Friday, July 11, 2014

The Power of Writing

Today I met with a brilliant new writer who has yet to publish officially. Of course he's not "new" to writing at all. In fact, he's just retired from a full career as an elementary teacher, and he's been writing seriously for himself and for his students for thirty years.

In the past few years, he's done this remarkable thing: He's begun rewriting all of his old prose as poetry. He's telling stories in poems, and he has a powerful understanding of when to break a line. He described to me his process of going back through his stories, his words, and cutting out everything--words, punctuation--that isn't absolutely essential. It's like Homeric poetry but in simple, immediately accessibly free-verse.

So now he's working on manuscripts that are entirely his own writing world. There's this lovely, dark edge to them as they tell lightly funny stories about damaged characters. One project in particular, which he's titled The Incredible Shrinking Boy, sounds ready to be a classic--a haunting story with the power to change how readers see the world.

This reminds me of how powerful the habit and craft of writing really is. My life was enriched this week because another person devoted consistent time over three decades to writing down stories as they came to him and in reflection--and then shared that work with me.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Giver to be a Movie. Thoughts?

Yesterday morning, as I browsed Rotten Tomatoes’ blurbs about Noah and Sabotage, I learned that Lois Lowry’s The Giver will be a big-screen movie. The wonderfully wry, twinkly-eyed, and, importantly, bearded Jeff Bridges will play the titular character! The great Meryl Streep will play the Chief Elder! Needless to say, I was excited.

And then I saw the trailer.

Now, I’m not sure what to feel. Or rather, I feel a lot and am trying to sort through those feelings and the thoughts they inspire in the intellectual part of my brain.

I have a long history with the story. I was ten years old when Lowry published her book, and I read it either that year or the next. In other words, I read it perhaps before it had won any awards and certainly before it had become a staple in many English courses. Given that at that point in my life I regularly reread books I loved, there’s a good chance I read Lowry’s book again at least once more before junior high. The book’s splashes of magic, or the way it turned everyday occurrences in my life (seeing in color, making choices for myself) into magic, stuck with me over the years, as did the haunting black-and-white cover with the photograph of an old, sad, bearded man. A decade later, I was a second-year English teacher inheriting a seventh-grade curriculum that began with The Giver. My students not only read the book but Lowry's Newberry acceptance speech. We talked about where writing inspiration comes from. We talked about different parts of the book all over again—especially the ending, whose ambiguity I love as an adult but which many students find frustrating. As we read, students composed their own Ceremonies of 12. For the assignment, they interviewed their parents and other people to find out what their communities saw them doing well and would therefore assign to them as their adult professions, and then they wrote about themselves in third person as the Chief Elder talked about the different professions the committee considered for them before landing on a final choice.

All of this means that during the three years I assigned the book to students, I had the chance to fall deeper in love with it. With how much it accomplishes in 179 short pages. With how important each sentence and moment feels while reading it. With how thoughtful it is, grounded in the 12-year-old protagonist’s developing understanding of the world, to which those around him cannot relate.

The trailer for the August movie offers a glimpse of a very different story. Reading the discussion posts under articles about it, I see that many are surprised to see the trailer in color. That only two people in the story’s Community can see color is such an important metaphor in the book. There’s some consensus, however, that the trailer is in color so as not to confuse potential moviegoers who haven’t read the book while the movie itself will begin in black and white. That’s what IMDB seems to indicate, and I hope this really is the case. But the trailer jars in other ways.

Look at those tall skyscrapers! Look at all that glass! Look at the showy technical wizardry all around, including bicycles that zoom on electricity or some other power. The whole thing looks like the world of Divergent or The Hunger Games. And I’m glad these worlds exist. Like readers of all ages, I devoured Katniss’ story, and my students rave about Tris’ adventures. But while many claim Lowry’s The Giver helped lay the groundwork from which these other dystopian books would eventually rise, hers is a different kind of story. Oh, there’s a chase, and the main character concocts a plan to break away from his world’s rigidity, but it’s all on a much smaller scale. It’s about one boy and one man who want to help the people around them. Theirs is a tiny community, after all. At Jonas’ Ceremony of Twelve, he shares the day with forty or fifty others. We know this because when the Chief Elder skips Jonas’ number nineteen (based on birth order) during the ceremony, he must wait until she finishes calling his classmates; he waits as she “moved into the Thirties and Forties, nearly the end” (57). That’s it: the community has forty or fifty twelve-year-olds. We’re dealing with a small town here, not a busy metropolis. There’s one of everything—one House of the Old, one Childcare Center, one Fish Hatchery, one school, one river—and a reader gets the sense (or at least I always have) that buildings in the Community are similarly one story in height and simple in layout. After all, despite its ambitions to be a utopia, this isn't a Community that reaches for the stars; instead, it will do anything, no matter how sinister, to remain rooted to its ideals of "sameness" and avoiding discomfort. Here’s Jonas walking around the House of the Old to see The Receiver of Memory (who will call himself The Giver soon) for the first time: “The Annex was very ordinary, its door unremarkable” (72). Lowry explains that the lobby “was very small and contained only a desk at which a female Attendant sat working on some papers” (73). When the Receiver’s door is locked at first, Jonas is surprised, because in the Community they don’t lock doors. Growing up in suburban Minnesota, I have always seen the setting of this book as a scaled-down version of my mother’s small hometown of St. Peter. I’ve never lived in a place where no one locks doors, and I’ve always found great meaning in this Community of Lowry’s that cultivates an environment I see as something from 1950s small-town Midwestern living—less provocative (at first glance) than a Norman Rockwell painting. Something akin to a Hutterite community—Amish but with stunning technology hidden away. This idyllic setting renders our, and Jonas’, growing understanding of the terms “Elsewhere” and “release” all the more devastating.

