Posts Tagged ‘Adaptation’

So because I am a crazy lady who cares about her stories and her feminism, I have basically spent the whole week having imaginary internal arguments with Steven Moffat about the sexism in Sherlock and Doctor Who. And because I am also a crazy lady with a blog, I have decided to get all of this angsting off my chest in a cathartic, therapeutic way by having an imaginary interview with Imaginary Steven Moffat right here on the internet, in honour of the forthcoming Sherlock episode.

Thus, I give you: My Imaginary Interview With Imaginary Steven Moffat!

.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, it’s a pleasure to have you on the blog.

ISM: Thank you. Though I feel I should start by apologising.

Me: Oh? Why?

ISM: I’ll be honest. I have no idea who you are. My Imaginary Agent booked this gig at the last minute, so… you have the advantage of me. (Laughs)

Me: (Laughs) Fair enough! Well, in brief: my name is Foz Meadows, I’m a fantasy author, a geek, a blogger and a feminist – and as you’ve been honest enough to start with an apology, I probably should, too.

ISM: And why’s that?

Me: Because – straight to the point – I’ve basically got you here to talk about the concerns of many that there’s a theme of sexism in your work, specifically Sherlock and, to a lesser extent, Doctor Who.

ISM: Look. I’m very tired of these accusations. Neither I nor anyone on the team is either sexist, or a misogynist, and frankly I find the suggestion offensive. As I’ve said before in response to Jane Clare Jones’s piece in the Guardian:

I think it’s one thing to criticise a programme and another thing to invent motives out of amateur psychology for the writer and then accuse him of having those feelings. I think that was beyond the pale and strayed from criticism to a defamation act. I’m certainly not a sexist, a misogynist and it was wrong. 

Me: Right, OK. I understand that. And like I said, I apologise, because you’ve come in here not knowing that this is the topic under discussion, when clearly it’s something you feel very strongly about.

ISM: There’s nothing to discuss. I’m not a sexist. I respect women.

Me: All right. I hear what you’re saying. But as you say, there’s a relevant distinction to be drawn between what a writer believes in real life and the things they write about, and on those grounds, I and a lot of other fans would contend there’s a case to answer.

ISM: This interview is over. I’m leaving.

Me: I’m sorry, Imaginary Steven Moffat, but it’s not, and you’re not, because this is all happening in my head. You’re Imaginary Steven Moffat, not Real Steven Moffat, and while I’m sure he might like to leave at this point, this whole thing is, as they say, my party. One way or another, we’re going to thrash this out.

ISM: Rats.

Me: Right. So, before we get to the meat of things, I’d like to make one thing clear from the outset.

ISM: Go on, then. Clearly I can’t stop you.

Me: Thank you. What I want to begin by saying is – and I’ll understand if you don’t believe me – that contrary to how it might seem, I am actually a fan of Doctor Who and Sherlock.

ISM: (Snorts) You’ve got a funny way of showing it.

Me: I can see how it might appear that way, and I’ve definitely used some strong language to get my point across. But I’m sick of this idea that offering up real criticism of the things I love somehow makes me a bad fan. If I didn’t like your shows, I wouldn’t bother critiquing them, because I wouldn’t bother watching; but that doesn’t mean that all their good points are enough to make me excuse the sexism. A lot of what’s on TV is far worse than anything you’ve put out, but that’s why I avoid it. Certainly, I’ll complain about the damage they do, but not in personal terms, because I have no attachment to the material. But I do care about the Doctor; I do care about Sherlock Holmes. These are both characters who’ve existed long before you ever started to write them, who have dedicated fandoms and histories that precede your work by decades. You were two years old when Doctor Who first aired, and Conan Doyle was writing in the 1800s. That’s a long time for people to become attached to these stories.

ISM: So what you’re saying is that by taking over two existing narratives, I’ve come along and ruined a good thing – that all the previous interpretations are better, and that because my work doesn’t meet your standards, it’s crap.

Me: Not at all. You’re a fantastic writer. You have great ideas, you put together great production teams. A lot of your work I really love. But what I’m saying is, there’s a difference between picking up an existing story and creating something new, because existing stories come with existing audiences.

ISM: So I should just avoid doing anything original with old material?

Me: No, no! It’s not that you shouldn’t try new things – I love that Sherlock is set in the modern day. It’s just – remember what I said earlier, about not critiquing shows I don’t care about?

ISM: Yes.

Me: Well, I’d say that’s true of the majority of people. So when a new, original show rubs us the wrong way, it’s a very easy matter to disengage: we don’t have any investment in the story beyond what we’re willing to put in at the outset. And if you, as a writer – as all writers do – start to build up a portfolio based on your individual kind of storytelling, then as you move from project to project, you’ll start to collect fans whose primary investment in each of your new stories is the fact of your involvement: that you, Imaginary Steven Moffat, are the one in charge. By the same token, though, some people might not like your storytelling style; maybe they’re just ambivalent, or they’ve never heard of you, or they like it, but not enthusiastically enough to consider themselves a fan. Maybe they even hate it. But if you start writing about characters that are dear to them – like Doctor Who, and Sherlock Holmes – then those people will end up watching your shows, too. And unlike your usual fanbase, their primary motive isn’t your involvement, but the presence of existing characters. And this is important, because it means that a significant proportion of the people responding critically to your output will end up critiquing, not just the show itself, but the way you’re telling it. And because the characters aren’t yours, their opinions can’t just be written off by saying the show isn’t for them; because clearly, those characters are for them, or they wouldn’t have bothered watching.

