Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Masterpiece Theatre: Oliver Twist

Apart from A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens' most famous work is probably Oliver Twist. According to The Internet Movie Database, there are at least 20 different adaptations of this story ranging from the earliest in 1909 to the Oscar winning musical of 1968. Now, the BBC and Masterpiece Classic bring us a new version of this classic tale of a young orphan boy.

Overall, I found this to be good, solid storytelling. This version brings out the dark and seedy side of Dickens' tale. There are no toe-tapping, lighthearted musical numbers or sunny-faced, cutie-pie kids. And that is a good thing. Dickens meant for his readers to see the darkness that thousands of people were forced to live in, in the hope that they might be compelled to do something about it. From Mudfog Workhouse to London's underbelly, this adaptation completely immerses us in the dark and dank world that little Oliver was born into.

The acting, while not stunning, was solid. I was especially pleased with the child actors, particularly Adam Arnold as The Artful Dodger. He really embodied the tough little urchin who does what he must to survive, and yet longs for love and acceptance. Timothy Spall brings a gentle, less eccentric touch to the character of Fagin, and Sophie Okonedo brings out the inner conflict of Nancy. And once again, we are treated to the great acting of Tom Hardy as the violent Bill Sikes. I especially loved the scenes when Sikes is running away from London with Oliver after having killed Nancy, and he is constantly haunted by visions of her. It was very much in the vein of his portrayal of Heathcliff in the recent Wuthering Heights.

The rest of the production was good as well, with typical BBC quality in the cinematography, sets, costumes, etc. The music was rather interesting. On the one hand, it's drums and electric guitars didn't seem to fit with the story, and yet it worked in some weird sort of way. In the end, I think it helped keep the film from being too dark and depressing.

If any scene in the film really captures the essence of Dickens' story, it is when the Artful Dodger is walking off after Fagin's hanging. As he moves through the crowded streets with Sikes' dog, Bullseye, he slowly takes on the violent mannerisms of Sikes himself. That is the real tragedy of Oliver Twist; the idea that Dodger, Fagin, Nancy, and even Sikes himself, might have been better people if they had found the true love they were starving for. That is the message Dickens' was trying to send, and that is the message that this adaptation wonderfully portrays. If you have not seen it, you can watch it here through Sunday.

Up Next: An encore presentation of the 1999 film David Copperfield starring Daniel Radcliffe, Ian McKellen and Maggie Smith.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Dukedom Large Enough

In his masterful play, The Tempest, William Shakespeare writes "My library was dukedom large enough." Though public libraries are one of the best ideas ever in the history of mankind, it is the private library that holds the heart of most readers. If you are like me, then you are very careful as to which books you add to your library because you know that it serves as a glimpse into your passions and your soul. Here are some of the criteria I use when deciding which and what kinds of books to add to my own personal shelves:

  • I have read it before. It isn't often that I buy books that I haven't read before because I'd hate to spend money on the book and then not care for the story. The only exceptions I make are for older books (more on that later) or for authors that I trust. I know there are some people who choose not to re-read books, but I am not one of them. If I really like a book, then you can be sure that I will read it many times over.
  • My public library doesn't have it or can't get it. I don't think I've ever had to buy a book because my library couldn't get a hold of a copy. Shoot, I've even had my library purchase a copy because I requested it and they couldn't get one. But there is always that possibility, so I'll keep an open mind when it comes to these situations.
  • I can get a good edition. To me books aren't something you just spend money on, they are an investment. A good book can last a lifetime and beyond. So I generally tend to buy hardback and new when I can get them. I'm not completely against buying paperback, but I would rather save my money and invest it in a nice edition rather than buying the cheapest one. Of course, they must also be "Complete and Unabridged".
  • They are antique editions. I'm a sucker for old books. I love the look, the smell, and the feel of them. This is the main area where I break my "I have to have already read it" rule.
None of this is to say that I refuse to buy books that don't meet these criteria. I still pick up random books when they strike my fancy (I bought my edition of Dickens' Bleak House for 25 cents). But they do serve as general guidelines when I decide how I'm going to spend my money.

