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Who do our characters belong to?

I finished reading A Kestrel for a Knave today by Barry Hines (review to follow) and he made a very interesting comment in the afterword when talking about his book being a set examination text at GCSE:-

“I’ve sometimes considered sitting the examinations under an assumed name to see how I would get on.  Perhaps my interpretation of the book would differ from that of the examiner and I would fail.  Who can tell?”

That really left me thinking: who our characters and stories really belong to once they are in the wide world?

I once attended a writing course and brought along a piece of writing to share.  It was not like anything I had ever written before – it was a claustrophobic, intense and disturbing story in which the main character is caught in a delusion.  I had not made any reference within the story to the gender of the main character, and that was not deliberate – for me, he was very clearly a man and it didn’t occur to me to check for references to his gender.   I was really surprised when I read out this story that more than half of the group had pictured my character as a woman.  It got me thinking at the time, did I have any right to tell them that they were wrong?  The gender of a character is pretty fundamental to identity, but I had put the story out there without any explicit references to gender, so in that case was the group’s interpretation of my character not just as valid as my own?

When J. K. Rowling said in an interview that Dumbledore was gay, this became headline news.  To me, Dumbledore was an intensely asexual character – I couldn’t picture him as having any kind of personal relationship, either with a man or a woman.  That impression of Dumbledore didn’t change because J. K. Rowling said something different.  My view was and still is that her version of Dumbledore is gay, but my Dumbledore is neither gay nor straight and is simply married to the school.

Recently, I have also been watching Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic.  I think most of the casting is spot on, but the one character that really rankles with me is Lord Varys.  It is not just that his appearance is not the way I pictured, but the way that Conleth Hill plays him is totally different to the Varys of my imagination.  I always pictured him as being a more muted version of Johnny Depp in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – lanky limbed, soft voiced and constantly smiling, in a rather more dangerous way.  George R. R. Martin who is the author of Game of Thrones is also heavily involved with the TV version and so I presume that the TV Varys is an accurate portrayal of how he sees the character.

Many Bridget Jones’ fans were shocked and upset this week when Helen Fielding announced that she is killing off Mark Darcy for the third book.  I had intended to blog today in defence of Helen Fielding’s decision on the basis that the characters belong to her and so she can do what she wants with them.  But the reaction of the fans just goes to show that Bridget no longer just belongs to Helen Fielding.  Yes, it maybe Helen Fielding that makes the decisions but she has created a character that millions of people have fallen in love with and they genuinely care about what happens next.

My own personal view is that as writers, when we share our stories and our characters, we are giving something quite personal to the reader, and as readers, our own imaginations go to work on the characters to form our own unique interpretations.  I think that means that the characters will then equally belong to the readers and the writers who have created them.  After all, just because I’m told I’m wrong or a character is different to how I have imagined doesn’t mean that I can magically start seeing that character in any other way.

It was really interesting to read Barry Hines thoughts in the afterword about the success of A Kestral for a Knave.  He talks about how people look for meanings that he didn’t intend to be there.  One example is he is often asked about the names of the horses on which Billy fails to place a bet – his reply is that he couldn’t remember what he had called them and had to look it up for the purposes of writing the afterword.  But it is interesting to think how characters and stories grow and evolve once they become public and the writer has lost the control.  Who knows, maybe Barry Hines would have failed a GCSE exam in relation to his own book.  But then maybe the interpretation of the examiner would be just as valid as Hines’ own.

What do you think?  Have you ever adjusted your impressions of a character?  Are there any characters you have been “wrong” about?

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Day 1 of the 30 day book challenge – book series

A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just end already.

I am probably a bit of a bandwagon jumper when it comes to reading book series.  I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until a few months before the 5th book was published.  Twilight, The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials and Steig Laarson’s Millennium trilogy, were all complete series before I opened any of the books.  I missed out on a lot of the hype waiting for the new instalments to be published, but I also did get to enjoy the entire series all in one sitting back to back.

However, there is one series that I am currently reading, which I wish I think ticks both of the boxes: Game of Thrones (or a Song of Ice and Fire to use it’s proper name).

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I love the series.  It is ambitious and complex and epic.  I am in total admiration of George R R Martin’s level of detail of the story and the history of the story in particular.  He has created a fantasy world in which every noble house and region has its own culture, traditions, history, rivalries and motivations.  He keeps track of these brilliantly.  He keeps us readers on our toes with so many shocking moments that we would never have predicted.  There have been times where I have had to put the book down for a couple of days because I am so taken aback by what has happened that I need to build myself up to read on.

I had vaguely been aware of these books through the TV series and because a friend of mine read them.  I’m not a big fan of fantasy novels and so I didn’t really consider reading them myself until I read an article in a magazine on holiday one year.  The paragraph that caught my eye was saying that fans of the series were worried that George R R Martin would not live to complete it (he is 64).  A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, was published in 1996.  17 years on and we are onto book 5 of 6, with the next instalment due out next year.  I started reading the series last year and I feel for those really devoted fans who picked it up at the beginning.

Whilst his level of detail is admirable, it also slows everything down.  The cast of characters is already phenomenally large and growing – new faces are being introduced faster than he can kill them off.  It does make it a bit hard to follow at times, and can be frustrating when you are really getting into a character’s story and then it is suddenly cut off until the next book.  So I wish this series would come to an end – I am desperate to know what is going to happen and I want it all to happen quicker.

But, this is also a book series that I want to go on longer.  The events depicted in the series are ultimately the consequence of a previous war in which the ruling family were overthrown.  This previous war is not part of the series, but it is referred to a lot and so we are given the basic story.  Every time it is mentioned in the books, I always think that it would make an absolutely brilliant prequel.  The Song of Ice and Fire series is more than enough to be going on with for now.  But I know when we do eventually reach the end, I will be wishing for that prequel.

