The critics are chattering about Baz Luhrmann’s highly anticipated The Great Gatsby. They fall into two camps: those who watched the movie for itself, and those who closely compared it to the book. Even though I appreciate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal work, I’ll be going to the theater as a member of the first camp. Adaptations are rarely successful when the goal is a strict translation of the book to the screen. Even if a movie’s based on a book, I try to judge it as a movie in its own right, as if the book had never existed. Just to prove how unimportant The Great Gatsby’s faithfulness to the book is, here are four examples of absolutely amazing, beautiful, gripping, classic movies (and a TV show) that took an existing story and threw expectations out the window to make something completely original.
5. The Adaptation Most People Don’t Know Is an Adaptation: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Did you know that O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ rollicking adventure comedy through the Depression-era South, is a loose retelling of Homer’s Odyssey? If you didn’t, pick up the DVD and rewatch it (well, you should rewatch it anyway even if you did already know because it’s that good) and see if you can recognize the sirens, the cyclops, and the hydra.
Submit your questions to PJMBadAdvice@gmail.com or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice!
Happy birthday, spring babies! I’ve just rounded the corner on a quarter century, and here’s a question from another Millennial, with a birthday problem…
Dear Bad Advice,
Three years ago, I had the best and worst birthday of my life. I was turning 21 and I had a spectacular party at a bar with a big group of friends the night before, and was showered with gifts and cards the next day (including a cake my mom sent me in the mail!). Sounds pretty good, right? Well, that day I also broke up with my boyfriend of three years, whom I’d been hoping to marry. It was the product of a long, painful wind-down that had taken place over the preceding months, but the final straw was when I opened up a box of flowers, and all my friends assumed it was from him…but it wasn’t. He was there when I opened it, and when one of my friends asked what he had done for my birthday, she found out he hadn’t planned anything special at all, not even a card or a nice dinner out. I know some people don’t make a big deal out of birthdays or holidays, but we had always been very thoughtful about celebrating special occasions, making each other hand-made gifts and cards and going out of our way to create a special evening for each other. So the fact that he hadn’t done anything at all had to have been a deliberate move on his part, to send me a message.
I still feel conflicted about that day, because I can’t seem to separate the great parts from the miserable ones. I had one of the most fun, memorable birthdays ever with a group of people who remain some of my closest friends — but I also ended a relationship with a man that I was utterly convinced I was going to spend the rest of my life with (how naive we are at 21). Ever since then, I sort of dread and look forward to every birthday, wondering if it’s going to be just as great, or just as bad. I’m turning 24 this year and I don’t know what to expect. How do I shake this foreboding feeling and just enjoy my day?
- Minerva K.
This sounds like bad advice, but you need a rebound.
Slate’s Dear Prudence advice column is a social barometer of sorts, so when columnist Emily Yoffe pivots on a major issue my ears twitch, because change must be afoot. This week’s chat with advice-seekers revealed a shocking reversal: Prudie is actually advising readers to cut back on the porn:
When I started writing this column I had a very laissez-faire attitude toward porn, but it’s irrefutable that excess consumption can interfere with normal sexual expectations. It’s one thing if your husband made a reasonable request. … It’s another thing if he’s withdrawn from you sexually, has refused to address this, then announces he can’t get turned on by you if you don’t look like the people on YouPorn. …you two need to talk about how hurtful his behavior has been over the past year, and that you hope he understands that putting his demands in such a demeaning way is not likely to turn you on.
What was the husband of this letter-writer requesting? That the woman shave down under or he wouldn’t get intimate with her. The bald eagle (aherm) look has grown so immensely popular this year it’s actually made headlines, and most commentators agree it was popularized by porn’s hairless superstars.
Okay. So porn is as standard (and standardized) in American males’ homes as sliced bread. Old news. What’s new news is that someone besides the ultra-feminist anti-porn crusaders and the ultra-Christian anti-porn crusaders is saying in a major public forum that maybe porn is not so healthy for relationships. Well, excess porn.
For what it’s worth, I don’t support the censorship of porn that’s performed (and consumed) by consenting adults. But I do object to the tacitly ubiquitous attitude that “porn is okay, and if you object to it you’re a prude, because everybody watches it.” It’s another form of political correctness. Let’s see a healthy dose of skepticism.
The bravest part of Jason Collins’s coming-out feature in Sports Illustrated was not the part where he revealed he is gay. It was this:
I celebrate being an African-American and the hardships of the past that still resonate today. But I don’t let my race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don’t want to be labeled, and I can’t let someone else’s label define me.
