Sunday, February 22, 2009

Nobody does it Better - The James Bond Legacy

As most of you know, I'm a fan of the James Bond series. I enjoy the movies, I've read several of Ian Flemmings novels, listen to the movie scores and I've posted a few blogs about the books and the films. What makes this series so appealing to me? Well there's the classic mix of danger, girls, exotic locations and fun. Who can say no to that? But there is something else that has fascinated me ever since I really got into James Bond (oh I'd say back in the early 90's), and that is the legacy behind it.

The James Bond films have been in existence since 1962. Think about that for a moment. You've got currently 22 films with the same character, the same basic formula and a huge fan base for nearly fifty years. And that's just the movies. The books have been around longer. James Bond is a type of touchstone for Western culture (and it's crossed into several other cultures in other ways as well). His theme is one of the most easily recognized pieces of music ever. His name is recognized by just about everyone on the planet. And these aren't huge life changing movies with deep meaning. At the least they are basic comic book films and at the best they are well made thrillers. But they entertain and that is their biggest advantage.

There's a book out there called "The James Bond Legacy". Sadly it's out of print, but if you ever get a chance (and you are interested in movies and the idea of a James Bond legacy) pick it up. Authors __ and __ go into detail outlining the creation of James Bond from book to screen and then the development of this character into something more - an icon of entertainment. It covers all the films from "Dr. No" (1962) to "Die Another Day" (2002). It was printed before Daniel Craig took over the role, but it covers the first 40 years of James Bond in film and offers it's view on his enduring popularity.

What is amazing to me as you read the book (and look at it's gorgeous full color pictures) is that James Bond was really a product of the 60's. Hell, you can tell that by just watching any of the old Sean Connery films. They are a lot of fun, but they definitely capture the spirit of the time. Where the series really becomes fascinating is how it starts to adapt to survive the 70's (Roger Moore had a lot to do with this), evolve to stay relevant in the 80's (a new director brings Bond back to earth and Timothy Dalton opens the door for a more realistic portrayal of the spy), and when the 90's roll around you see how "Goldeneye" straddled a line to take James Bond into the new decade and keep a bit of the old and inject the new and wrap it all up in one movie. It's a fascinating read and the writers keep the pace moving showing how the changing world demanded changes in James Bond.

It even allowed me to appreciate some of the films that I never could get into like "Diamonds are Forever" and "Live and Let Die". Sure those aren't my favorites (and will probably never will be) but at least I understand what the creators were hoping for and why audiences loved those movies at the time (for the longest time "Diamonds are Forever" was the top grossing Bond film - even over "Goldfinger"!)

So for anyone who gets a thrill when the James Bond theme kicks in, I recommend checking out this book.

What do you think of James Bond? Do you have a favorite James Bond film (why do you enjoy it)? Do you prefer your Bond film more over the top or more edgy? Do you have a favorite actor in the leading role?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Real Hero – The Last Kingdom

I always enjoy reading historical fiction. Especially about a period of time that I find interesting. The last historical fiction I read was “World Without End” by Ken Follet. It took place in England during the 1300s. This time I turned the time machine back to the late 800’s. The story remained in England, but placed the action directly into the dark ages. The book was called “The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell.

The story deals with young Uhtred, the son of a Saxon Earl, and his struggles with the dreaded Danes that have invaded his country. During his youth he is raised by the Danes and comes to understand their ways. However fate takes over and he finds himself to be a vital key to King Alfred, and his campaign against the Danes. Uhtred eventually finds himself entwined in critical events, with his desires, faith and honor put on the line. His land still lies in the hands of the Danes, but he detests Alfred and the King’s plan to unite all the kingdoms of England into a whole.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the character of Uhtred. He’s fictional, but interacts with plenty of historical characters. While the records from that time are scant at best, Cornwell does a very good job of creating a very real setting and supporting cast. But it is Uhtred that carries the story. His desires are very plain, his attitude is understandable (even if he can be a real jerk at times), and his actions carry weight.

I wondered how difficult it was to create a character that well rounded in a historical setting. Do you easily fit the character into the world, or is there a temptation to make the world fit around the character? Is it constricting to work in that world, or does it give guidance as to how your character will react.

For example, Uhtred as a Saxon should be Christian. However, he puts more faith in the gods of the Danes (or a variant of them). He feels that Thor and Wotin guide his life with greater influence than Jesus. In fact, he finds the whole idea that Christians can even be victorious against people who worship truly war-like gods ludicrous. When he meets Alfred he finds the king’s complete piety to be pointless and even a hazard.

I wondered how many Saxons of that time would have viewed the two religions in that way. I’m not a scholar of the dark ages, but my understanding was that Christianity was a solid and powerful force even in the dark ages. Would the Saxons, who had been converted to Christianity by monks previously, still view the Norse gods as powerful forces in their world? Perhaps. It seemed to be something constructed for the book and maybe not quite true to the historical record (such as it is). On the other hand it creates some of the more interesting passages in the book as Uhtred attempts to make sense of Alfred’s devotion to a religion he finds foolish.

