From Page to Screen · Middle-Grade

From Page to Screen: A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time has never been one of my favorite books. I feel like it’s important to say that upfront. I liked it but didn’t love it as a kid, and I felt about the same when I re-read it recently in preparation for the movie. I’m a book person, and this is a book blog, but for once, I went into a movie adaptation of a book without any kind of set-in-stone feeling that the book would be better, no matter what they did. This is not one of those books for me.

Many movies based on books fall shortest in character development. While books have hundreds upon hundreds of pages to flesh out their characters, not to mention the ability to show readers what they’re thinking and feeling, movies have to rely on dialogue and acting choices within a much more limited time frame. However, the characters in A Wrinkle in Time were beautifully realized. Charles Wallace in particular comes across as brilliant and childlike at the same time, which is quite the accomplishment for a young child actor playing a five-year-old genius. Meg’s parents and Calvin all remain mostly true to how they were portrayed in the book, but in Meg’s story, the movie actually takes things further and does – dare I say? – a better job of exploring who she is. For instance, in both book and movie, Mrs. Whatsit gives her the “gift” of her flaws to help her on Camazotz, but in the book this just means that she has to tap into her stubbornness to resist IT’s power. In the movie, it’s by accepting herself, faults and all, that she’s able to resist and free her mind from IT’s control.

The characters’ relationships and interactions with each other ring true. Mr. and Mrs. Murray’s love for each other, their love for their children, the growing friendship and attraction between Meg and Calvin, and the mentorship provided by Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit all play out believably on screen. But where the movie really shines is in showing the deep, powerful love between Meg and Charles Wallace. The moment where she realizes that her love for her brother is stronger than IT’s hold over him is already by far the most powerful moment of the book, and would have been one of the worst places to fall short on. Thankfully, the two young actors really do an exceptional job, not only on that scene but on building up a convincing brother/sister relationship throughout the movie that gives the scene a strong foundation to stand on.

My biggest problem with the book is the stilted dialogue, and in that area, I’d say the movie is better. It’s still sometimes a bit cheesy – for instance, Mrs. Who speaking only in quotes gets old pretty fast – but at least the kids do talk to each other pretty much like normal kids, and the three Mrs. W’s aren’t really human anyway.

It’s not until they get to Camazotz that things begin to go wrong. In the book, Camazotz is both far more mundane and far more disturbing. It’s not the origin of the darkness, and it’s not some kind of nightmare illusion planet. It’s just a planet – a surprisingly earth-like planet at that – which has completely given in to the darkness. To me, the idea that a whole planet full of people – humans, because the people of Camazotz are human, or at least close enough that no one can tell the difference – would collectively decide to choose evil over good, to give themselves up to complete conformity and choose to let themselves be mind-controlled pawns of a pure evil entity – is far more terrifying than the more intense action sequences of the movie. The people of Camazotz were explicitly real and alive in the book, and some were even capable of resisting, like the little boy who throws away his ball. In the movie, they’re all just illusions.

By extension, one of the novel’s main themes is lost. Or, at least, it loses some of its power. Camazotz was a place of complete conformity, and a greatly exaggerated reflection of the peer pressure Meg and Calvin experience at school. On a different level, the society shown on Camazotz suggests that evil succeeds when people stop thinking and acting as individuals. Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace actually speak to several of Camazotz’ people, some of whom are too afraid to help and some of whom are simply indifferent. Nowhere do we see a human inhabitant of Camazotz, aside from the red-eyed man, actually doing something evil – but we do see them going about their daily business as if the world that they live in isn’t consumed by evil. Camazotz in the book is sort of a cautionary tale for those of us on Earth, but in the movie it’s not much more than a pop-up book of nightmares.

So, was the book better? Yes … and no. Everything from the moment they arrive on Camazotz to the end of the movie – with the exception of Meg’s love saving Charles Wallace – was completely off the mark. As an adaptation, it can hardly compare when it completely overlooks one of the book’s main themes in favor of pointless action sequences. But from a character point of view, it was excellent, and perhaps even better than the book. I did like it, and I’ll probably buy the DVD when it comes out, but I still wish someone involved had understood what the point was to all those identical houses and balls bouncing in rhythm.