I have a prediction: Collins is going to ruffle a few feathers in the gay world for that comment.
It normalizes gayness, instead of letting one counterculture, ultra-liberal, activist niche own the image of homosexuality. If you can be a gay NBA star, why not a gay conservative? If your sexual orientation is just one part of your life, why does it have to dictate your entire worldview?
You can’t be easily herded if you insist on being yourself.
If you’re skeptical that the gay activist Old Guard would be against lifestyle diversity, read this Slate article about how some of them are reluctantly accepting of the “Gaybro” movement. The subtitle says it all: “They like sports, hunting, and beer. They make the gay community mad.”
Jason Collins: thanks for making them mad. It’s time someone shook this place up a bit. And I don’t mean the hetero-normative sports world. I mean the liberal-normative gay world.
I am an advice column addict.
I read three or four a day, bouncing from one to the other trying to figure out when I’ll get my next hit — “Well, she always posts on Thursdays — and this one normally has a new post every Tuesday — and I haven’t read the full archive of that one yet.”
I’m not entirely sure what the root of my obsession is. But I think I’m drawn to a world in which a sensible person is sought out by people with disastrous lives, so she can preach the word of Rational Decision Making and Common Sense to a willing audience. Like virtually everyone I know, I have a crowd of acquaintances whom I’ve seen essentially torching their lives with an incendiary mixture of bad decisions and worse attitudes, and I’ve longed to shake them by the shoulders and talk sense to them. In the world of advice columns, those friends are asking someone to shake them by the shoulders and talk sense to them. It’s so satisfying.
Advice columns normally fall under one of two categories: tips on manners and etiquette, and ”Holy sh!t what is wrong with your life?!” I mostly read the latter. Sometimes I even skip the advice.
If advice columns were only about dispensing advice, there’d be no need to even print the questions; columnists would just write once or twice weekly with the same general rules for living that they parcel out, piecemeal, in response to their letter writers. If you read as many as me you start to notice each columnist’s go-to wisdom bombs. Kapow! You need to let the past go. Boom! Communicate, don’t seethe in silent resentment. Zap! Leave your stinking cheating dead-beat boyfriend.
I don’t judge or dislike my favorite columnists for recycling their wisdom; it wouldn’t be wisdom if it only worked once.
But you also have to admit: if everyone followed it, would everybody be a little happier? Probably… a little. There’s another part missing from the equation of life satisfaction that doesn’t have to do with making all your decisions on a solely rational basis.
The following is the list of three of the most genre-defining, convention-bending, head-scratching, mouth-gaping advice column questions and answers. There are plenty of outrageous (and probably fake) questions out there, so these weren’t chosen purely on the basis of Jerry Springer worthiness; they’re the questions that made me ask, “Why do people seek advice from strangers?” “What does this question and answer say about our culture?” and “Why haven’t you talked to your parole officer about that?”
You might have heard of Lana Del Rey because she’s the internet’s favorite singer to hate. Or you might have heard of her because you actually enjoyed one of her songs on the radio. Sound a bit contradictory?
Lana Del Rey sings retro-inspired, whispery pop songs about slightly trashy women with a serious case of heartache. You can picture her heroines telling the story of the man who walked out on them over a cigarette and coffee in a local diner, mascara running down their cheeks. She’s a bad girl from a James Dean movie with a heart of gold. Her music is catchy, melancholy, haunting; it has a quality that reaches out and taps you on the shoulder if you’ve ever been dumped, and whispers to you about feelings that other songs missed. When she croons “I will love you until the end of time,” or “Heaven is a place on earth with you,” in a minor key, she reminds you of that half-life of love that keeps burning on even after the relationship ends. And she’s not fighting it — she’s just feeling it. Even in “Video Games,” a song in which she’s still with her boyfriend, when she sings “better than I ever even knew” the listener gets the impression that things are not perfect.
Lana Del Rey is good music for suspense. She’s good music for sun-draped summer days. She’s good music for a long drive to see someone for the first time in what feels like a long time.
She’s a good bad girl for good girls to listen to.
The other distinctive feature of Lana Del Rey is she can’t do a single thing without every hipster and tabloid blog on the internet jeering her for it. It’s become such a distinctive facet of her career that you can’t discuss her or her music at all without running into internet-hate problem.