ISM: I don’t think I’ve ever said these shows aren’t for fans of the originals. Quite the opposite.

Me: No, I’m not saying you did. But what I’m ultimately getting at here is that perhaps one reason why the accusation of sexism has upset you so much is that it’s no something you’ve had to deal with from your usual fanbase, and you’re confused as to why people like me, who are being heavily critical, are watching to begin with.

ISM: You do think badly of me, then.

Me: A little bit, yes.

ISM: Hah!

Me: Look, I’m trying to be honest. Nobody’s perfect. I’m not perfect, and I certainly don’t expect you to be. But part of fighting sexism is acknowledging that, precisely because we’re not perfect, our ideals and our actions don’t always match up.

ISM: You’re making it sound like I have lapses; like I suddenly forget that women are equal to men and behave like a Neanderthal. It’s ridiculous. I’m not a sexist; I repudiate sexism; therefore, there is no sexism in my writing.

Me: But that doesn’t logically follow, does it?

ISM: Excuse me?

Me: Well, look at it this way. It it possible to offend someone unintentionally, even when you’re trying to be polite?

ISM: What, you mean like a back-handed compliment?

Me: No, I mean genuinely by accident. Like, say I meet someone at a party whose outfit I think is stunning, and I compliment them on their style by comparing them to a particular celebrity who, unbeknownst to me, they completely loathe.

ISM: Obviously that’s possible, yes.

Me: OK, right, good. So, sticking with that example, what if I know beforehand that the person hates the celebrity, and I still make the comparison?

ISM: That would be deliberately offensive, yes.

Me: Yes, it would – but what if, even knowing what I know, it’s my firm belief that the person’s dislike for the celebrity is unreasonable? That because I’d consider the comparison to be complimentary, they should, too, and that by making the comparison, I’m partially trying to bring them around to my way of thinking?

ISM: Still offensive, but in a different way. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse, though.

Me: Of course. It’s a more contextual point. But can we agree that, even though I’ve paid the compliment knowing it will be badly received, to my way of thinking, I’ve not actually said anything offensive? That because I wouldn’t be offended if someone said that to me, I haven’t set out to be insulting, and that if the person is insulted, then that’s down to their beliefs more than it is my actions?

ISM: Technically, yes, I agree. Though you shouldn’t be surprised if they still react badly to it.

Me: Of course not. But compare all this to what you’ve just said about sexism. Intentions only carry us so far. Believing that you’re not sexist doesn’t prevent you from perpetuating sexism any more than intending to be complimentary prevents me from being insulting. And when you react to the knowledge that some people find your work sexist, not by considering the possibility that it is, but by continuing to assert that we’re wrong to see it that way – by saying something you know we’ll find it offensive – then, as you say, you shouldn’t be surprised that we react badly.

ISM: Yes, all right, very clever. But this is all metaphorical; you haven’t actually addressed the content of what I’ve written.

Me: OK, then. Consider Irene Adler. In the original Conan Doyle story, A Scandal in Bohemia, she beats Sherlock Holmes at his own game, marries her fiancé and leaves England victorious, while he is left – according to Watson – with a new-found respect for the intellectual capabilities of women. There’s also an inference that he’s attracted to her, because the only payment he takes for the case is her photo: at the very least, he certainly admires her.

ISM: And Sherlock admires her in my version, too. He definitely respects her.

Me: Yes, but he also beats her; she “beats” him with a riding crop – which is a nice play on words, I grant you – but he’s the one who actually wins. And then at the end, you’ve literally made her a damsel in distress, rescued from execution by terrorists in Karachi.

ISM: Look, I’m sorry, but it seems like a pretty poor definition of sexism to say that men can never beat women. Following that logic, any story where women don’t come out on top is sexist.

Me: No, that’s not what I’m saying. If you were writing an original story where your male protagonist triumphed over and subsequently rescued a female antagonist whom he nonetheless respected, that would be one thing. But when you take an existing, much-beloved story where the female antagonist not only wins, but is vaunted by the male protagonist for doing so – where this is, in fact, the primary basis for his admiring her – and change it so that things end up the other way around, then yes, I’m going to call that sexist.

ISM: (Angry) So you’re saying I wrote Adler the way I did because I’m a sexist? That wanting to write a fresh interpretation had nothing to do with it, and all I really wanted to do was put her down as a character?

Me: (Frustrated) No! What I’m saying is that you elected to make Sherlock look really badass by having him first defeat and then rescue an intelligent Irene Adler, but without appreciating the fact that making male characters stronger at the expense of their female counterparts is one of the oldest, most sexist tropes in the book. Using the trope unconsciously doesn’t make you a sexist: but it doesn’t strop the trope from being sexist, and if you refuse to acknowledge that some narrative conventions are founded on sexism, then you will invariably include sexism in your work.

ISM: So men being cooler than women is sexist?

Me: No, not just being cooler than. Being cooler at the expense of. Can you see that there’s a distinction?

ISM: (Pauses) Hypothetically, yes, but I don’t see how that applies in the case of Adler.

