For the first time in months, I set foot into a public library yesterday. To be exact, three different branches, to make up for a regular activity I’d enjoyed before the Covid lockdown. Our library system is very modern, creative, and full of resources, a pleasure to visit. The New Central Library opened two years ago had become a tourist point-of-interest even.
Yesterday I didn’t head all the way downtown to the main attraction (picture above). A visit to a branch closer to my home welcomed me with numerous brand new paperbacks. As they’ve been closed for a few months, new books kept coming in and now they have the chance to display them. Piles and piles of them, all brand new. I couldn’t resist but drove to two other branches just to check out their new offerings.
The following is a list of books I got from my library escapade yesterday. Just in time for the summer staycation. All pristine, never-opened (that’s important in this Covid time) brand new paperbacks. Which ones have you read? What books are you reading this summer, this very extraordinary summer. I welcome your two pebbles thrown into the Pond and share some ripples with us.
Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks –– I was thinking of reading this for ‘Paris in July’ all because of the title, but not sure now since it’s quite late in the month. I’ve always wanted to read a S. Faulks novel knowing his work had been turned into movies and TV series, e.g. Charlotte Gray and Birdsong.
Summer of ’69 by Elin Hilderbrand –– I haven’t read any books by Elin Hilderbrand, hailed as the ‘Queen of Beach Reads’. Two of her books are in development now for a movie. I’m far from the beach, any beach, but hope this one can offer some sunny breaks at least during my staycation.
The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow –– The book cover is the main attraction plus this blurb on the front cover: “Unbrearably beautiful.” And some more on the back, like this one: “A gorgeous, aching love letter to stories, storytellers, and the doors they lead us through. Absolutely enchanting.” How can I resist?
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie –– I knew about this book, actually have been debating if I should read it without having read Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I’d appreciated Rushdie’s writing, imaginative and original, but also not easily accessible. Will see.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell –– I’ve seen this title everywhere, and know the general story idea, and all the controversies and ripples it has generated. I’d just like to sit down quietly without having to be influenced by the cacophony from all sides, and just read it.
Reader, Come Home by Maryanne Wolf –– Subtitle: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. I’ve started reading it and find it quite interesting. I missed Wolf’s earlier book Proust and the Squid so here’s a catch-up and a welcome update. A scholar, educator and developmental researcher on reading and the brain, Wolf is an advocate for ‘deep reading.’ This is going to be a slow read.
As things go these days, uncertainties abound as to when movies will come out and in what way, big or small screen. So, for those who like to read before you leap, summer’s the best time to catch up with some of these books before their adaptations are released.
Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance
The runaway bestseller of 2016 is now an upcoming movie on Netflix, directed by Ron Howard. Born and raised a ‘hillbilly’ in Ohio, Vance’s memoir narrates his struggles to arrive at Yale Law School, a personal victory over poverty and a dysfunctional family and culture. He shares insights as an insider of an impoverished social sector. Screenplay by Oscar-nominated Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water, 2017). Early Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards and Amy Adams a possible nom.
Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
Highsmith is no stranger to fans of suspense and psychological thrillers with Carol (2015), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), and the Hitchcock classic Strangers on a Train (1951). Deep Water (first pub. 1957) is another marital suspense thriller, directed by Adrian Lyne, who’d given us Fatal Attraction (1987), Unfaithful (2002) and the like. So, we know it’s in good hands. Gone Girl‘s Ben Affleck should be quite familiar with playing such genre, add in Ana de Armas, who’s superb in Knives Out, this one should be a thrilling escape.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
The historical novel is The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France, sounds like a sensational movie subject. Author is Eric Jager, medieval literature prof at UCLA. Director is the iconic Ridley Scott, who has brought us numerous big screen epics, Blade Runner (1982), Gladiator (2000), Alien (1979, 2017), just to name a few. Ben Affleck and Matt Damon co-write and co-star, with Jodie Comer of Killing Eve fame also in.
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
Another TV series (Hulu) from popular Australian author Liane Moriarty whose Big Little Lies has been turned into two successful, star-studded Seasons on HBO. Nine strangers meet at a wellness resort dealing with their own issues and discovering secrets behind the place. Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy co-star. Moriarty has written 8 novels, so far, 5 of which are in various stages of development for the screen.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder
Nowadays you hear a lot about migrant workers. Back in the time after the Great Recession, there were workers living like nomads in their trailers and vans, travelling across the western states to look for work. Bruder’s book is about one such ‘workampers’, a woman in her sixties who becomes a nomad worker after losing her home. Frances McDormand stars. Written for the screen and directed by Chloé Zhao, who gave us the soulful The Rider (2017).
Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell
Based on the second novel by Merrell published in 2014. Shirley here refers to the American horror/suspense writer Shirley Jackson, played by Elisabeth Moss. The story’s about a graduate student Fred and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) move in to live with professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, a literary critic teaching at Bennington College and his wife Shirley Jackson. Drama ensues when the characters interplay in their peculiar relational dynamics. Directed by Josephine Decker.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Irish millennial lit turned TV. And you thought the upstairs-downstairs kind of stories happen only in Downton Abbey. Rooney’s acclaimed book is about the clandestine romance between rich gal Marianne and Connell whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. The 12 episode TV series adaptation is affective and well performed by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal under the helms of Lenny Abrahamson (Room, 2015) and Hetti Macdonald (Howards End, 2017) On Hulu, BBC3, and CBC Gem now.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Just announced. Booker Prize winning author Graham Swift’s novel will be adapted into film with a stellar British cast. Mothering Sunday was a day given to domestic servants time off so they could go back home to visit their mother and family. Again, a clandestine romance between two young people of different classes. Eva Husson (Hanna, 2020) directs onscreen royalty Olivia Coleman (QEII in The Crown), Colin Firth (KGVI in The King’s Speech), Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown), and Odessa Young.
One day in the future when I have to account for how I spent my time in the months of March to May, 2020, I will come up short for a better answer than cook, eat, read, watch, sleep and then repeat day after day, lockdown except for weekly essential groceries. I admit though, I take to such reclusive, stay-home life quite naturally, albeit I did miss the Pond.
You wouldn’t want to know what I cooked and ate during those months, but I can tell you the discovery and revisit I’d made at home.
The Great Courses on KANOPY
Kanopy is wonderful if you’re not into trendy pop culture movies and TV shows. The streaming service offers classic titles and worthy contemporary films, international in scope, and is free with your local library card or an academic library account. They also carry The Great Courses, numerous subjects to choose from covering a huge variety of interests.
I took two courses, both exemplify the word ‘edutainment’, academically sound and informative. One is “Reading and Understanding Shakespeare” taught by Marc Connor (professor at Washington and Lee U), the other is “Screenwriting: Mastering the Art of Story” taught by Angus Fletcher (Ohio State U). Both comprise of 24 videos. In the Shakespeare course, I learned over 40 tools to decipher the Bard’s plays, and from the Screenwriting course, how to build a story world.
There are many pleasant discoveries but there’s one I find most gratifying. Come to think of it, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all: Both lecturers have cited Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, noting how Austen had used Shakespearean elements in her storytelling, and in turn, how her work had influenced modern day screenwriting.
To illustrate the tone of the Ironic Narrator, an ancient literary device dating back to the Greek and Roman satires, an example professor Fletcher uses is the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
The larger things of the cosmos, ‘universal truth’, is juxtaposed with that which is much smaller and singular, albeit such triviality may well have made up the cosmos of those who are parochial. Examples of such an ironic tone can be found in The Big Short, The Princess Bride, Fargo, and CSI. ‘All of them employ the same basic what and how of Pride and Prejudice, with their own little twists and tweaks.’
Maybe you’ve noticed I used the words ‘most gratifying’ with the pleasant surprise when I hear Austen being mentioned. Yes, Jane would turn in her grave to read what I’m going to write: it feels good to find someone, particularly a male with credentials, to confirm the value of her writing such that her work isn’t being seen as ‘just women’s novels’ or ‘chick lit’. Ugh… saying this is so unnecessary, for Austen doesn’t need to prove her worth among the ignorant. However, in this day and age, it takes movements and hashtags to confirm things that should have been valued. Misconceptions ought to be corrected.
Pride and Prejudice Revisited (Audiobook cover image above)
So, after these two courses, I was all set to revisit my favourite Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. This time, I downloaded the Blackstone audiobook (2011) narrated by Carolyn Seymour, and listened to it twice back to back; this time, I enjoyed it more. Here’s my ripple stirred by the Bard himself:
Ah ha! Fair is foul and foul is fair
Darcy and Wickham as foils repel
Appearance and sweet words can ensnare
At last! Lizzy learns her lesson well.
Further, the famous ‘block to young love’ conceit, not blocked by an older character as in the Bard’s plays –– surely Lady Catherine de Bourgh is old but she’s no match for Lizzy –– but by the lovers’ own internal flaw, be it pride, or prejudice, or both. How satisfying to see the protagonists mature in their self-knowledge as the story develops, first Darcy then later Elizabeth, gaining clarity of their own true self. Not to mention how gratifying to see that figure of grace, Darcy, as he saves the reputation of the Bennet family with his own silent, altruistic plan all for the one he loves.