Finding good editions of books can sometimes be difficult. Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble are great places to start of course. If you have tons of money laying around you can check out The Book Collector's Library which offers rare editions and signed copies of many famous works. There was a signed copy of The Old Man and the Sea that caught my eye, but I don't exactly have $20,000 within easy reach. For those of you who are like me and want nice editions of classic literature without having to take out a loan, I would suggest giving "The Collector's Library" editions a try. They are put out by CRW Publishing which is a British firm. Some of you may recognize them from when B&N used to carry them. They are portable and reasonably priced (ranging from $8 to $16 depending on exchange rate) but are wonderfully put together with cloth-covered hardbacks, gilded edges, some illustrations and ribbon book marks. Though they are no longer widely available here in the US, they are available through the CRW Publishing website as well as Amazon UK. I'm pretty sure that Amazon UK will ship to the US.

If you know of places to get nice, affordable editions of classic literature, please share them. Also feel free to share your criteria for what you add to your personal library.

"Good as it is to inherit a library, it is better to collect one." - Augustine Birrell

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Literary Love Affairs

I'll go ahead and admit that I'm a bit of a romantic at heart. I love a good love story, whether it's on the screen or in a book. Though most of the stories have many common elements, each one is still unique in its own way. In honor of today's celebration of love, here are some of my favorite literary couples and what makes their stories great.

Anne Shirley & Gilbert Blythe from the Anne of Green Gables series by L. M. Montgomery

Anne and Gilbert were one of my earliest favorite couples. If anyone deserved to get the girl of his dreams, it was Gilbert Blythe. The poor guy put up with a lot from the spunky redhead and finally had to come close to dying to get her to wake up and realize what the rest of us already knew: they were meant for each other. Maybe he should have smacked her with a slate! It takes patience, perseverance, and three books, but we finally get our happy ending.

"I don't want sunbursts and marble halls. I just want YOU."

Jo March & Prof. Friedrich Bhaer from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

When I first read this book as a young teenager, I wasn't too happy with the ending. I wanted Jo to marry Laurie. But as I got older and re-read the book (several times), I realized that Marmee was right. While Jo and Laurie were good friends, they would have had a horrible married life. Jo needed someone who could act as an anchor in her life and encourage her to pursue writing not for money, but for herself. Professor Bhaer was perfect for this, and though I still have friends who prefer Laurie, my heart has gone to the kind German.

"Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands," cried the Professor, quite overcome. Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, "Not empty now," and stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.

Elizabeth Bennett & Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Though I love all of the Austen couples, Elizabeth and Darcy have the most complex and electric relationship. Who else goes from utter hatred to overwhelming love in only 61 chapters? I think that what captures most readers' fascination is the realization that these two people simply can't love anyone else. They were MADE for each other. Whenever I need a good dose of lighthearted romance, this is where I usually turn first.

"You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.'' Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.

Margaret Hale & John Thornton from North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

Don't get me wrong, I really like Margaret. She's a very intelligent woman. But she missed what is probably the biggest "Well, duh!" moment in all of literature! Saying yes to John Thornton should have been a no brainer. Oh well. I'll forgive her because she finally gains some sense and accepts him in the end. I don't think any flesh and blood female could have refused a man like that when he was whispering her name in her ear anyway.

'Take care.--If you do not speak--I shall claim you as my own in some strange presumptuous way.--Send me away at once, if I must go;--Margaret!--' At that third call she turned her face, still covered with her small white hands, towards him, and laid it on his shoulder, hiding it even there; and it was too delicious to feel her soft cheek against his, for him to wish to see either deep blushes or loving eyes. He clasped her close. But they both kept silence. At length she murmured in a broken voice: 'Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!'