Me: Sherlock is made to look cool and competent because Adler’s feelings for him prove her undoing. That’s coolness for him at her expense: she loses her professionalism – the phone being “Sherlocked” – while he gains credibility for spotting the error. Then she has to beg him for protection: she loses her dignity so that he, in refusing her, can gain mastery. Finally, she loses her competence – the ability to get herself out of trouble – while he gains power for rescuing her.

ISM: But now we’re just back again to this tired idea of sexism meaning any story where women lose to men.

Me: No, we’re not. Because as an existing character being reinterpreted, Adler is quite literally loosing her essence. In Conan Doyle’s original, she has professionalism, dignity and power, and the story ends with her in possession of all three. But in your version, Sherlock strips these qualities from her to enhance himself, and for no other reason than that you wrote him that way.

ISM: (Uncomfortable) All right. I can see how people might be… I can see why some people might not like that ending, though I know a lot of them have. But the story is about Sherlock, after all – it’s his show, it’s his party. Why shouldn’t he be the best character?

Me: Imaginary Mr Moffat, if you think that losing once to an exceptional woman is enough to stop Sherlock Holmes from being the best character in his own show, then we really do have a problem.

ISM: (Silence)

Me: The fact is, you have a habit of depowering your female characters to make your male protagonists look stronger. That doesn’t mean your women are badly written, or that your male characters are sexist, or that you are. It means that, somewhere along the line, you’ve unconsciously absorbed two very old and very powerful narrative ideas: that a protagonist who routinely proves himself better than the other characters is a strong protagonist; and that an exceptional man can be made even cooler by his rescue of an exceptional woman. And because we live in a society that’s still overrun with sexism, you’ve also taken on board the idea that it’s acceptable to make jokes about women’s bodies.

ISM: I think you’re going too far, now. I’ve conceded the point about Irene Adler, but now you’re grasping at straws. Where did all this appearance stuff come into it?

Me: Molly Hooper. Sherlock is constantly criticising her make-up, her clothes, her appearance, her sexuality. Twice, he makes her cry. He even criticizes her weight, making it a negative thing that being with her new boyfriend has caused her to get heavier, when in Conan Doyle’s books, that same exchange was a friendly one between Holmes and Watson, with the weight-gain being part of a cheerful, positive assessment of how marriage agreed with John. In Doctor Who, too, when Mels regenerates into River, the first thing she does is start talking about her body, what clothes will fit and how she needs to weigh herself. For an entire season, Amy is reduced to being a womb in a box – the Doctor even destroys the ‘ganger that took her place, because she’s not “real”, even though he’d just spent the whole episode telling people that ‘gangers deserved human rights – and then later, you let Old Amy die in favour of saving her younger counterpart, even though Old Amy has been suffering for forty years. In both cases, a copy of Amy dies because her body is wrong – she’s not the real, young Amy, and so she can cease to exist with impunity.

ISM: This is a separate point, though, to the one you were making before.

Me: Separate, but related to why critics think there are sexist themes running through both interpretations.

ISM: I don’t see it. You’re taking all these scenes out of context. This isn’t about plot, and it’s not about changing an existing character. Molly, Amy and River are my creations. You’ve gone completely off-message.

Me: OK, I’ll admit to having jumped around a bit. My apologies for that. But I’d like to run with another hypothetical.

ISM: Do I have a choice?

Me: Not really.

ISM: (Muttering) My Imaginary Agent is so fired, I can’t even.

Me: Right. So imagine I’m the writer and creator of a TV show called The Last Amazon – it’s about Hippolyte, the Amazon Queen from Greek legend, being an immortal, kickass warrior who’s lived through to the present day and has now teamed up with a team of geeky sidekicks to fight the forces of mythological darkness.

ISM: If you say so.

Me: Now, this is mostly an SFF show, but with mystery elements. Sure, there’ll be flashes of romance and sexual tension from time to time, but mainly it’s about magic mixing with technology, solving crimes and having crazy adventures.

ISM: Right.

Me: Apart from Hippolyte, most of the geeky sidekicks are women. There’s one or two men involved, but in almost every encounter with the female characters, they either suffer hilarious put downs or are told to shut up. One of them has a massive crush on Hippolyte, but she’s a kickass Amazon warrior – she either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and makes hurtful jokes at his expense, which is played for laughs. The female camaraderie is the real emotional heart of the show: ladies looking out for each other, being awesome, and only really dealing with men on the sidelines. In fact, men are mostly encountered as victims: handsome surfer youths who’ve been drowned by Sirens, loving fathers who’ve been ripped apart by Harpies, little boys who’ve been kidnapped by Neriads, wise old men who are callously killed by the descendants of Circe. Sometimes women die, too, but those deaths are always more perfunctory, less brutal and less emotionally intense than those of men. Most killers are, by contrast, women: goddesses and girl-monsters all, and there’s a general sense that, by taking them on, the female protagonists are fighting the worst aspects of their own gender: protecting the less powerful men from the predations of cruel, murderous women.

ISM: Very subtle.

Me: And yet, the reverse dynamic is the sacred foundation of almost every crime procedural, ever. Except for the put-downs part. That’s just for your benefit.

ISM: Touché.