Spring Break Reading: Richard II

Richard II is the third one of Shakespeare’s history plays that I’ve read, and it’s nothing like either of the others. I’m not entirely sure if I like it or not – but then, that’s how I felt when I first read Henry V, and now it’s one of my very favorites. While Henry V is a patriotic, celebratory play and Richard III a gruesome horror story, Richard II is far less straightforward.

On the one hand, King Richard II is a terrible king. Worse than that, he doesn’t seem to have any idea he’s a bad king, or any understanding of a king’s responsibilities – which makes a certain amount of sense, since the real Richard II took the throne at ten years old. He’s indecisive and prone to favoritism, as the opening scenes show: when two noblemen each accuse each other of treason, he first agrees to let them fight to the death, before changing his mind and banishing them both – one for ten years (later reduced to six because he wants to make the man’s father happy) and the other for life. Not that I think fights to the death are the best way to settle a dispute, but frequently and easily changing one’s mind is not a great leadership quality, either. And yet, the play spends a great deal of time talking about the divine right of kings, and many characters assume that Richard is God’s choice to rule and therefore any attempt to remove him from power is wrong.

On the other hand, Henry of Bolingbroke is Queen Elizabeth’s ancestor, and all of the history plays are at least partially Elizabethan propaganda, so we’re probably meant to be rooting for him. He certainly seems to be a more capable ruler than Richard, and he has no problem winning the nobles’ support, although not the support of the play’s religious figures. That’s where the whole divine right thing comes into play most.

Neither Henry nor Richard seems like a particularly bad person – as in, neither of them is a cartoonish villain in the vein of Richard III – but neither of them seems particularly good, either. They both make questionable decisions, and they both have faults. Richard’s main ones are immaturity and an utter lack of leadership skills. But he has a strange sort of dignity even in defeat, and he becomes increasingly thoughtful and introspective. It’s hard not to pity him, especially near the end. Like Hamlet, he might have led a happier life if he weren’t royalty. Henry, on the other hand, is incredibly arrogant in believing he can just march right back into a country he was exiled from to demand his inheritance and, by the way, the throne as well. But on the other hand, he’s also smart, capable, and probably right in thinking he’d be a better king than Richard – except, this is a history play, and the real Henry IV’s reign was short and turbulent.

All-in-all, they both come across as remarkably human for two monarchs in a historical drama. Unlike with Henry V and Richard III, who are clearly defined as hero and villain, in Richard II Shakespeare seems to present two fully human, deeply flawed contenders for the throne and lets the audience – or the actors and director – draw their own conclusion. That’s not what I was expecting, but then again, character development is one of Shakespeare’s strengths. I’m not sure why I’m so surprised it would be apparent here as well.


Spring Break Reading: Julius Caesar

I just finished reading Julius Caesar, the second Shakespeare play I’ve read this week. Wow! There’s definitely a lot going on in this one, and it’s not hard to see why it’s considered one of Shakespeare’s highlights.

One of the things that stands out most to me is that the play doesn’t really have a clear-cut hero or villain. On the one hand, Brutus is more well-intentioned than Cassius and probably thinks he’s doing the right thing – but what he’s doing is helping to assassinate one of his closest friends, so maybe he’s not as honorable as he would have you think. And even the less-noble Cassius is more of a catalyst for violence than a full-blown, bloodthirsty maniac along the lines of Shakespeare’s more famous villains. In other words, he’s more like Tybalt than Iago or Edmund.

On the other hand, there’s Mark Antony, who seems like a relatively good person and doesn’t get drawn into the conspiracy – but at the same time, he’s superbly skilled at deceit and manipulation and has no problem whatsoever with inciting an angry mob. Julius Caesar himself feels like almost a side character, given that he dies early on in the play. He’s certainly not a bloodthirsty villain in the vein of Richard III. He sometimes seems too proud or too happy to accept power, but he also shows courage and decency. Even the conspirators don’t seem to think he’s a bad person; they seem to have more of a problem with the idea of having a king than with Caesar himself.

Everyone is to some degree sympathetic, and everyone’s intentions are to some degree understandable – but they’re also wrong. Caesar’s death does not prevent the Roman Republic from becoming the Roman Empire, Brutus sacrifices his honor by involving himself with the assassination, Mark Antony has his own tragedy awaiting, and – this being Shakespeare – half the cast is dead by the end. The story is made up primarily of people doing what they think is for the best and a steadily increasing death toll. The road to Hell is paved with … well, you know. And that, I think, is the true tragedy of the play.