Well, what’s a staycation for if not to savour one’s favourite reads over again, doing nothing all day but just dwell in the story world without feeling guilty about time spent. I’m thinking it’s a little like being stranded on a deserted island, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, and feeling lucky you’ve got Wilson as a companion, even when there’s no one to actually play volleyball with you.
Related Posts on Ripple Effects
I’ve written many posts on Jane Austen during the early years of blogging. Just put her name in Search you’ll find them. Here are some of my personal favourites:
That’s a Jeopardy! category a few days ago in the Double Jeopardy round. Here are the five questions, or answers, rather. Five novels that have not been adapted to screen. For purists, their stance would be Leave Them Unfilmed. But just for interests sake, let’s see which novels Jeopardy! has included:
Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger
Rumor has it that Salinger didn’t like movies. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” But no, Salinger didn’t say that, it’s Holden Caulfield who said that. In a letter Salinger had written, he denied that stance.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon
Chabon’s novel Wonder Boys was turned into a movie, but his Pulitzer winning The Amazing Adventures has not.
Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco
It’s been reported that the Italian philosopher/writer Umberto Eco wasn’t pleased with the movie adaptation of his earlier novel The Name of the Rose, so he said no more even though Stanley Kubrick had shown interest to work on Foucault’s Pendulum.
Blood Meridian (1985) by Cormac McCarthy
Many have attempted but to no avail, including Tommy Lee Jones, James Franco, Ridley Scott, and even Michael Haneke. It’s been noted that BM is more violent than No Country for Old Men. Do we need another one now, in our state of global chaos?
A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) by John Kennedy Toole
Although Hollywood had shown interest, even actors had been attached, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel remains unfilmed. Those of you who have read it, can you suggest some reasons why this is so.
A Note to Jeopardy Question Writers: Can’t you think of at least one novel from a woman author, just for the balance of your questions, let alone representation?
To my Ripple Readers: Can you suggest some good titles that have yet been turned into film? Old classic or current? Any books that you’d like to see transported to the big screen, in the helm of a worthy director with a talented cast and crew to bring out a deserving production?
Here are a few I can think of, some may have TV versions, but a full length, cinematic feature on the big screen is yet to be done:
Middlemarch by George Eliot (An old attempt years ago, but nothing realized. Now, let’s have Greta Gerwig write and direct. After Little Women, she just might have a fresh take on this classic.)
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women is a joyous celebration of family and life. It’s an innovative feature, and a worthy rendition keeping Louisa May Alcott’s story intact and her spirit alive. The storytelling is shifted from linear to juxtaposing the timelines of seven years apart, from the March sisters’ teenage years to adulthood. A break from traditional adaptations of the novel, and a structure modern movie goers are familiar with.
So, instead of waiting for two hours to see what have become of the girls, viewers get to see how they’ve turned out from the start and throughout the film as the timelines switches back and forth. One effect is the intermingling of memory and present reality, adding texture to just linear storytelling. The editing is smooth as music and sound often overlap the changes of scenes like a visual dissolve.
The Oscar nominated director (Lady Bird, 2017) has surpassed herself in crafting an exquisite piece of artful creation. Unlike most other movies nowadays, Little Women is shot using 35mm film rather than digital technology. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux offers viewers the inherent aesthetics of the medium, a grainy, more subtle visuals that augment picturesque New England in the exterior shots, and the depth and mood in the low-light interior. The picnic scene at the beach is pure delight. Mixed with Alexandre Desplat’s original music, the film is a beauty to behold.
Alcott’s 19th century American classic (1868-9) has been transposed to the big and small screen many times. No matter what your previously held memory is, Katherine Hepburn as Jo back in the 1933 first adaptation, or Elizabeth Taylor as Amy in 1949, or the 1994 adaptation with Susan Sarandon as Mrs. March and Wynona Ryder as Jo and a few up-and-coming youngsters such as Kristen Dunst, Claire Danes, and Christian Bale (as Laurie), Gerwig’s 2019 rendition is worthy to be the definitive version from now on as we head into the third decade of the 21st century.
The story is told from the point of view of Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer in New York at present. She reflects upon her path so far and reminisces on her family life, the cacophony of sisterhood in a busy household in Concord, MA, during the Civil War. A single woman author pitching to publishers, Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, a woman writer in a man’s world. As well, it would be apt to refer to Gerwig’s own challenges as a female writer/director in the present day movie industry.
