Monday, 17 February 2014

Fight Club: Film Vs Book

Movie Poster
Fight Club is one of my most favourite films. It's fiendishly clever, with wicked, black humour and some excellent acting. Helena Bonham-Carter is almost unrecognisable as the emotionally-ruined Marla, whilst Edward Norton  is wonderfully deadpan as the nameless Narrator who becomes disenchanted and cynical about his life. Brad Pitt completes the trio as Tyler, the revolutionary single-serving friend who appears in the Narrator's life and sets about spreading anarchy wherever he goes. The film is peppered with so many in-jokes, hints and Easter Eggs that every time you watch it, you spot something new to laugh wryly at, or a bit of foreshadowing that you missed the first dozen times you saw it. It's rude, violent, dark and hilarious, and I love it. Until this week, I had never read the book.

I knew there was a book; years and years ago a friend told me about it whilst we'd been talking about the film. I was surprised to hear this - it hadn't occurred to me that this insane piece of cinema had started out on a page - but initially I was eager to read it. Yet when I had opportunities to get it - in bookshops, when I got my Kindle, when people asked me what I wanted for Christmases and birthdays - I never actually took the leap. I always thought about it, but couldn't bring myself to do it. The simple fact is, after all those times I said books were better than films (with the brief exception of my Screen Beats The Page entry), I couldn't bear to read the book that inspired one of my favourite films. Silly, isn't it? I spend all this time worrying that screen versions won't match up to original books, but still watching them anyway, and then the very idea of one book not matching up to the film prevents me from reading the book. But to me, Fight Club the Film was so perfect, so wonderful that I was worried - for the first time ever - that the book would change my opinion of it, would twist it and alter it.

Book Cover
But last week, my curiosity - as it so often does - got the better of me, and I finally took the plunge and bought Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (if anyone can tell me how to pronounce that surname, please do). My first thoughts were how very like the film the book was - or rather, how faithful an adaptation the film was. Some parts of the text were instantly recognisable as dialogue from the film - even the pacing of the speech and thought patterns had been mimicked. This lead me to my first problem: Edward Norton was narrating my book for me. I don't know if you've ever thought about this, or experienced it, but I always find that when I read, it's like there is a voice inside my head that is reading to me, and does the voices and inflections as necessary. Normally, for me, this is a gender-neutral voice, just an extension of my mind helping me put images and opinions about what I'm reading together. For the first time though, this voice had taken on a personality: Edward Norton as the Narrator was reading the book to me in my head as clearly as if I'd been watching the film at the same time. I was also seeing the film, in my mind's eye, as I read each scene; the bar where the Narrator and Tyler have their first fight was, of course, the same as in the film, and the Narrator's condominium that blows up - setting the ensuing events in motion - was exactly the same as the film.

All this made it incredibly difficult for me to enjoy the book, because I wasn't able to focus on it entirely; instead of letting words and images and characters wash over me, I was half concentrating on the book, half rushing ahead, thinking about what happens next in the film. It's one thing to know what happens in a book, but it's another to spend your time thinking about how a scene you haven't got to yet looks in the film. One of the aspects of reading that has always bought me most joy is letting my imagination conjure up the scenes that a writer has created; a particularly gifted writer will be able to describe something so well, you can instantly see it. I can tell Palahniuk is a gifted writer, because the film is so like the book in many ways that you can tell he did a good job; for me, however, I can't experience this, because the images have already been created for me, and try as I might, I can't dislodge them.