Spring Break Reading: Coriolanus

This spring break, I’ve decided to read yet more Shakespeare. While I’ve now read 16 Shakespeare plays, ranging from the ultra-famous Romeo and Juliet to far lesser-known plays like Troilus and Cressida, I had not, until this week, read any of Shakespeare’s Roman plays.

Over the course of his career, Shakespeare wrote four plays set in ancient Rome: Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Titus Andronicus, and Coriolanus. Despite three of the four being (loosely) based on historical events, they are usually considered tragedies, not history plays. (Shakespeare’s history plays focused mostly on English history). However, they are often grouped together as the Roman Plays, a category defined by their setting as well as by being historical tragedies.

If you can even call Coriolanus a tragedy, that is. The title character definitely fits the tragic hero mold, as a powerful man whose “tragic flaw” – in this case his pride – leads to his downfall. But at the same time, compared with other Shakespearean tragedies, this one seems almost tame. Only one named character dies, and beyond his own death there is no lasting harm done.

Granted, not every Shakespearean tragedy has to be a bloodbath. Both Othello and Romeo and Juliet have relatively low death counts, too. But the difference is that those deaths pack a huge emotional punch, while Coriolanus’ just … doesn’t. What feels more tragic: a double teenage suicide leaving behind two grieving families, or an arrogant soldier betraying both sides of a war and then dying for it? Isn’t the point of tragedy that you’re supposed to feel sad about it? But I didn’t. My reaction at the end was more like, “That’s it? That’s the entire scope of the tragedy – the death of the least likable guy in the play?”

That’s not to say I didn’t like the play, just that it doesn’t equal Hamlet or Othello for emotional impact. I found myself enjoying it for very different reasons. It wasn’t particularly tragic for a tragedy, and it certainly wasn’t a lighthearted comedy, but it still had a lot to say.

Coriolanus may be the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, at least those that I have read so far. Yes, the English history plays were political propaganda, but Coriolanus is definitely a critique, and one that is as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare’s England or ancient Rome. With its overly ambitious and deceitful politicians and its volatile mob of commoners whose minds are swayed at the slightest argument, I can’t help feeling it paints an unfairly harsh picture of democracy. And yet, the questions it asks about how and why we choose our leaders are valid ones, and the juxtaposition of the haughty Coriolanus, who openly sneers at the common people and admits he doesn’t care for them, with the underhanded plotting and false flattery of the tribunes, does a good job of portraying the worst extremes politicians can go to. The play doesn’t seem to advocate for dictatorship, but it’s not shy about pointing out the flaws in the Republic it portrays.

The events in the play leave the reader with a lot to think about. How can people be more discerning in who to follow or listen to or vote for? How can politicians balance honesty with tact and pride with compassion? To what extent must elected officials represent the wishes of their constituents? These questions are still important today, but they are also easily overlooked by those of us who have lived our whole lives in a modern-day democratic country.

While the idea that the common people should have a voice in their government was not new in Shakespeare’s time, it was not widespread or well-established. England’s parliament was the exception rather than the rule; most other European countries were absolute monarchies. Perhaps they were more aware of representative democracy not just as a fact of life but as something that must be given thought and attention. In the case of Coriolanus, the play does not blindly celebrate the Roman Republic, but it doesn’t entirely condemn it, either. What it does is pose important questions that, by extension, can be applied not just to Rome but to Shakespeare’s world and to our own.

From Page to Screen · Shakespeare

Richard III, with lions?

I’ve often heard The Lion King described as “Hamlet with lions”, but I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s more like “Richard III with lions”.

Richard III and Hamlet both feature villains who murder their brothers in order to become king, and both of them go on to murder their nephews in order to try to keep their positions of power. However, the difference is that nobody in Hamlet suspects King Claudius of any kind of treachery – nobody except Hamlet himself. Furthermore, while the Pridelands suffer greatly under Scar’s leadership and are immediately restored after his death, the “something rotten in the state of Denmark” goes far beyond Claudius’ own evil and is not so easily resolved. Scar’s openly despicable persona and single-handed destruction of a once-great land feels much more like Richard III’s reign of terror in Shakespeare’s history play.