The film is an alchemy of authentic, period backdrop and set design, stylish yet down-to-earth costumes, fused with a fresh and contemporary synergy. Credits go to the four young actors bringing to life the March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they live through hard times while their father has gone with the Union Army as a volunteer chaplain. Their neighbour and friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) remains a perpetual presence in their lives. Their altruistic mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds the family together and extends her care to those in need outside their home. She is the example of love and heart for her daughters to emulate. Her screen presence is comparatively small though as Gerwig lets her girls shine, especially Jo and Amy.
A touch of surprise for me is that Gerwig has kept the historic period and setting authentic without adding any postmodern quirks to shock or provoke. Her script allows Alcott’s points to flow out through the dialogues and characters within context. This is not fiery feminism, but an intelligent depiction of the status of women in the historic period. It’s an updated version doing justice to Alcott’s astuteness in her social critique which is, alas, still relevant today.
Kudos to Gerwig in bringing out the youngest sister Amy, not so much as a foil to Jo, but a worthy rival. Amy proves that even though bratty and capricious as a child, she has grown up to grasp a clarity in seeing the worth of a woman in her society, which is, not much. The realistic and rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has a firm view of this: it’s a lost cause with Jo who says she will not marry, or Meg who falls for a poor teacher and has to curb her material desires, and Beth’s ill health, she has put her hope on Amy to marry rich to dig the family out of poverty. Amy who has lived with her Aunt for a while when Beth is sick with scarlet fever understands her own situation with a cool head as she articulates it to Laurie. Knowing that she doesn’t have what it takes to be a truly great artist––she whose stance is to be great or nothing––Amy sees her predicament clearly. It all comes down to economics:
And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own comes to mind as she argues that economic disparity between men and women systemically disadvantages talented women to become successful.
In her research, Gerwig delves into Alcott’s other books as well as letters, thereby knowing her from a deeper perspective and not just from the novel Little Women. This understanding and appreciation is translated into the screenplay, capturing Alcott’s sharpness of mind and the sensitivity of her soul. Here’s a poignant scene as Jo pours out her heart to Marmee after rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal. Has she made the right decision? In an interview, Gerwig says the words are all Alcott’s, from her book Rose in Bloom, except the last sentence added by Gerwig herself, equally brilliant, piercingly clear, and very Dickinson:
Women have minds, as well as just heart; ambition and talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for. But I’m so lonely.
The March family has had their share of misfortune. But life can be beautiful for those who behold it as such and deem it meaningful to pursue one’s own dream or simply to enjoy one’s passion, no matter how short the allotment of time. Despite challenging personal and social reality, it’s a bliss to be alive, and yes, even better when one succeeds. Gerwig has effectively brought out this theme with both sensitivity and heart. The ending scene speaks to this truth.
In a previous post I reviewed The Goldfinch, one of two literary adaptations on my list to watch while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September. The Personal History of David Copperfield is the other one, which also had its world premiere at TIFF; it represents a totally different approach to bringing a literary work to the big screen.
If The Goldfinch is an example of a traditional way of adaptation, striving at loyalty to the literary source while overlooking cinematic elements, David Copperfield is a brave venture out wielding post-modern strokes, not that it is changed into a contemporary setting, but that it is adapted with a modern-day zeitgeist. Here’s director Armando Iannucci’s rationale during a TIFF interview: Just as Dickens wrote David Copperfield reflecting life and society of his time, as a filmmaker today, he directs the adaptation through a frame of our time.
What stands out in such post-modern filmmaking is the ‘colour-blind casting’ of the production. David Copperfield is played by Dev Patel, a young British actor of Indian descent. Known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Patel has established a popular screen presence with a charisma that whisked him through many subsequent successful features such as the two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011, 2015) and Lion (2016). Other non-white actors taking up main roles include Benedict Wong (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) as Mr. Wickfield, Rosalind Eleazar (Howards End, 2017) as Agnes and Nikki Amuka-Bird (The Children Act, 2017) as Mrs. Steerforth. It is a bold statement Iannucci is making: skin colour is not an issue. These talents are first and foremost, actors.
Iannucci indicated that he’d always have Patel in mind ever since he watched Lion (2016), a true story about an Indian boy separated from his older brother in a Calcutta train station and later sent away for adoption in Australia. Twenty-five years later, after a long search, he finally located and reunited with his mother in an Indian village. Watching Patel in Lion, Iannucci thought, that’s David Copperfield for him. Indeed, Dickens’s character David Copperfield could well be a metaphor for those who had suffered much in childhood and yet against all odds, have survived and grown up to be resilient and compassionate human beings.