What gives? First of all, hating her was made trendy by sites that make lots and lots of money by writing cruel things about people. She’s not perfect, but her crimes are no worse than those of other pop stars who have gotten off with far less derision: take a stage name, or flubbing a performance.
The fact that she’s unafraid to sing about women’s vulnerability without irony or apology is another less discussed reason why music commentators and tabloid writers hate her so vitriolically. She doesn’t follow their script of how empowered gender-neutral young folks these days should talk about love, so she must be mocked into silence.
What has she done to piss them off so much?
I admire and respect J.K. Rowling a great deal. It takes a lot of courage for a popular author to reinvent herself and come out with a book upturning what her readers expect. That’s what she did with The Casual Vacancy, her first published work of adult literary fiction.
The Casual Vacancy opens with the death of Pagford Parish Councilmember Barry Fairbrother, soon revealed to be the most genuinely kind, generous, well-meaning and non-self-absorbed person in town. He was also the deciding vote in a conflict that has torn the town apart: the stewardship of a nearby government housing project and the renewal of a lease for the local addiction clinic. A massive host of characters grapple with his death, their own personal demons, and the local controversy stirred by the special election to fill his council seat.
Rowling had to have known there would be hordes of readers hating The Casual Vacancy automatically just because it doesn’t have wizards or magic in it, and who would share their disappointment all over the internet.
That’s part of why I’m sad that I didn’t like it more. Because I picked up The Casual Vacancy prepared to read it as if it were the work of a first-time author, not the creator of Harry Potter. I was not going to bring the expectations that come with a fantasy young adult (YA) series to an adult work of literary fiction. But reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about what worked in Harry Potter and where those elements were missing from The Casual Vacancy – no, I wasn’t going to pitch a fit because Rowling dared to write a book in a different genre, but I was disappointed that she didn’t bring some of the very impressive writing skills that she’d displayed in Harry Potter to her adult fiction.
Here are four reasons why Harry Potter succeeded that have nothing to do with wizards — and why The Casual Vacancy didn’t live up to Rowling’s potential, even for a reader who wasn’t expecting wizards.
Don’t let this post lead you to believe I care about Kristen Stewart. When I told a friend that my editor had asked me to write about Kristen Stewart, that otherwise well-spoken girl’s response was:
“what are you going to write about Kristen Stewart?! That she’s a dumb ho who inexplicably cheated on EDWARD CULLEN and is one of the biggest paparazzi magnets ever — how did she think she wouldn’t get caught in public with a MARRIED MAN? HO. And, she aint even that pretty. BURN.”
I do care what people think of Kristen Stewart. Because it’s funny as hell. And my absolutely scientific survey of the girls gathered at my friend’s house to watch the Olympics last night proves, beyond any possibility of a doubt, that even the most pop-culturally unplugged female has an opinion on Kristen Stewart’s infidelity. My boyfriend adds, “Even I heard about that. Don’t you go quotin’ me.”
And then there’s my fellow PJM blogger Leslie Loftis, who writes about Stewart’s infidelity as a sign of the times – yet another young woman persuaded by others that she shouldn’t settle down too young, even if she’s met the “perfect guy.”
I won’t pretend to know anything about Kristen or her relationship with these two men – I don’t know what life was like in private moments between her and Robert Pattinson, and whether he was the perfect guy he seemed in public; whether Kristen was feeling vulnerable when she cheated, or if she just recklessly did something selfish as so many people our age do. Who knows if he wanted her more than she wanted him and she didn’t know how to extricate herself without hurting him so she waited too long and then did something dumb; after all, it’s not an unusual story for people their age — they just happen to be celebrities so we pay attention.
As stated already, I don’t care. But other people’s opinions on the scandal fascinate me. Because that’s the sign of the times cultural commentators are seeking in the tea leaves of celebrites’ lives. So what’s there to find?
Comic books (or graphic novels to those who care) have had plenty of big-screen opportunities, especially in the superhero genre. But many of today’s cutting-edge, literary-minded comics would make even better television. Just as comics have grown more serious and respected in the last few years, so has television – no longer just the bastard child of film, television is now an art in itself, and like comics its writers tell long-form stories that explore characters with depth and complexity. Here are five comic book series that would never fit into the standard two-hour feature film treatment, but would make killer TV.
Neil Gaiman’s seminal 10-volume series seems to defy adaptation. It tells the story of ten god-like creatures who represent the passions that push and pull all conscious life; the main character is the personification of dreams, Morpheus, a tortured wanderer growing weary of his immortality. Surrounding him is an epically sprawling cast of human, animal, and mythical creatures from the past and present.
