.  In the movie, the humans and smaller dragons work together to bring the dictatorial dragon down and, at the end of the movie, they are living in harmony more cooperatively than in the book where the dragons are clearly servile (if not submissive) to their human masters from beginning to end.

I suppose the end result is the same—humans and dragons live together in relative harmony.  Still, it seems to me that the movie suggests a deeper relationship between the two, that the humans and dragons have a mutual respect and work together whereas one gets the feeling in the book that the next time a really big dragon washes ashore, the smaller dragons are going to run, or fly, to the hills.

Spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon

In How to Train Your Dragon, on page 172 ten dragons fly out to dump feathers on the very large dragon that has washed ashore.  The only problem is . . . Hiccup’s dragon Toothless stayed behind and there are ten boys with ten dragons.  Now, I know I’ve been out of school for a long time but if one dragon stays behind and ten boys have one dragon each, doesn’t that mean only nine dragons went? 

It does to me but then math has never been my strong suit.

And for those who have seen the movie . . .

Sunday, August 26, 2001

Spoilers for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

It is obvious that Fanny’s uncle is a slave owner and has plantations of some sort in Antigua.  This is alluded to rather than clearly stated and, while realistic to the times, I suppose, it left a bit of a distaste in my mouth.  It is clear we are not necessarily intended to like Mr Bertram, her uncle, although there does seem to be an attempt at creating a character that is, if nothing else, deserving of our respect.  Certainly, our appreciation of him grows as his appreciation for Fanny grows.  But his lack of parenting skills, as evidenced in his children’s behavior, and his indulgent attitude towards those to whom he owes the most responsibility, is not designed to make him completely likable.

To see a hint of such a reality in an Austen novel is surprising to me because I have always dismissed her novels as light romances, mentally shelving them in a purely fluffy category.  However, there it is, something implicit, and yet she never addresses herself to the issue of slavery.  And she is not the only author of this period to do so which is why I can perhaps overlook it.  In other words, I can forgive her for it but it is one of the reasons why I don’t altogether praise Austen’s novels.  There is a lack of substance that, in spite of the many academic papers that delve into the deeper subtext of her stories, I can only say makes her novels a pleasure to read but not provocative enough to fully recommend them.

Monday, July 16, 2001

Spoilers for Ethan Frome

One of the things I loved about this novel is how Ethan Frome's frustration is never fulfilled.  That is the tragedy; that whatever happiness he believes is possible is never realized.  In youth he wants to be an engineer, an aspiration that is put on hold when he has to take care of the family farm.  When his parents die, he marries the woman who came to help him take care of the household, Zenobia.  She proves to be a hypochondriac with real and imagined health issues that tie Frome to the home, unable to leave the small village as he tries to hold the farm together and provide for a wife who is no longer loving or lovable.

But this is all the back story.  When his wife invites her cousin, Mattie, to come live with them, to help around the house, Ethan is once again given reason to hope.  Mattie's youthfulness, her vigor, bring an energy into the home and into Ethan's heart he thought was long dead.  However, the reader knows that Ethan never leaves the village, that something tragic is on his horizon, for our first image of Ethan Frome himself is his limping through the snow, bent and broken.

My disappointment in the BBC production was rooted in the moment when the screenwriter allowed Ethan from to consummate his passion with Mattie.  This was a sharp departure from the novel, an emotionally unworthy choice, because the tragedy of the novel is not that he does inevitably become trapped in his life but that he never knows any fulfillment.  I suppose some might see his one brief taste of happiness being experienced and then taken from him in the climactic tragedy as somehow even more grievous.  I clearly did not and would have preferred if the script had been more faithful to the novel.

Friday, June 22, 2001

Spoilers for March by Geraldine Brooks

Spoilers for March by Geraldine Brooks

I am disappointed by the author’s decision to have March and Marmee have sex without the benefit of marriage.  Sure, it is traditional but by the time they meet, he has become a minister and there is nothing in his character to indicate he would be so consumed by lust as to act on his desires without any self-discipline.  This event happens in chapter five and I simply cannot see a legitimate context within either of the characters that truly justifies Brooks taking such liberties with a more traditional approach to their courtship.

I suppose one could argue that the relationship March has with Grace Clement foreshadows this later encounter.  I disagree.  At the time of his meeting Grace, he is a younger man and not yet devoted to a spiritual career.  For him to feel attracted to a woman who is intelligent and even regal is not surprising given his own intellectual passions.  That her whipping seems to be the impetus for his later commitment to becoming a minister is a predictable catalyst.

All the more predictable are the other coincidences that surround the character of Grace.  Of course, she’s the daughter of a the master of the house.  Really, was anyone surprised by this?  And of course she shows up later in the novel in an overly convenient manner.  This is one of the reasons that the novel seems a bit old fashioned to me.  The jealousy that Marmee feels when she first encounters this woman, conveniently nursing March through a delirious fever, is stereotypical romance novel fodder.  Tediously predictable.

Unfortunately, this is also the weakest part of the novel for another reason.  Throughout the first part, the novel is told from the point-of-view of March himself but suddenly in part two Marmee is the narrator.  For a couple of chapters, anyway, before Brooks returns the narrative to March himself.  I find this a disingenuous choice on the author’s part for it obviously breaks the contract already created with the writer in the first part.  I can imagine how the author wrote herself into a literary corner.  "What to do?  March is very sick and even delirious.  He can’t actually continue narrating the story when he’s slipping in and out of consciousness.  Oh, I know!  I can let Marmee tell the story.  Whew!"

In the hands of a better (or at least more confident) writer, one skilled in using stream-of-consciousness, this choice would have been unnecessary (and it would have gotten rid of the silly relationship issue between Marmee and Grace).  The few chapters in which Marmee is given voice are the weakest part of the novel for yet another reason.  Her voice sounds a lot like that of her husband.  While I appreciate how a similar education might result in a certain similarity in elocution, I would nevertheless expect one narrative voice to have its own style.  The only thing that truly differs between one voice and the other are the details of the experience.  How the story is told, whether by March or Marmee, is without any distinctive tonal difference.

So this is why I wasn’t blown away by this novel.  I don’t know if the author had changed all of the above if I would have enjoyed it enough to be blown away but I would have at least enjoyed reading it more than I obviously did.
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