Like Shakespeare’s Richard III, Scar is pretty transparently evil. His song with the hyenas has all the hallmarks of a rising dictator. He has convinced them that the lions (except Scar himself) are their enemies, that it’s in their best interest to help him kill Simba and Mufasa, and that their lives will be infinitely better with him as king – yet when he does become king, it becomes obvious he doesn’t really care about helping the hyenas at all. Richard III likewise uses people as disposable pawns and convinces them to ignore his obvious deficiencies. He, like Scar, is charming in a sinister way and can win over even those who know for a fact what a horrible person he is. Claudius, on the other hand, appears at first glance to be an ordinary king, taking the throne after the tragic death of his brother. He doesn’t have to charm or manipulate others into supporting him, because everyone just assumes they should. Even Hamlet requires greater proof than his father’s ghost to be convinced of his uncle’s treachery. While Richard III and Scar are obviously evil, hidden by a thin veneer of charisma and empty promises, Claudius is subtle and secretive about his crimes and very nearly gets away with them.

But, of course, Hamlet focuses the majority of its attention on Hamlet himself, Claudius’ nephew who learns what happened and reluctantly sets out to avenge his father. Like Simba, he initially runs away before returning to challenge his uncle. Both princes also encounter the ghost or spirit of their father, who pushes them to act when they are hesitant to do so. However, Hamlet’s story is all about his philosophical contemplation of death and slow descent into madness. Being a children’s movie, there’s nothing like that in The Lion King. Simba’s journey is toward courage and heroism while Hamlet’s leads to death – his own, and almost every other character’s.

On the other hand, Richard III ends with a bit more hope. Its villain protagonist is vanquished and killed, and Henry Tudor takes his place as the new king, marrying Elizabeth of York and ending the War of the Roses. While the princes in the tower are the more direct equivalents to Simba, being Richard III’s nephews who he has murdered, the triumphant ending scenes of The Lion King are highly reminiscent of Richard III: Simba defeats Scar, replaces him as king, and reunites with Nala, a flash-forward showing them with a cub and implying the beginning of a strong and benevolent dynasty to replace Scar’s violent one – exactly the sort of promises made by the ending to Richard III, which is hopeful despite the play’s overall gruesomeness.

Conflict over the throne is common in Shakespeare’s tragedies and histories, and many of his villains are willing to kill for power. The brother vs. brother plotline also appears in King Lear, as in well as comedies such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It (although, admittedly, only Hamlet and Richard III also involve an uncle trying to murder his nephew). Nor are these themes and motifs unique to Shakespeare. However, of the two Shakespeare plays it most resembles, Lion King has more in common with Richard III than with Hamlet.


Fantastical Field Trips and Childhood Nostalgia

The weird thing about being in my mid-20’s is that sometimes I feel very young, but sometimes I feel very old. I’m no longer a teenager or even that weird in-between of being a college student, but I’m just starting out being a “real” adult. Compared to people in their thirties or older, I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but I find myself saying “when I was a kid” way more often than I ever expected, because today’s kids have a completely different childhood than the one I remember. Book series that I outgrew before they ended have been long since forgotten (or, even more shockingly, are still going on); Olympic athletes are my age, some of them younger; and if you ask a kid today, Pluto has never been a planet and smartphones have always existed.

I’m not sure what got me started thinking about The Magic School Bus, but it’s definitely something that makes me feel old. It makes me feel even older to find out that the TV show ended in 1998 (I think I knew that at some point) and was rebooted with Ms. Frizzle’s sister as the teacher in 2017, or that there were new books released in 2006 and 2010 that I’ve never read!

I used to love The Magic School Bus. Not just the TV show, although I did love that. I think I must have watched my VHS tapes of the ocean food chain and solar system episodes about a thousand times. But you know me, I’m a huge bookworm. I loved the Magic School Bus books, too, especially the series of more advanced chapter books that came out in the early 2000’s – just when I was at the right age for them. My favorites were Dinosaur Detectives and The Great Shark Escape.

Between The Magic School Bus and The Magic Tree House, a lot of the science and history I learned as a kid was learned via eccentric time-traveling fictional ladies. I was well-aware that the stories were educational. But I was a teacher’s daughter, and “educational” was a good thing to me. I don’t know that most kids even realized how much they were learning. It was just fun to follow Ms. Frizzle and her class to all kinds of wacky places.

All this to say, I’m feeling nostalgic lately, and I had no idea you could buy Magic Schoolbus DVDs so affordably on Amazon.


A Skeptic Watches Star Wars: Part III

This past week, I watched The Force Awakens and Rogue One, two of the most recent Star Wars movies. They both had a very different feel from the originals as well as each other.