This brings me back, I suppose, to my original belief that it is better to read a book first before seeing its cinematic counterpart; it gives you an opportunity to discover a world for yourself, and to see it how you would like to see it, rather than how someone else imagines it. An example of this that springs to mind is Peter Jackson's interpretation of Susie's heaven in his adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, which is one of my favourite books. His version, involving inverted skies, swirling colours and oversized creatures did not tally up with mine at all, which was a kind of beige, dry landscape, peppered with unremarkable buildings, dogs and other people. But because I saw Fight Club first, and because the film is such a good adaptation, now I'm reading it, all I can see is scenes from the film. This is disappointing, because on some level I know I would've enjoyed the book, regardless of whether I'd seen the film or not. Having said that, I don't know how long it would've been until I found the book if I hadn't seen the film, so in some ways that's a good thing - at least this remarkable story has been in my life in some form. And after all, Chuck Palahniuk himself thought the film did a fantastic job - he actually commented that "the movie had streamlined the plot and made it so much more effective, and made connections that I had never thought to make". When the author thinks the film has performed some tasks better than his own work, you know it's got to be a good one.

I've just finished Fight Club today, and towards the end there were some scenes that I was able to imagine in my own way - a few differences with the film that allowed me to sink more comfortably into the story. However, I was reminded of the film right until the end, with constant echoes of dialogue and scenes ringing through my head. It wasn't an entirely unpleasant experience, and I can confidently say I would read the book again, and I will watch the film again. I can't pretend my imaginings of scenes from books have ever gone unscathed by depictions I've seen on the big screen - a notable one is my imagining of the Great Hall from Harry Potter, which was completely different to how I saw it. In hindsight, my version was a bit stupid and my re-readings of the series has improved for adopting the Great Hall from the film. I think with Fight Club, I was just so thrown by how closely the film had clearly stuck to its original source material, that maybe my marvelling at the similarities got in the way. Then again, I challenge anyone to not notice them. It has taught me a lesson though: from now on - if I can help it - when it comes to adaptations, I'm reading the book first.

Friday, 14 February 2014

The Great Potter Debate: My Two Cents

Recently, there was something of a breakdown in the Harry Potter fandom, because J. K. Rowling was rude enough to have an opinion on her own characters. The 'heretical' comments, made in an interview with Emma Watson for Wonderland magazine were that she "wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfilment... In some ways Hermione and Harry are a better fit." The full interview (which can also be found here), when eventually published, actually revealed that Rowling was more of the opinion that Hermione and Ron would have needed a bit of counselling to make it through their marriage (which is hardly unusual) but would've been fine; but by then it was too late - the Harry/Hermione supporters were victoriously crowing 'We told you so!' at the Ron/Hermione faction, who were up in arms that Rowling would dare to 'rewrite' their beloved books.

I've been thinking about this on and off for a while now - firstly, because I've always been a huge Potter fan, but also because coincidentally I started re-reading the series just before the bombshell was dropped, so I'm right in there, analysing who has the better relationship with Hermione and chalking up pros and cons for both Harry and Ron. Of course, as some would argue, Hermione is probably best off not being paired with one of the two, but for the sake of the actual question Rowling raised - Which Wizard? for Hermione - I'm going to go over my reasons for why Ron Weasley is the best match for Hermione Granger. This should go without saying, but there will be a few spoilers.

1. Ron needs to be number one with someone. The poor bloke is the youngest boy in a family of nine, and his older brothers include dragon-tamers, curse-breakers, joke shop owners and head boys. His little sister is the only girl so naturally she gets special treatment. What does Ron get? Second-hand everything and a fair bit of overlooking - on one of the first occasions when we meet Ron in Philosopher's Stone, he grumbles that his mother always forgets he dislikes corned beef. The next thing he does is befriend the most famous wizard at school, at the very time when he could start carving out an identity for himself. Instead, he is setting himself up for seven years of playing second fiddle to The Boy Who Lived. His heartbreaking vision in the Mirror of Erised sums up his feelings of inadequacy perfectly, and these feelings of being second-best continues to be a theme throughout the series, finally coming to a head with the awful vision in the locket horcrux of Hermione choosing Harry. Harry doesn't need to be looked after and validated, but Ron does, and Hermione can give that to him simply by choosing him over his (theoretically) better, cleverer friend.

