Monday, January 28, 2008

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter's evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day.

-Virginia Woolf Night and Day

Friday, January 25, 2008

Masterpiece Theatre: Northanger Abbey

After a rather disappointing adaptation of Persuasion, my expectations for last Sunday's Northanger Abbey were much lower than before. However, Masterpiece Theatre has redeemed itself, at least for the time being.

Admittedly, if any of Austen's novels could be effectively squeezed into 90 minutes, it would be Northanger Abbey. There is alot less back-story and character development and also a pretty simple plot compared to the rest of her creations.

This version sticks to the plot pretty well and also keeps Austen's intentions for the novel intact, in that it ridicules the sensational novels of the time. Felicity Jones is sweet as the young and naive Catherine and JJ Feild is a likable and charming Henry Tilney. As in Persuasion, the supporting characters are a little lacking in depth, but somehow it is more forgivable here.

Overall, it was pleasant way to spend a Sunday evening. Northanger Abbey's simple and charming plot is kept intact and doesn't seem as rushed and hurried as Persuasion did. So, the count is 1-1 for Masterpiece Theatre. Up next: Mansfield Park

Monday, January 21, 2008

When Knighthood was in Flower

Forbidden love; it's probably one of the most used plot themes in all of literature. From Romeo and Juliet to Wuthering Heights, many books have explored the relationships of people who feel drawn to each other and yet are kept apart, either by their own rationale, the wishes and expectations of those around them, or simply by their station in life. When Knighthood was in Flower is one such story, where two young people must fight against their circumstances in order to gain the happiness they so desire.

The Plot

Mary Tudor is the charming, witty and beautiful younger sister of King Henry VIII of England. All of her life, Mary has been used to getting whatever it is she wants by whatever means she can. She has seen so many men fall at her feet and profess a great love for her (and her beauty, rank, wealth etc.) that she now considers the love of a man cheap and worthless. Enter Charles Brandon, a handsome and dashing young man who has been brought to court, not for wealth and rank, as he possesses neither, but for the many brave and noble feats he has accomplished both in England and abroad. Charles is not one to fall for just any pretty girl, and is initially rather cool with the spoiled Mary. This infuriates her, and yet at the same time she is intrigued by him. Slowly but surely, both Mary and Charles begin to see an attraction growing between them.

About this time, Henry decides to marry his little sister off to King Louis XII of France as a strategic political alliance. Mary's opinion is of course not considered and the negotiations begin at a swift pace. Now, Mary and Charles, with the help of Sir Edwin Caskoden (Master of the Dance) and Jane (Mary's Lady-in-Waiting), must risk everything in order to escape Henry's plans and to attain the life that both of them so desperately want.

My Review (Caution: Spoilers!)

While When Knighthood was in Flower is an engaging and romantic story, it isn't exactly what one would consider great literature. The story is told from the perspective of Sir Edwin Caskoden, the Master of the Dance in Henry's court. This is a rather limiting approach to take, but it could have been done if Charles Major could only make up his mind as to whether or not Sir Caskoden is an omniscient narrator. We are constantly told of meetings and conversations between Charles and Mary, yet are unable to participate them because Sir Edwin was not there. But at the same time, Sir Edwin goes on and on about Mary's inner feelings and conflicts which he could know nothing about unless he was an omniscient narrator. So we are left to wonder, is Sir Edwin always "there" or not?
The other thing that continued to bug me as I read the story was Sir Edwin's continuous interjections of his love for Lady Jane. He will be describing a passionate scene between Charles and Mary, their trials, their love and has he ever told you how much he loves Jane and why does she play so coy with him and did he tell you about her gorgeous eyes and blah blah blah blah.... If I wanted to know so much about his relationship with Jane, then I would have read a book on their relationship. But this book is supposedly about Charles and Mary, so for heaven's sake quit interrupting at the most inconvenient places!

But enough complaints, there were some good points to this story as well. Both Charles and Mary are fairly well developed characters and though you may at times feel a certain loathing for their actions (especially Mary's) you never really quit hoping and praying for a happy ending for them. And what Charles Major lacks in writing style, he makes up for in his history. The setting is extremely believable and there is nothing (that I could see) that sticks out as a huge historical error. Major even reveals a few little known customs of the Tudor period in England.
All in all, this is the kind of book you would expect when a history buff writes a romance. Although it ranks nowhere near the classic romances of say Hugo or Scott, it is still a lovely story, perfect for those lazy afternoons when all you desire is a gentle, breezy plot, characters you can root for, and a very happy ending.