Accompanying Gaiman’s storyweaving is a phalanx of artists: instead of maintaining a uniform artistic vision throughout the series, Sandman featured a succession of guest artists who illustrated each storyline in their own distinct styles.While many fans of Sandman will likely claim that it’s Gaiman’s inventive storytelling and larger-than-life characters that make this television-worthy material, I’d hold that it’s actually the art that sets it apart from all the other epic fantasy that has been hitting screens lately. Because Sandman is as much about the look as it is about the story, it would be a great opportunity to experiment in a new form of television art: instead of having a team of revolving directors step in to direct episodes in a single style, let a series of directors take each storyline and tell it in their own way. The actors could unify the series, but the visuals would feature the same kaleidescope that made the original comic so unique.
On Demetria, islands of land float in the air above a planet of uninhabitable toxic oceans. City-states built on these islands engage in a medieval push-and-tug of wars and negotiations based on trade and transportation. In a delightfully steampunk flourish, the main mode of transportation between the island city-states are flying galleons which harness the wind in sails for propulsion and steering, while anti-gravity engines keep them afloat in the air.
Meridian‘s publisher went out of business before the story could reach a satisfying conclusion. However, it lasted long enough to prove its potential as a fantasy that could appeal to both young adults and grown-ups, with a light touch. It also had the potential to evolve over several seasons, with a plot that offered many opportunities for development and a solid core cast of characters. The main character, Sephie, is a strong, intelligent female character who avoids both fantasy stereotypes of ditzy damsel and sexy Amazon. Before the series’ cut off, the story already had several promising twists, including mistaken reports of a death, love triangles, and palace intrigue. And any fan of the original, truncated series wouldn’t mind seeing it finally brought to a conclusion on screen.
Schools never assign the books you actually want to read. Or, if they do, they don’t read them the way you want to. Recently, pulp fiction seems to have been getting a bit of an airing on campuses, in classes with names like Pop Literacy and Cultural Trope Analysis, classes I took enthusiastically when I was in college. Still, they seem to miss the point. I’ve written papers trying to find the deeper intellectual elements of a pulpy book that prove, in the accepted academic terms, why it’s as great as I’d always suspected.
The problem, I realize now, is that the reason pulp fiction is great is because it’s fun, and fun is not something you can intellectualize very far. We study classic novels because they unlock deep, serious emotions or reveal uncomfortable truths about the human condition or represent a significant period in history. That is the stuff of seminars, theses and entire departments. We read pulp fiction because it’s fun.
Of course you can analyze pulp fiction. You can talk about how an author makes his or her book uniquely fun; the technique, the style, the subject; you can talk about different kinds of fun and how they might make us grow at the same time; you can delve into cultural themes in the content; but you can’t really explain a pulp novel’s greatness except with some variation on “It’s damn good fun.”
I’m on a crusade to prove that entertainment has value in itself, not just as a dose of sugar to help audiences swallow more important themes. Entertainment allows us to temporarily shut down our brains and waken later with emotions refreshed. Entertainment allows us to feel Big Emotions without shame; in the postmodern era, earnestness is considered a weakness, but entertainment gives us the opportunity to feel, earnestly.
Here are my top five seriously entertaining authors, beginning on the next page.
Since my first novel was released last month, a lot of friends have asked me how it’s done. When you see a book in the bookstore and then think about the manuscript sitting on your hard drive, the road between the two can seem rather vague.
So how does a book go from sock drawer to bookstore? Here’s the Cliffnotes version:
- Author queries agents.
- Author signs contract with agent whose job is to market and sell manuscripts to publishers, and agent submits manuscript to editors at publishing houses.
- Publisher purchases rights to manuscript, and agent negotiates the contract.
- Publisher then edits, prints and distributes book.
I’ll write periodically in this column with more “From Sock Drawer to Bookstores” writing advice. This week, I’ll focus on getting an agent. Getting an agent is the first step toward publication. Publishers really don’t accept “unsolicited manuscripts,” which simply means those submitted directly by authors. (Full disclosure: my journey from sock drawer to bookshelf actually breaks many of these rules, but we’ll get to that at the end.) Agents work for authors, who are their clients, to sell their work to publishers. But before you can send your cover letter to agents to entice them with your story (a process called “querying”), you have to find out which agents would be best for you.