Me: Anyway. You’re watching this show because hey, Greek mythology is awesome! And you really start to get into it. But then you notice the fact that the women are always putting down the men. You notice that, while the female costumes are cut concealingly, to make them look well-dressed and competent, the pretty young men are always shown shirtless or wearing revealing clothes – and that’s offputting, because it’s ultimately unnecessary. You notice that the men, though clearly doing important work in the background, are never given due appreciation by the other characters. You notice that time and again, they’re the ones imperilled and threatened; they’re the weak link the villains always seek to exploit. You notice that the men are always ruled by their emotions, falling in love with the women at first sight, their romantic epiphanies made grandiose while the women are allowed to remain aloof. You notice that the women often make jokes about how the men look – about their weight, and their hair, and their attractiveness, their probable penis size and how good they are in bed; sometimes they’re even shown to call their male partners the wrong name, which is played for laughs. You notice that, given a bunch of new characters to protect in a perilous situation, it’s always the men who end up dying for dramatic effect. You notice that, while the female characters are given room to develop in lots of different ways, the men are primarily defined by their sexuality: as lovers, adulterers, boyfriends, husbands and fathers, but rarely anything else. And when Hercules, Hippolyte’s historical love interest, shows up on the scene, you’re dismayed to find that, far from being the competent warrior who won her love and then left her, as per the old story, he instead shows up as a high-class escort – one who claims to be gay, but then falls for Hippolyte anyway – while she then humiliates and rescues him in short order.

ISM: Like I said. Subtle. And long-winded.

Me: I’ll get to the point, then. Having watched The Last Amazon, you, as a male viewer, start to feel that I, the female creator, might be a bit of a misandrist. Certainly, there are elements of misandry in my characterisation, or of sexism at the very least. You cannot find any male characters who come out on top, and while you still appreciate that this is meant to be Hippolyte’s show, you don’t see why there can’t be more of a balance where the portrayal of men is concerned. You’re not the only one to have noticed the problems, either. You write about them, detailing your complaints in blogs and newspaper articles. And then I respond, because I’m angry at your criticism. I say that I’m not a sexist; that I find it offensive that anyone would use the word misandry to describe what I do, because obviously I believe women and men are equal – and after all, I’m married! I say your claim is ridiculous, and don’t address your specific concerns beyond saying that you’re out of line. I am not a sexist, I protest; therefore, my show isn’t sexist. End of discussion. So how would that leave you feeling?

ISM: I’d be angry. Frustrated. At the very least, I’d start to think that, if you really disliked sexism, then you’d want to make very sure that you weren’t perpetuating it by accident, rather than just assuming it was impossible. That you were reacting defensively, automatically, without any sort of self-assessment at all. The unfairness of it would nag at me until one day, having had various arguments with you in my head about what you were doing wrong, I realised that we’d never be able to have a proper conversation, and so decided to write down an interview with Imaginary Foz Meadows about all the misandry and sexism in The Last Amazon. Because even an imaginary dialogue would be better than your angry, non-response to the legitimate complaints of fans who are sick of seeing their gender slighted and demonised in the media.

Me: And?

ISM: Oh.

Me: Imaginary Steven Moffat, thanks for joining me.

ISM: It’s been a pleasure.

Advertisements

Recently, several writers I respect have been blogging about backstory, exposition and simplicity. The first of those posts, by Patrick O’Duffy, got me thinking about what backstory really means. Heading into a novel, it’s quite usual for me to have dedicated reams of wordage to figuring out who my characters are, what they’re like, what major events (if any) have defined them, how they relate to everyone else in the story, and where they might end up. Depending on the narrative, anything from all to none of this information might prove to be plot-critical; even so, there’s a decent chance that a reasonable portion of it will get used. Once upon a time, I’d have been happy calling that backstory, but having read O’Duffy’s piece, the term no longer feels applicable. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t seem to apply in quite the same way. As a word, backstory is suggestive of information that has already been superseded by the coming narrative –  the sort of character-blurb you might write into an obliging box on a D&D character sheet in the sure and certain knowledge that anything you say, no matter how personally relevant, will have no bearing whatsoever on the coming adventure. At least, that’s my memory of high school level RPGing, anyway; whatever personality I gave my character would be as detached from the main narrative as if I’d bothered to try and impose a fictitious history on my avatar in Neverwinter Nights. In such gaming scenarios, the importance of backstory is reduced to a fairly binary set of good/evil questions designed to shape your personal morality, such as: will my character kick this puppy? Should I steal the gold from the old lady, or give her more to buy medicine? Will I help the druids defend the trees, or shall I fight their preachy asses? (Note: I am probably the only person in the entire world who helps the druids at that point. Some NPCs just ask to be eaten by bears.)

But writing a novel, it seems to me, is a markedly different endeavour. If the story is analogous to the gaming campaign, then the characters – and their histories – have ceased to be detached from the main quest arc: there are no more NPCs, because every character is a potential party member. RPG campaigns constrain the narrative in that certain characters exist only to help the protagonists forward. The helpful tavern wench cannot suddenly join the quest, no matter how resourceful, brave and clever her backstory might prove her to be. But then, why would you give an NPC backstory beyond what’s necessary to explain the aid they give the protagonist? The answer highlights a significant, crucial difference between pantsers and plotters, viz: for pantsers, the wench can always join the party. Backstory grows organically, so that any random secondary character might suddenly leap into the limelight and refuse to leave without being granted six soliloquies and a curtain call. For plotters, however, such things are fixed from the outset: the relevant leads have already been chosen, and the wench is not among them. Which might go a long way towards explaining why some plotter-writers are leery of backstory – any details they include must, of necessity, be plot-relevant; and if it’s plot-relevant, then it’s not backstory, which instead becomes a label for all the information that had no place in the main narrative. In this context, therefore, suggesting that writers should keep backstory out of their writing doesn’t mean their characters shouldn’t have history; only that said history should be relevant.