The Movie
This is one of those stories that seems to be made for the big screen. It was adapted as early as 1908, but it's most famous adaption is probably the 1953 Walt Disney adaption The Sword and the Rose starring Richard Todd, Glynis Johns and James Robertson Justice. This adaption remains pretty true to the story while making the plot a bit more concise and also giving it a real villain in Lord Buckingham. The acting is good, the costumes outlandish, and Mary's witty tongue remains firmly intact. A great family film, whether or not you have read the book.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Masterpiece Theatre: Persuasion

Alright, I admit that I have always had pretty high expectations for Masterpiece Theatre productions, especially after 2006's Bleak House. So perhaps I was expecting too much for the new adaptation of Persuasion. But all in all, this is about the most disappointing Masterpiece adaptation I have ever seen. At only 1 1/2 hours long, there was no time to develop any of the characters or their relationships. I was left watching Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth and thinking "Who are these people, and why should I care if they get together or not?" Now I have never read Persuasion, (shame on me, I must do penance) but I have read enough of Austen's works to know that there should be alot more wit and dialogue in these stories, not just a bunch of looks, glances and sighs. And the ending, though meant to be tense and thrilling, was actually absurd almost to the point being hilarious. I do not, however, fault the actors for these shortcomings. I think that with more screen time and a better script, they could have done justice to Austen's original.
But I still hold out hope for the rest of the adaptations and look forward to Northanger Abbey this Sunday evening. In the meantime, I think I will add Persuasion to my reading list and see if I can hunt down a copy of the Amanda Root adaptation.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Faith Like a Child: The Princess and the Goblin

"And he said: 'I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.'" Matthew 18:3. These words are the essence of George MacDonald's classic The Princess and the Goblin, a story of complete trust in what you may not understand, and understanding those who cannot believe. MacDonald uses fantasy to bring to life basic truths that resonate not only with the young, but also with those who thought that they had left fantasy behind.

The Plot:

In a far away kingdom, young Princess Irene lives in a secluded palace with only her nurse and a few servants. Her King Papa keeps her there to protect her from the goblins who were driven underground many years ago and who are just waiting for the chance to get their revenge on the him. One evening, Irene and her nurse are caught outside after dark which was not only against the rules, but also very dangerous. They are rescued from the circling goblins by Curdie, a young miner who knows the ways of the goblins and also how to defeat them.

Not long after, Curdie uncovers a diabolical plot that the goblins are planning, but in the process of discovering more is captured and left to die deep in the goblin's caves. It is now up to Irene with the help of her mysterious great-great-grandmother to rescue Curdie and thereby save herself and her kingdom from the wicked goblins.

My Review (Caution: Spoilers)

MacDonald's literature has inspired many great writers including J.R.R. Tolkein, Madeleine L'Engle, G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis who regarded MacDonald as his "master". And it is easy to see the influence from his use of fantasy to carry basic truths, to the all-knowing "adult" narrator of his literature for children. Like most children's literature, the basic truths are fairly obvious, but yet are also subtle enough so as not to come across as too preachy.

The main truth that MacDonald conveys is the need for a simple, trusting and child-like faith. This is seen mostly in Irene's relationship with her great-great-grandmother. Irene is told that whenever she feels afraid, she must follow a thin silver thread wherever it may lead her. Irene is surprised when this thread leads her deep into the goblins caves and through many dangerous areas before leading her to Curdie. But through this, Irene gains a complete trust in her grandmother and knows that as long as she is following her grandmother's instructions, no harm will come to her.

"Now," said Curdie, "I think we shall be safe."
"Of course we shall," returned Irene.
"Why do you think so?" asked Curdie.
"Because my grandmother is taking care of us."

We also must gain this complete and child-like trust. When Holy Spirit leads us we must follow, even when it doesn't seem to make sense or the way seems to dangerous. For like Irene, whenever we are following God's will for our lives, no harm will come to us. It is only when we step outside of God's plan that we face the grim consequences.

Another truth that MacDonald conveys is the need for understanding those who simply cannot believe. At first, Irene is very upset that Curdie doesn't believe in the thread or her grandmother. When Irene takes him to her grandmother's tower, he sees only a pile of straw and an empty room where Irene sees a splendid apartment and her mysteriously beautiful grandmother. But when Curdie leaves, Irene's grandmother tells her not to be too hard on him.

"People must believe what they can, and those who believe more must not be hard on those who believe less. I doubt if you would have believed it all if you hadn't seen some of it."
Like Irene, we desire for others to understand us and to believe that what we believe is true and it is often very hard to be despised for our beliefs. But Irene's grandmother is right when she says "You must be content not to be believed for awhile. It is very had to bear; but I have had to bear it, and shall have to bear it many a time yet. I will take care of what Curdie thinks of you in the end. You must let him go now." As a Christian, I know that it is often hard to be rejected for my beliefs, but we must learn to be content with this, and to trust that God will bring all truth to light in his own time.

Overall, this a sweet and inspiring story for both young and old. If we allow these simple truths to take hold in our lives, then we can say, like Chesterton, that The Princess and the Goblin "made a difference to my whole existence."

Monday, January 7, 2008

"I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves."

Anna Quindlen, "Enough Bookshelves," New York Times, 7 August 1991