Film Review: Bridge to Terabithia

Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open.”

Bridge to Terabithia

I haven’t read Bridge to Terabithia, but the film was on iPlayer and it felt like exactly the kind of thing I’d enjoy watching over lunch. It’s the story of two children, Leslie and Jess, who create a magical kingdom peopled by trolls and giants and evil squirrels as an escape from the troubles of the everyday.

Terabithia is a narrative full of disguises. The children’s adventures in their imaginary realm, fighting strange monsters, commanding warrior dragonflies, being rescued by friendly giants, often directly mirror similar challenges they experience at school, in what we would recognise as the real world. A common refrain is: “you can face down trolls but not the school bully?”, but the equivalence goes further than that, as these monsters speak with the voices of the bullies, sharing physical and aural characteristics with the worst tormentors. School bullies are only trolls in disguise, or vice versa. It’s a very common device in children’s literature, and very often advanced as a defence of fantasy: it gives us the tools to cope with the real.

The problem with such a reading of the world, of course, is that it can lead to essentialism. Casting bullies as monsters, as specifically and conspicuously other, doesn’t necessarily allow for much nuance: if something is disguised then it must have a true nature to disguise. The bully is permanently othered by such an approach – he or she is always less than human, subordinated to the imaginative and the intelligent. Think of Tolkien’s orcs, who we can quite easily imagine standing in for Nazis (though it’s worth noting that Tolkien himself would have hated that reading): if we choose to read them this way, we get a text that tells us that under their disguise of humanity, Nazis are evil creatures bent only on destruction and cruelty and can therefore be destroyed in great swathes with no moral compunction whatever.

Does Terabithia dodge this particular bullet? One of its most interesting plotlines is that of an eighth-grader girl who terrorises the school. Our Heroes pull a revenge prank on her, only to discover the next day that her father beats her. What’s interesting about this isn’t the real-world nuance of it, which isn’t really that unusual these days, but the fact that this particular bully is figured in Terabithian terms as a troll who’s initially threatening, but who unexpectedly comes to Our Heroes’ aid later on. (It’s symptomatic of the film’s inability to decide between fantasy and reality that the troll becomes benign before her real-world counterpart does: we can’t say that the children consciously take their real troubles across into their shared fantasy.) Unlike much children’s fantasy of this ilk, Terabithia allows for change, for the possibility that things aren’t always what they seem: even trolls have a weak spot. And the children are never allowed to feel superior to the monsters of Terabithia – the film is careful to link the absolutes of fantasy to the complexities of reality, focusing on both settings equally so that neither can quite be read as the truth.

The film has its problems: there’s definitely some Magic Pixie Dream Girl stuff going on with Leslie, and on a purely aesthetic level the CGI leaves a lot to be desired. But it is a really potent, complex take on that much-cited defence of fantasy – one that refuses to block out the horror of the real at the same time as it allows the consolation of fantasy. I’m going to have to seek out the book soon.

(This post was written as a response to today’s Daily Prompt: “Brilliant Disguise”.)

Review: The Wind Singer

Each of us should be tested on what we do best.”

William Nicholson

windsingerEarlier today I was reading a review of Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (which I haven’t read, but very much intend to) over at Coffee On My Keyboard, and it got me thinking (not very originally, it has to be said) about gender roles in fantasy. Which then got me thinking about a mildly famous work of MG fantasy I finished a couple of days ago, William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer, which won a Smarties Gold Award in 2000 and which many people of a certain age (although not me) seem to have read when small.

It’s a high-profile book, as such things go. It’s set in a city called Amaranth, where social status is determined by performance in yearly exams: each family gets a ranking, and that ranking determines where that family will live for the next year, in a cramped one-room apartment in Grey, a little two-bedroom house in Orange, a proper townhouse in Scarlet, or a vast mansion in White. Our Heroine, Kestrel Hath, a girl from a low-performing Orange family, gets fed up with all the testing and kicks off fairly publicly; her family is humiliated, and she runs away with her brother Bowman on a Quest to retrieve the titular wind singer which will, according to legend, free the city. It’s a gentle and rather sweet piece of fantasy, leavened with humour and often quite touching, and I suspect that if I had read it at the age of about twelve as many of my peers apparently did it would have been a perennial favourite.

This is, on the whole, worrying, because the strangest thing about The Wind Singer is not the fact that its main villain is an old woman with an army of murderous cheerleaders at her disposal but that it feels like it was written in about 1980. Which is to say that this undoubtedly well-written, award-winning novel about individuality and love frequently sacrifices narrative integrity to preserve traditional gender roles. Despite the fact that everyone in Aramanth is tested regularly, it’s the score of the male head of the household that really counts for the family ranking. The only woman we encounter in the city with any sort of status is a lady Examiner whose role in the narrative is to be taken in by Kestrel’s appeal to her motherly feelings (ugh). Because men, of course, would not fall for such wiles. Later on in the story, we find Bowman being mentioned as “the natural leader” of the little ka-tet of children seeking the wind singer – despite the fact that Kestrel has been the one to engineer the escape from Aramanth, the one who takes action while Bowman reads people’s emotions, the one from whose POV the whole thing is told. Nicholson essentially rewrites his entire narrative – including the potentially subversive device whereby the male sibling is the one with the emotional intelligence – in order to ensure that the men are still in charge. And, of course, the villain of the piece, who is to be defeated because she is Evil, is female.