But for some of us, to paraphrase Faith from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there is no such animal as irrelevant history. Pantser or plotter, if you’re in it for the characters, then the nitty-gritty of their lives – past or present, regardless of the degree of plot-importance – will always be meaningful. Which is where we come to Chuck Wendig’s post on exposition, because this is not, contrary to how it might appear, an excuse to dump any old crap about the protagonist into the story and call it plot-critical. Exposition is a question of structure, not content: if you’re going to flesh out your characters, then it shouldn’t be at the expense of readability. Relevant to the plot and relevant to the character aren’t mutually exclusive conditionals – in fact, they ought to overlap. But if we were to render the story as a Venn diagram, it shouldn’t be mandatory for the two circles to appear as one: there’s plenty of room for play. As Aliette de Bodard’s piece on simplicity points out, economical stories aren’t necessarily better than expansive ones; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for sprawl.

A slight aside, at this point: the other day, I was mulling over the sameness of mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically: why is the stereotypical Five Man Band so ubiquitous, and why do so many movies keep failing the Bechdel Test? Trying to tease out the cause of the problem – using, as my case study, the appalling Captain America – it suddenly struck me that backstory might be the missing element, with narrative oversimplification a major contributing factor. Consider the following premise: that Hollywood films will usually focus on the exploits of a single protagonist, with any secondary characters set to orbit the lead like satellites. Because of the time constraints inherent to cinema as a medium, this creates a strong impetus to make every interaction count, and if the story is meant to focus on the protagonist, then the natural default, script-wise, is to ensure that the vast majority of conversations are held either with or about the lead. If, as is so often the case, the protagonist is male, this sets the film up for near-guaranteed failure of the Bechdel test, for the simple reason that the secondary characters – regardless of gender – aren’t allowed to have superfluous conversations. This also means that the secondary characters don’t matter in and of themselves. It’s the difference between writing about a hero and his gang, and writing an ensemble cast: the two stories might have the same number of characters in identical roles, but the distinction is one of emphasis. A Five Man Band is there to support a single leader, whose personal struggles dominate the narrative – but in an ensemble, everyone matters equally.

Hollywood is not good at ensembles.

This is particularly evident when existing stories are adapted to the big screen. It’s generally assumed that any adaptation must, of necessity, pare back the secondary character development in order to allow a sharper focus on the Main Plot. Though done in the name of time-sensitivity, what this actually means is that, far too often, all the nuance which attracted people to the story in the first place – the worldbuilding, the detail and the cast as a whole – gets butchered in translation. Audiences react badly to such treatment because they can see what’s missing: there are holes where better characterisation (among other things) should be. But here’s the kicker – this is just as true of original feature films. All scripts go through multiple drafts, and if you assume that relevant information isn’t being lost in those cuts, I’d invite you to think again. Right now, the Hollywood default is to pick a protagonist, deny them backstory, throw them into an adventure with a bunch of NPC Pokemon sans the evolutionary moonstone, and hope that events are strong enough to carry them forwards. This is what happens when we demand utility from every conversation while simultaneously acting under time constraints and  focusing exclusively on immediate, rather than past, events; and it is not my favourite thing.

Which is why, to return to the earlier point, worldbuilding and backstory are two of the qualities I look for most in a narrative. Stories without sprawl, while nonetheless capable of being utterly awesome, tend to feel like closed ecosystems. Combine Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters with The Law of Conservation of Detail, add a dash of Chekhov’s Gun, and you can start to see what I mean. Such stories aren’t predictable, per se – though this is can definitely be a problem – but are rather defined by absolute catharsis. They’re murder mysteries without the red herrings, worlds where you can’t go off-mission and explore the map, meals without any delicious leftovers to be used for future cookery and consumption. Speaking of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett has said that he created the city of Ankh-Morpork as somewhere that would keep going once the book is closed; the sort of place where the characters have lives to be getting on with even after the story ends. The Discworld might well exist on the back of four elephants stuck to a giant turtle flying through space, but it feels real, because its many stories, inhabitants and cities are – just like our own world – awash in irrelevant detail. To wankily quote myself, I’ve said before that:

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right… Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

It’s a view I stand by, and something I think it’s important to remember. More and more often, it feels like arguments about writing in the SFF community – such as the recent Mary Sue debate, for instance – hinge on a fundamental failure to distinguish between bad writing and narrative tropes and decisions exacerbated by bad writing, as though the inclusion of specific ideas, character traits or story-forms  is the real problem, and not, as might actually be the case, the quality of their execution. Point being, I think we’ve started to become a bit too deeply invested in streamlined narratives. We talk about trimming the dead weight from stories the same way one might imagine some shark-smiled management consultant talking about axing the creative department over budgetary concerns; as though the story is a high-profile office in which can be found no room for cheerful, eccentric sentences who wear colourful shirts on Friday and eat all the biscuits at meetings. Stories without foible, indulgence or quirk, but where everything must arrive at 9am sharp in a business suit with a briefcase. In fact, it strikes me as telling that much of the language we use to discuss the improvement of books is simultaneously fat-phobic, sports-centric and corporate. Bad books are flabby, soft and bloated; good books are lean, raw and hard-hitting. Or maybe I’m just projecting.

