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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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The ones that got away…

I just can’t bring myself to let the 30 day book challenge go yet without one final post.

I have spent the last month enjoying a trip down memory lane, thinking about all of the books and authors that I love and trying to narrow these down to one or two per post.  But there are a lot of strong contenders which didn’t get a mention, some of which I have only thought about after the original posts went live.

So to round off the 30 day book challenge, I’m going to do a summary of those answers to which I could say “close but no cigar”.

DAY 1 – A book series you wish would just end already OR one that you wish would go on longer

His Dark Materials should go on – the ending was heart breaking and I have always wanted to see what happened next.

DAY 2. – Favorite side character

Ygritte from Game of Thrones – for being a wild northern woman and for making Jon Snow more interesting.

DAY 3. – The longest book you’ve read

Game of Thrones – all of them are hefty books, but books 3 and 5 are so enormous they had to split them into two volumes.

DAY 4. – Book turned into a movie and completely desecrated

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire – my favourite Potter book of them all.  The movie was the biggest disappointment of them all.

DAY 5. –  Your “comfort” book

The Time Traveller’s Wife – one of my all time favourites and I know that I can pick it up and will love it more each time.

DAY 6. – Book you’ve read the most number of times

Who Killed Peggy Sue – a real favourite of my teenage years – my copy of this book is literally falling apart at the seams.

DAY 7. – A guilty pleasure book

Angels and Demons by Dan Brown.  I live with a scientist who would be appalled if he knew just how much I secretly enjoy this book with all of it’s bad science!

DAY 8. – Most underrated book

Katherine by Anya Seton – originally published in 1954, she is a forerunner to Philippa Gregory and has produced an excellent book about someone I had never heard of but whose offspring went on to found the Tudor line.

DAY 9. – Most overrated book

The Great Gatsby – my sister is obsessed with this book.   I thought it was just okay.

DAY 10. – A book you thought you wouldn’t like but ended up loving

Room by Emma Donoghue – I read it to find out what the hype was about really and didn’t really think it would be my cup of tea, but it was un-putdownable – disturbing at times but such great writing, and she never faltered in maintaining the voice of the child narrator.

DAY 11. – Favorite classic book

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – quite an obvious answer but Jane Eyre is a woman before her time, and for a classic it is an easy read.

DAY 12. – A book you wanted to read for a long time but still haven’t

Grimm fairy tales – I finally have a copy and it is on my to read pile!

DAY 13. – A book that disappointed you

Dissolution, C J Samson – this medieval murder mystery sounded right up my street, but it fell flat for me.

DAY 14. –  Book that made you cry

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne – the horrifying events that we understand as adult readers but which are not understood by the child narrator gets me every time.

DAY 15. – A character who you can relate to the most

Robb Stark from Game of Thrones – also a strong contender for favourite side character, he really brings out the rebellious northerner in me.

DAY 16. – Most thought-provoking book

Incendiary by Chris Cleeve – a scarily realistic account of a terrorist attack on London which really makes you think about how far we should we should compromise the values that we are supposed to be fighting for,

DAY 17. – Author I wish people would read more

Chris Cleeve – some people may be put off by the lack of blurb, but give him a go – you will not be disappointed.

DAY 18. – A book you wish you could live in

The Faraway tree by Enid Blyton – as a child I was obsessed with this tree where the different lands rotated in the high branches and the children discovered a new adventure in the tree every time.

DAY 19. – A favourite author

Chimanadna Ngozi Adiche – her stories about Nigeria, and in particular the food, are so evocative that they make me want to visit the country for myself.

DAY 20. – Favorite childhood book

Sweet Valley High – I adored this series of books, I devoured them as a child and used to imagine that one day I would find a long lost twin and we would be just like Jessica and Elizabeth!

DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – this was a Christmas gift last year and I’m still working my way through it.  I would probably say if asked that I had read it, but it is still a work in progress.

DAY 22. – Least favourite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise

Coincidence – totally unbelieveable most of the time and should be used very sparingly in my opinion.

DAY 23. – Best book you’ve read in the last 12 months

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – I thought Philippa Gregory had done the Tudors for me, but then I read this.  Truly excellent writing and a different perspective on a well known story.