The adaptation exudes energy and humour. Iannucci has chosen his cinematic palette with bright colours and sprinkled with comedic sparks. Surely, Dickens’s Copperfield has a sad upbringing, orphaned after his beloved mother dies young, and mistreated by his stepfather Mr. Murdstone and his sister Jane Murdstone, later having had to fend for himself as a child labourer at the ripe age of 12. Yet Dickens’s humour never fades. His light-hearted depiction of Aunt Betsey Trotwood or Mr. Micawber offer some hilarious characterization. Later, David’s brave and arduous escape to seek the shelter of Aunt Betsey turns his life around. The autobiographical fiction could well represent Dickens’s view that, in the midst of misfortunes and human pathos, there still lies a deeper essence, and that’s the joy of life. Iannucci deftly capitalizes this inherent quality in the the author’s writing and adorns his film with humour and jollity.
Here’s a note on Wikipedia on Armando Iannucci that I find interesting: “Born in Glasgow to Italian parents, Iannucci studied at the University of Glasgow followed by the University of Oxford, leaving graduate work on a D.Phil about John Milton to pursue a career in comedy.” I’m sure the story about his academic pursuit and career change entail more than just this one line can say, but that’s enough to give us the background of who’s bringing David Copperfield to the screen now. Iannucci is the creator and writer of the award-winning TV series Veep (2012-2019), the Oscar nominated political satire In the Loop (2009), and the dark comedy The Death of Stalin (2017), for which he won Best Director and Best Writer at BAFTA.
To those wary about the lack of seriousness, the superb cast is poised to deflect such criticisms. Tilda Swinton (Oscar winner Michael Clayton, 2007) as Betsey Trotwood and Hugh Laurie (Golden Globe Best Actor The Night Manager, House) as Mr. Dick are the anchors that complement Patel’s spirited performance. They are pivotal in transferring Dickens’s moral insights onto screen. Aunt Betsey’s kindness towards Mr. Dick, who in today’s term would be one stricken with mental illness, is a lesson in example, influencing David’s mutual friendship with him. The same with David’s support and acceptance of Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his family while they are in dire financial distress. If we need a villain, Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep is there to show vividly the face of hypocrisy and the consequence of jealousy and deceit.
Such a light handling of the classic novel has its weakness naturally. While the moral lesson of good over evil still stands, David’s growing insights about love, life, and faith which Dickens writes about so eloquently have not been transferred onto screen as successfully. It is unfortunate that the movie does not elaborate on the effects of David’s misplaced adulations of Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard, The Goldfinch, 2019) nor does it focus on his awakening to the fervency Agnes has for him. David’s blindspot and Agnes’s hidden love for him would have made a poignant storyline. Nevertheless, the two eventually do come together, but just as a coda, with Dora (Morfydd Clark, Love & Friendship, 2016) getting the inkling of a mismatch between herself and the emerging writer to gracefully step aside, sparing David the deathbed scene from the book.
Overall, the adaptation is a joy to watch, and one of those films that I’d like to rewatch. It has just been screened at London Film Festival in early October, release dates in North America unknown. The casting might pose an issue for some, but it just may be another object lesson for today.
Burning is based on the short story “Barn Burning” by the popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, the translated English version first published in the November issue of The New Yorker in 1992. Acclaimed Korean director Lee Chang-dong has fleshed out the minimalist narrative of Murakami’s story and created an extended ending, turning Burning from mere rumination into a dramatic suspense thriller, shedding traces of a myriad of literary allusions. That is the appeal of the works by the Korean novelist-turned-filmmaker.
Winner of the FIPRESCI Prize and a nominee for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Burning had its North American premiere on September 9 at the Toronto International Film Festival. As well, South Korea has announced that Burning will be its official entry to the Best Foreign Language Film race at the 91st Oscars in 2019. The acclaimed film will be released in November in selective cities.
More than fifty years before Murakami’s short piece appeared in The New Yorker, back in 1939, a short story of the same name, “Barn Burning”, was published in Harper’sMagazine. Its author was William Faulkner. It was a dramatic story of class discrepancy in the American South, the chasm between the rich and the poor and the hateful revenge of a tenant farmer burning down the properties of his land owner. Interesting to note that Murakami made no mention of Faulkner in his story, which can be seen as a modern-day version of the American author’s work.
