Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Mr. Spock's Beard and the Hyper-Fragmentation of Pop Culture

Over the years I have time and again been struck by how single episodes of shows like the original Star Trek or The Twilight Zone have lingered in the pop cultural memory so that a half century on TV writers can still make casual reference to even their smaller details, and expect a portion of their audience to remember what they were talking about to make the reference worth the while--as with Star Trek's "Mirror, Mirror."

That was the show that taught us all that if we see someone we knew well wearing a beard, it must be the evil alternate universe version of them. (Unless the one we know is evil, in which case the "evil" version of them is actually the good, like with Eric Cartman on South Park.)

That this has been the case seems natural enough in hindsight. People had fewer channels, enough so that anything in network prime-time almost automatically commanded a huge slice of the TV audience by today's standards. For much of the year a first-run show's new season consisted of reruns, just in case they missed it the first time--or refreshing their memories if they hadn't. And then if a show lasted for a while it made its way into syndication and, quite often, way more reruns apt to be watched by a significant share of the viewership, because there were only so many venues, picking from a limited pool of really successful content. And this seems to have especially been the case with fandom-inspiring genre television, to which the TV networks were only willing to go so far in catering, so that their options were limited indeed. So without trying someone only casually interested in science fiction could easily end up seeing the same episodes over and over and over again, just by the way memorizing the more striking or popular of them, with others doing the same, so that casually referencing it before a wide audience was plausible, even easy. That, of course meant more such reference, year in, year out (as the "bearded Spock" becoming a cliché demonstrates), which in turn reinforced its recognizability, translating in its turn to still more reference in a virtuous circle.

In this "peak TV" era the situation is very, very different, with the quantity of outlets and the quantity of their programming exploded, and many of them less casually available (with the prime-time networks' marginalization followed by the basic cable TV boom going bust), or casually accessible to viewers even if they are available to them (because of the increased propensity for story arcs, because of shared universe complexity like with the Arrowverse Crisis on Infinite Earths); with the networks inclined to yank reruns off the air in summer in favor of reality TV garbage and the like; with channels favoring their original, exclusive content over reruns of other people's stuff as the mainstay of their content. (To give one small example I saw Smallville in reruns on TNT, but the current crop of DC Comics-based superhero shows airing on the CW does not turn up there or anywhere else; it's something you have to seek out, or not watch at all--and I'll admit I haven't, and don't expect to be doing it anytime soon.)

The result is the ever-more thorough hyper-fragmentation of the viewing audience--and, I think, even if you are sure that TV today is better than it has ever been before, that even the best that is out there today is far less likely to give us a shared frame of reference. Certainly I do not think any show today, no matter how brilliant, will give us something that a half century on we will recognize as the way we do such bits of those '60s-era shows as the evil alternate universe significance of a beard. And I can't help suspecting that, even if there is much good, or at least potential good, in the profusion of material and options, we are not also losing something that way.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Problem with Grand Admiral Thrawn

Researching the second edition of Star Wars in Context I found myself delving into some of Lucas' well-known inspirations--like Bruno Bettelheim, and specifically his writing on fairy tales in The Uses of Enchantment. That book, which I suspect is not much read these days (Bettelheim has long since fallen from grace), seems to have profoundly oriented Lucas to the vision he followed in the first film--setting aside the relatively complex and political story of the early scripts in favor of a simpler, more fairy tale-like film.

As explained by Bettelheim, fairy tales are stories dealing with existential, life-and-death matters in a simple form that makes them accessible to children. Part of this is that the good are all good, the bad all bad; and precisely because the young are young, still forming a morality, and so less responsive to good and bad on their own terms than other attractions or repulsions, it matters that the bad are made unattractive, the good more so. (Thus the evil witch is also ugly.)

Darth Vader seems to me exemplary of this. Certainly in the first film there is no ambiguity about the character. This is not to say that Vader wholly lacks traits people could admire. He is perceptive, quick, cunning, determined, whether in handling subordinates, carrying out a raid, conducting himself in a fight, flying a TIE fighter. One can call him intelligent, decisive, forceful--which is why he holds the position of authority and enjoys the power that he does, as the right-hand man of the absolute ruler of a Galactic Empire (apparently, rather more meritocratic than any world we know). However, any admiration for these qualities is preempted by the more immediate concern we are made to feel for the fate of our heroes--and more generally the fact that he keeps killing people like flies (with Empire Strikes Back seeing him do this with subordinates who, in spite of their best efforts, let him down). That he does vile things, that he intimidates and threatens, that he is a menace--an embodiment of evil--overwhelms everything else.

It has struck me that Timothy Zahn's creation, the Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn, is very different in this way. His good qualities are not only abundant, but foregrounded, and in such a manner as to make him admirable and appealing, even if he is the bad guy. Rather than his intelligence being something we only appreciate if we stop and think, Zahn makes a point of having Thrawn put on one bravura display of performative intelligence for the audience after another, with Admiral Pellaeon playing the sometimes skeptical but suitably impressed Watson to Thrawn's Sherlock Holmes as he uses his deductive skills to navigate one strategic, one tactical, problem after another (all without making Thrawn seem a tiresome know-it-all). Thrawn is cultured, too--an art-lover whose understanding of art work is deep enough that he can derive militarily applicable insights from his examination of a particular culture's painting. He can be very charming when he wants to be. He can be fair with subordinates--rather more so than most people we see--not only punishing incompetence, but rewarding intelligence and initiative with promotion even where that intelligence and initiative did not, on a particular occasion, produce the hoped-for result (as seen in The Last Command). And while Zahn does not probe into his motives too deeply, it does seem at least plausible that while Thrawn is personally ambitious, he does believe himself to be doing the right thing in striving to restore the Empire to its earlier stature.

Indeed, if we go by the fairy tale vision of the original Star Wars, a figure like Grand Admiral Thrawn can seem to have no place in the franchise, at least as understood by the sort of purist who was so quick and vehement in calling out the prequels for their breaches with the fairy tale simplicity established in Episode IV. Yet Thrawn proved hugely popular--perhaps the most popular of the Expanded Universe's creations. In fact, I cannot remember reading a single derogatory comment about him.

