Tag Archives: Literary Criticism

Movies As Inspiration

Poster - Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939)_02I recently watched the 1939 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. I was deeply impressed by the film, and Laughton and O’Hara’s performances, and I was moved to read the novel. I ordered it from the library and sat down to read the introduction, only to be met with an attack on the movie I had just watched that had led me to this introduction in the first place.

It wasn’t exactly an attack, but definitely a complaint. The writer contended that movie depictions of Quasimodo had so taken over the popular imagination that it put people off from reading the novel. This struck me as a trifle unfair, since I was only reading her complaint because I had seen the movie and never met a person who decided not to read a book because of a movie (though I do know a few people who didn’t watch a movie because of the book), though I suppose such people do exist. However, I cannot help but wonder if such people would not be reading the novel if there was a movie or not.

She further writes that “we often know just enough about great novels to dissuade us from reading them.” This is definitely true. For years I did not want to read Anna Karenina. I had some vague idea that it was about a woman wronged by society, unfairly condemned for her love and driven to suicide. This is not what the book is about, but I did not get that impression from a movie. Impressions about books come from a variety of sources. My impression came from general comments left in articles, books and critical essays and it was only when I heard there was a movie adaptation being made with Keira Knightly that my curiosity was piqued. When I read it, I was amazed at how interesting and rich the book was. Literary critics are partly to blame for this misconception. When I later read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretation), all the articles are exclusively about Anna (though Levin is just as important a character, not to mention the myriad other, fascinating people in the story) and how magnificent she is and how everyone else are just little people who fail her. This is definitely a skewed and biased view of the book.

marypoppinsSimilarly, I never had the slightest interest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame until I saw the movie. But this is an attack against movies I have encountered numerous times. I have read many complaints regarding the Mary Poppins movie; one man wrote of how people have told him they will not read the original Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers because they are not like the movie (though I read the book because I had seen the movie and know other people who did so for the same reason). And one grows weary of the phrase, “the book is always better than the movie.” The assumption seems to me to be that a movie is inevitably nothing more than a bowdlerization, simplification, distortion and dumbing down of a full and rich work.

This complaint also goes for history, as well. After watching the 1956 Anastasia, I went to the internet to read about the real Princess Anastasia and once again encountered complaints about how the movies distort history and give a fairy tale conception of life. I once read a scathing article about how Downton Abbey is not historically accurate. No review of a movie is complete without some sort of condescending remark about how movies ignore history or do not properly enforce reality.

Admittedly, because of movies, the popular conception of a novel or character or historical event can be skewed. As the writer of the introduction pointed out, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not really about Quasimodo at all, but about the city of Paris. But I believe that popular misconceptions do not exist only because of movies and it is incumbent on individuals to learn not to let their vague notions of novels (and history) have the last word. It’s a valuable lesson, but applies to all vague notions besides those attained from movies (Shakespeare is responsible for all sorts of inaccurate views of English history and kings). People write throwaway comments in history that reinforce inaccurate notions. Articles, blog posts, conversations, poetry, even novels, all reinforce notions that may or may not be correct.

But such complaints miss the point, I think. Movies are flavoring. As John Le Carre said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” What he means is that all that is left is flavoring. And people know it when they see a film. A historical film gives you a flavor of what that historical time was like. If people want facts, they read history (not a historical novel). But the inspirational power of that flavor cannot be underestimated. It can make a time period or a subject or a novel come alive in your imagination or make a novel seem more accessible and less daunting.

MV5BMTU0NDgxNDg0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE4MzkwOA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_One of the greatest powers that a movie possesses is the power of inspiration. The combination of the visual and aural is an irresistible one that creates unforgettable images and feelings and I have always found movies to be the source of many of my interests. They inspire me to read a novel or to read history or to remember an emotion or event or to become interested in early American popular music or to consider an idea. They become part of my mental map, sources that I draw on in discussion and life.

My library understands this concept and always capitalizes on the release of new movies in theaters. After the release of Twelve Years a Slave, the library bought the autobiography on which the movie was based. After the release of Imitation Game, the biography that inspired it showed up in the library catalog. After Anna Karenina, copies of the novel with pictures from the film filled the shelf. Movies and novels and history should have a symbiotic relationship, not an antagonistic one. Movies are not necessarily taking people away from books. They are an interpretation of books, like any work of literary criticism. And even if people didn’t have movies, I am not sure it’s fair to assume that people would therefore read more.