2. Harry doesn't need a love interest in the books. Sure, Ginny is an interesting enough character, but her relationship with Harry is a sub-plot in the sixth book that could be lifted out - the film adaptation shows this clearly, with only the corniest of allusions made to the relationship (the Room of Requirement scene? The only thing that requires is to disappear entirely. Zing!) The fact remains that Harry's story is about the lead-up to his life-or-death meeting with Voldemort; to start having him and Hermione moon over each other would've detracted from the plot completely. Of course, as it follows Harry through his teenage years, it would be foolish for anyone to pretend Harry is so preoccupied by Voldemort that he fails to notice girls, but to give him a full-blown love story would've been distracting. Ron and Hermione's budding relationship - even with all its setbacks, arguments and jealousies - gives the series a love story, without tangling up Harry's actual purpose.

3. Harry and Hermione already have a relationship. And in my opinion, it's a sibling one. I can't really explain this as it's my interpretation, but I've just always felt like she was the sensible, nerdy older sister who's always looking out for her erratic little brother, like when she retrieves the Invisibility Cloak for him in Prisoner of Azkaban, or when she coaches him through the Triwizard Tournament in Goblet of Fire. She doesn't take any of his nonsense, she's always there for him and she always looks out for him. However, she's not above a bit of jealousy; when Harry starts to beat her in Potions in the Half-Blood Prince, she feels threatened and snipes regularly at Harry for his newly-discovered cheats. She's also a bit of a tell-tale, running to McGonagall in Prisoner of Azkaban when Harry gets a new broom from a mysterious, and possibly malicious, benefactor. All very sibling-y qualities, I think we'd agree.

4. Hermione needs a bit of a joker. That's not to say Harry is humourless, but let's face it, he's got a lot to preoccupy him and we all know that Ron is the comic relief in this trio. Uptight Hermione would benefit from Ron's more laid back attitude.

5. On the flipside, Ron needs a good influence. Harry's got a pretty good balance; he does his homework (albeit not always properly), has a few special skills - Quidditch, Patronuses - to give him focus, and he can still have a laugh. Ron, however, is lazy, but Hermione can push him to try harder and even if he doesn't succeed, he at least gives it a shot. When we last see Ron, in the epilogue to Deathly Hallows, he's just learnt to drive, something his Muggle-born wife wanted him to do. Alright, so he cheated with a bit of magic, but at least he's learnt for her; that's more than your average pureblood husband would do. You wouldn't catch Malfoy behind the wheel of a hatchback, that's all I'm sayin'.

6. The trio retain their equilibrium. Be honest, if Harry/Hermione had happened, how likely do you think they would have remained friends with Ron? Eventually I reckon they would drift apart, as Ron would always have felt like a third wheel. Three's a crowd, as the saying goes. But with Ron and Hermione together, and Harry and Ginny a couple, they're all part of the same, close-knit family - the best end for three friends who've gone through so much together.

7. Ginny is a better match for Harry. Well, after the books finish, anyway, and for many reasons. For starters, she's his best friend's little sister, which ties him closely to the wizard family he most wants to be in: the Weasleys. He starts off as something of a foster son to Mr and Mrs Weasley, and eventually he becomes their son-in-law. She also shares her older brother's disregard for rules, which makes her a bit like a female Ron, but less bitchy and jealous. Finally, and most importantly, she becomes a Quidditch player for a professional team, meaning that she comes the closest to understanding Harry's grapples with fame. Ron and Hermione would have no idea about how it felt to be stared at or approached in the street, but when Ginny finds fame she becomes Harry's equal because she can understand a part of his life that no one else can.

Of course, if you're willing to read deeply enough into the Potter series, and employ a bit of imagination, you could probably make convincing cases for Hermione with pretty much anyone, from Malfoy to Terry Boot. But if we're all honest with ourselves, if she has to be with anyone, it's gotta be Ron. He's her lobster.