In my own writing, I tend to sit somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter continuum, which isn’t particularly unusual. Though I almost always start with a single protagonist as a narrative focal point, my casts invariably grow in the worldbuilding process, and while I do write out copious backstory for my original characters, I’m still frequently surprised when bit-players queen themselves, or when planned protagonists turn out to be happy in the background. I chart my main plot points and narrative arc, but leave everything else to chance – often with unexpected results. Some writers are far more rigid; others are far more lax. But if this blog had a point, it was the realisation that the reason my stories tend to end up with so many main characters is because I inevitably become involved with their backstories. As has been pointed out by innumerable people, every character is the hero of their own adventure – and as I’m now nearly 40,000 words into a new novel, jumping between POVs while wrangling multiple events, this felt like a good time to stop and discuss what that actually means. Thanks to O’Duffy, I’ve come away with a much stronger concept of what backstory is – to me, to others and in general. Thanks to Wendig, I’ve got a sharper idea of how to apply it without turning my story into a swamp of boring detail. And thanks to Bodard, I’ve realised the importance of sprawl – not just in the worlds I already love, but in the creation of my own.

This last weekend, I went to see Airbender in 3D.

I enjoyed it.

This puts me in a minority.

As a fan of M. Night Shyamalan films, I’m used to being a minority defender of his work. And before you ask, no, I haven’t yet seen the cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender on which this latest film is based, although I am deeply interested in doing so.

Whether or not you like the way Shyamalan constructs his scripts and tells his stories is, right now, a secondary question. Having blogged about his style before, I’ll just add this: he’s not a twist/thriller storyteller, and never has been. No matter how his films are marketed, Shyamalan writes speculative fiction – has always written speculative fiction – and not assessing or even identifying his films as such does them a great disservice. Yes, he sometimes ends up with stilted dialogue, but that’s a small price to pay for characterisation that isn’t conveyed exclusively through the usual methods of American schmaltz, and while his films aren’t traditional three-act narratives, that’s not because they’ve tried to be and failed. Shyamalan is doing something different with Hollywood cinema, and for all people seem to keep missing the point, it’s something I enjoy.

But when it comes to Airbender, there’s another, more important issue to be considered: race.

Let me be clear from the outset: I don’t think turning black characters white is a good idea. Undeniably, racism is part of the Hollywood machine, and it’s something I’d rather change than encourage. For instance: 300 annoyed the everloving shit out of me, because it was basically a film about evil, decadent, heathen Persians being taken down by a bunch of proto-Westerners. Possibly I was occupying the wrong corner of the internets back in 2006, but I don’t remember there being a hell of a lot of controvery over that fact. Instead, everyone was cheering about how faithful an interpretation of the graphic novel it was, and how cool the slow-mo blood looked. Sorry? A racist adaptation of a racist story is still racist. Being faithfully racist is not a state of moral or narrative superiority. And when I say racist, I don’t mean at the very simplistic level of Good White Guys Fighting Bad Brown Guys, which – while relevant to casting, equal opportunities and latent perceptions of race – pays no attention to actual character development, morality and behaviour. No: I mean Xerxes was dripping with gold, acting like God and sitting in a tent with burned, mutilated women who writhed about him like demon succubi, his wars fought by hoardes of unnamed, frequently burned men and his ambush laid with the help of a hunchback whose physical imperfection was stated to be the sole reason for his traitorousness.

Or, another example: the Southron hordes allied with Sauron in Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, all of whom are both evil and black. Tolkien might’ve written it that way, and we might be willing to take his own society and upbringing into account when criticising his reasons for doing so, but as with Zac Snyder’s 300, Peter Jackson escaped major criticism – why? Because it was a faithful adaptation. Never mind that the Southron are such minor characters that he could easily have cast them as white or a mix of races without drawing ire from the even the hardcore, everything-must-be-perfect crowd, especially as doing so would be in service to addressing a racist narrative function. Was anyone furious at the number of Uruk-Hai being played by people of colour, either? Evidently not.

And then, of course, we have Avatar. Now: I won’t claim to be the world’s most observant person, especially not when my higher brain functions are being distracted by pretty 3D vistas with dragons in them. It took my husband’s comments outside the cinema for me to realise that yes, all the Na’vi had been played by people of colour, a decision that doesn’t seem unrelated to James Cameron’s desire that their whole race look “exotic“. In terms of narrative, Avatar is basically Disney’s Pocahontas in space – there was some nifty worldbuilding and gorgeous scenery, but the script and characterisation were nothing special. When it comes to the racefail issues of Na’vi casting, however, I don’t recall that anyone was calling for a boycott of the film the way some people are doing with Airbender – possibly because, given Avatar’s massive popularity, it would have been a futile gesture, but also, I suspect, because even while people were offended by the recreation of Noble Savages on a different planet, the insult was seen to be softened by the fact that Privileged White People were still the villains.

A slight segue: does anyone remember the episode of South Park where everyone gets up in arms over whether or not their town flag is racist? The moral of which, to quote neatly from the Wikipedia summary, is that sometimes “perceiving things according to race leads only to further racism“?

