Despite my largely public education, I still learned a few things by accident. My favorite subjects were Social Studies and English, which figures for a kid who grew up to be a political writer.
Over the years, I was exposed to a number of fiction stories which I resisted at first but grew to love. It’s something I recall whenever trying to convince my finicky five year old to try new things.
Here are ten books, films, and plays which grew on me after being forced down my throat. They’re presented in ascending order of my personal enjoyment, not necessarily their critical or literary gravitas.
10. My Fair Lady
Yeah, yeah, go ahead with the jokes. I like The Sound of Music too. It’s a brave new post-modern, genderless world, or something. Get over it.
Despite its feminine trappings, the story at the heart of My Fair Lady emerges from unbridled masculinity. What else would you call a gentlemen’s bet that an unrefined flower girl could be transformed into a convincing lady of high society through an act of male will? It’s a theme so reliable that it’s become a cliché used in romantic comedies to this day.
This was also my introduction to Audrey Hepburn, who ain’t too bad to look at.
The play upon which My Fair Lady was based, Pygmalion was the piece I encountered first. In fact, I’m pretty sure watching the musical was just a plausibly justifiable time-waster for a teacher that needed to cover the play.
I include both on this list because the tale manifests differently in each medium, and rank the play above the musical because it’s slightly less derivative. The name Pygmalion references a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with one of his sculptures, which then came to life, an apt allusion for Professor Henry Higgins’ attempt to craft flower girl Eliza Doolittle into a believable faux duchess.
Et tu, Brute? Thus is presented my entire Latin vocabulary, courtesy of William Shakespeare.
Julius Caesar may have been my first serious exposure to political intrigue outside Animal Farm or the subtext of Star Wars. The play’s historical setting served as a lens through which its themes could be perceived without bias.
As through most all of Shakespeare’s work, the tension in the play reflects our tension in life. Honor vs pragmatism. Duty vs. desire. Friendship vs. a perceived greater good. The real tragedy is the extent to which this tale plays out throughout our actual history.
7. To Kill a Mocking Bird (Film)
I warmed quickly to the 1962 film due to its familiar faces. In particular, I noted actor Brock Peters as the accused Tom Robinson. Peters was known better to my generation from his various roles in Star Trek, both in film and on television. To Kill a Mocking Bird also featured Robert Duvall in one of his earliest roles.
I was less familiar with Gregory Peck. But his presence, and that voice, can’t be denied. Like Charlton Heston or Jack Palance, Peck performed with a signature style, and Mockingbird brimmed over with it.
6. To Kill a Mocking Bird (Book)
Of course, the book is usually better than the movie. Reading To Kill a Mockingbird was significantly more impactful than watching the film, particularly because the book did a better job of presenting the tale from the innocent perspective of six-year-old Scout.
That perspective proved essential to conveying the story’s themes. Looking through young Scout’s eyes, we see her world without our prejudices. That enables us to question things which we might otherwise take for granted. We thus perceive injustice with greater objectivity. The technique is common in storytelling, but executed nowhere better than here.
I remember my first viewing vividly. The 160 minute epic, broken by intermission, was presented to my sixth grade class by a teacher who used it to both kill time and pass on something. She may have suspected we would never otherwise encounter this 1965 film, and wanted us to enjoy something she had grown up with.
Is it a comedy? An action adventure? A romance? A sports film? The answer is yes. The Great Race dances across every genre and somehow congeals as a whole.
Jack Lemmon. Tony Curtis. And oh that Natalie Wood. This was my intro to each. Lemmon shines as the fiendish Professor Fate, a caricature of the silent film era black-hatted villain. Curtis plays his heroic foil, and Wood chews up the scenery as a vivacious suffragette.
The Charles Dickens classic was one of the hardest reads I was ever assigned. Spoiled by the relative simplicity of modern storytelling, I didn’t know where Expectations was going, and had no patience with its toddling journey to an unknown destination.
Then again, as a teenage boy harboring unrefined desire, I could certainly relate to young master Pip’s frustrated infatuation with the sadistic Estella. That kept the pages turning and led to the oddly synergistic experience of realizing alongside Pip that our expectations of life (in his case) and literature (in mine) required adjustment.
Listing them like that leads to an epiphany. I’ve never thought about it before, but despite recounting the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Amadeus really is a crime drama. My God, it’s even narrated by an aspiring, well-connected, but ultimately defeated criminal, Antonio Salieri. It all makes sense now!
Exhibited in my eighth grade music class as an introduction to Mozart’s work, the film sucked me in with its unique political drama, its oddly perverse comedy, and the contrasting lead performances of F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce.
At the risk of heading back into My Fair Lady territory with another “girly” entry, let’s just pause to reflect upon the scope of violence throughout Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. To my mind, Romeo and Juliet remains perpetually unfulfilled, never satisfactorily realized in any form which I have seen. And I’ve seen a few.
Most iterations completely exclude the character I found myself most sympathetic toward when reading, the hapless Count Paris. Here’s a guy who doesn’t even know what’s going on. Paris believes, in his climactic clash with Romeo, that he’s defending the honor of his recently deceased fiancé from a brigand looking to defile her tomb. He never learns the truth. Even as he takes the count’s life, Romeo recognizes the genuine love which motivated his opponent’s stand. It’s a wonderfully tragic moment which virtually everyone cuts from their adaptations.
I love this movie. A prototype of so much awesome which has come since, Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film masterpiece exceeds the scope of its technical limitations and infects the mind with its persistent and powerful imagery.
The mad scientist. The android doppelganger. The futuristic dystopia. These memes may not have originated in Metropolis, but they manifested there in now stereotypical cinematic forms. Rotwang, the wild-haired malevolent genius, influenced characters from comic books, cartoons, and even Back to the Future’s Emmett Brown. George Lucas acknowledges Maria’s robot double as the inspiration for C-3PO. And the film’s particular aesthetic, the future as imagined in the 1920s, with fixed-wing aircraft and blimps peppering the sky, continues to inform our fantasies to this day.