DAY 24. – Book you’re most embarrassed to say you like/liked

PS I Love You by Cecilia Ahearn – I usually avoid chick lit like the plague.  This is one exception, but I don’t like to admit to it!

DAY 25. – The most surprising plot twist or ending

Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – I didn’t like the majority of this book, but I thought the final chapter was sublime and more than made up for the rest of the book.

DAY 26. – Book that makes you laugh out loud

The Fiend books by Sheila Lavelle – these belonged to my younger sister and I pinched them and read them when I was probably too old for them, but they made me laugh and so I didn’t care.

DAY 27. – Book that has been on your “to read” list the longest

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I have been putting off reading this one after being underwhelmed by The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night.

DAY 28. – Favourite quote from a book

“You’re a wizard Harry” – classic.

DAY 29. – A book you hated

December by Elizabeth Winthrop – hate is a strong word for this one but this book did nothing for me and I couldn’t stand the end.

DAY 30. – Book you couldn’t put down 

How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff – another one I completed in one sitting – I loved reading about their foraging seeing Daisy adapt and grow in very difficult circumstances.

I really am done now.  I will now start posting fresh content in which the words “30 day book challenge” will not appear!  It has been hard work at times but I have genuinely loved every minute of it.

I’m always on the lookout for new books/authors to try, so if you would like to share any of your own answers to the above questions, then please leave a comment!

30 day book challenge – day 19 – A favourite author.

Oh, this is going to be a long one.  How can I choose just one author?  It would be like someone to choose between their children.  I have so many authors that I love, and I’m discovering new ones all the time.

Here are my favourites:-

Daphne Du Maurier

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to find Daphne Du Maurier’s name on this list.  You can read why she is one of my favourites here and here.

Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveller’s Wife is one of my all time favourite books, and although her follow up, Her Fearful Symmetry, did not capture me in the same way, it is still an excellent read.  Her ideas are really original and well executed, and her prose is wonderfully lyrical.  Her books to me are works of art.

Edith Wharton

She makes the list for her complex and empathetic characters, her brilliant portrayal of New York society and her emotional endings.  The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence are two of my favourite classics.  I definitely plan to read more Edith Wharton.

Philippa Gregory

I have read all of the Tudor series and most of the Cousin’s War series.  I love her books for bringing these eras so vividly to life and for her focus on the female characters – history can so easily overlook the influence behind the scenes of powerful women and Philippa Gregory brings them back to the forefront.

Mark Haddon

For making me laugh.  I have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Spot of Bother.  I have The Red House on my bookshelves waiting to be read.  He deals with some serious issues with real humour.  He also created a very memorable character in the Curious Incident, and maintained a very authentic voice throughout.

Lionel Shriver

Every time I open a book by Lionel Shriver it blows me away.  Her writing is so powerful and so full of honesty in every word.  The Post Birthday World is one of my favourite books, and I will be talking about this more in a later post.  So Much For That is a very long book dealing with terminal illness.  It should be a slog and it should be depressing.  But in Lionel Shriver’s hands, the pages fly over and it manages to remain so uplifting and full of humour.  She is a really special writer.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is the most famous one, but her other work that I have read is every bit as good.

Chris Cleeve

Chris Cleeve has a thing going on where there is no blurb and no clues as to what the book is actually about.  This intrigued me with The Other Hand so I decided on a whim just to buy it and give it a go.  I loved every single word, and so now, I have bought into the myth.  I don’t need to know anything about the subject matter of the book or the characters – if it is by Chris Cleeve, I will read it because I know it will be good.

J K Rowling

Harry Potter is a series that I absolutely treasure.  We fell in love with Harry, went through some very dark times with him and she absolutely provided the ending that he deserved.  I’m now really looking forward to reading her adult fiction – a copy of The Casual Vacancy is the latest addition to my bookshelves.  Although crime fiction is not really my thing, I am also going to read Cuckoo Calling when it is in paperback.  There is no pressure and no expectation from me – I don’t think that J K Rowling has anything to prove after bringing us something as wonderful as Harry Potter.

Maggie O’Farrell

She is quite a new discovery for me and I’m really enjoying working my way through her books.  I love the intensity of her characters and the relationships between them.  She is one of those writers that pull you right into the story so you feel as if you are living and breathing with the characters through every moment  of their journey.  This means that her books are very memorable and I have loved everything that I have read by Maggie O’Farrell so far.

