Saturday, 28 March 2015

Book to Film

I don't know how many times, over the years, I've had a student reject a recommended book by saying:  "I've already seen the film".  With this in mind, TRAC's latest book list is focused on books which will be making their way to the big screen soon.  If you are the type of reader who won't read a story once the plot has been "spoiled" for you, then we would like to alert you so that you can get to the book first.

Some of the books on our list, for instance DUFF and The Seventh Son (based on Joseph Delaney's The Last Apprentice/Wardstone Chronicles series) will be released in the next few weeks.  (Both films have recently been released in the US).  Others, like John Green's Paper Towns will be part of the summer film schedule targeted at teenagers.  Then there are the complex fantasy worlds of popular YA novels like Mark Frost's The Paladin Prophecy and James Patterson's Maximum Ride series.  These books have been "in development" for a while, and may continue to languish in Hollywood purgatory throughout 2015.

I never have the "book vs film" problem for a variety of reasons.  If I see the film first, and like it, then I'm always keen to read the book and fill in all of the extra details.  No film, no matter how long, can ever be as comprehensive as a book.  Years after I began seeing the Harry Potter films with my (then) young children, I read the books.  Even though the films do a faithful, even magical, job of bringing the stories to life -- I still preferred the books -- which felt so much more "complete" in their detail.  There are a few films which manage to improve on their source material, but the majority of them don't in my opinion.

Unlike many readers (or film-goers, for that matter), I don't read primarily for plot and the story isn't ruined for me if I already know what happens.  I actually enjoy seeing how the book and film versions may differ, rather than being annoyed by changes.  Perhaps I'm in the minority in this opinion, though.  My daughter hates it when anyone "spoils" the plot for her, and a casting decision which strays from the written description of a character can send her into a frenzy of complaint.

Most films made from popular series (The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc) tend to be pretty faithful to their source material -- presumably to avoid reader revolt.  But it also depends on authorial clout, which tends to be proportional to the novel's success.

Lesser-known novels can get so bent out of shape by the movie-making process that their storyline and/or characters are nearly unrecognisable.  DUFF is a good example of this kind of book-to-film transformation.  Written by an 18 year-old author named Kody Keplinger, DUFF (the book) has an edginess and a darkness that the film definitely lacks.  Dysfunctional parents are an important element in the book's plot.  Main characters Bianca and Wesley both have absentee parents; his are removed from their children's lives, and Bianca's are major emotional liabilities.  The film makes the main characters next-door neighbours and almost entirely remove the parents from the plot; the entire dynamic of Wesley and Bianca's friendship/courtship is changed.  In the book, frankly casual sex is presented as an escape mechanism from emotional problems.  I can understand why the film-makers smoothed down the rough edges, and made the story more acceptable for a younger audience, but it is hardly the same story.  Sex is taken out of the equation in the film, with social media providing whatever conflict still exists in the plot . . . and it's not much. You might enjoy the film, which is rather sweet and silly; but it's no substitute for the book.  In my opinion, that is nearly always the case.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Buffalo Soldier

As I was reading my way through UKLA's longlist for 2015, I came across Tanya Landman's Buffalo Soldier.  I had two overriding thoughts about this particular book:  (1) that it was a beautifully written story of a fascinating historical subject, and (2) who will read it?  In commercial terms, it seems like a totally unfashionable book -- which will only get into adolescent hands, if at all, through the encouragement of a persuasive teacher or librarian.  I found it compelling and memorable, certainly, but can we trust in books to find their own readers?

Author Tanya Landman is British, but she has written two YA historical novels (Apache and Buffalo Soldier) that are peculiarly American in their setting and subject matter.  Set in the American West during the 19th century, they describe a time of huge turmoil.  The Civil War has (technically, at least) set African-American slaves free at the same time as the policy of Westward Expansion threatens to take away the freedom of Native Americans.  In an era where women have little autonomy and no legal rights, Landman puts a female protagonist at the center of all this cultural upheaval.  Like all best histories, the narrative simultaneously educates its readers about a specific historical moment whilst illuminating emotions and ethical conflicts which seem eternally relevant.     But here is the rub:  like Selma or 12 Years A Slave, this novel deals with some uncomfortably dark history all too vividly described.

The story begins on a Southern plantation at the tail-end of an era.  The narrator of the story is a young female slave, named Charlotte by her absent mother and called "girl" or "child" by everyone else.  In a few efficient chapters, the author gives a colorful sense of Charlotte's circumscribed life:   her place in Cookie's kitchen, her concerns and fears.  When General Sherman and his soldiers raze the plantation, those slaves who haven't run away are suddenly left homeless and quite helpless.  Rather than enjoying the glorious freedom they have been promised, they are struggling just to stay alive in the burnt-out South.  After Charlotte loses her protectors, the prospect of being alone and female is unbearable.  In a bold and desperate gambit, she disguises herself as a young man and joins the Army.  After a period of training, Charlotte (now Charley) is transported West to fight the "Indian Wars".  She has become a Buffalo Soldier.

As is so often the case with what seems improbable, there was real-life precendence for this fictional story.  Cathay Williams was a former female slave who managed to join the 38th Infantry Regiment and serve as a Buffalo Soldier for two years before her true identity was discovered.  Landman takes some dramatic liberties only in the sense that her heroine is transformed into a soldier (and sharpshooter) far superior to Cathay Williams.  Charley finds herself in the thick of it:  from dramatic skirmishes with fierce Apache tribes to the equally intense battle for respect within a mostly racist Army.  (There are a few significant exceptions.)

This book is also very much about the growth of a political consciousness.  At the beginning of her story, Charley's only motivation is her instinct for survival.  As a former slave, she has been used to taking orders and certainly accustomed to privations and abuse.  This "training" serves her well in the Army.  But gradually, as they witness a trail of broken promises, Charley and some of her fellow soldiers begin to question the treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government.  In one of the novel's most dramatic moments, and there are many, Charley will be forced to choose sides -- and the tough decision will be all her own.

There is a dedicated Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas, and I wanted to visit it before writing my review of this book.  But despite the interest of seeing actual artifacts (mostly farming, household and weaponry), in terms of a narrative, I really learned nothing that I had not already learned from my reading.  Whether it was the inferiority of the weapons and animals given to the Buffalo Soldiers, or the derivation of their name, author Tanya Landman had already covered it.  Rather than being a criticism of the museum, I would prefer to emphasize this as a tribute to the book.

I had intended to write about Buffalo Soldier in February, in honor of Black History Month, but really the story of the fight for equality is relevant during any month.  As John Legend and Common referenced in their acceptance speech for "Glory" at the recent Academy Awards, there continues to be great inequalities in the United States in terms of poverty, educational opportunities, incarceration and victimization by the police force.  Interestingly, the founder of the Buffalo Soldier Museum mentioned that when he had taken a group of African -American teenage boys to visit Fort Davis, where many Buffalo Soldiers were stationed, it was the first time that many of them had been out of their own "zip code" in Houston.  In other words, not only had these boys never been outside of Houston, they had never seen anything of the world beyond their own limited neighborhood.  It's difficult to imagine, really, but it certainly stuck in my mind.  It also made me think of Charley, who  had never been off the plantation until the Civil War ended in 1865.

We don't all have the same opportunities for travel, which is exactly why books -- with all of their world-expanding potential -- are such a vital resource.  I do hope that this excellent book will find readers for its journey.

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@Barrie Summy