Why have so few sensed any dissonance here? I suspect it is because audiences were less critically-minded in regard to the books than they were to the films. Watching the prequels they were alert to these films not "feeling" like the original trilogy, not recapturing their (imperfect and perhaps romanticized) memory of the experience. They had fewer preconceptions about what a Star Wars book should feel like, and that the book let them create the images for themselves in their minds (rather than presenting them with an abundance of CGI clashing with their visual memories), at the least made any issues less immediate, less visceral. And if the resulting books as a whole do not stay so fairy tale-simple as the originals (the story sprawls, the military detail is more pronounced), Zahn keeps to a minimum the increase in the sorts of complexity that so troubled many a fan (like more elaborate world-building, or the intricacy of the political premise, with all their Brechtian alienations), all as a good deal rings true. (Zahn's novels in a multitude of other ways made a point of evoking the original trilogy without too closely repeating it--Luke returns to Dagobah, significantly, while Lando is back on the make, and so on and so forth.) Moreover, precisely because the Thrawn character did appeal to readers, they were comparatively prepared to forgive the breach with the older conception--perhaps the more after the broadening of the Expanded Universe accustomed them to a more complex, more "adult" fictional universe on paper, where this sort of thing may anyway "play" better than in a two-hour movie, even without such particular expectations as the fans had.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Watching Flatland

I remember when the El Rey network began airing Flatland I was surprised to not have encountered the show before. Back in those years when I was most attentive to science fiction television I only intermittently followed The X-Files. (I had little patience for the mind-numbingly repetitive back-and-forth between credulous Mulder and "skeptical" Scully, or the artless head game that was the mythology.) And I took less interest in the young adult stuff on the WB. (I still haven't seen much of Buffy, and still don't intend to; while seeing Smallville was basically a result of its reruns winding up in a convenient time slot on a channel I often left on between waking up and heading off to work in the morning.) But I by and large kept up with the syndicated action hour-type stuff Flatland seemed to be. Even if I didn't see quite every episode of every one of them (there sure were a lot of them, back then, and some came and went almost before you knew it), I would have expected to at least have heard of this one.

I went online and found that there is virtually nothing there on the show in the way of fan sites, wikis, even data on the relevant Internet Movie Data Base pages (where there is not a single user review, and a mere 28 ratings in all--as compared with, for instance, 7 user reviews and 295 ratings for Adventure, Inc., another little-seen, quickly forgotten, one-season show of the action hour-type from that same year, 2002). To go by the Wikipedia disambiguation page for the word "flatland," the show does not even seem to have a page on the site. In fact I did not come up with evidence of its having aired in North America before, or anywhere else for that matter, a run that I suppose would have been short given how the boom in this format, and its most typical mode of distribution (syndication), collapsed shortly after the show's date of production and never recovered.

None of that made me less interested, of course, and I caught a few episodes. What can I say about the show at this point? Flatland clearly walks the road trod by that earlier show which helped launch that very boom in syndicated action hours, Highlander: The Series. Like Highlander (57 user reviews and 13,292 ratings, in case you're wondering), it is a story of a continuing millennia-old battle between immortal superbeings today in an old and glamorous world-city, largely as seen by the ordinary (or are they?) humans who have found themselves caught up in those events. Befitting the long past behind all this we have a good deal of intercutting between the contemporary world and a historical costume past, colorfully filling us in on the backstory of the loves and hates and other histories and relationships of these figures. We have those beings fighting things out by way of stylish, supernatural-tinged and visual effects-enhanced personal, physical combat. And in line with their "high concept" inspiration (the mid-'80s was a golden age for music video-TV commercial style filmmaking, with Highlander right up there with classics of the form like Flashdance and Rocky IV and Top Gun), nearly everything is as plush and sleek and glossy as if it came out of an upmarket catalog ad, with an occasional grimy or "industrial" backdrop lending some visual texture.

Still, if I had seen it before the formula is a solid one, and this show's particular variations on it definitely have their appeal. From a metafictional standpoint the casting of Dennis Hopper as an immortal super-being with the fate of the world in his hands is fairly striking given his career of playing megalomaniacs--and if Peter Biskind's stories about Hopper are to be believed, Hopper's not just talking that way in his movie roles. (Claiming in the wake of his success with Easy Rider that his "may be the most creative generation in the last nineteenth centuries," Hopper compared himself with Jesus, while he opens the episodes of Flatland by reciting, as if they were his own, the words of the Buddha as commonly rendered in contemporary English--"Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment"--just before introducing himself as "Smith.") Un-metafictionally, Hopper and the rest of the cast do quite well, while Shanghai (the "Paris of the East") is most certainly a suitable backdrop for this kind of drama, and the airy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style wire-fu makes a very acceptable alternative to Highlander's head-slicing swordplay.

I grant that it is not what the "peak TV" cheerleaders who wet their pants over The Sopranos and Mad Men and Netflix's House of Cards remake and expected all the rest of us to do the same celebrate as great television, but I enjoyed what I saw of it, and was dismayed to see El Rey yank it and all the other '90s action hours they had brought back to the TV schedule (Stargate: SG-1, Starhunter, Xena: Warrior Princess, Relic Hunter) back off the air in favor of their mostly unscripted originals (while this viewer goes elsewhere in the meantime).

Reevaluating Christopher Nolan's Batman Films

Some years ago I offered my thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises--which were less than complimentary. But I had received its two predecessors more favorably.

One reason was that when those earlier movies came out I had been ready to give certain foolishnesses a pass.

Looking at Batman Begins, for instance, there was plenty that seemed off to me on even a first viewing. The worldwide journey Bruce Wayne is on when the film begins, undertaken for the sake of "investigating the criminal mind," struck me as a silly self-indulgence on the part of the billionaire--criminological priv-lit--a wealthy wannabe vigilante's equivalent of Eat, Pray, Love. And that silliness was tied in with a still bigger silliness. It is by no means a new realization that the biggest and worst crimes are not generally labeled crimes at all--while even if one does not, for example, consider the conquest and enslavement of countries, the exploitation of the disenfranchised and the ruination of the environment to be crimes, the line between ordinary business and what is normally recognized as crime in the narrowest sense has never been more than finely drawn, and has only got blurrier over time. However, Nolan did not seem to have caught on to this, Batman's world one where, at least normally, the criminal were all clearly on one side, the "decent, law-abiding citizens" on the other. As it was 2005 there were those who saw in it something of a statement on the War on Terror, but people were always doing that kind of Zeitgeist criticism, and on the relevant level the film seemed to me too flimsy to take seriously.

Still, if it was risible on the level of sociology and politics, I did not expect much more from a superhero movie, and there was a little psychological interest, at least--which seemed novel enough in those days, and at least less of a downer than it appeared in, say, 1995's Batman Forever (when I experienced it as a pure and simple annoyance, out of place in that movie's lighter treatment of the character). It helped that the superhero boom was still fairly fresh, and this more superficially serious and artful approach still novel.

