Top Ten Book to Film Adaptations

“Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof. “

V for Vendetta

Oh, man.

  1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien. Peter Jackson did an absolutely fantastic job of translating Middle-earth to the screen. The Return of the King especially is perfect. The Hobbit, on the other hand, is my absolute least favourite film ever made.
  2. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo. I haven’t actually read the book (I know, bad English Student!) but wow. The film with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe just blew me away.
  3. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. I know a lot of people hated this film, but for me it really worked in all its flawed brilliance. I came out of the cinema feeling the same as I did when I finished the book, which is exactly what you want from a film adaptation.
  4. Stardust – Neil Gaiman. The book I hated. The film, on the other hand…It’s endlessly comforting, and endlessly wonderful, full of pirates and witches and skyships and everything that is good. I never get tired of it.
  5. V for Vendetta – Alan Moore. Again, I haven’t read the book, but this film makes me cry every time, and that bit at the end is just fantastic.
  6. Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins. Another really faithful adaptation of the book. I loved the mockingjay dress, and the bit where they all hold hands.
  7. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger. I know, it’s sappy. But I enjoyed it.
  8. Bridget Jones’ Diary – Helen Fielding. I refuse to be ashamed of this. It’s hilarious, OK? Everyone’s got a little bit of Bridget in them.
  9. Going Postal – Terry Pratchett. I’m not convinced that this is actually a very good film, but it was such a delight as a fan to be able to visit the Discworld visually, to revel in its colour and its life. It renders Ankh-Morpork so vibrantly. And Charles Dance makes an excellent Patrician.
  10. Hamlet – William Shakespeare. The One With David Tennant. Need I say more?

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Wolf Hall: Entirely Beloved

“Some debts are not to be reckoned.”

Wolf Hall

In the second episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall, politics continues to happen.

That’s about all, really. Our Hero Thomas Cromwell navigates the murky waters of Henry VIII’s court, liaising with various parties, including but not limited to Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy’s rather whiny Anne is unfortunately not a patch on Natalie Portman’s performance in The Other Boleyn Girl), the chaplain Dr Cranmer, the King himself and, rather incongruously, Mark Gatiss in a very strange costume. There appears to be a goal to his various machinations, but I’m not sure what it is. Mark Rylance remains eminently watchable with his strangely compassionate Cromwell, silent but not judgemental, and Charity Wakefield makes a very moving appearance as Mary Boleyn, but I still have no idea where all of this is going. It’s a very open-ended episode; there’s no particular “hook” which tells us why we’re watching.

The one thing that did strike my interest, though, is Cromwell’s discussion with the King about the apparent corruption of the monasteries. The English education system tends to teach the Dissolution of the Monasteries as a huge cultural tragedy, smashed stained-glass windows, works of art melted down, devotional icons whitewashed, etc., and it’s interesting that Wolf Hall is advancing actual, understandable human reasons for such an apparently tyrannical act of cultural vandalism rather than just painting the King as impetuous and childish. Damian Lewis’ Henry is an experienced statesman; he’s been King for twenty years, he knows how kinging works; he’s not stupid, and he’s not childish. Brutal, perhaps. Easily led by men he likes, yes. But not stupid or entirely without humanity.

I’m not sure why this slow-moving, intricate dance of politics continues to fascinate me, but it kind of does. It’s like Game of Thrones without the dragons or the incest (or the sex, or the violence, come to that), and if it’s not exactly suspenseful, well, it’s interesting for how it thinks about history. I’ll probably watch another one, if I remember to, but I’m not going to lose any sleep binge-watching it. (As if I lose any sleep binge-watching anything.)  

Call the Midwife: Ep. 3

“There’s always need for cake.”

Call the Midwife

Call the Midwife is back on form for episode three. After a disappointingly trite second episode, this one feels remarkably nuanced and ambiguous, although this may simply be the effect of contrast. In any case, it’s an episode that tackles the admittedly difficult subject of homosexuality; difficult because this was still illegal in the Fifties, and because the show clearly tries to strike a balance between being about homophobia without being homophobic.