This, I would like to stress, is a story in which nomadic tribes living in wind-powered towns have worked out a treaty based on mutually assured destruction; in which a slightly bonkers Emperor lives at the top of a tower eating chocolate buttons; in which a community living in the sewers gets high on drugs every night. Why is practically the only structure with any basis in what we tenuously call reality in the novel the one that says women can’t have status on their own? If we’re rethinking social structure, why aren’t we rethinking gender structures as well? Why does this lyrical, lovable piece of writing with its oh-so-humanist message of freedom and kindness go out of its way to perpetuate the oppression of 51% of humanity? And why are we allowing it to do so by rewarding this kind of work, by continuing to give it out in schools? Why, in fact, do we continue rewarding old-fashioned thinking in a genre which should be all about reinventing the world? Giving this kind of normalised misogyny to young people is almost worse than giving them overtly sexist narratives: MG should challenge, not console.

Lewis Review: The Great and the Good

This city, it’s members only.”

Inspector Lewis

I want to think about place today. More specifically, about what kind of effect real places have on fictional narratives; what goes on when we read about, or see, a place we know in a work of fiction.

What’s brought this on? you may ask. Well, last night I was watching a rerun of Lewis, a Murder Mystery set in Oxford, where I lived for three years, and it was a strangely bittersweet experience, watching all the buildings I knew floating around behind Lewis and Hathaway. (I never did manage to catch them filming, to my disappointment.)

As it happened, The Great and the Good was an episode which felt specifically rooted in the idea of what place means, or, rather, what Oxford means. The rape of a schoolgirl leads Our Heroes to investigate a series of murders tied to the upper echelons of Oxford society, where favours are traded above the reach of the law and public figures wear two faces. The “chippy copper act”, as Superintendent Innocent points out, has no place in this city, although the show goes to great lengths to disagree.

Now, this might be a fairly run-of-the-mill truth-to-power narrative, if it weren’t grounded so deeply in this city, this specific place. What does it mean to tell this kind of story in Oxford, instead of Midsomer or London or any other fictional/generic setting? Most obviously, it’s about the disconnect between Oxford as ancient university town – hidebound, genteel, exclusive – and Oxford as modern, a site for the gritty and mundane business of murder and policing. Our Heroes act as stand-ins for “normality”, shining the bright light of the modern world into the dusty closets of the dreaming spires, into murky old boys’ clubs and gangs of dodgy academics. In a way, it’s almost voyeuristic: “what’s going on in here, then? What are all those nutty geniuses actually doing?”

What’s interesting about The Great and the Good, though, is that it’s a narrative about wanting to belong to this world, and not quite being able to access it; a story not about contempt as much as it is about aspiration. IT manager Oswald Cooper wants so desperately to belong to the upper circle to which his friends belong that he’ll commit fraud for them; that he’ll make that upper circle, that gathering of the great and the good, a fraud in itself, a lie, because in stooping to fraud these men are neither great nor good. The great and the good are, therefore, what we make them; they are great and good because we want them to be, because we allow them to be by making up stories about them, putting them on pedestals, kowtowing to them as Innocent does or relentlessly believing in the myth of their goodness as Lord Adebayou’s secretary Phoebe does. And they become not-great and not-good when we open up other narratives, as Oswald does when he gives the police evidence of his own fraud.

What does this have to do with Oxford, though, with my sense of strange nostalgia? Well, perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that Lewis‘ Oxford has never felt like my Oxford; it’s always felt like an Alternative Oxford, an AU Oxford if you like, a strange semifictional construct of streets that I know and stories I don’t. And perhaps it’s also something to do with Innocent’s line, which the show so vehemently disagrees with: “The chippy copper act has no place in this city.” Except it does, because Lewis and Hathaway fight to make themselves a place in it. Oxford itself, I want to say, is what we make of it. If we tell stories about dreaming spires and ivory towers then we get a city of dreaming spires and ivory towers. And if we tell stories about a complex city where spires dream and criminals stalk and the great and the good are not all they seem then we get a city where all of these things happen, where the law can work because it has something rational to work on.

Is this, then, what happens when home becomes fictional, why the experience of reading/seeing home in a story is at once so exciting and so strange? Because the home we read about or see is never really home, because the stories we all have about home are so different to the ones being told to us. Because home is what we make of it; and what “home” means is never, or hardly ever, what the story means.

Or maybe not. Because meaning is also what we make of it.

Blogging 101: Some Introductory Incoherent Mumbling

Fairytales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

Neil Gaiman

I’m taking part this month in WordPress’ Blogging 101 to try to improve what occasionally feels like an esoteric and possibly quite formulaic vanity project and to engage with some of WordPress’ other users. Today’s assignment – the first – is “Introduce Yourself”; and since I never formally did that over here, well, here goes.

I moved my blog to WordPress about a month ago – the day after I finished my final university exams, in fact. The previous platform I was using was awful, actually, especially from a community perspective: it was almost impossible to comment, pretty much invisible to search engines, plagued by Russian spambots, and, to top it all, frequently down for days at a time. Compared to that, WordPress seems like blog heaven.

I’ve called myself “The English Student” for a couple of reasons. When I started the blog three years ago it was literally true, or about to be so: I studied English at university. I’ve finished that now, but the title still reflects the primary aim for this blog: thinking critically about popular culture, about the novels we read and the TV we watch and the films we consume. What kind of ideological biases do they show? What assumptions do they ask us to make? What cultural place are they coming from? I tend towards feminism, because, well, I’m a woman and misogyny annoys me.

Primarily, I do this because it gives me joy. I love the mental click that happens when, at last, everything falls into place; when I manage to fit a small and troubling detail into a larger interpretive scheme; when I realise that this is what that means and this is how it fits in with the wider themes of the work. But I also think it’s important to have these conversations about fiction publicly: to think a little more deeply about the narratives we’re consuming and about what that says about us culturally, not so that we can censor but so that we can say: “this is one way of thinking. There are others.”

This is my way of thinking. There are others.

But I hope this one brings you food for thought, at least.