All told, I really enjoyed “The Last Kingdom”. The book ends with a bit of a “to be continued” feel, and the second book is waiting for me to tackle. I’m looking forward to it and maybe picking up some of Cornwell’s Sharpe novels as well.

What do you think of creating a character for a historical fiction? Would you find the experience confining or helpful? Can you think of any stories where the fictional characters doesn’t seem to act the way you expected for the sake of the story? Have you ever ready “The Last Kingdom” or another book by Bernard Cornwell?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Story Told in Music – Raiders of the Lost Ark

Sometimes it's a bit tough to remember when something iconic was new. This really hit home when I recently watched "Raiders of the Lost Ark". I was just a kid when this movie came out in 1981, and the viewing of the movie is fairly vivid in my mind. But branded even deeper than images of Indy outrunning a bolder, crawling beneath a moving truck and surviving the biggest face melt in movie history was the music. The "Raiders Theme" also known as the "Indiana Jones Theme" is one that nearly everyone on the planet knows. Just hearing the first few bars and most people are immediately reminded of Harrison Ford in a fedora.

Of course this memorable piece of music was written by John Williams. Williams was at the peak of his creative skills back in the late 70's and early 80's. He came up with iconic themes for "Star Wars", "Superman", "Jaws", "Close Encounters of a Third Kind" and of course "Indiana Jones". I bet as you read that list you could at least hum one tune from each of those movies. Williams style was so potent that it influenced nearly all movie scoring for the rest of the 80's and early 90's (things would shift around once Hans Zimmer showed up). What is amazing about these early scores by Williams, is that they are all so memorable and that they immediately transport the listener to the scene in the movie that they occur.

"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is a great example of this. If you were to listen to the score you would be able to figure out exactly what is going on in each sequence. Part of the reason is Williams created themes for Indiana Jones, Marion Ravenwood, The Ark of the Covenant and the Nazis. He even went so far as to create mini-themes for key sequences in the film. The most obvious is titled "The Basket Game" in which Indy runs around Cairo searching for Marion as she abducted in a wicker basket. The whole scene uses it's own little jaunty theme, that rises and falls, speeds up and slows down to create tension and paint the action on the screen. When the chase scene ends in an explosion (and the "death" of Marion) Marion's theme swells to tragic proportions.

What struck me as I watched "Raiders" again was how much of the film relied on music and visuals. The entire opening of the film is all music, camera movement, sound effects and lighting. It all builds to a mini-climax when Indy uses his whip to snap the gun from the man's hand. In that moment we know all about Indy and his bad ass skills (and we didn't even hear the theme yet!). Plenty of other moments rely solely on music, including the map room scene, the truck chase and even the opening of the ark (once that puppy is open there is very little talking and a whole lot of epic choral scoring).

In a sense Williams composed a mini-opera. The story is told in a large part with music and visuals (almost working like a silent film) and if the music isn't going to have it's own power the movie isn't as effective. In a sense, as good at Ford's performances is, as good as Kasdan's script, is and as good as Spielberg's direction is - the music is a vital part of "Raiders of the Lost Ark".

Do you have a favorite film score or film composer? What do you think of the score to "Raiders"? Do you think John Williams is over-rated?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Macguffins gone wild - The Maltese Falcon (Novel)

I can't remember when I first heard of the term Macguffin. I remember someone explaining that the Death Star plans used in "Star War: The New Hope" were a perfect example of a Macguffin. So, I'll use that as my example for those of you who aren't familiar with the term. A Macguffin is a story element. It's only true purpose to keep the plot moving and drive the action. Usually the Macguffin has very little to do with the characters, but we come to know the characters because of what they will do to get the Macguffin. In "The New Hope" the Death Star plans fit this mold. The Empire wants them, and Darth Vader is driven to get the plans for most of the movie. We see that he will do anything to get them, even torture Princess Leia. On the flip side, the heroes risk life and limb to bring the plans safely to Alderaan. The bonus is that this Macguffin isn't completely useless (as many Macguffins turn out to be), the Death Star Plans lead right into the climax of the film, with attack on the Death Star fueled by the secrets revealed in the plans.

Even though Alfred Hitchcock is given the honor of coining the wird Macguffin, the use of a plot element that drives story action and character development can be traced back centuries. One of the more famous Macguffins is the Maltese Falcon itself. Just a warning, I’m going to give away the ending, so go read the book or watch the movie before reading on.

The novel by Dashiell Hammet has been brought to the screen at least three times, in various incarnations. The classic detective novel brings us Sam Spade and his interactions with a group of shady characters all bent on finding the Maltese Falcon. These people are all willing to lie, cheat, steal and kill to find this statue of a bird. Sam is intrigued, but he may have something else on his mind other than fabulous wealth. As the story progresses we begin to understand the lengths these characters will go for even a scrap of a clue to the whereabouts of the statue. Sam is used like a pawn, a wall and an information source on a number of occasions. With each twist he (and the reader) understands a bit more about the bird and the characters.