Yeah. About that.

Cinema is a visual medium. I want to see actors of all nationalities in my films, and I don’t just want to see them typecast because of their nationalities, either. A surprising recent example of such diversity is, arguably, the first Twilight film, wherein various characters whose race was never mentioned in the series were played by non-white actors. That is a positive trend, and one I want to encourage. But in a recent interview, Airbender star Dev Patel lamented the lack of meaty roles for Asian actors, saying he was “likely to be offered the roles of a terrorist, cab driver and smart geek.” Looked at from this perspective, it is notable that his character in Airbender constitutes the most interesting and well-developed role in the film, driven by the most compelling narrative arc – far more so than the supposed protagonist, Aang, and his offsiders. Shyamalan has said as much in defending the film, and while that defence has been roundly mocked as glib in some quarters, having actually seen the film, it certainly holds up.

Which brings me back to the racefail debates surrounding Avatar and Airbender, and the weird double-standard that seems to have crept into their respective criticisms. James Cameron, who is white, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by white actors, except for one who switches sides and fights with the overwhelmingly POC heroes. M. Night Shyamalan, who is Asian, has written, directed and produced a fantasy film where the majority of the villains are played by Asian actors, except for two who switch sides and fight with the mainly white heroes. Nobody has ever suggested that Cameron might be a self-hating white man, and yet that seems to be the implication when criticising Shyamalan. Neither does anyone appear to be interested in the fact that, by reducing both films to the level of Coloured People Versus White People (note the helpful capitalisation, blogsphere!), actors of colour ended up damned regardless of whether they’re playing heroes or villains. The Na’vi are Noble Savage Heroes, which is denigrating to people of colour. The Fire Nation are Devious Warlike Villains, which is denigrating to people of colour.

I’m not saying it’s impossible or irrational to take offence in either instance. Looked at from that perspective, both films are suggestive of Noble Savages and Warlike Villains still being the dominant dichotomy of race in Hollywood cinema. We need to get past those options, and fast.

But! Remember Dev Patel and his request that Asian actors be given meatier roles? Can we all agree that sometimes, meaty roles are straight-up villainous roles, a la Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men? Writing strong parts for people of colour is not the same as always making them the good guys. Neytiri is a thinner character by far than Prince Zuko: for actors looking to expand their skills, being on the side of righteousness doesn’t matter. Compared to the uniformly despicable Persians of 300 or the evil, barbaric Southron of The Return of the King, the Fire Nation of Shyamalan’s Airbender is awash with diversity – not in terms of casting, but in terms of range; much more so, in fact, than are the Na’vi of Cameron’s Avatar, all of whom are somewhat idealised, empty and two-dimensional.

But then, of course, we have the additional charge of whitewashing to lay at Shyamalan’s feet. Why? Because Katara and Sokka, whose characters in the Airbender cartoon are depicted as having blue eyes, brown hair and brown skin, are played by Caucasian actors with blue eyes, brown hair and white skin. Not having seen the original cartoon, I’m not in a position to gauge how representative these characteristics are of the Water Nation as a fictional race; neither am I going to try and pass judgement about which of these features – eyes, hair or skin tone – is most important when casting a real, live actor in place of their animated equivalents. Understandably, it remains the most contentious aspect of Airbender. But in a debate which has ostensibly been about the failure of Hollywood to treat race with respect, I find it ironic that it’s M. Night Shyamalan – and not James Cameron – who’s ended up copping the most abuse.

Bottom line: I don’t appreciate detailed narratives being reduced to simple forms purely so their detractors can pretend they lacked complexity in the first place. Whatever its failings, Airbender deserves a better critical reception than trial by media.

My husband and I went to see The Sorcerer’s Apprentice yesterday afternoon. On the basis of the trailers, it looked like it might be decent fun, if not exactly a life-altering future classic. And, for the most part, it was fun: Jay Baruchel and Nicholas Cage had a decent on-screen repartee, there were some genuine laughs, the magic looked beautiful, and if Baruchel was convincing as a hopeless-but-really-not physics nerd, then Cage, with his dishevelled wizard-hair and giant leather coat, was unexpectedly, well, hot. (Doubtless that’s a minority view, but I’m sticking to it.)

That being said, and even taking into account my low expectations, it was a film that niggled. The opening voiceover scene, wherein the entire backstory is explained in such detail as to moot all later reveals, was both cheesy and redundant. None of the female characters had any character development or personality whatsoever, their sole purpose apparently being to serve as narrative justification for certain actions of the male protagonists. Disney films, for all their faults, usually manage to pass the Bechdel Test – but not The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And then there was the Merlin issue – a personal bugbear which never fails to set my teeth on edge.