So when the husband of one of Nunnatus House’s patients is arrested for gross indecency, I was quite prepared for all the various occupants of the House to be, in the grand but generally unsubtle tradition of Call the Midwife, anachronistically accepting and horrified by the arrest. (To be fair, the whole thing is mildly horrifying – talk of a “cure” especially put my teeth on edge.) Surprisingly, however, there are a whole range of views represented around the tea table, from Sister Winifred’s religious intolerance to Nurse Mount’s suppressed anger, and Trixie’s reaction in particular is well done: although her general philosophy is “live and let live”, she’s not necessarily willing to admit this in public. That, I thought, was a really authentic touch, which doesn’t allow us to valorise our favourite characters as we might like to.

The subplot is a success as well, dealing with another kind of discrimination, as a pregnant Irish woman is unable to find lodgings. Nurse Crane proves a continuing success, intractable in every day life as she is calm in a crisis (even if the gruff-exterior-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype is a bit hard to swallow). And we even get a bit of politics, as the Cold War and the possibility of a nuclear attack enters Poplar’s consciousness. All in all, it’s an engaging, sensitive episode, hopeful as ever but aware of its own inability completely to solve its society’s problems.

Call the Midwife: Ep. 2

“Truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.”

Neil Gaiman

I don’t know if I’m just in a particularly fractious mood today, but the second episode of the perennially cheerful Call the Midwife seemed more clumsily sentimental than usual.

Let me qualify that statement: I know that Call the Midwife has always been sentimental. I know it is schmaltzy and fluffy and not at all serious, and that it avoids anything even approaching reality. And I’ve never had a problem with that sentimentality, because, let’s be honest, it’s a great antidote to Silent Witness. Also Real Life.

Here, though, the episode’s attempts to Make Everything Better in one hour just come across as ham-fisted.

So the residents of Nunatus House are presented with a number of challenges in this episode. Sister Julienne is contacted by an old flame who wants to donate to Nunatus House, and she finds herself contemplating the Road Not Travelled; an experienced new midwife rocks up and quickly upsets the way of things among the residents; Trixie becomes fiendish about her wedding plans; and Nurse Gilbert is faced with a horrific challenge as a birth goes wrong.

All of these little challenges are set up and resolved in the space of one episode, which essentially means that all of those resolutions have to be slightly pat, and in a couple of cases simply out of the blue, since there’s no time convincingly to resolve all of them. The episode feels deeply unsatisfactory as a result: if everything was so easy, why did we worry about it? If it had no lasting repercussions, why did we just spend an hour watching it?

Additionally, several scenes (most glaringly those featuring Sister Julienne and her Old Flame) feel overworked and frankly maudlin; this is the point when sentimentality tips into simply unwatchable mush.

I hope this is just a blip, because I don’t want to complain about Call the Midwife. I want it to stay nice and fluffy and happy so I can watch it after a long day. But, while this episode wasn’t terrible, it was…embarrassing, for the show as a whole.

Wolf Hall: Three Card Trick

“A strong man acts within that which restrains him.”

Wolf Hall

I should probably mention that I haven’t actually read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, of which this is an adaptation, which probably makes me a bad reader or something, but it’s rather a relief to see something on iPlayer that isn’t a Murder Mystery or a soap.

Actually, this is quite hard on the BBC’s effort to screen New Things, but you get the idea.

Anyway, Wolf Hall turns out to be mildly compelling, in a Game of Thrones-y type way (which was undoubtedly the motive for commissioning the series in the first place). It follows Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, as he navigates the murky political waters around the time of Henry VIII’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon. The narrative has a tendency to jump between historical moments – the fall of Wolsey, eight years before the fall of Wolsey, two weeks afterwards, etc. – which, while it never becomes exactly tricky to follow, is nonetheless a little hard to follow, as well as a little inexplicable as a device. I’m not sure what it adds to the story – and yes, if you choose to play with narrative structure there should be a reason for it, not just Because You Can.