All of this carried over to my reading of the sequel, The Dark Knight, three years later. I enjoyed it as Jungian psychodrama--a level on which I think it is still interesting (even as I find that kind of thing less worthwhile than before)--and brushed off the talk of it as much else.

Alas, The Dark Knight Rises afforded no room for that--Nolan's insistence on making a point that I can least offensively call "questionable" impossible to shrug off, all while simply not being as good a film as the prior ones in the formal ways. (The third installment was, as so many third entries in film trilogies are, not just less fresh and outright repetitive, but less tight and coherent also, so that it was not just a fascist film, but a badly made fascist film.)

And if anything, the Ben Affleck-era take on Batman (what I saw in the perhaps not insignificantly Nolan-produced Batman vs. Superman, and its follow-up Suicide Squad) was still less pleasant. In fact, it soon had me thinking again of how in 2010 I wondered on this blog if it was not time to "Give the Superheroes a Rest?"

Ten years later, it seems fair to say that the studios didn't give us a rest--so I guess I just gave myself a rest from their not giving us a rest.

Annoying, Empty Phrases: "It's a Reflection of Our Times"

One phrase that has long annoyed me (yes, I know there are a lot of them) is "It's a reflection of our times"--or in regard to the past, "It's a reflection of its times."

The reason is that in saying that one does not say anything at all. After all, anything and everything can in some way be regarded as a reflection of its times--even in its ostentatiously rejecting some aspect of those times.

The real issue is what we are seeing reflected, and how, and why, and what they think of it. That is what they should be talking about.

But certain simpletons regard simply uttering the pretentious phrase as the speaking of something profound, and the speaker--apt to be such a simpleton themselves--preens as if they have just offered esoteric wisdom.

More irksome still is the phrase's so often being an uncritical and (ironically, given the inclusion of the term "the times") ahistorical celebration of the new, even where what is being reflected is so terrible that no right-thinking person should be able to regard it with equanimity.

And so once again: groan.

The '60s-Era Batman Series: Reflections

Earlier this year H & I has started rerunning a number of older series, with its Sunday afternoon line-up now dominated by action-adventure shows of the '90s--Sheena, Relic Hunter, Beastmaster, Mutant X, and the one that in many ways started it all, Highlander: The Series. They also rerun a pair of episodes of the '60s era Batman as part of the package.

I had seen a good many episodes of the show back in childhood, but had only the vaguest recollections of them before happening on these reruns--which proved to be a pleasant surprise. The episodes certainly have their pleasures--not least a lightness of tone I find a relief from our inundation by pretention and edgelordism in these days of "peak TV." They are dealing with what was undeniably silly source material, and rather than trying to convince us it is not silly, embracing that silliness and having fun with it without going flippantly, smugly postmodernist on us. The scripts can be surprisingly literate and witty, and often satisfyingly satirical. (Batman's run for mayor against the Penguin, which the Washington Post's Phillip Bump found rather relevant in 2016, cleverly skewers the vulgarity and vapidity of our electoral rituals.) And the cast was remarkable--with the villains in particular a parade of Hollywood legends (Mr. Freeze alone was played by George Sanders, Otto Preminger and Eli Wallach).

For his part, Adam West made the Batman role his own in a way I can only compare with William Shatner's contemporaneous accomplishment with the character of James T. Kirk--perfectly playing a very different conception of the character than we are used to today. Rather than the mad vigilante stalking the streets by night looking for trouble, this Batman was practically a police consultant, generally heading off on some adventure only when getting a call from Commissioner Gordon--like some costumed Sherlock Holmes. When confronting villains it was typically they and not he who first resorted to violence--and he struck back only as much as he had to. And whether in his persona as Batman, or Bruce Wayne, if there was anything questionable about the order he was upholding or the way in which he upheld it, Wayne/Batman came off as consistently displaying a high regard for the rule of law, due process, democracy and human beings generally, always ready to believe that people could change themselves for the better and reform if given a proper chance--so much so that I was struck by the sheer number of episodes that closed with Wayne using his resources to assist those who had made "mistakes" in the past in rehabilitating themselves.

Indeed, rather than a raving reactionary he came off as naive--but for all that, an idealist and a man of virtually unfailing integrity and humanity.

In fact, it all made me rethink the character--and what our conception of him has meant.

Back in the '80s the conclusion increasingly drawn was that anyone who did what Batman did had to be a mad fascist. My thought earlier was that the view of Batman-as-wacko, Batman-as-fascist was a worthwhile, even important, insight. But it now seems that I have to qualify that as having meaning only if we treat this story of a super-rich vigilante who dresses as an anthropomorphic bat as more than it was ever meant to be (this all too obvious fancy never meant to withstand psychological or sociological scrutiny), while the "insight" said more about how our culture was changing. Writers like Frank Miller set forth the idea critically (well, once upon a time), but later on the filmmakers and even the actors seem to have reveled in the fascist vision. Christopher Nolan, certainly, made his sympathies clear by the regrettable last of his three Batman films, while the portrayal of the figure by Ben Affleck, from whom something else might have been hoped, was clearer on this from the start as his growling, graying, visibly deranged incarnation of the figure set about trying to bring Superman down.

It was not the case that Batman had to be a fascist. Rather it was the case that the mainstream of political and cultural commentary was moving toward the misanthropic vision of fascism that caused Batman to increasingly be conceived in such terms--a trend of which those who like to throw about phrases like "It's a reflection of our times" in response to anything someone else says tend to be rather uncritical.

Those decrying the turn politics has taken in recent decades, however, should not take that lightly.

Star Trek: Picard; Et Tu, Next Generation?

I have, for the most part, ignored Star Trek since the untimely but unsurprising demise of Star Trek: Enterprise. I have seen the first two of the post-reboot films, but none of the shows. Because of the decision of CBS to consign the shows to streaming rather than network TV--making it a matter of subscribing or not looking at all, rather than possibly, casually glancing at something a flip of the channel away--I did not bother, especially given the predictably unpromising characterization of Discovery as having walked away from everything that, to a Trek traditionalist, made the show great. (Indeed, that so much of the first season was spent in the Mirror Universe seems very suggestive.)

Still, one could take it all for something removed from the original, "real" set of series', which I thought had been safely set aside--but soon enough there came word of Star Trek: Picard. I was unenthusiastic, because I suspected that we would see its intellectual, socially critical and utopian elements dispensed with in favor of something fashionably "darker."

