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02 January 2008

Movies, books, and bringing a story to life

Happy New Year! Hope everyone had a fabulous New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. I've spent the last couple of days seeing family and friends, one of my favorite things to do during the midwinter holidays. Another favorite holiday season activity is going to the movies, and in the last couple of weeks I've seen two very, very good films--Atonement and Sweeney Todd. Both are historical and both have vividly realized settings--a 1930s English country estate and then Dunkirk and London during the blitz in Atonement, and the dark side of Victorian England in Sweeney Todd.

I was both excited and nervous about both movies, as both are based on sources I love. The novel Atonement by Ian McEwan is one of my favorite books of recent years. I love seeing movies based on my favorite books, but it's often hard for them to measure up. Even if the movie is brilliant, it's usually not the film strip that was running in my head as I read the book. Atonement was an exception. I don't think I've ever seen a movie based on a book I'd read that was so remarkably close the images running through my head as I read the novel. (I saw it with friends who hadn't read the book who also loved it).

Sweeney Todd is based on the brilliant Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical. Sondheim is one of my favorite composers in any genre, and I was nervous about how the musical would translate to the screen. (I should perhaps add here that when I tried to explain what Sweeney Todd was about to some of my family, they looked at me as though I was insane for wanting to see if; fortunately I have friends who love the musical who went to the movie with me :-). As with Atonement, despite my fears, I loved the movie. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter can carry off the score and give haunting, textured performances, as do the rest of the cast. Tim Burton creates a dark, vivid Victorian England, where inhumane treatment breeds inhumanity. Watching the movie, I was reminded a couple of times of my History Hoydens post on the Dark Side of the Regency.

I was also reminded of my own work in another way. Sweeney Todd opens with Sweeney returning to London by ship. His views on London are in sharp contrast to those of the young sailor Anthony. In Sweeney's words:

There's a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.


As I watched this scene in the movie, I realized that my book Beneath a Silent Moon open with a character (a very different character from Sweeney Todd), returning to London by ship after a long absence. His thoughts on arriving (the opening paragraph of the book) are:

The night air was like a lover's touch. Cloaked in mystery, beckoning with promise, sweet at times but quickly cloying. And underneath, rotten to the core.

He had forgotten was a foul whore the London night was.


In the movie version of Sweeney Todd (which did a great a job of taking advantage of what can be done on film without "opening up" the story too much), the scene of the Thames at night and the dockside looked remarkably like my vision of the scene in Beneath a Silent Moon (and also like the cover for the book's May trade reissue). For a fleeting moment, I could almost have been watching a movie of my own book (well, we can all dream :-).

I first saw Sweeney Todd years before I began work on Beneath a Silent Moon. I don't remember consciously thinking about the musical at all as I wrote the book. But I suspect, somewhere in my subconscious, the song "No Place in London" influenced the opening scene in the book.

Have you seen Atonement or Sweeney Todd? Any other movies to recommend or discuss? Any movies based on books that particularly captured or didn't capture your image of the story? Writers, have you realized after the fact that a particular story or scene or image influenced something in one of your own books?

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24 Comments:

Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Hi Tracy, I am glad you liked Sweeny Todd---like you I was worried about that one. Blood and gore is not my thing, but based on your rec, I'll go!

Haven't seen Attonement, but did go see Charlie Wilson's War (sort of historical, set the '80s) and WOW, that was terrific.

Sadly, the day before Bhutto was assinated. Seeing Wilson's War brought the history of that troubled place right into focus.

I highly reccomend the movie. I see Oscar's in it's future, too.

7:47 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Hi Tracy, I was lucky enough to see the original Broadway production of Sweeney with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou as well the recent Broadway revival. It's my favorite Sondheim along with A Little Night Music. Loved this movie although I did miss the Ballad of Sweeney Todd. Johnny Depp can do no wrong as far as I'm concerned, and Alan Rickman was so creepy as the Judge.

Also got to see a screening of Atonement with a Q&A with Christopher Hampton and the adorable James McAvoy. Now I want to read the novel when I get out of from under the mass of research books that I'm buried under.

Kathrynn, I also went to see Charlie Wilson's War because my best friend dated him. Great movie, watching it reminded me of reading The Kite Runner, and the section where the narrator goes back to Afghanistan after having left when the Soviets invaded.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Kathrynn, it is gory (I had to look away a few times). But definitely worth seeing, imo. I've heard wonderful things about "Charlie Wilson's War"--it's definitely on my list of movies to see. It's great to have another recommendation!