And I would argue that a movie no more skews perceptions of a novel or history than a novel or poem does of history and legend. This is what art does. It creates popular conceptions, something people have in common. And sometimes, when history is forgotten, we still have art. We know little historically of any siege of Troy, but Homer’s Iliad remains with us. I see no reason to assume that movies will be any less powerful an art form throughout time than poetry, paintings, symphonies or novels.


Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Movies


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Thoughts on Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and why it’s often romanticized

Cinderella_2_from_The_Blue_Fairy_Book_1889_author_Andrew_Lang[1]I was thinking about George Bernard Shaw and his play “Pygmalion” one very late night and trying to explain to myself exactly why so many people, even from the first opening of the play, wanted to imagine an ending where Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle are married (my more comprehensive review of the play can be found here). And I finally found the clue that I had been missing in the book The Making of My Fair Lady, by Keith Garebian. He was talking briefly about the sources of Shaw’s play. One was obviously the story of Pygmalion and Galatea, but the other – and it’s so obvious, I don’t know why I didn’t think of it – is the fairytale, Cinderella.

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in

Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in “My Fair Lady”

This fairytale aspect of the story is thoroughly imbedded in the plot and infuses it with an enchanting quality – how Eliza is picked up from the gutter and taken to a ball, where she shines brightly, with Higgins as a sort of godmother, and she becomes something other than she was before – and people recognize this fairytale thread intuitively. And it is so ingrained in us to recognize fairytales, that it leads us to unconsciously expect the story to play out according to fairytale rules.

It’s like the melodic structure of a song. The leading-tone (the seventh note in a scale) almost always resolves up to the tonic (the first note in the scale, considered the “home” or base note of whatever key you are in). It happens so often and provides resolution to what we perceive as tension. Our ear expects it, whether we know it or not. Simply hearing a leading-tone leads us to anticipate what comes next in a song and we are surprised if the leading-tone goes somewhere else.


That is what Shaw’s play is like and deliberately so. So even though there are discordant notes (how arrogant Higgins is and how he assumes people have no feelings or individual souls), we still feel like we recognize the song and know how it ends. But “Pygmalion” is like a beautiful melody that ends on a leading-tone. Not only does it not resolve how we expect it to, but it doesn’t resolve at all. Eliza just leaves. What happens next? It’s up to each person…at least if you just see the play. Shaw wrote an afterwards to his play to prevent people from imagining a romantic end, but because it was written afterwards and is not part of the actual play, it cannot change the impressions created by the play itself; that overall sense that we just participated in a lovely dream without a proper ending…and I say this completely agreeing with Shaw that Eliza could never marry the Professor Higgins that found in the play. That’s part of Shaw’s genius.


Posted by on April 6, 2014 in Books


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Don Quixote – Miguel De Cervantes

Translated by Edith Grossman

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore

Don Quixote de la Mancha and Sancho Panza by Gustave Dore

Whenever I read a particularly long book and it takes me several months to finish it, it becomes part of me, like an old friend. It’s always at my side, in my hands, by my bed, traveling with me, and I am sorry to say farewell.

It took me two months to read Don Quixote and the spine, especially the bottom of it, is now creased, crinkled and starting to tear a little. It is officially a book now, my book, and not just an object that I keep on my shelf, looking literate.

I was meaning to read this book for several years, now; partially because I found a nice copy at a garage sale and it was sitting on my shelf needing to be read and partially because I’ve recently read some other books about knights and chivalry (Le Morte d’Arthur) and I was curious to read this book, which I understood made fun of knights and chivalry and all those stories that tell of them.

The first half definitely does make fun of books about chivalry. In fact, it is reading these books that has made Don Quixote go mad and believe implicitly in all that these books have to say. He is constantly referring to the books for guidance on how he ought to behave.

Accompanying Don Quixote is Sancho Panza, as his squire, who has been promised a governorship. Sancho believes mostly what Don Quixote says, despite frequent misgivings; but Don Quixote usually dismisses anything that doesn’t make sense to Sancho as the work of malicious enchantment. Sancho has a gift for proverbs and a knack for stating the truth, as well as malapropisms.