The little I have bothered to read about it confirms me in that expectation. Where at the height of the Reagan era, with Ayn Rand fanboy Alan Greenspan newly appointed to the Federal Reserve and orienting monetary policy to the fostering of speculative bubble after speculative bubble, with Gordon Gekko declaring that "Greed is good," with Mike Nichols gone from The Graduate to Working Girl (instead of cringing at "Plastics," we were supposed to glory in the thought of a career on Wall Street), Captain Jean-Luc Picard looked financier Ralph Offenhouse in the face and told him that "People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We've eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We've grown out of our infancy"--but as Lee Parsons wrote,
[t]hese ideas are mostly gone from Star Trek: Picard. By way of explanation, Mr. Stewart argues that the world has changed a good deal in the interim.
As Stewart explained in a recent interview with the CBC, "the world that we find ourselves living in now, because it's a very, very tough world indeed," such that in refusing to return to the role for many years he now supposes that he
wanted a different man in a different world with a different set of values perhaps . . . This is a disturbing and frightening and sad time for many thousands of people.
He is still more explicit in an earlier piece that ran in Variety, remarking that the new show "was me responding to the world of Brexit and Trump" (thoughts he details using several of what Captain Spock referred to as "colorful metaphors"). It seems that Stewart himself could no longer believe in the role he had acted so persuasively three decades ago.

It is not in me to altogether blame Patrick Stewart for feeling disheartened. These have been a WRETCHED few decades from the standpoint of the kind of hopes the show represented. But it is still an unhappy thing to see Star Trek "get with the times" in this way; to see one of a very few candles in the darkness snuffed out.

Is Anyone Else Sick of Being Told This is a "Golden Age of TV?"

It seems that since at least The Sopranos, but especially during this past decade, I have heard people say over and over and over again that this is a "golden age" of television--ad nauseum.
And I am, as the term from Latin suggests, truly sick of hearing it.

Still, I do not think people are generally lying when they make the claim. Just fooled.

What I mean by that is not that TV was great then, and lousy now. At any given time most of what is being produced is apt to be mediocre--while the mediocrity (and even the very good) of yesteryear are subject to simple-minded and superficial prejudices which disadvantage it as against what we have now, which makes it look better than it really is--whether as art, or pure and simple entertainment.

I have boiled my argument down to a dozen items. Here they are below, the reasons why new TV--and especially the most ballyhooed, allegedly "quality" stuff new TV has to offer--looks better to so many than it really is (the more so as, through no fault of its own, old TV looks worse).

# 1. Old TV is Old--New TV is New
Thorstein Veblen wrote in The Theory of the Leisure Class about the constant turnover of clothing styles that was already apparent in his day--that basically it was a matter of one essentially unattractive thing becoming tiresome, because it basically is unattractive, and being replaced by another similarly unattractive thing, the principal virtue of which is its affording relief from the sight of the older unattractive thing until people get sick of it in its turn. That principle, too, seems to apply here.

Bluntly put, people prefer new garbage to old garbage--not least because they have had time to recognize old garbage for what it is, something that has not been the case with the newer stuff, which they may in short order go from praising to damning. Displaying such preferences most unthinkingly, of course, are the "cool kids" who would never be caught dead enjoying grandpa's embarrassing old stuff.

#2. Old TV Looks Old--New TV Looks New
Garbage or not, when people today look at an old TV show they see it in black and white, or if it is in color, the shading and lighting and the rest are not what they are accustomed to, while the print may not be in the best shape. Getting past all that they see actors they have never heard of, wearing clothes that are out of style, speaking lines with a diction and rhythm that can feel stilted simply because they belong to a different time.

All of this can be off-putting compared with newer productions, and maybe more than off-putting. The truth is that if the object is to draw the viewer in and make them forget themselves in a character's travails (as Goethe and Schiller wrote of the "dramatic"), then the sense of familiarity and currency are powerful assets, and at any given level of quality this gives newer work an advantage over the old.

#3. Old TV is "Sanitized"--New TV is "Adult" and "Edgy"
It is undeniable that television production prior to the explosion of made-for-premium cable production identified with The Sopranos was more heavily censored when it came to matters like language and depictions of sexuality, and that this is more the case the further back one goes. And there is no question that the relaxed control does afford certain possibilities. Still, I remember even when the Sopranos were new getting the impression that TV critics were basically getting excited because they were hearing bad words, not because the leeway to say bad words was enabling writers to do interesting things--and it seems to me that this kind of simple-mindedness remains a factor in the exaltation of television in our era, while convincing those apt to reflexively imitate the "cool" people that the old stuff was lame, even when it may in ways have been truer to life and more genuinely "adult."

#4. Old TV Looks Cheap--New TV Looks Expensive
As compared with older television today's productions undeniably have bigger budgets, and more conspicuous polish from the standpoint of production values, cinematography and the rest. (Those who get restless if a shot lasts more than three seconds can be at ease.) None of this makes, for example, the writing or acting on a show one iota better. But it has its effect on our subjective experience all the same.

#5. Old TV was Episodic--New TV Has "Arcs"
Don't get me wrong. I like a good story arc. But I'm not sure that it's a sensible default mode for quite so much of the medium. While some stories really do require a lot of hours to tell, many don't--and amount simply to the writers stringing the audience along while they distract us in the meantime with soap operatic who-is-sleeping-with-whom and other filler. (The BBC miniseries told the story of House of Cards in four hours and told it well. By contrast the strain in stretching the same tale into a multi-season series was all too obvious within the first few episodes.) And even were we not awash in bad multi-episodic writing, I do think there is something to be said for being able to look at stories which wrap up in a single, non-binge sitting. (Indeed, does no one else remember how once upon a time the appearance of the words "To Be Continued" at the end of an episode were a cause for annoyance rather than acclaim? Back in 1992 Jerry Seinfeld took that sufficiently for granted as to make an episode's stand-up bit out of it.) Quite often, less is more. But a good many mistake "more" for "much more."

#6. Old TV was Straightforward in its Storytelling--New TV is Frequently Arthouse
Good or bad, old TV was essentially straightforward in its storytelling. Good or bad, the more prestigious of the new TV is not. The "show, don't tell"-minded use of subtext can work powerfully, but more often makes for slow, opaque narrative, with perhaps not much behind the opacity. ("Who is Don Draper?") Still, pretentiousness by itself wins points with the middlebrow (as demonstrated by the intensity with which a few cared about who Don Draper was, or at least said they did)--who in the reverse of the bit of confusion I just described under item #5, in this case confuse "less," and often "nothing at all," with "much more."

