Friday, June 27, 2014

Summer Reading 2014: Hot Dickens For Everyone!

I apologize for nothing.

It's summer again. For many this means three months out of school, blockbuster movies out the orifice of your choice, and, for many still in the pre-GED phase of their lives, summer reading.

Seeking to run with (read: exploit) this idea, I started an experiment with this last year. Take a book that's been the subject of many adaptations, give it a read/reread, then go through a scattering of these adaptations, looking at how each holds up both as a movie and as an adaptation. Last year kicked things off with Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a book that is not only a good read, but a handy means of inducing blunt force trauma in a good hardcover edition.

This year, we're hoping to have the schedule a bit more worked out, but we're also continuing in part of the theme of last year. This time around we'll be exploring a work by another revered European author of an egalitarian bend who made their bones during the era when serial writing and getting paid by the word was the norm.

As many of you may have deduced by my shameless title, yes, this year's looking at one of the works of Charles Dickens.

A practice that, nowadays, seems to thrive strongest in the comic book industry.
In that regard, I give you the British Stan Lee.

More specifically, we're looking at his timeless tale of rags to riches to relatively comfortable working wages with more of a sense of identity, Great Expectations.

"You there, boy! What day is this and do you want to see a dead body?"
(...yes, I know that NEITHER of those references works here.)

For those of you playing at home, the story is fairly straightforward. It concerns Pip, a child who (like many Dickensian leads) has no parents and an altogether miserable upbringing (okay, Joe's actually pretty cool to him, but his sister, in true British fashion, beats the ever-loving Hell out of him.) Anyway, after a chance encounter with an escaped convict, Pip finds himself catching the interest of local eccentric recluse Miss Havisham, and in turn, his eye is caught by her adoptive daughter, Estella. Their relationship is...let's just put it this way, if Dickens were writing this book now, the fanfiction people would write about these two would likely be loaded with some VERY disturbing overtones. Estella pretty regularly berates Pip and, despite himself, he's head over heels for her.

"I leave here every week in misery and come back for more...
...maybe they're right. Maybe I DO have issues."

Anyway, after lamenting that his class may deny him ever having a shot with her, Pip receives notice of a mysterious benefactor who wishes to make him a gentleman. What follows is ultimately a coming of age story at heart – Pip grows, learns, loves, laughs, loses...all the big 'l's, really. In the end, cliched as it is, he does find himself, even after it seems like he's lost it all.

Yeah, you can see why classrooms roll this one out quite a bit.

I picked this for my second year of this for two big reasons. The first is, like Les Misérables before it, this is a book that lends itself to a lot of different variation in adaptation. While nowhere near as daunting in scope as Hugo, Dickens still loads this with a lot of side stories and minor characters that make for interesting reads, but won't always hold up in a filmed version. So what gets prioritized will vary from filmmaker to filmmaker. To that end, the characters are just on the line between cliché and nuance so that different filmmakers may see different things in them. To some, Pip's naivete may pass for utter stupidity, and to others, someone like Miss Havisham may simply be a stereotype of a vengeful old woman, and Estella...let's just say reads could get very conflicted on her. Additionally, the confines of film does allow for tightening up of one area where even I'll acknowledge Dickens tends to slip - his tendency to indulge in coincidences with the kind of zeal traditionally reserved for Robert Evans and a big mountain of cocaine. Granted, that was also pretty common in the age of serial writing in general, but nevertheless, Dickens developed something of a reputation for it. So it's interesting to see how films tighten up some of the chains of coincidence to reel in the stories from time to time here.

"So you can stop here and take the broken clock, the moldy wedding cake, and the burnt out candles as your prizes...
Or you can go for what's in the mystery box!
What's it gonna be?"

The other reason I picked this is, actually a bit of a personal one (and will also play into my first pick for adaptation.) My first really getting into the mechanics of adaptation as a process in film actually started back in college with the course 'Film and Literature' (...hey, it's an honest name.) It had an interesting spread of books and adaptations covered (to give an idea, my final paper for the course was on A Clockwork Orange,) but one of the first we covered was Great Expectations, comparing the book to the old David Lean adaptation.

Truth be told, this almost was the first book at the time, but having just finished Les Misérables, and that taking six months at that point, it seemed best to do that one while it was still fresh. Especially since a reread there would be one HELL of a time investment (may still do it someday, but I digress.)

But yes, this is a personal project as well.

So, starting next week, and every other Friday, expect to see a fresh review from this project. Though this first one will be Thursday...doing an article on a British classic on July 4th just feels wrong.

Keep an eye out!

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