Sunday, March 30, 2008

To write or not to write. That is the question - Hamlet

I watched the epic "eternity" version of Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh. At over four hours, it’s a lot of Shakespeare to take in. However, I watched it with the director’s commentary on to find out more about Branagh’s decision to make the film and why he chose to approach it the way he has.

I’ve seen the film a few times before and have enjoyed it well enough. Some things about it still bug me, and it does seem to drag in places, but on the whole it’s a true spectacle. I doubt we’ll see a Shakespeare production like it any time soon. When the film was made, Shakespeare was big in Hollywood. Branagh struck while the iron was hot and created a unique film.

However, I got to wondering about Shakespeare in general. Why do these plays endure? Why do people keep performing them? Why does every decade have at least one solid Shakespeare film released (the 90’s had at least six)?

Is it the stories themselves? Some of these tales, if broken down to their basics aren’t anything new. "Romeo and Juliet" is a tragic love story. "Hamlet" is a tragic revenge story. "Much Ado About Nothing" is romantic comedy. "Henry V" is a hero’s journey with an epic war at the end of it. Nothing really new there. However, there is something deeper. Shakespeare’s characters are a real draw. Many actors harbor a desire to perform Hamlet. Why? Because his character is so puzzling. People love to see Hamlet performed to see how the lead will approach the character. Is this Hamlet really insane, or is he just acting insane? The most interesting proof of this phenomenon is the fact that Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa made three film adaptations of Shakespeare’s work. These were not direct translations, but stories inspired heavily by the plays. It’s the characters that makes these versions work so well even in Japanese. Need proof, check out "Throne of Blood" "Ran" or "The Bad Sleep Well".

On the other hand there are those who love Shakespeare’s words. One of the reasons Branagh wanted to do the "eternity" version of Hamlet was to allow the full text to breath live into the characters with words. Shakespeare had the mind of a poet, one that was very skilled at selecting just the write words in the right combination of rhythm to give the listener a strong emotion, vivid image or just a delightful sound. This is why many feel that Shakespeare can not be appreciated if it is simply read, it must be seen and heard to get it’s full impact. Many times these people also abhor any changes to the text.

When it comes down to it, I think it is a combination of the two, Shakespeare’s intricate and compelling characters and his amazing use of language that keeps him so popular in the whole world. The first time I heard the story of "Macbeth" is was hooked. The first time I heard the words "To be or not to be" in context of the play "Hamlet" I was intrigued. To this day, Shakespeare’s stories and words inspire and entertain me.

Do you think Shakespeare is still a valid story teller or is he a relic? Do you think his words or his characters are the key to his success? What is your favorite play and why?

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Greatest Story Ever Told... Again - Lamb

Adaptation is nothing new to storytellers. Since the times of early humankind we’ve told variants of the same stories over and over again. We’ll add a unique spin here, a twist in the tale there, but down at their core the story is the same and the theme and message are delivered.

Some of these stories go on to become very famous indeed. One of the most famous stories in the world is the tale of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. His story has inspired and guided many people through the centuries. At its core, it’s a great story filled with enlightenment, tragedy and hope. This story has inspired countless retelling and re-imaginings. In the cinematic form alone there are dozens of versions from the silent classic "The King of Kings" to the recent "The Passion of the Christ". It’s easy to see why story tellers continue to return to this tale.

Christopher Moore was inspired enough to write his own take on the life of Joshua of Nazareth, and the result was something very interesting. In the book "Lamb" Moore explores the "missing years" of Jesus’ life. Where did Jesus go from the early age of 12 till he returned to Galilee in his thirties. Moore concocts a tale of Joshua (also called Jesus) and his best friend Levi (also called Biff) and their search for the three wise men. Along the way they encounter demons, wizards, a harem of Chinese concubines, Kung-fu monks, The Great Wall of China, wizened gurus, The Kama Sutra, and even get to recreate a scene from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom".

Obviously the book is pure fantasy... but it’s also pure fun. Moore never lets the character of Jesus get away from him either. This journey to find the wise men is what allows Joshua to learn what it means to be a messiah and just what his message to the Jewish people will be. His pal Biff is along for the ride, enjoying the more earthly pleasures and helping Joshua understand that even the most sinful man needs a friend.

Moore took one of the most familiar stories ever told and made it new, entertaining and inspiring all at the same time. Of course the book isn’t for everyone. Those who find the idea of Jesus even talking with a Chinese concubine disturbing best look elsewhere. But those who won’t feel their faith challenged by a good story should check the book out. I was pleasantly surprised.

Since this already turned into a bit of a book review, I need to bring it back around to the topic of story telling. Moore had a major challenge in that many people know this story and have an image in their mind of how it goes. He made it fresh and new by adding humor, high adventure and showing us the formulation of Jesus’ teachings. This is one of the best reasons for any writer to check this book out (and read it for instructional purposes). There are no new stories. They’ve all been told before, but it’s how you tell the story that makes it unique and entertaining. Moore nailed it.