#7. Old TV Wasn't Often Grimdark--New TV Pretty Much Always Is
What has happened with the Star Trek universe seems to me to exemplify this. The old Trek, whose spirit was not altogether vanished even in its last and weakest incarnation, Enterprise, stood for the triumph of reason and hope, a candle in the postmodernist darkness. The second film of the rebooted Trek film series, however, was all too tellingly subtitled Into Darkness--and so it has been with the small-screen version, with this even going for the return to the timeline of the original in Star Trek: Picard. I, for one, find this off-putting. But that is just one more way in which I am (proudly) unfashionable, aesthetically and intellectually--not going along with the confusion of fascistic misanthropy with "facing the facts," of wallowing in the vilest aspects of reality with entertainment, and of edgelordiness with wit.

#8. Old TV Commonly Aspired to be Just Light Entertainment--New TV Doesn't (Unless it's Okay with Being Deeply Unfashionable)
The tendencies of television to greater edginess, bigger budgets, story arcs, arthouse technique and a grimdark tone are, of course, significant in themselves, each giving the credulous the impression that what they are looking at is of higher quality than what the TV viewer used to get. Yet together they also reflect something larger than deeper, specifically that TV today is less likely to aspire to amuse people sitting down in front of one of a few channels to relax at night, than to fight over addicts with a high tolerance and many more options (more on this below)--with one result a turn from light entertainment to more intense experience. Those accustomed to such TV, looking at the older kind, often think it is trying to be intense and failing--rather than realizing that it was simply not playing the same game.

In fact, considering the situation I suspect that those looking for light entertainment are being underserved by American TV today, with some confirmation of this afforded by those successes that the press is less likely to celebrate. The Hallmark channels, of course, go from one ratings triumph to another, precisely because they are offering here what others are not.

#9. Old TV Was Limited in Quantity--and New TV's Quantity May Have a Quality of its Own
As noted above, once upon a time we had only a handful of channels, each producing only a finite amount of original content, which we pretty much had to watch when it aired, or not at all. Now the vast number of channels and streaming services means a far larger mass of content. If one goes by "Sturgeon's Law" that "ninety percent of everything is crap," and implicitly ten percent is non-crap, then an overall greater volume means a non-crappy ten percent that much bigger, all other things being equal (or even if the average of quality is going down, but not so quickly as the overall volume of output goes up). This does mean that--again, all other things being equal--anyone might be expected to be able to find more items to their individual taste. But the claims of peak TV enthusiasts are rarely so modest as that. And it seems to me that while some may sincerely feel that they enjoy more choice, to others of us it is a matter of more slight variations on the same old thing that was never so appealing to our palate to begin with--the bar for what counts as "choice," per usual for our era, set very low indeed (with the eschewing of light entertainment just one dimension of that scarcity of real choice).

#10. Old TV Was Watched at Home on a TV--New TV is Watched on Anything, Anywhere
I suspect, I think quite plausibly, that watching TV off a small handheld screen in public, while on the go--on a crowded and noisy bus, for instance, while watching out the windows to make sure you don't miss your stop--means less attentive, less critical, watching compared with making the time to sit down in a comfortable chair and look at your show at the end of the day. Indeed, I suspect that this is especially conducive to obscuring the defects of character and story, especially where high production values and flashy direction help cover them up--again, making contemporary TV look better than it really is.

#11. Old TV Was Something We All Watched Together--and New TV Is Something We Watch Alone
The multiplicity of venues for such television has exploded--and many of them are more exclusive. Either you subscribe to Apple TV+, or you don't watch the thing at all--and as of last fall, there were 271 streaming services, largely focusing on original and exclusive content. Few can afford to subscribe to more than a small fraction of them, and even those who can often do not have the time to watch more than a fraction of what their particular subscriptions carry. (These days, I don't even have time to look at all the stuff my humble cable package offers, let alone bother with this kind of thing.) Indeed, within our real-life peer groups--as opposed to like-minded people we hang with on social media--we are likely to be the only people we know watching this or that thing in many a case, and this, too, can foster illusions--not least, that what may just be our particular flavor of garbage is actually gold. More than ever we are each in our own little media bubble these days, which means our illusions are more likely to stand not just for us, but for everyone else who doesn't know any better, or just doesn't care enough to look at the thing for themselves. (They're busy enjoying their own bad stuff that they also insist to everyone else is great.) And of course, amid all that, we are less than ever able to make any pronouncement about the quality of what is generally out there, as compared with what used to be there, because any one of us sees so little of it, and that the bit that we may be particularly predisposed to like.

#12. Old TV has Poptimism Against it--New TV has Poptimism in its Corner
Older TV is constantly being denigrated (not least, by the sort of invidious comparison that inspired this post), and even when this is not the case, has nothing to its advantage like the loud, vehement chorus of cheerleaders provided new TV by the critics who, as the Duke Phillips of the world would have them do, consider it their job to rate the latest outpouring of media-industrial complex product from "good to excellent."

Eventually some people start to believe it.

Taken altogether the dozen factors discussed above--sheer newness, flashy appearance, pretentious technique, "dark and gritty" content in place of light entertainment, and the multitude of factors making us less critical--seem to me a powerful influence on the TV audience. And they are what I hear whenever someone shouts down a favorable word I have to say for a particular old show with "Quit living in the past!"

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Review: Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future, by Timothy Zahn

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD

After revisiting Timothy Zahn's sequel trilogy to the original Star Wars trilogy I found myself picking up the duology which capped off that story, consisting of Specter of the Past (1997) and Vision of the Future (1998).

The original Zahn trilogy was already a diffuse work, and this dulogy is rather more so. The fact is all the more problematic because the tale is made of slighter stuff--villains on their last legs, a con man's pretending to be the second coming of Admiral Thrawn (we know that much from the start), the internal politics among New Republic worlds of which we had previously known little or nothing. The intrigues among the Bothans and Caamasi and Mistryls (and for that matter, the question of what ever happened to J'orj Kardas) could have been interesting given the proper treatment, but they are all thinly sketched (understandably, as anything more would have overbalanced this epic still meant to center on our familiar protagonists), and serve only to leave the two books still more crowded and slower-paced than they already are.

This sets the story we get here up to be something of an anticlimax, and alas, the execution is not all that it might have been, especially from the standpoint of pacing. This is, partly, a matter of overwriting, compounded by the fact that the book, rather than switching back and forth quickly across its various threads, tends toward very lengthy scenes. (The climax of Luke and Mara's adventure, for instance, runs some fifty pages without so much as a glance at the other goings-on.)