In the opening spiel, we learn that Merlin, greatest of all wizards, had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicholas Cage), Victoria (his love interest, who gets two lines at the end of the film) and Horvath (the villain), to whom he taught his secrets. Their enemy was Morgana, aka Morgan le Fay, who wanted to cast the Rising, a terrible spell that would raise an army of undead sorcerers and allow her to conquer the world. Horvath, of course, betrayed the Good Guys, during the course of which Merlin was killed and Morgana imprisoned. As his master lay dying, Balthazar was charged with finding – wait for it – the Prime Merlinian, a powerful sorcerer who would one day defeat Morgana, and who Balthazar could identify through his affinity with Merlin’s magic ring. Ignoring the fact that this massive infodump occurs in the first five minutes, I am so sick of lazy writers namedropping Merlin as a means of stealing narrative legitimacy. Merlin has his own awesome, complicated mythos: either adapt it intelligently – which isn’t that hard! – or go out on a limb and do something else. Similarly, while Morgan le Fay doesn’t come off well in the Arthurian legends, she was still a complex, powerful character. Using her name to avoid the necessity of actual characterisation is a cop-out: if your ultimate villain only appears at the very end to deliver a handful of Stereotypical Bad Guy Threats, the least you could do is build up some sort of motive for her character in the interim, as opposed to letting everything rest on She Is Morgana And Therefore Evil.

Also, the lack of coherent worldbuilding? So irksome. Note to Hollywood scriptwriters: if you’re going to have two immortal wizards kicking around for thousands of years in opposition to one another, they are probably going to train some acolytes! Because this is what wizards do. I refuse to believe that Balthazar’s quest to find the Prime Merlinian prevented him from training a single Goddam ally, especially as Horvath and the Morganans have been proliferating for the same length of time. And riddle me this: if all wizards except the Prime Merlinian are unable to use their powers without the aid of a magic ring, then who made the rings in the first place? Violating casaul logic is not, generally speaking, considered to be a helpful narrative attribute. But then again, during the big climax scene, wherein dead Morganan sorcerers are raised from their graves all over the world, you were stupid enough to show a couple coming out of the damn pyramids – that is to say, buildings which predated both Morgana and the Arthurian myths by thousands of years. So clearly, chronological integrity wasn’t high on the list of must-haves.

Other minor points: that trope about magic coming from the other, unused ten percent of our brains was old in the 90s and is now in danger of becoming an antique. Find another explanation. The thing with the Tesla coils was new, but still lame. And please, for the love of God, do not make the love interest’s sole basis of attraction the fact that she’s pretty and blonde – some species of personality would be appreciated!

Ultimately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was never going to be a spectacular movie. The fact that I still managed to get any enjoyment out of it was testament to the fact that quirky nerd heroes as played by the likes of Shia LaBouf, Justin Long, Michael Cera and now Jay Baruchel, while fast becoming a new stereotype, are still fun to watch on screen. And the magical effects really were lovely to look at. But with the Pixar team and studios now a part of their empire, regular Disney needs to lift its scriptwriting game. Audiences for young adult films, regardless of their age, have been taught to expect more. Either put up, or shut up.

After Hollywood rediscovered the trilogy, with recent franchises like The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, X-Men and Spiderman all proving that in the absence of a pre-planned, overarching narrative, big studios can be counted on to ruin at least one instalment, what was left to do? Answer: the quadrilogy, a word invented, or so it seems, exclusively to market the Alien series boxed DVD set. But rather than plan a four-film epic, the Powers That Be have stumbled on the idea of renewing older, already-proven stories, leading to the creation of Die Hard 4.0, Rambo 4, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and – according to today’s mediaBeverly Hills Cop 4.

This is interesting on several levels, not in the least because Bruce Willis (53), Sylvester Stallone (62), Harrison Ford (66) and Eddie Murphy (47) are all reprising roles they first played in their twenties and thirties, although only Karen Allen (57) gets to play the same love interest. Narratively, there’s a strong appeal to these films that echoes our real-life sentiments: the image of the tough, rugged veteran slugging out one last battle is a powerful archetype, especially when balanced against the young, awed sidekick (Indiana Jones’s Shia LaBouf and Die Hard’s Justin Long). Having already accompanied the hero on similar missions, the audience is able to grin knowingly at his chutzpah, an immersive nostalgia quite unattainable in stand-alone flicks and therefore a new part of the film experience.

But why is it happening now? Unlike the traditional trilogy format, this ‘wait twenty years and go again’ approach seems a unique development. The only comparable format is James Bond, but Bond himself has been the same age for most of the twentieth century. Whether the trend arose from opportunity, need or inspiration remains to be seen, but given its obvious success, it seems likely that future films might follow the same course. Depending on Robert Ludlum, 2030 could see the return of Jason Bourne; Christian Bale might play an ageing Batman, as per the comics, or Hugh Jackman a grizzled Wolverine; even Johnny Depp might return as an older, drunker, wilier Captain Sparrow.

Until then, however, audiences are left wondering where Hollywood will turn next. Narnia was meant to sustain Disney for another decade, but unless The Voyage of the Dawntreader compensates spectacularly for Prince Caspian, the idea of an ongoing septrilogy might have to wait. Still, with Guillermo del Toro’s The Hobbit set to follow Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, book adaptations may remain a staple of blockbusters to come. The fact of Eragon’s dismal performance is no insurance against a possible Eldest and Brisingr, nor are other fantasy-trilogy adaptaions beyond the pale; indeed, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will form two separate films in order not to miss anything out, thus rounding out the movie versions to eight. Comics-based movies have also raked in a substantial heap of moolah, and until that well runs dry, the likelihood is that they’ll continue to do so, too. 

All of which promises that for as long as Hollywood can keep borrowing, adapting and otherwise big-screening existant literature, there’s no need to fret about where our films are coming from – even if some new series might not end for another thirty years.