Eventually Hammet has to show his hand, and the characters obtain the statue. It's a tense moment in the book as all the surviving characters open the package and the bird is revealed. Just as promised the jewel encrusted bird is covered in a layer of black porcelain. A few scrapes later and it is revealed that the bird is nothing more than lead. The way each character reacts to the revelation that the Macguffin is nothing but a worthless lump is very telling and it propels the story to it's final confrontation.

What I thought was especially interesting is the fact that Sam Spade is never terribly invested in the Maltese Falcon. He is interested in the money it may bring in, but he is much more cautious than most of the other characters, never really believing in the tales up until it literally falls into his hands. Even then, he is guarded, is this bird worth all the trouble and how can such a group of scoundrels even be trusted? The story winds up with Spade in nearly the same place he started, but at the same time his life has changed in several ways. You could say that the lump of lead really did change him, even if it didn't bring him any money. But at the same time he is out a partner, and his mistress is free to pursue him. Still you are left with the feeling that Sam may not be too happy about the situation.

What do you think of Macguffins? Have they become a necessary evil or are they an outdated cliché? What is your favorite or most effective Macguffin? What do you think of "The Maltese Falcon" (the film or the book, they are surprisingly close to each other)?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Department of Redundancy Department – Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Ah, the two faces of the beloved first draft. For most writers its a love/hate relationship. It's love because it is your first crack at a story. You pour in all your ideas, weave your spells of characterization, detail, plot, theme, mood and swirl it into a climax that would blow away the reader. It's a passionate first kiss, one that reaches into your soul and touches you. Ahhhh, sweet bliss.

But most of us know the truth. Once all the kissing, groping and tumbling have been done, you move on from your first draft. You let it sit for a while, to mellow with age and to allow you a little perspective on your beautiful opus. You return (sometimes a month or two later - maybe only a couple weeks) and you see what you were so enamored of - and its' horrifying! This little misshapen goblin was the one you were swooning over? Why, it would be perfect to play an grotesque imp in some low budget Roger Corman film - not the beautiful epic you were hoping. The horror breaks you down, you cry, and then curl up in a sock drawer and sleep for days.

At least that's how I feel.

But then you come back to your little misshapen critter and start to work with it. You realize it's not so bad, just a little bit awkward. With some proper training and fine tuning you'll have something presentable, maybe even something that is as epic as you were hoping for. The trick is to use your editing skills to make this story work as a whole. And that is where a book liked "Self Editing for Publication" can come in so handy.

The book goes through and guides the writer down paths of looking at their work in a new light, pointing out common mistakes and issues that writers make and offering suggestions on making the most of your story. And all this advice coming from two professional editors - well it's very helpful. The issue that I'm very guilty of in all my first drafts is repeating the same basic point in a few different ways. It could be as simple as having two sentences say the same thing, with slight differences. Or it could be the fact that I'll take what I think is a clever and interesting element and slam the reader over the head with it. The end result is useless exposition that causes the reader to feel bogged down.

Here's a nice example:

Karen shifted in her seat again. The light from between the blinds was angling in, right into her eyes, causing her to blink. She couldn't see the television screen at all. The blazing light was blinding her. She slid to the other end of the couch. It didn't do any good, because now a wall of dust was filtering into the shaft of sunlight. Barry looked at her with a slight frown on his face, "Don't you like the movie?"

As you can see, there's lots of description going on here. It's nice and all, but most you probably got the point after first couple sentences. So does this new version read any better?

Karen shifted in her seat again. The light from between the blinds was angling right into her eyes. The blazing light completely blinded her view of the television. She slid to the other end of the couch. No good. Now a wall of dust was filtering into the shaft of sunlight and obscured the TV completely. Barry looked at her with a slight frown, "Don't you like the movie?"

See, it's a bit more honed and the same idea get's across with less words. Of course you could just say:

Karen couldn't see the television because of the light. Barry asked her, "Don't you like the movie?"

But now we just got into - show, don't tell. The previous two sentences just tell the reader what's going on, and my the middle paragraph shows the action and Barry's reaction to the reader. So, the middle one wins! Yay!

Not that it's perfect. I'm still working on this kind of thing all the time, but now I can recognize my issues, especially with repetition. I just have to get over all the red ink on my document. It hurts to cut, but with some skill you can take fragments of the cuts and craft something new. The important thing to keep in mind is your target audience. You don't want the reader bored to tears because you beat something to death with over- explanation. You make your point and finish.

That's what I'll do now with this blog. :-)

What are issues you face during your editing of a draft? Do you struggle with editing or do you look forward to it? As a reader, do you find long passages of exposition a real chore to read or do you get pulled in (and why does a passage of exposition work for you)? Do you think Karen should try sitting on top of Barry (evidentially he can see fine)?