The first half of the book was published in 1605 and is a delightful, totally random collection of misadventures, miscellaneous characters telling of their woes, the later fulfillment of those characters woes into happiness as they fortuitously stumble into company with Don Quixote, and even the completely random break in the story so the characters can read a short book out loud. It’s all great fun and not apparently meant to be taken  seriously. Don Quixote’s madness seems more like an excuse for whimsy and fun.

The second part – published in 1615 to refute the unauthorized part two that purported to be the further adventures of Don Quixote – reads almost as a different story. The pace slows down considerably, there are far less random and whimsical occurrences, and Cervantes now has a point he is making.

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

For one, instead of the constant references to how deluded Don Quixote is, there are far more references to how intelligent and erudite he is, despite his madness in this one area regarding chivalry. Sancho Panza is portrayed in a much kinder light, too; as possessing simple, common sense. And in the place of random occurrences is a practical joke being played by a Duke and Duchess to show and derive amusement at how mad these two are. In the light of the cruelty of all those who seek to derive amusement from them, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza emerge with far more humanity and dignity, despite their humiliations.

It’s like Cervantes considered books possibly, perhaps humorously, dangerous in the first part, but in the second that point is gone and now the chivalric ideals seem far more ideal – if inherently impractical and never having truly existed, anyway; though there is something noble in how Don Quixote strives to live by them.

It makes for much slower reading, however. It’s poignant, completely tragic and a bit startling after the sheer exuberant fun of the first part. Perhaps the point is made all the more effective for the lighthearted first half.

One endearing aspect of the book is the friendship between Don Quixote and Sancho, particularly in the second part. Harold Bloom remarks, in his introduction to Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza really listen to each other and change through this receptivity.” When, as part of a joke, Sancho is given a governorship temporarily, both men miss each other’s company and bear each other’s words in mind and are most happy to be reunited.

In the back of my copy is a collection of quotes regarding the significance of Don Quixote. The literary critic Lionel Trilling said that “It can be said that all prose fiction is a variation on the theme of Don Quixote” and the writer, Carlos Fuentes, is quoted as saying that “Don Quixote is the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction; here we have Gogol and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Nabokov, Borges and Bellow, Sterne and Diderot in their genetic nakedness, once more taking the road with the gentleman and the squire, believing the world is what we read and discovering that the world reads us.”

This is rather cosmic literary praise; the kind of praise I’ve only heard lavished on the Bible and Shakespeare. William Shakespeare and Miguel De Cervantes were contemporaries, though there is no evidence either knew of the others existence. It must have been a remarkable time for literature. After reading the book, I can understand the praise, though. The book has it all: tragedy and comedy, life and death. Although I do not believe that just because something is ambiguous, therefore it must be profound, I do agree with Harold Bloom in his introduction when he says that, like Shakespeare, Don Quixote can bear many interpretations, or angles and focuses of interpretations. Life is like that, not particularly clear cut, and when a work of art can capture life, it does bear the myriad interpretations of the world. This is why some books can also bear multiple reads.

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

By Gustave Dore (Wikimedia Commons)

One interpretation that I found interesting is by Ivan Jaksic, in his article “Don Quijote’s Encounter with Technology.” He makes the case that Don Quixote’s embracing of chivalry, the perceived values of an older age, is part of a “confrontation with” technology and a changing world. However, ironically, it is technology that has allowed him to embrace chivalry, since it was the printing press that has made books, which is where he derived his ideas, easily available. It is also ironic, since Don Quixote believes, that since these stories of knights are written down and printed, then they must be true. Jaksic points out that many of Don Quixote’s adventures involve technology: “the windmills, water-powered grain mills, fulling hammers, and firearms, among others.”

There is also, of course, the interpretation offered in the quote by Fuentes, about “believing the world is what we read.” Some argue that Cervantes is saying that it is better, more ennobling, to live with a fantasy than with the cold facts of life.

I find that there is, at least in the second part – I still feel the first part was written chiefly for entertainment and not for any didactic purpose – but there is a celebration of humanity and decency; a valuing of humans. There is something inhuman in how people, even in the first part, encourage Don Quixote in his belief simply so that they might be amused. When he is not being beaten, he is being mocked. Whereas, for all his madness and faults, Don Quixote assumes that everyone is nobler than they really are.


Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Books


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