Jane Eyre & Edward Rochester from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I've said it before and I'll say it again...I LOVE Jane Eyre. Everything about it. In Jane we have an innocent, yet strong and intelligent female who demands our respect. And Rochester is the very picture of the Byronic hero. He's brooding, he's sarcastic, and he's magnetic. Sure he's got a mad wife locked in the attic, and sure he tried to marry Jane when he couldn't do it legally. Despite all this, there is just something that draws Jane (and us) to him. When I'm in the mood for a good romance (or any other mood for that matter!), this is the book I grab first. It's my chocolate!

"My bride is here," he said, again drawing me to him, "because my equal is here, and my likeness. Jane, will you marry me?"

Got a favorite literary couple? Feel free to share, and have a very happy Valentine's Day!

Picture 1: Megan Follows & Jonathan Crombie in Anne of Avonlea
Picture 2: Winona Ryder & Gabriel Byrne in Little Women
Picture 3: Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in Pride and Prejudice
Picture 4: Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage in North and South
Picture 5: Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens in Jane Eyre

Monday, February 9, 2009

"The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals."

-Samuel Davies

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

North and South

Throughout history, mankind has always existed in a sort of hierarchy. There have always been masters and slaves, aristocrats and commoners, gentlemen and rogues. Everyone has their "place" in society and those in higher places often work tirelessly to keep the "lower" ones in theirs. But there is something that binds all of us together, something that makes us all equal, something that is often forgotten when it comes to dealing with those outside of our own sphere: our humanity. In September of 1854, writer Elizabeth Gaskell began writing a serial novel in Charles Dickens' magazine Household Words that would explore this very issue, and open her reader's eyes to the miseries and the beauties of the industrial north of England.

The Plot:
When young Margaret Hale leaves her aunt's posh London home where she had spent most of her life, she is looking forward to returning to a quiet life with her father (a minister) and mother in their idyllic country home of Helstone in southern England. But her world is turned upside down when her father breaks with the Church of England and moves the family to the industrial town of Milton in the north. The change is a great shock both to Margaret and her mother. Her father makes a scant living as a private tutor and the family finds it hard to keep up appearances.

As Margaret grows used to her new surroundings, she begins to sympathise more with the mill workers than with the mill owners. She especially comes into conflict with John Thornton, a cotton mill owner and one of her father's pupils. Thornton raised himself out of poverty and everyone in Milton (especially his mother) sees him as a successful and highly desirable man. Everyone, that is, except Margaret. She sees him as an unfair "master" who views his workers simply as hired hands, and thinks that he should play a greater role in their welfare. But as unions form and Milton is threatened with a strike, Margaret begins to see that every problem has two sides, and that John Thornton may not be as undesirable as she had originally thought.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers!):
I was not familiar with any Elizabeth Gaskell's works until Masterpiece's adaptation of her novel Cranford. She tends to be outshined (like many authors of the period) by her editor Charles Dickens. But North and South, though new to me, still seemed a familiar story. Critics often consider Gaskell to be a mixture of Austen, Dickens and Bronte, and I agree with them. Many readers find North and South to be very similar to Austen's Pride and Prejudice, but I wouldn't compare them too much, as the overall tone and point of the books are different.

The heart of Gaskell's novel is its portrayal of the conflicts found in industrial societies all over the world. We, the privileged readers, are allowed to see both sides of the conflict. Like Margaret we are outsiders looking in on a world that most of us don't understand. We find men of similar temperaments, who see each other simply as enemies in the ultimate struggle for power. It is this struggle that is the downfall of men like Boucher, the everyday man who only wants to feed his family.