Elizabeth, how wonderful that you got to see the Len Cariou/Angela Lansbury "Sweeney Todd"! My first exposure to the musical was the video of that production that was shown on PBS. It was wonderful. "A Little Night Music" is also one of my favorite Sondheim musicals, and I also love "Into the Woods," "Passion," "Follies"...

I missed "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" too and some of the Anthony/Johanna music.

I'm so jealous you got to hear Christopher Hampton and James McAvoy talking about "Atonement"! Do read the book--it's quite wonderful.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Cate said...

I saw Sweeney Todd with my Depp-and-Burton-fan friends. I'd not see previous versions of it, but I'd heard a few of the songs, and knew the basic plot. I though it was wonderfully witty, but I'm rather an Sondheim fan, so I admit to some prejudice.

The film version that made me nervous before I saw it was Bridge to Terabithia. I've read the book in fourth grade an it had an strong influence on my becoming a writer. Jess and Leslie weren't quite as I pictured them but the actors quickly won me over. The screenplay was near-perfect, I think in no small part from David Paterson's participation in it.

7:23 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks so much for posting, Cate! I haven't read "Bridge to Terabithia" or seen the movie, but we were talking movies at a family New Year dinner last night, and my cousin said, "I saw a movie that was supposed to be for kids and it was really good but really sad." He said he cried, and he hadn't cried at a movie in ages. Great to hear the screenplay worked so well. I take it David Paterson is the author of the novel?

Usually movies of my favorite books don't match my mental image of the characters and scenes (that's why "Atonement" was so rare), but if they're really well done they win me over. My initial image of Richard Sharpe wasn't precisely Sean Bean, but now I can't imagine anyone else when I read the books.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy, I saw the original 1978 production as well as the recent revivial of SWEENEY TODD, but have yet to see the film version -- which I'll have to do on my own because my husband so detested the revival (BIG on director's concept, and I didn't entirely agree with the sledge hammer approach, either, preferring the gruesome winsomeness of the original Hal Prince production) that he won't see ANY incarnation of that story again.

I rented AMAZING GRACE recently and was so appalled by what they did with the character of Tarleton (played by Ciaran Hinds), but I was going to save my rather loud opinion for one of my posts on ALL FOR LOVE early next month, as Ban Tarleton was Mary Robinson's lover for 15 years.

I'm up for seeing ATONEMENT, though I haven't yet red the novel, which I think I would prefer to do before seeing the movie. Ditto for THE KITE RUNNER. After reading a NY Times article on how the makers of CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR sanitzed the title character to make him more like Tom Hanks and less like the real Charlie Wilson, I am far less inclined to see it. I like my real-life, ripped-from-the-headlines "heroes" to be rocky roads, if they really did have character flaws. I'm not interested in versions of vanilla.

EKM -- your best friend dated Charlie Wilson?? Or Aaron Sorkin? Or Tom Hanks?

6:36 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Cate, I wept through THE BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA. David Paterson is a good friend of mine, and although I did know that he had adapted his mother's acclaimed novel, I did not know until I watched the additional material on the DVD that the story is somewhat autobiographical. (It's not exactly something you talk about over beers). I had not read the book, but on its own merits I found the film exceptionally moving and very well played.

6:41 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

She dated Charlie Wilson when she was living in LA, long after he was out of congress. Had no idea about what he had done in Afghanistan, but she's not really political. I went to college with Aaron Sorkin (he was a senior my freshman year). Good writer, terrible actor.

I read The Kite Runner when I was in London recently, one of my closet friends gave me his copy. I absolutely devoured it. It was so wonderful and the language so rich, I can't imagine it as a movie. Plus I hate anything where children are brutalized.

I have a feeling when I read Atonement, I'm going to keep seeing James McAvoy as Robbie. I thought he was so wonderful and so different than the character called Tom Lefroy he played in the Jane Austen movie.

7:23 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'll want to have read Atonement before I see it, and altho it was high on my list when I finished my draft a few weeks ago, it has since been edged out by Junot Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous World of Oscar Wao (not brief, but wondrous indeed) and a couple of other sleepers.

The movies that recently knocked my socks off were The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and There Will Be Blood. Both of which told their stories in ways that were beguiling, astonishing, harrowing -- very unlike the way we're taught in romance-writing school. I seem to need these sidelong narrative (or even non-narrative) surprises, especially after finishing a draft and waiting to revise it.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, who directed the revival "Sweeney Todd" your husband didn't like? I saw a version in San Francisco this summer that I think was on its way to New York (not sure if it's opened yet). It was done in the same style (I think by the same director) as the recent "Company"--small cast all of whom also played an instrument. I wouldn't call it sledge hammer, though it definitely was a concept. If that's not the one you saw, I definitely recommend it, as well as the film (I'll be curious to know what you think of it).