So the new movie, according to the trailer and what I’ve now read about it, takes liberties. I’m not exactly sure why I have a problem with this, however. When students, colleagues, or friends will complain to me about how some movie has changed something from some book, I’m often the first to defend the director’s right to revise. After all, a movie is not a book, and so an adaptation should not be a literal translation. Think of Harry Potter, for instance. My two favorite scenes in those movies never appear, or are drastically revised from what happens, in the books. Jim Broadbent brings an emotional gravity balanced with a sense of bumbling humor to the role of Professor Slughorn in Half-Blood Prince, and his scene with Harry in Hagrid’s hut—discussing Harry’s mother’s “beautiful magic, wondrous to behold”—rings poetic. In the scene, screenwriter Steve Kloves has completely rewritten J. K. Rowling’s dialogue. In Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Harry and Hermione share a goofy dance on the verge of romance; it perfectly captures how these two longtime friends (teenagers) feel after their friend Ron abandons them and they have only each other to rely on. This scene never appears in the books. Along the same lines, I love when film brings Shakespeare to new settings. Joss Whedon’s recent Much Ado About Nothing, set at Whedon’s house in the present, brings out the play’s slapstick sensibilities. In other words, it’s not the idea of adaptation itself that scares me. The choices I see in the trailer for The Giver, however, may change the story in fundamentally.

Maybe this is it: We already have The Hunger Games and Divergent, and I’d love to see The Giver done right as a visual story. I have thought for some years, as I’ve heard rumor after rumor of Lowry’s novel becoming a movie, that the big screen may not be right for The Giver. There’s may not be enough happening, enough action and adventure, to satisfy movie studios and perhaps even movie watchers. It’s a story about a twelve-year-old (not a teenager as the new movie wants it to be, presumably so it follows the footprints of other recent YA fare), and it’s a story about ideas. Lowry has said so herself in the past. I had resolved in my mind that if the story were ever to be filmed, it would ideally be picked up by HBO or Showtime or even PBS in the form of a series—each season capturing one of the books in the Giver quartet—The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. American Horror Story and True Detective do this now: tell a new story with a new cast each season. And of course in Lowry’s quartet, each story overlaps with the next in significant ways. Season four, based on the book Son, would knit the stories into a whole.

Now that I think of it, that’s what this post boils down to: a plea to small-screen decision-makers to attach The Giver to the recent marketing movement behind movies becoming TV shows: Parenthood, About a Boy, Teen Wolf, etc. Yes, I’ll see the movie when it comes out. But just maybe, hopefully, Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep’s most significant contribution to the telling of Lowry’s story will be encouraging studios to actually tell Jonas’ gentle yet terrifying and important story.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Casual Vacancy

Over the last week and a half, I finally read J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. As I sit here, minutes after finishing, I'm not sure I've ever read a better book. (As a children's writer, I need to make clear right now that this is NOT a children's book; it's a hard, honest, unflinching, very adult look at poverty and politics in a small town.) It's a huge story--told from ever-changing points of view of about 20 characters--and there's not a boring moment in it. The characters often have more ugliness in them than empathy, but each has humanity--in the sense that they are capable of affection and love and in the sense that, more often than not, they are stuck being who they are and don't make great progress throughout the course of the novel. I didn't like many of these characters, but I cared about them; I wanted them desperately to do right by themselves and those around them even when I knew deep down that they wouldn't. The characters remind me of those in Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections; as in that book, the characters feel both archetypal and achingly, individually human at once.

Rowling is a marvelous writer. She writes eloquent prose that moves seamlessly between the many points of view. Her dialogue captures that compelling if difficult space between what people think and what they say.

In the end, wow. A brilliant, darkly funny, disturbing, assured novel. Rowling sure can tell a story.

-AH