In Margaret, Gaskell created a character that was not often seen in the literature of the period: a strong, yet feminine woman. Margaret's strength is a hallmark of her character. She is obviously the one her parents look to for support, she walks all over Milton by herself, she speaks her mind even to men, and she puts herself between an angry mob and John Thornton. But Margaret's strength can also be a hindrance. Throughout the story, Margaret is taking care of everyone and trying to accomplish everything by herself. She comes to realize that even she is not strong enough to face life on her own. "'I begin to understand now what heaven must be--and, oh! the grandeur and repose of the words--"The same yesterday, to-day, and for ever." Everlasting! "From everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God." That sky above me looks as though it could not change, and yet it will. I am so tired--so tired of being whirled on through all these phases of my life, in which nothing abides by me, no creature, no place; it is like the circle in which the victims of earthly passion eddy continually.'"

Unlike the works of Austen, in North and South we are given just as much insight into the hero's feelings as the heroine's. John Thornton is a strong-willed, ambitious, pull yourself up by your bootstraps man. He has not only provided for his mother and sister, but has raised himself from poverty to a well-respected manufacturer. His mother is extremely proud of him and is constantly telling him what a fine man he is. This is understandable (he is a great guy), but unfortunately, this leads him to rely on his own strength (just like Margaret). Thornton views his workers as people who don't have the energy or the drive to make something better of themselves. "Architect of his own fortunes, he attributed this to no special merit or qualities of his own, but to the power, which he believed that commerce gave to every brave, honest, and persevering man, to raise himself to a level from which he might see and read the great game of worldly success, and honestly, by such far-sightedness, command more power and influence than in any other mode of life. Far away, in the East and in the West, where his person would never be known, his name was to be regarded, and his wishes to be fulfilled, and his word pass like gold. That was the idea of merchant-life with which Mr. Thornton had started." What he fails to realize is that circumstances often play a part in a man's status. It is only after his mill fails and he is once again brought down that he realizes that he is no better than the other men. He also finds that his own strength will not be enough to see him through the difficult times. "'Mother!' said he, holding her gently in his arms, 'who has sent me my lot in life, both of good and of evil?' She shook her head. She would have nothing to do with religion just then. "'Mother,' he went on, seeing that she would not speak, 'I, too,have been rebellious; but I am striving to be so no longer. Help me, as you helped me when I was a child. Then you said many good words--when my father died, and we were sometimes sorely short of comforts--which we shall never be now; you said brave, noble, trustful words then, mother, which I have never forgotten, though they may have lain dormant. Speak to me again in the old way, mother. Do not let us have to think that the world has too much hardened our hearts. If you would say the old good words, it would make me feel something of the pious simplicity of my childhood. I say them to myself, but they would come differently from you, remembering all the cares and trials you have had to bear.'

Though North and South lacks the sophistication of the great novels of the time, it is nonetheless a must read for anyone who likes Victorian literature. It shows us that we can relate to others best when we see them, not as enemies or "lower-class" citizens, but as human beings. There are so many other aspects of this novel that I could discuss, but that would lead to a intolerably long post. Suffice it to say that this is the first novel in a long time that I have absolutely fallen head over heels for. It has even earned a spot on my Top 10 list.

The Movie:
The BBC has produced 2 versions of this story. The first was in 1975 starring Rosalie Shanks as Margaret and Patrick Stewart as John Thornton.

The second is the acclaimed 2004 version starring Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret and Richard Armitage as John Thornton. When it comes to costume dramas, this is one of the best. Though there are a few liberties taken with the story, the overall production quality more than makes up for that. First off, the acting is simply incredible. Daniela pulls off both Margaret's strength and femininity very well. Sinead Cusack rocked as the proud, overbearing (yet human) Mrs. Thornton. And what can I say about Richard Armitage other than he is absolutely superb in this? His portrayal of Thornton is slightly different from the book, but he makes the character his own and gives a stunning performance. In addition, everything else from the set to the script to the music was perfect. This definitely ranks as one of the best BBC adaptations ever. I'm telling you to beg, borrow, do anything short of steal to see this film. You won't be disappointed.

Trivia: Tim Pigott-Smith was in BOTH versions of North and South. In 1975 he played Frederick Hale and in 2004 he played Mr. Richard Hale.