Can you think of any retellings you were surprised with (books, movies, televisions series all count)? Do you read "Lamb"? What did you think?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Broken Beginning - Star Wars: Episode 1

It had to happen sooner or later, I have to give the Star Wars prequels a little hate. I just watched "The Phantom Menace" again, with the help of Rifftrax. This is an audio commentary provided by a couple of the performers of "Mystery Science Theater 3000". You synch it up to your DVD and they basically mock the movie as you watch.

Now this film has plenty of flaws, but I want to focus on some of the basic story telling ones that I noticed, especially with the help of Mike and Kevin. Episode 1 has a ton of moments where exposition is dropped into the story, slowing down the action to a crawl. This makes the first half of the movie drag for what feels like three hours. The pod race speeds things up a bit (mostly because of the visual effects). Then come the scenes in the middle with the Galactic Senate and the Jedi Council. These scenes deliver important story elements but are so dull. The final section of the film on Naboo feels very forced, as if Lucas was attempting to mirror the ending of "Return of the Jedi" (with three climaxes occurring at the same time).

Compared to the ending of Jedi, this one does have nearly the same punch. In Jedi we are invested in the characters. We care about the fates of Luke, Leia, Han, Lando and the rest of the rebels. In "Phantom Menace" we don’t really have an emotional connection to the characters, we don’t really know what’s going on too well (many people are still puzzled by the end battles who hopes to accomplish what), and the stakes are vague (trade disputes).

All in all "The Phantom Menace" isn’t a well scripted tale. I think Lucas found himself in a strange position attempting to deliver important set up information, deliver new visuals and attempt to create a compelling story. For me the visuals are the only things that worked.

What do you think of the script of Episode 1? Do you think the film delivered a good story or could it have used some work?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

In Space No One Can Hear You Laugh - Hal Spacejock

After I finished reading Simon Haynes sci-fi comedy "Hal Spacejock" I shook my head and thought, how does he make it look so easy. Haynes manages to write a solid story that would be entertaining enough as a typical space opera style adventure. Hal has to transport a cargo of robot parts from one planet to the other. Of course a ton of different obstacles end up in his way including marauding battleships, killer robots, cargo thieves and sabotage devices. The pace is brisk, the characters are likable and the books just flies by.

And to top it all off, it's laugh out loud funny. Haynes uses all kinds of humor from the patented sarcastic comments, physical comedy (something very hard to pull off in a book) and spoofs of classic sci-fi stories and movies.

When comedy is done well, it can make a good book even more entertaining. The characters are more memorable because you remember the humorous moments or the witty dialogue. You'll want to pick up the book again (or it's follow-up) just to see what the author comes up with next.

In my own writing, I often find that my stories end up going toward the serious side of things. A little levity can help any book, even if things are grim many readers may appreciate some gallows humor.

The trick is, if humor is done poorly, it can detract from the book. You'll remember a story for it's corny jokes, or bad puns. So the balance must be found. That's where readers come in. I'll try humor and see how my readers feel about it, if it doesn't click they'll tell me. If they laugh they'll tell me.

What is your favorite book or moment from a book that used humor? Have you ever read a story that used humor badly? Have you ever tried to use humor your writing?

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Music of the Plot - ESCM

One of the most interesting things I've run into is the way music inspires my work. This goes back to some of my earliest story ideas. I have a clear memory of writing the end of my "Godfather" inspired story to the same music that Coppolla used for his finale in "The Godfather Part III". This piece has a sadness to it, something so deep within the music itself that is triggered a set of images. Granted these images weren't really more than a rip off of stuff from the Godfather, but it worked.

A key scene in my first completed screenplay was inspired by a dream I had in which a concerto by Mozart was playing. This music still sends chills down my spine, as it recalls my dream and the scene I ended up capturing because of it (still need to figure out how to use that scene in a future work).

I find music very inspiring, usually stuff without words. Some of my most interesting story ideas or scenes have come out of the trance style music of BT. His album ESCM still gets regular play on my ipod. What's funny about his music is that it seems to want to tell a story already. It feels like it falls on me to bring that story out in words. I still listen to the final track on that album, "Content" and can see these wonderful images that I'm dying to use in a book.

Beyond basic inspiration for story ideas or scenes, music also inspires me to modify existing ideas and refine them in a way that seems to match the music. It's like writing to an existing soundtrack you didn't know you had. Music with a particular rhythm will often help me with action scenes or scenes of tension. I end up visualizing stories as movies anyway, so this feeds right into that.

What type of music do you find works best with your writing? Do you use it to inspire story ideas? If not, what other techniques do you use? Or does music distract you too much while you are writing?