10:00 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Amanda, I'm looking forward to your post on "Amazing Grace"--I wanted to see it in the theater but missed it. It sounds as though they changed some fact about a real historical character in that film as well as in "Charlie Wilson's War"? I too prefer real historical figures to be portrayed close to the historical record (though sometimes the historical record can be controversial). It's a constant tension, I think, for those writing books or making movies about real people--a real person may not be the storyteller's definition of a "hero," and there'd be a temptation to mold the characters and events to the story you'd like to tell. (It's one reason I prefer to have fictional protagonists, even though I use real historical characters in my books as well). Amanda, do you ever struggle with this in your historical novels?

Actually, it's also a question that relates to "Atonement," which is so much about the nature and process of writing and story-telling. Elizabeth, I agree James McAvoy was wonderful and very different from in "Becoming Jane." One of the friends I saw "Atonement" with also commented on how different he was from in "The Last King of Scotland" (which I haven't seen yet). I also thought Keira Knightley was great--when I originally heard she playing Cecilia, I thought "she'll be good, but she isn't really how I pictured Cecilia." Yet in the movie, she really matched my image the Cecilia from the book. Amanda and Pam, ideally I'd read the book before seeing the movie, but I think it's also a movie worth seeing in theaters, so if you don't think you'll be able to read the book for a while, I'd recommend going ahead and seeing the movie.

Elizabeth and Amanda, you know fascinating people!

Pam, I had lunch with some friends yesterday who were talking about the great things they'd heard about "There Will Be Blood." I haven't heard of "The Diving Bell"--what's it about?

10:21 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

John Doyle was the director/designer on the recent acclaimed (though not by my husband) revival of SWEENEY TODD. It was a chamber production where the cast played the musical instruments -- same concept employed in the current revival of Sondheim's COMPANY. What Scott (and to a large extent, I did,too) objected to about the revival was that it was very (but he wouldn't use this word) "Brechtian" in concept. Extremely dark (okay, the story legitimately IS); however, all the performers more or less barked out the lines and lyrics. There was one level: angry and loud. No nuance whatever.

Tracy, to answer your question about flawed heroes (or heroines, for that matter), I show the complexity, the conflict, the "warts" of the actual historical figures in my novels, and if readers think a character is e.g., vain or selfish -- well, tough -- because what I've given them is as close to accuracy as my research has uncovered.

Perhaps that is a distinction between historical romance and historical fiction. Readers of the former genre may expect, or at least prefer, some sanitization of real-life personages when they appear in the books, to better conform to their mind's heroic ideal.

In historical fiction I feel, as I know some other hx fx authors do, beholden to present as true a picture as possible of our real-life characters, because to sanitize them would be to defy (or defile) their history and the history portrayed in the book. So, my real-life characters are certainly fictionalized, but not romanticized.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an adaptation of the book written by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was completely paralyzed by a stroke except for one eye, and wrote a book about it by blinking in response to letters held up by one of his therapists. I won't tell what happens -- because I didn't know, not having read the book, and it was much better that way.

Except I will say the experience changes your idea about what "happens" means. And people should be warned that the movie is gorgeous but absolutely not "inspirational". It was directed by the painter Julian Schnabel, who also directed Before Night Falls, about the gay Cuban writer Reynaldo Arenas -- so if you've seen that movie you know how uniquely beautiful his way of seeing is.

Again, because I spend so much time in a genre whose readers expect a plot that moves -- and because I try not to disappoint those expectations and yet to get my own fix on all that -- it's important for me to consider other ways of seeing, showing, telling.

11:37 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks, Amanda! That's the same "Sweeney Todd" I saw in San Francisco. Definitely Brechtian (though I didn't particularly think the lines were barked, but I may have seen a somewhat different cast) and definitely strong on concept, which can elicit strong opinions :-). I thought it worked over all, though I also loved the original Harold Prince production (which I've only seen on PBS) and the movie worked. "Sweeney Todd" is such a rich piece, I think I can enjoy it in a lot of different interpretations, like a Shakespeare play. Do let me know what you think when you see the movie!

Thanks for your thoughts on writing real historical characters. I totally agree that the historical novelist has a duty to present as accurate a portrayal of a real character as possible. I always worry putting words in the mouths of real people and I struggle particularly when I have to get inside their heads (though it can also be wonderfully exciting when I think I've pulled it off). I think that's why I prefer fictional protagonists. Not to avoid flaws (I love flawed characters, and I think I tend to write them) but because it's much easier to get into the head of a character who's my own creation. I really, really admire you and other historical novelists who can so believably get into the skin of a real life protagonist and write from their perspective.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for the description, Pam! While I love plot (the more complicated the better) I also love stories that unfold in alternative ways (such as you did in "The Slightest Provocation"). Film is often a wonderful medium for exploring alternative, nonlinear forms of story-telling (and actually, very complicated plots can unfold in nonlinear ways).