Rogue One is a gritty war story. It follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of the engineer who designed the Death Star, and Cassian Andor, a Rebel agent who is sent on a mission with her. In contrast with the original Star Wars movies, the Rebellion comes across much more ruthless and willing to go to unpleasant lengths to win. There’s the more extremist faction that is outright blowing up streets filled with civillians, but even the more reasonable faction is not above using a young woman to find and kill her father, while hiding from her what the true purpose of the mission is. I ended up not liking Rogue One very much. For a movie that tried so hard to emphasize that “rebellions are built on hope”, the picture it paints is such a bleak one. While they do successfully get the Death Star plans to the Rebels, they do so through what is essentially a suicide mission which not one main character survives. The battles seemed endless, the characters were missed opportunities with huge unexplored potential, and the world seemed so hopeless it’s almost impossible to believe in the hope the characters talk about – at least right up to the final scene, and by then it’s too little, too late.

It’s not a bad movie. The CGI is crisp and beautiful, the alien planets creative without being unbelievable, and the story gives more credibility and realism to A New Hope, explaining how they got to that point and just how much was sacrificed to give the Rebels a chance at victory. I won’t even try to judge whether it was a good Star Wars movie, one that stays true to the tone and spirit of the franchise. I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I’m watching these movies not as a fan but as a skeptic – someone who has never seen them before and never had much interest beyond mild curiosity. But I will say that to me, personally, it was one of my least favorites. It was slick, polished, and well-made, but it failed to hold my interest or win my sympathy.

The Force Awakens is almost exactly the opposite. It’s not a unique or original movie. The plot is almost exactly the same as the plot of A New Hope, which itself follows the same hero’s journey commonly seen in myth and fantasy. From a droid carrying critical information, to a backwater desert world, to a weapon capable of destroying whole planets, huge pieces of the plot are copied and pasted into a different part of the timeline, and even the new characters mirror the old ones in many ways. I can’t say I thought it was the objective best, and it was perhaps the least original. However, despite all that, I loved it. It might even be my favorite.

On a plot level, the movie is A New Hope 2.0, but on a character level, it’s something totally unique. Both Rey and Finn come from unfortunate beginnings but refuse to let their circumstances in life control them. Rey, who was abandoned in the desert at a young age, has learned to survive and fend for herself, but she has not become cynical or hardened. This is her strength, and why Kylo Ren finds it so hard to turn her to the dark side: she holds onto hope like a lifeline and does not lose faith no matter how impossible her situation seems. She’s the sort of person who saves a droid from being destroyed for spare parts, lets it follow her home, and makes it her mission to return it to the Resistance when she realizes what’s at stake. Meanwhile, Finn is a former Stormtrooper who was brainwashed from a young age and trained to be a merciless killing machine, but rebels after being ordered to shoot at unarmed civilians. He turns out to be gentle, caring, and fiercely protective of those he considers friends. He doesn’t believe the First Order can be defeated and yet still finds the courage to go against them. Both characters are who they are not because of their circumstances but in spite of them, and they both seem a bit out of place, swept up in the story against their will and wanting to go their own ways, but eventually choosing to fight – not for the Resistance at first, but for each other.

Kylo Ren is essentially the opposite, someone who clearly should have been a hero: son of Han and Leia, trained by Luke Skywalker, and still “tempted” by the Light side even after choosing the Dark Side instead. It’s fascinating, in a way. The Dark Side is supposed to be seductive, difficult to resist, and nearly impossible to come back from. Yet Kylo Ren seems to view the Light side in much the same way and is willing to go to extreme lengths, even killing his own father, in order to resist it. In that way, he’s the exact opposite of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

The framework of the story is a familiar one, but the pieces fall into place in new ways and for new reasons. Does it feel unrealistic for history to repeat itself so neatly? Yeah. It does. It did take me out of the story a little to constantly be going, “OK, so he’s sending the map away with a droid, just like Leia hiding the Death Star plans in R2D2”, and I’m sure that feeling would have been even stronger for longtime fans who have seen the original movie many times.

Like I said, it’s not a flawless movie. But in a way, I feel like the copied-and-pasted plot worked exactly as it was supposed to: providing a familiar framework for a new story, allowing the focus to be on developing the new characters and exploring the new time period. There were few surprises in the plot, but that just served to give the character-driven twists greater weight.