Time and again I felt my patience being tried by the fact--and such occasions the more numerous because of how long the books happen to be. Specter of the Past is 344 pages long, while Vision of the Future is rather longer, at 528 very packed pages markedly longer than any of the preceding books (and it seems, longer than any other Star Wars book published as of the time of this writing). Still, I did stick with it to the end, and I can say that the book does manage to build on what came before. The events of the book's narrative do, ultimately, determine what the relationship between Luke and Mara is to be, while it is here that the Empire, or rather the little left of it, concludes its peace treaty with the New Republic. Still, it seems to me that there was, by this point, not so much remaining to be wrapped up, while taken by itself it is not really all that satisfying--certainly not in the nine hundred page form in which we got it. In fact I find myself suspecting that there was a rush here to cash in on the popularity of Zahn's trilogy, the three volumes of which each had a very healthy run on the New York Times bestseller list), and promise readers a sense of this being a similar "event," compromising what might have been a perfectly fine single, epilogue volume of more modest proportions.

Indeed, while I am usually even less likely to have a good word for a prequel than a sequel, I found myself much preferring Zahn's Outbound Flight--a better-proportioned, swifter-paced and more cleverly constructed book that derived rather more interest from the Thrawn character, and that it seems to me has a much juster claim to being more than "another" Star Wars book from the standpoint of the mythos.

The Continuation Bond Novel Writer's Dilemmas: Bond Movie on Paper, or More Fleming? Write Like the Original, or Only Pretend to Do So?

Those who have gone on flogging the James Bond series in print as in film have made much of being true to the original. "Not the last time, but this time," they promise--and it is all as implausible as it is insincere.

Where the matter of the impossibility of making a Bond novel today read like a Bond novel then is concerned, Fleming's attitudes regarding gender and race (in that order, and only these, it would seem) get most of the criticism here, but the differences go far beyond that. The films distilled the stuff of his middle books in particular (Dr. No, Goldfinger, Thunderball) into a very specific formula (freakish villains, gadgets, high-tech complexes blowing up at the end, etc.)--resulting in a tone and a briskness, a density with and emphasis on action and sex and luxury and glamour, not just so intricately structured that fans might complain about any deviation, but far at odds with Fleming's more varied and in many ways odder Bond adventures (compare the film version of You Only Live Twice with the book), and more generally, the darker, slower, more grounded, more character-oriented approach of Fleming that makes quite a shock for the film fan coming to them for the first time.

Still, even if one had never seen a Bond film, knew nothing of them (unlikely for one coming to the books now, but there you have it), they would still likely be struck by Fleming's ostentatiously Literary prose style, with its technique of the "aimless glance" that in showing translated to slowness by not just cinematic but print standards, placed additional demands on the reader's concentration, and from the standpoint of today's action-adventure reader as well as viewer, buried them in the minutiae of things not all that interesting while hastily passing over what they would consider the "good parts." It is all the greater, too, because of just how indifferent Fleming could be to being interesting or accessible to an audience much like himself, which did not know the ins and outs of golf and bridge, which did not share or want to share his anxieties about whether he was going slack in time of peace, or the direction of post-war Britain was going--the heavy freight of upper-class conservative middle aged-ness, the senior British civil servant-ness of the books (which, of course, were what made those social attitudes hard to miss).

Unsurprisingly, while Amis offered up more Fleming, mocking Fleming's critics and the films (and M, whom he'd never much liked) in the process, only Faulks in his idiosyncratic Devil May Care made any real attempt to capture the flavor of Fleming's prose (and even for him, none of that aimless glance stuff!), while the rest were more inclined to write in their own voices rather than pretend to put on a ventriloquist act, while usually spending  a good deal less time on minutely described upper-class games or in Bond's head. There was also an increasing tendency toward the stuff of the films with regard to pace and action, with Gardner and Benson tilting one way and then another, and more often toward the movies rather than the Fleming novels (exemplified by Never Dream of Dying), and even Faulks inclining this way in his 2008 book, though his attempt to write as Fleming did got in the way. (We had, for instance, a scene with Vulcan bombers chasing a nuclear-armed ekranoplan that could have been an atompunk techno-thriller reader's delight--but true to the approach he was taking in his book, Faulks treated it in Fleming's more typical, aimless glance manner, and did the same with what could have been Bond's epic journey home across Soviet territory.) Jeffrey Deaver chucked Fleming altogether when seeming to start from scratch with a thoroughly modern 007 born in 1979, and while his successors William Boyd and Anthony Horowitz headed back to the era of the originals (Boyd pushing forward only slightly into 1969, and Horowitz returning to the '50s), with Horowitz actually incorporating Fleming's own material (stories for the unproduced TV show, not novelistic material) in narratives closely tied to specific Fleming novels (a story set mere weeks after Goldfinger, a prequel to Casino Royale), they are only too obviously written for a twenty-first century readership.

The Inconsistencies of Star Trek's Utopianism

Watching Star Trek one does not hear its sociology spelled out, but most conclude that the Federation is the sort of thing that Wellsians and Marxists envisioned as a desirable future.* (Indeed, an opinion piece in the New York Times during the centenary of the Russian Revolution remarked the show's debt to revolutionary socialism.) Humanity's taking that course is why it has survived into the twenty-third--and later, the twenty-fourth--century, moved out into space, and contributed positively to the emergence of a beneficient community of alien civilizations, all while giving its members the sort of freedom and opportunity that, for all the complacent rhetoric of some, the world we actually live in now has never done.

There are times when the utopian premise manifests itself in the franchise in subtle and clever ways--as in Spock and Kirk's memorable adventure on the bus in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. It was, of course, the case that a show made in the '60s could never have sounded like The Sopranos or Deadwood, but it was also the case that the foul-mouthed abuse that is our standard way of relating to each other strikes Spock as genuinely curious, and that this was entirely in line with the logic of the series, according to which society which has transcended scarcity, inequality, bigotry and the other brutal and brutalizing features of our daily life would be quite different, and not understand our behavior at all. (Leon Trotsky--I have no idea whether Roddenberry ever read him--actually wrote a memorable piece about this matter at some length, "The Struggle for Cultured Speech.")

Still, the series is on the whole less than consistent here. Often it falls by the wayside when seeking drama not in the Federation's contacts with other, less enlightened societies, be they aliens (barbaric Klingons, fascist Cardassians, ultra-capitalist Ferengi) or humans who have somehow moved out of the mainstream (like the Neo-Transcendentalists in Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Up the Long Ladder"), and instead among the Federation. I have to admit that the collapse of Turkana IV (the horrific backdrop to Tasha Yar's youth) was never all that convincing to me--this "society that works" should have been able to prevent things going so bad, and even if it failed, one is left wondering why the Federation made no attempt to rectify such a situation in one of its members.