Sebastian Faulks

Again, he is quite new for me.  I started off reading A Week in December and I have since read Birdsong and Charlotte Gray.  His writing is absolutely flawless and incredibly frank at times.   It is his attention to detail that really makes him stand out for me – he obviously knows his characters absolutely inside out and this makes them well rounded and utterly believable, as he is able to drop in the little details that make people real.

The Brontes – all of them

It is so tragic that so little has been published by the Bronte sisters, though it just makes what has been published that much more special.  Emily and Charlotte’s work is the most well known, but I have a real soft spot for Anne and I think she is quite underrated.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is an excellent read and is right up there with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.  For any other Bronte lovers, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the Bronte Museum in Haworth.  This is the parsonage in which the Brontes grew up and it is an incredible experience to walk in their footsteps and look out the window to see the view of the moors which inspired Wuthering Heights.

What about you?

I am always on the lookout for new authors to try whose work I haven’t read before, so who are your favourite authors?  Is there anyone not on my list that would be on yours?

30 day book challenge – day 7 – A guilty pleasure book.

For this, I have to turn to a YA series – Twilight.

I’m embarrassed to say that I actually quite like Twilight.  Every instinct that I have tells me I shouldn’t – Bella is totally insipid and I can’t stand the way that she is so defined by her feelings for Edward.  She is so serious and miserable all of the time – I really don’t understand why any of her friends in the book actually put up with her.  Edward is possessive and controlling, and so is Jacob in a way – he is also absolutely convinced he knows what is best for Bella.  The rest of the characters are underdeveloped, some of the writing is unbearably awful, and I always felt that Stephanie Meyer was a bit of a coward as she always backed down from the confrontation at the end.  I know it must be hard for her to contemplate killing off characters that she loves, but J K Rowling managed to do it and the Harry Potter books were all the better for it, because it made the stakes so much more real.

In spite of all of that, and against my better judgement, there is something compelling about these stories.  Somehow in the midst of everything that I should hate, Stephanie Meyer has created a real page turner that I just couldn’t put down.

The worst bit for me is that I think it might actually boil down to Edward Cullen.  I was firmly on the side of Team Edward (just writing that makes me cringe).  As modern a woman as I claim to be, some part of me was drawn to the strong, handsome, protective, domineering Edward Cullen.

To be fair to Stephanie Mayer, although I felt the endings were all anti-climactic, she did a good job of building up the tension and suspense to keep the pages turning to the end.

The official stance I take on Twilight is that it is awful.  Secretly, it is my guilty pleasure.

30 day book challenge day 2 – Favourite side character.

I struggled a little with this one at first.

I toyed with  Dr. Watson, from the Sherlock Holmes stories but I didn’t think I could truly call him a side character given that he is the narrates all of the stories.

I nearly went for the wonderful creation that is Mrs Danvers from Rebecca.  She is not an obvious choice as there is nothing likeable about her at all.  She is unfriendly, creepy, manipulative, dangerous and unhealthily obsessed with Rebecca, but I love her because she walks right off the page and seems so real.  There is one particular moment in the book when she is trying to plant the idea into the second Mrs De Winter’s head that she should commit suicide.  For me, that is one of the most atmospheric and memorable scenes I have ever read.

In the end, there was only one that could take the mantle of favourite side character…

Neville Longbottom

I have always had such a soft spot for Neville.  He starts off as a bit of a hopeless case – socially awkward and little magical talent (his family thought he was a squib for a long time).  But Neville has the heart of a lion.  In order to be truly brave, you have to be scared.  Neville could easily have been forgiven for wanting to hide in the background and not take a stand against Voldemort given what happened to his parents and his less than impressive magic skills.  But he doesn’t do this.  He has the courage to take a stand, to be loyal to his friends, to put himself in danger to fight for a cause he believes in, and in the end, J K Rowling rightly rewards him with his own moment of glory.  If I had the power to make J K Rowling go back to Harry Potter, it is not what happened to Harry next that I would ask her to write.  I would ask her to tell me the story of that last year in Hogwarts from Neville’s perspective, where he found the courage not only to take a stand himself, but to lead others as well.  Neville Longbottom – I salute you!

 

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.