Apart from that, however, the thing is quite watchable. Certainly Mark Rylance is excellent as Cromwell, bringing a sort of impenetrable humour to the role – at one point the King asks whether he should stay at home “like a child” during wars, to which the incorrigible Cromwell answers “From a fiscal perspective, that would be ideal.” There’s a sense that none of Cromwell’s contemporaries really know what to make of him, and neither do we, really. And the dynamic between Cromwell and the Cardinal (played by Jonathan Pryce, the governor of Port Royal in Pirates of the Caribbean) is interesting, too, and looks to be elaborated in further episodes.

I feel I should have more to say about this, but my brain is fried after a week’s work. I’d not be averse to watching Wolf Hall again, though.

Doctor Who: Tooth and Claw

“You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves!”

Doctor Who

Disclaimer: This is going to be a short post, because all I really want to do at the moment is curl up with some Earl Grey and The Haunter of the Dark (WHY DID NO-ONE TELL ME ABOUT LOVECRAFT BEFORE? WHY? YOU HAVE FAILED ME, INTERNET). So it might also be a bit vague and stream-of-consciousness-y. Sorry about that.

I’ve been saying, blithely, for years that the Tenth Doctor was better on his worse days than Eleven and Twelve are on their best, but now I’ve actually gone back and watched some new-to-me Ten episodes I find myself wondering if that’s actually true; or, rather, why that’s true. Because, actually, as far as I could tell, Tooth and Claw was every bit as cheesy and plot-holey as Stephen Moffat’s writing is.

Oh, right, this is where I do the Plot Synopsis. Well, the plot is actually a bit thin. The Doctor and Rose (yep, it’s still Rose-era) rock up in Scotland, 1879, where they handily meet, in the middle of nowhere…Queen Victoria.

Of course.

Given the fact that this isn’t actually any less likely than a madman in a blue box spinning through the universe, and the fact that the TARDIS tends to land the Doctor wherever he needs to be, I’ll give Russell T. Davies a pass on this one.

Anyway, Queenie is heading for Torchwood House (NOT A COINCIDENCE) for a sleepover, only it turns out that there is something weird going on there to do with orange kung-fu monks and the full moon and okay there’s a werewolf there who wants to eat the Queen so it can get control of the throne? Or something.

This being Doctor Who, a lot of unlikely stuff happens, including but not limited to dodgy science, snogging at inappropriate moments (PRIORITIES, PEOPLE), heroic but ultimately meaningless self-sacrifice, and a very cool scene in a library where everyone reads books frantically in the hope that they’ll magically stumble across the exact solution to their problem. And then they do. Oh, and made-up werewolf mythology.

Although Ten is, as always, wonderful, it has to be said that it was all a bit silly.

But – and this is not a fully-formed thought, so bear with me – I think what makes it different from Moffat’s writing is that Davies isn’t afraid for it to be silly. There’s a rather charming sort of thrown-together aesthetic about the whole thing, which might have more to do with the fact that it was made about ten years ago than with actual production design, but I think it brings it rather closer to the feel of classic Who than Eleven or Twelve, with their glossy, high-spec, made-for-American-audiences feel. There’s somehow more character to Ten’s performance; an awareness that this time-and-space lark is all a bit of a farce, and isn’t it fun just to go along with it because OMG, werewolves and Queen Victoria, right?

I think that’s all the analysis there is going to be tonight, because the Evil Monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions are calling (OK, that sounds kind of creepy) and I am tired. Stay tuned for more Who-related ramblings in the near future, though.

Call the Midwife: Ep. 1

“Sometimes new beginnings come not at once but at last.”

Call the Midwife

You know, I think Call the Midwife may be the only thing left on telly that I actually look forward to watching. Sure, there are objectively better programmes: Silent Witness springs to mind at the moment. But in the absence of Sherlock, and to a lesser extent Doctor Who, Call the Midwife has a comforting familiarity to it, a strange mix of fluffiness and grit, that makes it a genuinely nice thing to watch, rather than one which tries relentlessly to plumb the dark depths of human nature. That becomes wearing after a while.