Less dramatic, but perhaps even less plausible, because more intimately treated, was Reginald Barclay's winding up in Starfleet at all, let alone the crew of the Enterprise.

In our world people invest vast amounts of money, time, effort in arduous careers they do not much like and for which they are really poorly suited simply because of the pressures of "earning a living." One would not expect this to be the case in the Federation, and were they to try anyway for some reason it is hard to see how someone doing so could have made it through the ferociously competitive Starfleet Academy, let alone into service aboard a starship. It is equally hard to see why, since he made the attempt, he did not receive a measure of assistance with his far from inconspicuous problems interacting with others as he (successfully) made his way through this whole system.

I suppose it bespeaks what those who have spent much time studying utopian fiction generally conclude--it's not easy to imagine the dramas such societies would have. This is not because they will not have drama, or even that we cannot conceive of some of those possibilities intellectually. Instead the issue would appear to be the difficulty of going beyond hazy notions to actual dramatization of those conflicts--and moreover, dramatization of them in a manner comprehensible and compelling to the kind of broad TV audience required to keep the show on the air week after week. And so in spite of the premise, when taking this course, they fell back on tales befitting the twentieth century rather than the twenty-fourth.

But for all the imperfections of Star Trek's realization of its premise, I still think science fiction, television and the world have all been better off for the attempt.

* I speak here of the original five-TV series franchise, and its associated films and other spin-offs, not the reboots and other stuff we've seen since 2009, most of which I must admit I haven't seen any reason to bother with.

Reflections on a Dragon Warrior Playthrough

I recently played all the way through the original Dragon Warrior--something I haven't done since I first got the game way back when it was a brand-new release for the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.

At the time there was little to compare it to (it seems that at least in North America the only prior NES role playing game had been Ultima III: Exodus), but even by 8-bit standards (certainly in comparison with the following year's release, Final Fantasy) the gameplay can seem awkward and limiting. Standing on a staircase one actually has to select STAIRS from the menu to ascend or descend it to the next floor. You cannot carry more than one weapon, one suit of armor, one shield, at a time so that when you find Erdrick's Armor you simply lose whatever it was you were wearing before (though the income from the sale of my magic armor--3850 gold--would have been a welcome supplement to my income at the time). There is only one save point, back at Tantagel Castle, and while you can swiftly get there with the wyvern's wings on sale in most item shops, and the Return spell you eventually learn, it is a pain to use them because no spells or vehicles enable quick journeys anywhere else around the world map, making almost every trip a long walk with random battle after random battle--much of it against weaker enemies who basically waste your time because they slow you down while offering virtually nothing in the way of gold or experience, and the rest against tougher ones who make an already tedious walk back to some errand hazardous as well.* This is all the more the case because, given the fewness of specific tasks to perform, the player spends so much of their playing time seeking out random battles for the sake of amassing gold and leveling up.

Naturally returning to the game I had my doubts that I'd stick with it for very long, let alone finish it. However, as my sessions ran longer and proved more frequent than I planned (because I took one more go at the next object, one more round of experience and gold-amassing before I headed back to save my progress), I quickly realized that I would do just that, and soon enough, finished the course.

Thinking about all this I found myself remembering when I looked into the franchise's history some years ago--wondering why despite its relative obscurity in North America it exploded so in Japan. (Dragon Warrior 11 sold 2 million copies in Japan on its first day, the latest success for a series so much a touchstone of the country's gaming culture that the light novel, manga and soon to be anime That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime can casually reference the game in its title, and the target audience know exactly what they're talking about.)

Easily the best piece on the subject was this one by Christian Nutt at the gaming site Gamasutra. As the author notes the game is highly accessible, and rewards "sticktoitiveness," so that even an inexperienced player can get into it, and as they play, make progress so long as they are prepared to persist in building up their levels, and exercise a modicum of intelligence in making their decisions about how to tackle opponents, when to take up a new task, when to explore a new geographic area (unlike so many games where some minor thing they have to do to continue becomes so difficult that they just give up on the whole thing). Nutt notes, too, the game's emotional resonance--and while the piece largely discusses more sophisticated sequels, rather than the simpler original I played through, making my way from town to town as I follow in the footsteps of Erdrick, I can still see what they mean. One may or may not see a deeper cultural implication in the extent to which these elements made a franchise in one country and seem to have meant little in another, but I can say that they helped to make the experience of replaying it all these years later a pleasant surprise.

* One can use fairy water and the "Repel" spell to avoid those clashes, but only much later in the game, well after it has become an annoyance.

Cousin Bette: The Movie

Some time ago I ran into the Des McAnuff film version of Honore de Balzac's classic Cousin Bette.

The novel is a sprawling soap opera, far too populous and tangled to be thoroughly and faithfully transformed into two-hour film. Naturally it is not so surprising that the cast of characters was very sharply reduced, with much tossed out altogether and much of the rest combined and compressed.

What was more surprising was that the film (despite being R-rated, with legitimately R-rated sex and nudity) comes off as tame next to the source material.

This is, partly, because of that reduction of the cast, which eliminated a good many possibilities (Adeline dies early on, Valerie de Marneffe receives but a single early mention, etc.), but also because the film's makers simply lacked old Balzac's audacity.

I think of such scenes as Valerie and her husband, who is quite content to use his wife's adulteries to wrangle promotions at work, and the four different lovers Valerie is leading on at the same time, each jealous of the others to the point of murder, sitting very civilly to breakfast together, each of the lovers smugly thinking to themselves that the child she is pregnant with was fathered by him and not the others, who unlike himself must surely be dupes for thinking the same thing.

Balzac manages to make it hilarious rather than simply ridiculous--and I suspect no filmmaker could pull that off now. The sheer technical virtuosity required to make something like that work apart, there is simply too little of Balzac's readiness to look unblinkingly at the seedy side of money, sex, obsession and the interaction of all these, certainly among those filmmakers who wish to go on being filmmakers--which should put the nonsense spouted by the self-proclaimed moralists about our times (and the self-satisfied edgelords, too) in perspective.

Reflections on Three of Eric Ambler's Novels (The Schirmer Inheritance, The Light of Day and Dirty Story)

It seems to me that while Eric Ambler is still well-remembered as a Great Name in the history of spy fiction, his actual books get less attention than I would expect. (Another case of classics nobody reads? The old tendency to slight comedy in favor of eternally frowning seriousness? Or perhaps political backlash against him for the Popular Front politics of the early classics?)

