My word is my Bond (For Litro Magazine)

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How Ian Saw James

How Ian saw James

We’ve all had the sensation of seeing a film adaptation of a favourite book and thinking that the characters aren’t being portrayed as we’ve always imagined them; that the story isn’t being told properly. For the authors who first wrote the words the sensation must be much stronger and stranger, and there have been adaptations both loved and loathed by their original creators. The difference for writers is that they get the chance to respond in their own writing.

I started to think about this again recently as I came to the end of my sequential read-through – interspersed with plenty of other more nutritious reading – of the original Ian Fleming Bond books. I’d read a couple before out of sequence, but it’s fun watching Bond change and yet stay the same across a decade of stories. He never stops being a snob, a sadomasochist, a misogynist, a xenophobe, a homophobe: as Blofeld calls him, “common thug, a blunt instrument wielded by dolts in high places”. And until things start to fall apart for him towards the end of the series, he rarely displays the levels of character complexity that he does in his debut Casino Royale

Continue reading over on Litro

Based on a true story

I was interested in the most recent revelations (perhaps too strong a word) about Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and this piece by Robert McCrum as I’d been thinking a bit recently about the importance of being able to identify what’s ‘true’ in stories and, as McCrum puts it, our “profound, unconscious need to know what genre we’re in.”

I’ve written before about how weird the process of making things up is – that as a novelist it’s not enough to lie convincingly, but rather you have to create interesting semi-patterned fabrications like the delusions of a conspiracy theorist. And if you get it right, the reader will join you in the conspiracy. As Dom Grelsch says to Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas: “Anything is true if enough people believe it is.”

If any book tests the boundaries of genre it’s Cloud Atlas, but even so we have developed tacit cultural agreements about what is and isn’t considered plausible within our stories. At one extreme, in Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, Daniel Everett writes about the Pirahã people who never tell stories about subjects beyond their direct knowledge, and always demand evidence based on personal experience. (Everett, a former missionary, has all sorts of trouble explaining Jesus to them.) But at the same time, forest spirits can literally take the form of people and animals, and be present even if unseen. Continue reading

A Number of False Doors (For Litro Magazine)

A narrative is like a room on whose walls a number of false doors have been painted; while within the narrative, we have many apparent choices of exit, but when the author leads us to one particular door, we know it is the right one because it opens.” – John Updike

So, the notes are back from my editor and I’m embarking on the final (this time I mean it) rewrite of my novel. It’s had its fair share of revisions in its life: characters have come and gone and the ending has changed more than once. Usually each change feels more right than it did before, but sometimes I dig up an old draft and feel I’ve lost something along the way. With all the changes that a book goes through, how can a writer be sure that they are opening the right doors?

Continue reading over on Litro

Should have been a Bond theme

With Adele’s Skyfall out tomorrow [edit 5/10today], rather than looking back on Bond numbers of the past, I thought it would be a good moment for a personal top ten(ish) songs that would have made great James Bond themes. (Hat tip to @PaleDavid.) Continue reading

Boyle, Blimp and Britishness

I could love a show like yours Danny.

So Danny Boyle’s tough task of having to describe and define Britishness to the world (or at least to itself) seems quickly to be turning into a sort of giant Rorschach test for the nation, with everyone drawing the meaning they want to see in it, or on some counts most did not want to see.

For all the people identifying Voldermort and Cruella de Vil as the Tories attacking the NHS, one commenter on a Guardian thread saw Mary Poppins’ intervention as the private sector saving the NHS from its own failures. And with the Romneyshambles fresh in our mind, it hard not to agree with the New York Times review that who felt it was  “most inspired by a scene from the movie Love Actually, in which Hugh Grant, playing the prime minister, explains [to his dislikeable American guest no less] that Britain is still a great nation because it is “the country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter, David Beckham’s right foot.””

It was of course so much more than that: with its cavalcade of cultural references from the shipping forecast to Kes, Elgar to Brookside, it managed to be simultaneously traditional and progressive – even a little subversive.  It was flat out bonkers but also strangely moving. Continue reading

All the good tunes

Unscientific thoughts on the strange demise of the iconic movie theme.