I owe pretty much everything I know about writing and publishing to my mom, author Libby Malin Sternberg, who in addition to being the writer of many highly entertaining novels also keeps a blog about her observations on writing, publishing, and life in general here.
First: Finding your agent…
I asked my Twitter followers for their favorite childhood Halloween memories and all of them were the essence of innocent pleasure: mushing pumpkin pulp between their fingers, swapping candy with siblings, and my favorite contribution: “My dad came home with the original light sabers the first year they were out as a surprise.”
As little children, we believed in vampires, werewolves and ghosts. As adolescents, we pretended to believe. As adults, we grasp at the memories of how it felt to believe. And one of the most characteristic delights of childhood Halloween is the glee at being terrified by the unreal, and believing in ghosts.
I remember the years when I slept every night with the sheets pulled tight around my neck because of a Goosebumps book I’d read about vampires; but now the nighttime fear that haunts me most is of leaving the front door unlocked. These days I’m a sad Sherlock Holmes, discovering that behind every mystery are the same old human vices.
Maybe that’s why, as an adult, I reach for bone-chilling literature when I want to recapture that childhood feeling. In a uniquely adult way, the best horror writers pry open the neat machinery of the grown-up brain and activate the squirming illogical fears inside. We might not be able to believe in ghosts anymore, but we can believe in fiction. Dracula, Frankenstein, and the works of Edgar Allan Poe are old friends in this season, but below are a few fine works of horror that are less well-known. Each inspires a thrill of terror that opens like a chasm to the bottom of our most universal and mysterious fears.
Next: A Bone-Chilling Tale from an Unlikely Spookster…
Earlier this month, readers, writers and publishers commemorated the fight against censorship by using the #BannedBooksWeek hashtag on Twitter, part of the American Library Association’s 2011 Banned Books Week. By searching that tag, tweeters can find a list of readers’ favorite banned books, and links to homilies on banned books by The New York Review of Books and the Huffington Post.
Most of their ire is focused on the small-minded librarians and teachers who have tried to ban books in America, or on the travesties of an epoch of censorship that has passed in this country. Love of the principle of free speech makes Americans especially tenacious warriors against censorship. Censorship has been thwarted over and over again in America because America’s free speech protections ensure that those who object to the banning of books can make their voices heard.
However, in places controlled by radical Islamic regimes, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, books are banned and people living under the regimes have little or no power to object. Banned Books Week coincided with the convening of the UN General Assembly. Here’s a look at some of the books banned by the governments whose leaders gathered there:
Next: Who Banned Edward Said? It’s Not Who You Think It Is.
“School ruined Catcher in the Rye for me.”
We’ve all heard it. You can replace the title with any other seminal book that’s been assigned in high school or college. Did you think you’d like Jane Eyre more if you hadn’t been required to write a monograph on “Birds as semiotic systems of delineating boundaries by transgression and submission”? Or that you might have enjoyed A Passage to India if it hadn’t been your rude introduction to the five-paragraph essay? Maybe you would have got more out of Moby Dick if it weren’t for that smelly kid next to you who kept raising his hand every frickin’ time the teacher asked a question.
I’ve conducted my own experiments on whether school ruins books. (As a side note, there is a faction that contends that books ruin school.) My experiment took the form of never doing my homework in high school. After finishing (and mildly enjoying) Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, only to discover that my thoughts and observations on the book meant little in how I was graded, I resolved never to read another book assigned during advanced English class. Instead, I would just memorize what the teacher wanted us to write about the books in our five-paragraph essays, and I would regurgitate my way to the top. It worked, at least superficially – I passed the class with flying colors, and I think the teacher is still a little afraid of me. It wasn’t until I read Jane Eyre as a young adult that I realized I may have passed the class, but I hadn’t won anything.
Soon I started rediscovering the books I had skipped in high school, in all their beautiful complexity, grittiness, fervor, and enchantment. Perhaps skipping these books in high school saved them for me; perhaps my period of rebellion is what I needed to grow through to appreciate them fully.
Sometimes it takes a new perspective on an author to rehabilitate their famous works for a reader. “B-sides” by famous authors are more than hidden treasures that can prolong your enjoyment of that person’s writing; they are keys that can unlock their more famous works. I was missing something in my required-reading days. It wasn’t the books I was missing. It was the piece of me that could read and love those books. Some of these b-sides planted the seed for that part to grow. Keep reading to learn more about the five best literary b-sides to rehabilitate literature for any English class survivor.
First: Gay Dudes Are What It Took to Make Me Love Literature