Director Lee’s adaptation shares similar meaning-imbued elements as his last feature Poetry from eight years ago. While his previous work is a character study of a grandmother trying to seek out a way to renew her life, in Burning, Lee focuses on the young, specifically, the millennials, and contrasting the social chasm between the rich and the poor with two characters.
Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) graduated from university majoring in creative writing. At present he is doing menial jobs as a living while trying to write a novel. On a delivery one day he comes across an old schoolmate, Haemi—impressive performance by newcomer Jun Jong-seo—working as a raffle promoter on the street. She recognizes Jongsu as according to her, they used to live in the same community when they were children. That brief encounter sparks off a precarious relationship between the two.
Due to some legal entanglement of his father’s, Jongsu has to leave the city to return to his father’s impoverished farm to look after it. He sleeps in a run-down shack, drives a rusty truck and clears the waste of the only cow left. At the same time, Haemi is going on a trip to Africa, and has asked Jongsu to go to her small apartment to feed her cat while she is away. This he gladly obliges.
But when Haemi returns after some time, she brings with her another man, Ben (Steven Yeun of the TV series ‘The Walking Dead’), a third person to the intimate relationship Jongsu had wanted to establish with Haemi. Ben is more than just a disruptor but an enigma. He lives in a high-end apartment, dresses stylishly, drives a Porsche and exudes sophisticated tastes. He does not hold a job nor seem to mind Jongsu’s presence, but invites him home and brings him into his circle of friends. “The Gatsby in Korea” as Jongsu figures him, Ben is a man with a mysterious past and unsearchable intention.
Things become more intriguing and uncomfortable when one night, Ben confides in Jongsu that he burns greenhouses for his own pleasure. He would scout out his target and set fire to it while watching from afar. The next one he has in mind actually is quite close to where Jongsu is staying, near his father’s farm. Here we see Murakami’s interesting flip of Faulkner’s story. Instead of a hateful man from a lower economic class driven by jealousy and bitterness to commit arson, we have the resourceful rich burning down greenhouses, but for what reason?
Unlike Murakami, Lee alludes to Faulkner, but also takes up Murakami’s suggestion that it is not only poverty or revenge that drives one to commit incendiary acts, but ennui, self-indulgence, or mere emptiness can also prod one towards inexplicable behaviour.
Steven Yeun, the Korean-American actor known for the TV series “The Walking Dead”, takes up his first major role in a Korean film. Yeun’s portrayal of an amoral, metrosexual may well be a modern-day parallel of Camus’s L’Etranger, The Stranger. His often expressionless, but not unpleasant, face could well have conveyed the inner psyche of a rootless and purposeless existence.
One time at a social gathering, Haemi imitates the African ‘hunger dance’ in front of Ben and his friends. First, she acts with small, silent gestures showing the ‘little hunger’ of the literal, physical pang then changing to the ‘great hunger’ with her arms reaching upward and swaying to signify the empty soul reaching out in search of fulfilment. Watching her, Ben’s response is a yawn and a slight smile when Jongsu catches his bored reaction. Then a quick cut to a loud, electrifying night club scene with Haemi dancing wildly in a smoky, hazy atmosphere. Lee’s cinematic storytelling is stark and to the point.
The director’s rendering of passion and the human psyche is enhanced by Hong Kyung-pyo’s mesmerizing cinematography and the engaging score by Mowg and other incidental music, presenting sequences that are at times dreamlike, and at times, sadly realistic. In a stirring scene, Haemi dances again, this time against the setting sun out in Jongsu’s farm, her silhouette captivating her two audience, subtle rivals, one genuine, the other, unsearchable.
The plot thickens towards the last section when Jongsu tries to connect with Haemi after some time but finds her missing. Her apartment has been vacated, her phone disconnected. The next time he sees Ben, Ben is with another woman and admitted no knowledge of Haemi’s whereabouts. The disappearance of Haemi ignites Jongsu’s suspicion and drives the tension towards an explosive denouement which Lee adds to Murakami’s short story. It is an ending that is a surprise and yet also natural in context. Lee brilliantly brings his viewers full circle back to Faulkner with his layered storytelling.
Just like his previous works Poetry (2010) and Secret Sunshine (2007), Lee has shown once again that he is not only a masterful director but an astute observer of human psyche and behaviour.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples
Note: My review above was originally published in Asian American Press on Sept. 12, 2018. I thank AAPress for permission to repost here.
Update Nov. 16: “Burning” just nominated for Best International Film (South Korea) at the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
What to read next? I’m sure that’s not a question in many readers’ mind as their TBR pile is high. But if you love to read the books before watching the movie adaptations, or looking for summer reads, here are some titles that might pique your interest.
Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Fun to listen to, love that voice in the audiobook. But if you’re a print aficionado, this would make one breezy summer read and a movie to look forward to this fall. Cate Blanchett is Bernadett Fox, with Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer. Directed by Richard Linklater, who gave us the ‘Before…’ trilogy, Boyhood, and many other wonderful films.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the Pen/Faulker Award. A world-renown opera singer is trapped in a hostage crisis and the subsequent events. Based on a true incident in the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru in 1996-1997. A movie adaptation has been brewing for some years and finally it’s made. Julianne Moore plays the lead role. Directed by Paul Weitz (About A Boy)
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Kevin Kwan’s Crazy trilogy is highly readable. Don’t get turned off by the titles like I was at first. They’re no-holds-barred satires that are bound to be eye-openers to many readers. A modern day, Asian version of Lizzy meeting Mr. Darcy. Movie adaptation coming out later this summer and will be a testing ground for audience world-wide with its all Asian cast and director. “Fresh Off the Boat” TV series star Constance Wu plays NYU prof Rachel Chu, Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger), Ken Jeong (Dr. Ken) are in. Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) directs.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Among the multiple awards Canadian writer Patrick DeWitt won with his 2012 novel was the Stephen Leacock Medal, which means it’s very humorous. A story about the brothers who share the last name Sisters. If you’re into dark but comedic Westerns, here’s your pick. A-listers Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, John C. Reily star. Acclaimed French director Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone) helms. Story takes place in Oregon and California during the 1850’s. Shot in Romania and Spain. That’s movie making today.
Other interesting titles just announced or in development:
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Entitled The Personal History of David Copperfield which I believe was the original Dickens title, is now being adapted once again into a contemporary version. Exciting to see old classics not only survive but getting creative remakes for modern-day appeal. This may not sit well with purists, but hey, our world is changing and spinning crazily every minute, so might as well enjoy the ride. This one stars Dev Patel as David Copperfield. You remember that’s the promising young man from Slumdog Millionaire, and after that, some worthy titles. He’s come a long way. An apt choice, I’d say. Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Laurie all in.
How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
Benedict Cumberbatch acquired the film rights of Haig’s newest novel even before it’s published. So must be good. Cumberbatch will star as the 41 year-old man who actually has been living for centuries. Must contain some secrets of staying young, or maybe just a condition that you wouldn’t want. British novelist and journalist Haig’s books have been translated into 30 languages world-wide.
“The Judge’s Will” by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s last short story will be adapted into film to be directed by Alexander Payne. The ideal screenwriter for this one? James Ivory of course. Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, the literary-to-film triangle, my all time faves. You can read the story right here at The New Yorker online.
And here are some literary titles remade for TV series or movie on the small screen now or coming up:
We’ve come to the midpoint of our tentative reading plan. Hard to believe one month’s gone by already. Instead of a review of all the chapters, how about a Middlemarch inkblot test?
What word comes to your mind when you see the following:
I’ll just stop with these ones. Have your views about these characters changed from first you met them?
Any surprises in the storylines?
Which characters do you click ‘Like’?
What to do with the ones we don’t? Is Eliot having fun with Austen’s idea of creating characters whom no one would much like?
Here are some of mine, for various reasons, but mostly for Eliot’s power of association in her descriptions.
Will Ladislaw’s thought about Dorothea:
“To ask her to be less simple and direct would be like breathing on the crystal that you want to see the light through.”
About Dorothea’s predicament:
“I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight –– that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.”
And if Eliot were among us today, she would likely be vocal in the #Metoo and #Timesup movements:
“Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.”
Dorothea and Celia Brooke remind me of the Dashwood sisters Elinor and MariAnne. Like MaryAnne, Celia, being the younger, holds much respect and love for her older sister. Unlike the sisters in Austen’s novel however, here in Middlemarch so far, I just wonder who is Sense and who is Sensibility.
What are siblings for if not to act as a sounding board to test one’s opinion? This is a scene fit for a prime time TV comedy. Celia, just learned that Mr. Casaubon is the only guest coming to dinner––the setup to that special dinner she is totally oblivious––thus allowing her to speak her mind freely to Dorothea:
“I hope there is some one else. Then I shall not hear him eat his soup so.”
“What is there remarkable about his soup-eating?”
“Really, Dodo, can’t you hear how he scrapes his spoon? And he always blinks before he speaks. I don’t know whether Locke blinked, but I’m sure I am sorry for those who sat opposite to him if he did.”
“Celia,” said Dorothea, with emphatic gravity, “pray don’t make any more observations of that kind.”