I’ve spent the last few days at a science conference for my day job, so I should know better than to cherry pick data to make a point. But all the same, here’s a shaky hypothesis to throw some objections at.

Film soundtrack composition has arguably never been stronger, more varied or imaginative.  Alexander Desplat, Dario Marianelli, John Powell, Hans Zimmer, Max Richter, David Arnold – just a few favourites at the top of their game. And although minimalist and moody sometimes tops melody – think The Hours or Inception –there’s still life in the hummable tune, from The Artist to the X-Men. (Sorry, couldn’t think of a recent film starting with Z.) But, and this is my proposition, after a golden age lasting from the 1950s to the late 1980s, the last couple of decades have seen the demise, or at least the significant diminishing, of the iconic theme tune. Continue reading

Socialists, eugenics and time travel

A bit of a longer post this time. A recentish piece by Jonathan Freedland on socialism’s past enthusiasm for eugenics got me thinking about (sorry that should read ‘has given me an excuse to write about’) one of those literary Fabians, H.G. Wells, and how he provides an interesting case study on this topic.

At the turn of the 20th Century, Wells was an enthusiastic eugenicist. In 1904 he wrote:

“The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.”

Eugenics was by no means only a socialist preoccupation, but Freedland rightly recognises that neither was it at odds with the Victorian-Edwardian Fabianism that it prospered under, with their love of Science and Progress and Planning and Engineering, and other grand ideas starting with capital letters. Of all Wells’ fictional work, The Time Machine (1895) is a useful little prism through which to examine the reasons that eugenics held such allure for ‘progressive’ thinkers in the late nineteenth century. Continue reading

The rise (and fall?) of the Wilhelm Scream

Recently I came across this very thorough compilation of Wilhelm Screams. If you don’t know it, the Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect dating from 1951 that’s become a bit of an in-joke amongst movie makers. (There’s a good summary on Wikipedia and a nice little essay here.)

The compilation seemed to point, unsurprisingly, to an increase in use after the late 1970s when legendary sound designer Ben Burtt rediscovered it and used it in Star Wars (about 2 minutes into the above). Burtt also gave it its name after the original screaming character.

Idly I wished there was a graph that showed its use over time, but couldn’t find one. Realising that time doesn’t waste itself, with the help of www.whereswilhelm.net and IMDB I put one together. Continue reading

The Artist gives me Vertigo

So Kim Novak wants to report a rape. All because Michel Hazanavicius used Bernard Hermann’s Vertigo theme in the marvellous The Artist. Kim, where to start with the whole explaining about things that are not like rape? Here, someone says it better than me. Quite apart from her staggeringly tin ear, it’s hard to tell if she even gets the Artistic irony of shouting “I AM THE ONLY ONE WHO CAN SPEAK NOW” in block capitals on her advert. And I don’t remember her making this sort of fuss about the brilliantly metafictional use of Vertigo in Twelve Monkeys

Novak also seems to think she is speaking on behalf of Hitchcock, and it can’t exactly be said that the director had the most enlightened views about non-consensual sex. The Marnie issue springs to mind. And given that Vertigo is as close as mainstream Hollywood has come to depicting necrophilia… Not actual necrophilia, but necrophilia of the… oh never mind. Continue reading

No face like Holmes

Sidney Paget’s Holmes (1904)

Adaptations of iconic literary characters tread a fine line – too loyal and they seem staid and pointless, too radical and you lose the ‘fanbase’ (as they wouldn’t have said in 1886). If you want to be a purist, you can turn off the telly and get all the books essentially free on Kindle – and you’ll find that even Conan Doyle had trouble on occasion keeping up with his own continuity. And Holmes soaks up the spirit of the age and the preoccupations of his interpreters. After all, Basil Rathbone, one of the best known Holmes, spent a lot of his time fighting Nazis. Continue reading