Ambler's later, post-World War II books seem to get shorter shrift, though they certainly have their merits. I certainly find Passage of Arms by far his funniest. Below I repost three brief reviews of those later books I recently put up at Goodreads--The Schirmer Inheritance, and his two novels about the adventures of Arthur A. Simpson, The Light of Day and Dirty Story.

The Schirmer Inheritance
In The Schirmer Inheritance Eric Ambler serves up the adventure of a Philadelphia lawyer sent off to Europe to track down the unlikely and distant heir to a notorious fortune. What transpires differs greatly from what I expected of the novelist. The stakes are low this time--the fate of a nation is not at stake--and the element of danger or even intrigue is slow to make its appearance. (We are over halfway through by that point.) Afterward, the story does not build to a compelling climax, but rather sputters out.

All in all, it seems to me the weakest of Ambler's books, and by a long way. There are some sharp characterizations, some compelling drama--a measure of novelty in his use of the historical setting (the narrative beginning with an episode from the Napoleonic Wars)--and the result is highly readable, which strikes me as just enough for the three stars I give it here.

The Light of Day
I saw the film version of this book (Topkakpi) long before I read the book, making the course events take a bit of a surprise--but a most congenial one. Where in the film Arthur Simpson is relegated to a supporting role as the crew of thieves take center stage, here he is the protagonist and narrator of the adventure--a typically unreliable and entertaining narrator. (Alas, we too rarely get both at once.) Much of the story clearly reuses prior Ambler elements--the hapless, stateless individual who finds himself pressed into helping to investigate suspicious goings-on by a fairly callous secret service official, even the seaside Mediterranean setting, recall Ambler's much earlier Epitaph for a Spy, while Istanbul (we even get a mention of Turkish secret policeman Colonel Haki) recalls Mask of Dimitrios and Journey Into Fear--but despite their familiarity it doesn't feel stale, partly thanks to Ambler's storytelling talents, partly to the differences in the conception, not least a very different hero (the petty, pathetic sleaze sets Simpson apart), and the particular mix of crime and international intrigue. (In case you're wondering,the thief-dangling-from-the-ceiling bit that everyone seems to think came from Mission: Impossible, but which Mission actually got from Topkapi, was in this novel.) I wouldn't say that it's the best of his post-war works--for me that would definitely be Passage of Arms, which I found the funniest of his books--but it is a solid Ambler novel nonetheless.

Dirty Story
In what is perhaps the only true sequel of Ambler's career, Dirty Story continues the adventures of the hero of The Light of Day, Arthur Simpson. Despite his prior involvement in the porn industry (and the fact that he gets caught up in it again) the story isn't entirely what one may think--the really dirty deeds the corporate dealings in which he gets mixed up, which have rival corporations sending rival mercenary armies to back up their favored sides in a conflict between two newly independent African states over, well, a patch of dirt, or more precisely, the minerals underneath that patch of dirt.

It can feel like a parody to Forsyth's The Dogs of War--except that it hit the market years before Forsyth ever got around to writing Dogs of War--with Ambler's pathetic picaresque hero caught in the middle.

As it happened I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second, the adventure that led Simpson to Africa more than his attempting to survive there (it's richer in the petty scheming and misunderstandings and twists that make this sort of Ambler novel fun), but on the whole it is a solid sequel to Light of Day.

On Reading John Green's Paper Towns: Some Thoughts

Checking the reviews of John Green's Paper Towns on Amazon I was struck by how many were annoyed with Quentin's adulation of Margo--how baseless it seemed. But then that was exactly as it was supposed to be. After all, it was not just about childhood affection, or conventional romantic attraction, but a case of the uncool entranced by the cool, and more precisely his fuzzy notion of who the apparently cool person was, which is a silly thing to begin with and ultimately shown up as deluded.

Yet the book's failure to leave a reader as entranced diminishes the impact of the conclusion's revelation that Margo has all along really just been a scared, confused girl trying to sort things out.

The impact of the revelation is diminished still more by the book's opacity regarding that fear and confusion. Yes, she was shaken by that early contact with death. Yes, she was alienated by the paper-like superficiality of the suburban world she grew up in. But these things are not really delved into, and while one can chalk this up to the limits of the narrator's viewpoint, one can come away suspecting that the hidden depths are really not all that deep. And I will say it--the limited viewpoint is overrated, the omniscient underrated, in ways all too reflective of the deeply flawed priorities of the literary tastemakers of the past hundred years. "What we wanted was a ventilation of the point at issue," Wells said when explaining the difference between his style and Henry James--and that is exactly what we did not get here.

Which can really rankle after three hundred pages of watching the rather less interesting Quentin and his mostly one-note buddies pursuing a mystery consisting mainly of dead ends.

From Page to Screen: Percy Jackson

On the bestseller lists Rick Riordan stood comparison with Suzanne Collins and Stephanie Meyer as a writer of young adult fantasy and science fiction during this past decade. Yet the feature films based on his books have been much, much less successful than theirs commercially. The first Percy Jackson film didn't quite make it to a $300 million world gross, and the second film did not better that, ending the franchise there for the time being, while Hollywood has shown less enthusiasm for a reboot of this particular property than, for example, it has for reboots of well-known superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spiderman.

Considering that--and the dislike many fans of Riordan's books have of the film adaptations--I found myself the more attentive to the alterations made to the material in bringing it to the screen as, having seen the films first, I turned to the first of the books, The Lightning Thief. Percy is made much older in the movie than in the book--the sixth-grader of the novel turned into a high school student. The character list and plot are all simplified--Dionysius, Ares, Cronus are all left out of the events, and the number of incidents with and without them pared down. In particular the more parodic elements were discarded, as with the bit in the Colorado water park, while also excised from those scenes the filmmakers' retained. (In the book the vision of the underworld felt like something out of Mel Brooks--but in the movie it looked much more like What Dreams May Come.) And of course, all this enabled the film to dispense with most of the book's abundance of talky exposition (virtually a course in Greek mythology in itself, which would probably have made a fair-sized portion of the target audience zone out).

The somewhat older protagonist, the simplified, more compact story, the downplaying of the wackiness (and the reduction of the exposition) enabled the producers to achieve a more manageable running time, made the product brisker and easier to follow, and saved on budget. (That fight scene at the top of the St. Louis Arch would not have been cheap to film.) But in the process they sacrificed much of what would have elevated the material above being a rather slight fantasy adventure (the zaniness almost vanished, the bit of drama likewise reduced--so that Hermes' son's betrayal of the hero lost any emotional punch it might have had).

In short, the "safe" approach did not pay off. Of course, it would be nice to think that not playing it so safe would have let the film do better--but alas, that is speculative (and perhaps also a longshot).

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