“Why not? They are quite true,” returned Celia, who had her reasons for persevering, though she was beginning to be a little afraid.
“Many things are true which only the commonest minds observe.”
“Then I think the commonest minds must be rather useful. I think it is a pity Mr. Casaubon’s mother had not a commoner mind: she might have taught him better.” Celia was inwardly frightened, and ready to run away, now she had hurled this light javelin.
What follows of course is the bombshell that shatters the sounding board for any sense or sensibility.
Another pair of siblings that makes a lively scene is Fred Vincy and his sister Rosamund. Talking about using the word “superior” to denote certain young men, Fred says:
“Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers’ slang.”
“Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?” said Rosamond, with mild gravity.
“Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.”
“There is correct English: that is not slang.”
“I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
“You will say anything, Fred, to gain your point.”
“Well, tell me whether it is slang or poetry to call an ox a leg-plaiter.”
“Of course you can call it poetry if you like.”
“Aha, Miss Rosy, you don’t know Homer from slang. I shall invent a new game; I shall write bits of slang and poetry on slips, and give them to you to separate.”
“Dear me, how amusing it is to hear young people talk!” said Mrs. Vincy, with cheerful admiration.
What are siblings for if not to act as target of javelin or indulgence for a doting mother.
How’s your reading coming along?
Some Middlemarch posts from our Read-Along participants:
A few quotes to set the stage for our Read-Along of Middlemarch by George Eliot.
BBC History Website:
“She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels.”
From “George Eliot: A Celebration” by A. S. Byatt, as introduction to Modern Library’s edition of Middlemarch:
“She had no real heir as “novelist of ideas” in England… Her heirs are abroad—Proust in France, Mann in Germany. Which brings me to another reason for loving her: she was European, not little-English, her roots were Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac, not just, as Leavis’s “Great Tradition” implies, Jane Austen. She opened gates which are still open.”
From “Why Read George Eliot”, by Paula Marantz Cohen in American Scholar, Spring 2006:
“Eliot’s voice, in its assumption of a wiser, juster, more all-encompassing perspective, is the ligament of her novels. It elevates them from ingenious storytelling to divine comedy…
As Virginia Woolf observed, Eliot wrote novels for grown-up people. Our society and our relationships would be saner and better if more grownups read her.”
“A specter haunted Henry James: it was the specter of George Eliot. He visited her first in 1869, when he was twenty-six, and wrote to his father:
‘I was immensely impressed, interested and pleased. To begin with, she is magnificently ugly—deliciously hideous…. Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end up as I ended, in falling in love with her. Yes behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced blue-stocking.’
Three years later, when Middlemarch appeared, James wrote from Rome to his friend Grace Norton:
A marvellous mind throbs in every page of Middlemarch. It raises the standard of what is to be expected of women—(by your leave!) We know all about the female heart; but apparently there is a female brain, too…. To produce some little exemplary works of art is my narrow and lowly dream. They are to have less “brain” than Middlemarch; but (I boldly proclaim it) they are to have more form.”
In 2015, BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari surveyed 82 book critics around the world outside UK, “from Australia to Zimbabwe”, and asked them to rate the greatest English novels of all time. Guess which book came up on top of the list? Guess right. Middlemarch by George Eliot. Why outside the UK? To find out “What does the rest of the world see as the greatest British novels… for a collective critical assessment… a global perspective”.
For her 19th C. classic to appeal to critics today, George Eliot must have done something right. I must discover the mystery. Interesting that I’d read Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch a few years ago and enjoyed it even without reading the eponymous work. But I’ve been saying to myself, I need to put an end to this cultural deprivation. You’ll never know, there just might be a new movie adaptation brewing somewhere with a postmodern streak. I have to read the original first.
My personal plan is to read the hard copy and listen to the audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson whichever and whenever I like during the process. Read at home, listen while driving or doing something else. That usually works best for me. Feel free to use whatever reading format you prefer.
As the lovely month of May is approaching, you’re welcome to join me and Bellezza and others here and here to read Middlemarch. We will take it leisurely. While we start in May, I’ll leave the ending date tentatively at the end of June. But if by ‘leisurely’ it means July or even further, I’m totally fine with it. (Bellezza would know how flexible I am with our previous read-along) I always find reading with a deadline more a pressure than pleasure.
You might have read it before, so here’s a chance to dust off your copy from the shelf, as we read or reread together and connect online, no matter where you are, from Australia to Zimbabwe. You may like to share via a blog post, leave a comment, or send a tweet. How’s this for a hashtag: #MiddlemarchinMay on Twitter.