So I greet the beginning of a new series with happy anticipation. And, indeed, despite the cast changes, things are going on pretty much as usual at Nunatus House. Though Chummy appears to be leaving again, a new girl from Liverpool (although any accent less Liverpudlian I cannot imagine) is arriving as nurse. Meanwhile, Trixie is reminded of a bad childhood by a case of extreme neglect, and Sister Evangelina is ill.

And so it goes on: the gentle but relentless rose-tinted juggernaut that insists that all ills can be cured by strong cups of tea, sisterhood, generosity of spirit and Vanessa Redgrave’s good-natured narration. I do love that all the main characters here are women, and that none of them are one-note: party-loving serial girlfriend Trixie is perhaps the most competent and compassionate of the young nurses; the slightly mad Sister Monica Joan often has gems of wisdom to share; Chummy can be both comically hopeless and motherishly helpful. That’s undoubtedly the best thing about this admittedly often formulaic series, and one unrivalled in anything else I can think of. And if the moral occasionally becomes a little strained, as it does here (the Children’s Migrant Programme – which, by the way, is an awful piece of British history that everyone should know about – strikes a slightly off note in the gently positive message this episode is trying to convey), well, I’m quite ready to forgive that. What, after all, is life without a little sentiment?

Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express

“Sometimes the only choices you have are bad. But you still have to choose.”

Doctor Who

It’s not just the Orient Express, Constant Reader…it’s the Orient Express in space! Because reasons!

OK, OK, I’ll be sensible. Clara is annoyed at the Doctor because of what happened in Kill the Moon. (I don’t blame her – I’m still annoyed about what happened in Kill the Moon.) She’s decided not to travel with him any more. So the Doctor plans a last hurrah, a last trip with Clara to somewhere amazing. They choose the Orient Express. In space.

I mean, that’s quite cool, if rather gratuitously illogical – but surely if this is your last trip into space, you’d choose something a little less human? What about all those shiny, wonderful, alien planets the Doctor is always babbling about? The Orient Express still exists on Earth, after all.

I digress. This being Doctor Who, it turns out that there’s a monster aboard the Orient Express – a mythical creature known as the Foretold, which can only be seen by those about to die. Once you see it, you have exactly 66 seconds left to live. And the deaths mount and the fear rises and a mad, ruthless computer named Gus (who, now I think of it, has uncanny resemblances to Blaine the Mono in Stephen King’s The Waste Lands) transforms the train into a giant laboratory so that his unwitting prisoners can study the monster for him.

Actually, this was a fairly good episode. It’s got a similar feel to Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, both in period feel (for some reason, all of the passengers are dressed in ’20s outfits – think flapper dresses and black tie) and in that the mystery doesn’t quite lie where you’d expect. Capaldi continues to go from strength to strength as the Doctor: authoritative, practical to the point of unfeeling, and actually very badass. And the ending – the solution, if you like – feels for once like it fits. It works, because of a satisfyingly clever-stupid-timey-wimey plan and a certain understated amount of symbolic sentimentality. It’s almost watertight as a plot, which makes it astronomically better than many of the episodes so far this series.

I mean, the coda was a little irritating. Clara decides that she quite likes the Doctor, actually, and decides not to leave him, blatantly ignoring Danny Who’s (ha, geddit?) protests, and there’s something a bit Magically Better about it all. But I’m happy to ignore that stuff (although it is time for Clara to leave, I think) in light of the fact that Doctor Who was not actually terrible today. Hurrah!

Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Pts 1 & 2

“Books were safer than people anyway.”

Neil Gaiman

#WhoOnHorror is back on this blog, mainly because ancient episodes of Doctor Who are very diverting to watch when you’re procrastinating. Because the Horror Channel only shows two episodes in one go, I’m only reviewing the first two parts of a six-parter, on the basis that I can’t remember where one part ends and the other begins.