Is the book always better? Film and TV adaptations

I am one of those people who will almost always insist that a book is better than a film adaptation.  If there is a film or TV series coming out that I want to see which is based on a book, I will always read the book first.  I find reading a book is such an intensely personal experience – the writer gives me the characters and the settings which then live in my imagination.  My own experience of a book and interpretation of the characters and events is mine alone, and will not be exactly the same as anyone else.  That is what makes talking about books such a joy – we can discuss and share and analyse and disagree about books for hours, and no one will be wrong.  The writer has given us a gift which belongs to each of us individually, but which we can all collectively enjoy.

A film or TV adaptation is such a different experience.  We are presented with the director’s interpretation of the story and we lose some of the individuality of the experience.  I want to form my own views and opinions of the characters and the story, and that is why I always want to read the book first – I don’t want to just picture the actors and settings from the film when reading a book that has been adapted.

But sometimes, there will come along a film or TV adaptation that is every bit as good as the original book.  Here are some of my favourites:-

1. Parade’s End

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It is actually Parade’s End that inspired this post.  I have just finished watching the DVD of the BBC series, which I think was a fabulous adaptation of the book.  I will post a separate book review of Parade’s End as it is one of my favourite reads of the year so far.  I did feel the ending of the adaptation was a little rushed but still beautifully done.  Benedict Cumberbatch really brought out Tietjens vulnerable side, but Rebecca Hall as his cruel wife Sylvia absolutely stole the show.  I don’t think that they could have cast that role any better.

2. Revolutionary Road

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This novel surprised me.  I picked it up for a bargain price having vaguely heard of the film as Kate Winslet had been nominated for an Oscar.  It blew me away.  It was a really intimate portrayal of a struggling couple in suburban America in the 1950s.  I was left wondering by the end of it why I had never heard of this novel before and why it wasn’t part of the syllabus to study in school.  I caught the film later, and I loved the book so much, the bar was suddenly set very high for the film.  It did not disappoint.  Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet were both outstanding, and they really captured the struggle of this couple with banality and the realisation they were not the people they had hoped to be.

3. Game of Thrones

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These books are fantastic for their sheer ambition, and for all of the twists and turns that you just don’t see coming.  However, the pace of the books can sometimes be quite slow as there is a huge cast of characters and numerous sub-plots to try to keep track of.  The TV adaptation takes all of the best bits  of the books, cuts out everything that is unnecessary and condenses it into a really exciting and well paced series.  Not all of the characters are portrayed in the same way as I see them in my head, but it is incredibly well written and well acted.

4. Les Miserables

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I have seen the film adaptation of this and an amateur production, and then I read the book.  It is a huge book at 1200 pages plus appendices.  On the whole, I far preferred the musical version both on film and on stage.  I skipped parts of the book, as there was a lot of chapters dealing with general history rather than progressing the narrative.  I found the characters of Marius and Cosette to lack substance in the book; in particular Cosette, who was portrayed as a silly little girl.  The wonderfully comic Thernadiers only really came to life for me in the musical adaptation.  I think I can safely say that I will not re-read Les Miserables, but I am now desperate to see the West End show.

In spite of these gems, I do on the whole much prefer the reading experience to the film/TV experience.  My least favourite adaptations are:-

1. The Golden Compass (or Northern Lights for British readers)

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I absolutely loved Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and Lyra Belaqua is one of my all time favourite characters.  The world of daemons, witches, armoured polar bears, dust and gobblers was so rich and full of imagination that I thought it would be fantastic on the big screen and I really looked forward to the adaptation.  Unfortunately for me, it fell completely flat.  There is a lot going on in the book and perhaps too much to comfortably fit into one film.  As a result, the whole thing felt rushed.  I also felt that the film shied away from some of the darker aspects of the book, and there is one particular incident that drives Lyra throughout the next two instalments in the trilogy which was totally left out of the film version.  I was so disappointed in this adaptation and I am not surprised at all that the sequels have not materialised.

2. The Da Vinci Code

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I enjoyed The Da Vinci Code the first time I read it for it’s original and controversial storyline.  However, there is a lot of information to be conveyed in the book which does make it a bit wordy at times and slows down the narrative.  I thought the film adaptation would be a really good opportunity to move away from the book a little and create something with a bit more pace.  However, the adaptation sticks very closely to the book and so it is slow.  I really feel like this was an opportunity missed to create something really special.

3. Harry Potter

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This is maybe a controversial one, because I think the Potter films are loved about as much as the books.  But I really loved the books and the Hogwarts world that J K Rowling gave to me was absolutely precious.  Not one of the characters in the films came anywhere near the characters that I had in my head.  The closest was Lucius Malfoy in the Chamber of Secrets – I thought the actor playing him would have made a fantastic Snape (blond hair aside).  The worst for me were Voldemort and Dobby.  I have seen all of the films and I am now scared to re-read the books in case the films have now taken over my world created from the books.

Whether it is a hit or a miss, film/TV adaptations and books go hand in hand.  If a book is a huge hit (e.g. Harry Potter, Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey) then Hollywood will follow with a film adaptation.  Sometimes lesser well known stories will be picked up and adapted which will then in turn increase the readership of the book.  If there is a book that I have read and enjoyed then I will always be pleased to see that it has been adapted to (hopefully) give me another chance to enjoy it all over again in a different medium.  There is one book on my bookshelf (Sand Daughter by Sarah Bryant) that I am desperate for someone to adapt into a film, because I think it is a fantastic story which should be more widely read.

I am a total bookworm so I think I will always be a “book is better” girl, but whatever my opinion on the final product, I am glad that these adaptations are made to bring great works of fiction to new audiences, and hopefully inspire some of them to pick up a book and discover these worlds for themselves.