Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Less Academic Summer Reading Project: The Strain

A Less Academic Summer Reading Project: The Strain

In a year where I'm already doing three other theme projects (cause yes, Halloween is a go once again), I am still trying something new for regular material.

This was an idea my editor had suggested and one that I can get behind. Initially, I hadn't given much thought reviewing a series as it aired, but after the monster that my end of the season write-up for Game of Thrones turned into, this approach made a lot more sense. It meant no longer having to go back and go over a whole season/series worth of events to discuss why a certain issue irked me. Plus, it's also easier for you to read my discussing one hour of footage a week instead of ten in two articles.

The film projects will also be continuing, naturally (especially now that I know theaters near me are playing Snowpiercer) but this also gives me something else to work with for a while during those times when I'm looking for good material in films or news to discuss.

So why The Strain? Well, we're going to get into some reviewing of the books, so this isn't entirely just announcement.
As I've said many times before, adaptation fascinates me as a process.  Translating works to the screen can be VERY hit or miss, and they can run anywhere from almost blow for blow faithful to different but still faithful to the theme of the work to different entirely but still good on their own merits to missing the point to- you get the idea.

In the case of The Strain, it's a book series that I've been curious to see an adaptation of for a while. Because the books have some interesting ideas to them, and even some of the generic elements they manage to spin in good directions. Yet when all is said and done, it feels like this is a story that really wasn't cut out for the printed page.

The trilogy (The Strain, The Fall, and The Night Eternal) is the brainchild of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and crime writer Chuck Hogan. The story-as best I can sum up without spoiling too much- starts off concerning an airlplane that touched down on in New York with all but a few of its crew and passengers dead. As a CDC research team (lead by the somewhat awkwardly named Ephraim Goodweather) tries to investigate what happened, other strange events begin to unfold. Ultimately, the story offers up an appropriately del Toro style retooling of vampire mythology.

The different take on the mythology is arguably one of the strongest elements the story has going for it. Within this setting, rather than being polished aristocrats or brooding on their immortality, vampires are effectively a plague- beyond those absolutely desperate for immortality, this life offers no appeal. Some have compared the vampires of the books (often referred to as strigoi) as being little more than zombies, though their behavior is a bit more organized and animalistic by comparison. There is intelligence within them, particularly in the older earlier members of the race, and a sense of hierarchy that defuses the zombie comparisons. Interestingly, the creature they compare to the most are del Toro's own earlier incarnation of vampires, the mutated Reapers from his Blade 2. In fact, a lot of the ideas within this narrative are a chance for del Toro to revisit and flesh out more of the ideas he had on that movie as well as on his work before being turned down for Blade 3.

"Form an orderly line, ladies.
There's plenty of vampire to go around!"

That element aside, the story is hit or miss in its execution. The books actually start fairly strong, with much of the first book building up the mystery of what happened on the airline and what threat is slowly looming in the shadows.

Probably the biggest problem is in the characterization. Now, many of the characters in this aren't bad. In fact, several of them, while kind of cliched archetypes (an example being Abraham Setrakian, an old man who has been hunting the strigoi in secret for much of his life, dreading the day they made their move) are at least fairly likable in their depictions. Otherwise the only characters where I'd really say the books drop the ball are the head of the CDC (a character who plays out as too much of an archetype to take seriously-the fact it appears he's been completely rewritten for the series is a big plus to me) and the Goodweather family at the center of the story. Where many of the other characters in this are at least entertaining to watch play out their archetypes, Ephraim, his son, and his ex-wife all stick a little too close to type to really give us much reason to care about them as characters. By the time one gets to The Night Eternal, where we're supposed to see Ephraim's character pushed to his limits, rather than feel sympathy, we wind up relating more to his peers who are frustrated by his absolutely inert state. Even the attempts to build his son's character, while conceptually interesting, never really go much of anywhere. Meanwhile, the ex-wife never quite emerges past the cliché of the shrewish ex. The book at least acknowledges she's not entirely wrong for divorcing Ephraim, but it's hard to deny it's pretty firmly on his side in the matter regardless. In the end, the conflict that's supposed to be the heart of this story becomes its weakest plot, and makes much of the third book a slog.

With grievances like that, I suppose some of you are wondering "then why the Hell are you going to be watching the series?" Well, there's a couple of reasons for that. For starters, the promotions so far have been looking promising. If nothing else, they look to be capturing the suspense of the first half of the first book quite well, so I'm looking forward to that. For another, the cast are looking fairly promising as well. In particular, I'm pleasantly surprised by the casting of David Bradley as the aged Setrakian. When it was first announced John Hurt was stepping down from the role, I was disappointed, but it didn't take long for Bradley to convince me he could pull it off. For the number of places he's been turning up in those (for lack of a better term) 'hey, it's that guy!' roles, it's gonna be nice to see him promoted to a main role.

Finally, like I said before, one of the biggest stumbling blocks of this story is in its medium. Yes, the characterization is pretty iffy in some regards, but alongside that, its other big failing is in the writing. I want to clarify that the writing isn't awful. I mean, there are some works out there where the writing alone is legitimately painful. In this case, the writing even starts out pretty well. As a crime writer, Hogan is a good fit for the first section of the books, and when he's playing in the slow burn, he's right in his element. It's when the characters are coming together and the mythology starts getting laid out on the table that his writing starts to hurt. It's still alright, but it doesn't seem to really channel del Toro's zeal for the otherworldly that the more mythos-heavy sections of the story need. As they are, the concepts are interesting, but the delivery is dry.

Knowing this story was first conceived to be a television series, I have a good feeling it will translate better. In particular, the two big stumbling blocks mentioned above have good odds of being avoided. A good director can help build up those elements of mythos more beyond the very matter-of-fact presentation Hogan gives them, helping bring more of the del Toro elements back. Likewise, between different writing and the cast in question, I have hopes the series will be able to improve the characters more, and I might finally find Ephraim a character worth really caring about for a change.

I am also curious to see how a series will handle the events of The Fall and The Night Eternal. For one, the books tend to run a bit fast, so they might try and let those breath a little more. For another, they are very much a game changer (and that's all I'll say) in terms of story which could make an interesting challenge for the show runners.

Suffice it to say, I'm pretty interested in seeing where this goes. The original source has potential, though its execution falls short at times. With a different creative team and different restrictions in terms of time and delivery, this could potentially surpass the original material...I said potentially. Don't go holding that against me if the show doesn't work out. Just calling it as I see it now.

So, alongside the other articles being covered, keep an eye out for these as well. First entry will be going up next week following the airing of the first episode.

In the meantime, got more lined up for the next few days.

Until then

Also, the second book features an ex-luchadore fighting vampires.
I couldn't work this as readily into the review, but it IS a nice selling point.

No comments:

Post a Comment