So. Four and Leela, fresh from the exciting adventure of The Face of Evil, end up in Victorian London, intending to watch a magic show. (Doctor Who and MAGIC? Sold.) But something weird is going on. People are disappearing, there are strange noises beneath the theatre, and the writers are being just the tiniest bit racist. (All the baddies are Chinese. Is some imagination really that hard to come by?) Tom Baker appears to have become a ninja overnight, everyone is dressed as Sherlock Holmes, there’s an ROUS loose in the sewers, and I’m pretty sure the Doctor makes a Lord of the Rings reference at one point: “You can’t go walking round London in skins.” ANYONE?

Like I said, diverting. Especially when that pile of revision is calling.

Doctor Who: Robots of Sherwood

“History’s a burden. Stories can make us fly.”

Doctor Who

Deep Breath was excellent. Into the Dalek was terrible. Robots of Sherwood? I’m not so sure.

In the third episode of Capaldi’s stint as the Scottish Steampunk Doctor, Clara asks the Doctor to take her back to the time of Robin Hood. The Doctor, being the Doctor, is convinced that Robin never existed, and immediately suspects a trick when it turns out that, in fact, he does. His suspicions are apparently vindicated when the Sherriff of Nottingham’s men turn out to be robots, but what do they want, and why are they stealing gold?

Now, that could be a terrific Doctor Who episode. There’s nothing like a fleet of anachronistic aliens to brighten up your day – The Unquiet Dead, anyone? – and Mark Gatiss is doing some great things with the idea of stories and heroes and fame. But the thing is, the actual stuff that happens in the episode is just plain silly. For a start, the storyline is an entirely predictable Aliens Influence Man to Achieve World Domination affair. That can work, especially for a third episode – but only if the Doctor’s character is strong enough to drive the episode. And, I’m sorry, but Capaldi is still a little…unconvincing. Unsure. Wobbly. Possibly even wibbly-wobbly. He seems almost lost in a story driven by other strong characters, including the irritatingly merry Robin Hood (another cliche, incidentally) and a suddenly authoritative Clara, whose increasingly important role is one of the good things to come out of the Capaldi Administration. But this isn’t Clara’s story. This is the Doctor’s story, and whatever we think of his companions, it’s important that they don’t outshine him.

Really, though, the main problem with Robots of Sherwood is its uninventiveness. I’ve mentioned the predictable plot trajectory. But what about the fact that a castle apparently swarming with evil robot-knights has a dungeon staffed by only one easily-fooled human guard? Or the ease with which the Doctor and his peasant army defeats said robot-knights? (Surely, if we’re dealing with the Doctor’s moral ambiguity here, it would have been more effective to have the peasants struggling, really struggling, against their foe, while he dashes off elsewhere to blow up the alien spaceship or something?) What about the fact that the best explanation Gatiss can come up with for the Sherwood area’s mysteriously fairy-taleish weather is “radiation”? (Because that’s exactly how radiation works.) Or – and this is really, really stupid – the idea that one golden arrow fired at random at a moving target (and moving pretty fast, too – last time I looked, escape velocity was at eleven kilometres per second, which is, you know, fast) could possibly have any difference on said spaceship’s ability to leave the atmosphere? (And if that worked, why the hell did the robot-knights go to all the trouble of melting the gold down in the first place? Why didn’t they just make a big pile in the middle of the spaceship?)

Also, you can’t fire an arrow by consensus. Just sayin’.

Did anyone think this through at all?

Robots of Sherwood wasn’t, admittedly, terrible. I’d probably even watch it again, which is more than I can say for Into the Dalek. It’s a fun idea, and, like I said, I loved all the stuff about stories and how they begin. (Was I the only one expecting the Doctor to say “We’re all stories in the end”?) But, please, Doctor Who writers, learn some science. Or at least come up with some more convincing sciencey babble.