11:48 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I too prefer actual historical figures to be presented as close to the record as possible. I saw Aaron Sorkin's production of The Farnsworth Invention and he leaves the audience with the impression that Farnsworth lost the patent fight and then he never did anything worthwhile with his life apart from the invention of television. Most of the time I find the actual historical record even more interesting than what the filmmakers come up with. I can already tell from the preview of That Boleyn Girl that I'm going to be gnashing my teeth while I watch.

As for the Sweeney Todd revival, I liked it a great deal. I felt that it gave the story an intimate feel almost as if it were being presented in a madhouse, although I thought Patti LuPone screeched and garbled most of the lyrics!

11:55 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Elizabeth, I agree that the actual historical record is often more interesting than what winds up on the movie screen (growing up, when my family went to an historical movie, I'd often ask "did it really happen that way?" and my parents would say "let's read more about it"--it was a great way to get interested in history). That said, I can enjoy stories on their own terms even when the characters/events are fictionalized. I was riveted by the book "The Other Boleyn Girl," though it isn't exactly the way I'd have interpreted the events/characters.

"Intimate" is a good word for the "Sweeney Todd" revival. I though the pared down version really threw the emotions and characters into stark relief (liking the chamber version was one reason I was afraid I wouldn't like the film version so soon after, but I loved it on its own terms as well). I didn't see Patti Lupone. I forget the name of the actress who played Mrs. Lovett in San Francisco (and I can't find the program), but she was excellent, as was Sweeney (and you could understand all the lyrics :-).

12:07 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Haven't seen Atonement or Sweeney Todd yet, but I do want to badly. I loved the the musical both as a performer and as an audience member. It is always difficult to watch them make a movie from a beloved novel. You know they can't get it all in no matter how they try. I thought the Lord of the Rings trilogy was very well done in spite of the fact that a number of threads were lost. I have seen Amazing Grace and I really loved it. They did take a bit of license with the story, but I still thought it was very well done. Another favorite of mine is The Libertine, another Depp film, simply because it was about one of my favorite poets and Depp was superb in it.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Thanks for posting, Doglady! Were you in "Sweeney Todd"? I think it would be fascinating show to perform in. I think adapting fantasy novels like the "Lord of the Rings" books to film is particularly tricky because you have to bring to life an entire world that has only existed in words on a page and will look different in everyone's imagination. I'd never read the books, but I saw the movies with my cousin who loved the books. After each movie he told me about all the things he thought the movie got right .and all the things that were changed, down to the smallest detail. I haven't seen "The Libertine," but I'm curious about it, because of Johnny Depp and because I read Rochester's poetry in college and have quoted from him in my books.

11:02 PM  
Blogger doglady said...

Yes, Tracy, I sang the part of Mrs. Lovett in a couple of productions in graduate school. The drama department had no qualms about casting opera singers in their musicals! It was a deliciously evil and crazy and even romantic role to play. I think Rochester is one of the most underrated poets around. Depp's performance in The Libertine is haunting to say the least. The movie is not prettied up at all - very visceral.

7:03 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

How fun, Doglady! I actually think Sondheim's music is quite operatic--Chicago Lyric Opera did "Sweeney Todd" a few years ago with Bryn Terfel and Judith Christin. Rochester is a fascinating poet. I know the movie isn't prettied up--that's one reason I've hesitated to see it (which I suppose sounds a bit odd when I've been talking about seeing "Sweeney Todd" :-).

9:51 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Weighing in late about Sweeny Todd, which I loved. Helena Bonham Carter nearly broke my heart. I didn't know the music and lyrics (or the story) before now. What a delight.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

So glad you enjoyed it, Pam! I agree, Helena Bonham Carter was wonderful, as was Johnny Depp. Her "By the Sea" song was heartbreaking as well as very funny. There's a lot of very fragile, heartbreaking emotion in the story, side-by-side with all the violence and horror. Part of what makes it so brilliant, I think.

1:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I originally saw "Sweeney Todd In Concert" with Hearn and Lupone. I enjoyed it immensely, but was glad to see the movie, with actual 'sets'.

Lupone is a force of nature! Helena was more... "fragile" in her psychosis.

Burton and Depp are a marriage made in Hollywood heaven.

9:33 PM  

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