Today’s the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in a series that turned an awful lot of young people into readers. Of course, it came out with a different name in the U.S. the next year.
I didn’t encounter it until much later in the year, when NPR began to cover it. I grabbed a copy at the library, read the first book, and didn’t see what all the fuss was about.
Not for me.
A lot of books other people love are not for me, and it’s usually because I’m itching for something specific. There’s no point in picking up Fellowship of the Ring when I really want to read Conan. For example.
But the popularity of the books kept growing, and people talked about them more and more online. What’s more, writers were seeing Rowling’s popularity and thinking I want that, too. Lots of online writing talk shifted from “How to write fiction” to “How to write fiction for young adults.”
It was everywhere.
What really stuck with me, though, was the weird advice people were giving. Most common was that YA writers should not waste time at the beginning of a book because young readers don’t have patience to wade through a bunch of boring text. Get that plot moving! They want the story to be exciting!
And my first thought was: I’m not a young person but I hate boring text, too! Why are people talking about adult readers as though we’re okay with dull shit?
At some point, a bookstore across town went out of business, and bussed over there to see what they had on offer. What I found were hardbacks of the first four in the series at half-price. I was a little leery, but half-off! And by that time it was a cultural phenomenon, and I figured I’d try to work out why.
Besides, they keep the plot moving!
With the second attempt, I was feeling less fussy and enjoyed myself much more. I bought the books as they came out and mostly enjoyed them; with the last volume, I took an internet vacation to avoid the gleeful spoilers that people were throwing around for book 6.
Some time later, my son saw a theatrical trailer for one of the movies, and said: “I want to see that.”
“You haven’t read the books yet,” I answered, starting a tradition that kept up until Surly Teenagehood.
In fact, we read the books as part of family read-aloud time. The second time through, hearing them spoken, I was amazed by how funny they were. For the first four books, anyway. Some parts had my son and me rolling on the floor, literally. With book five, they turned more serious, but we enjoyed them just as much.
All seven hardbacks still sit on a shelf in the back hall. I don’t reread often, and I don’t collect books, but I like having all of them in hardback.
By some strange coincidence, Sunday will be my (not) birthday–my real birthday already passed, but I’ll celebrate on this convenient date–and many months ago I decided to make my usual B-day movie marathon a Harry Potter fest. The library dvds are sitting on the shelf beside me. And as flawed as the books may be, they have a charm that the movies lack.
Still, the films are pretty uneven in terms of quality, and therefore instructive.
They’re also, when you watch them end to end, 19 hours and forty minutes long. If you assume that each of the eight films has ten minutes of credits at the end, that 18 hours and 20 minutes. Factor in bathroom breaks, meal times, pizza ordering, 2 am coffee brewing, and a previously scheduled afternoon role-playing session, I just might be staying up 23 straight hours to wait for He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to get his ass kicked.
And I’m feeling sort of ambivalent about it.
I’m sure I will enjoy the films more than I remember, because I’m more forgiving when I re-watch. Plus: carb cheat day.
Anyway, today I salute J.K. Rowling for her accomplishment. Few writers will ever have as much impact on the culture as she has.
But I don’t know what house I’d be sorted into and I never will.
I’m going to post three quick reviews here, so obviously there will be SPOILERS.
Logan is a solid, competent movie, the way most big budget superhero films are nowadays, but because it aims for tears instead of cheers, people are hailing it as revolutionary.
It’s not. It’s good and it’s sad. All the right buttons are pushed in the right order, and both Stewart and Jackman put in good performances and get to play their big death scenes. If you want mutant action with a tragic tone (and I do I really do) this is the place to get them.
But the emotional weight comes from 17 years of seeing these actors play these roles. Look at this:
Biggest impact of #Logan should be studios realizing they can just tell a great story.
Forget sequels. Just tell story.
LOGAN worked because it was the end of 16-20 hours of movie adventure, using characters with decades of comics and cartoons behind them. If it had been about a magical ninja whose healing spells were finally failing, it wouldn’t have gotten past the script-reading intern.
And it’s troubled by unjustified, reverse-engineered sequences. They needed a “family” scene for the little girl to see what a family looks like, so–despite being on the run from stone cold killers–they crash at the home of an Average Loving Family.
And got them all killed, which… come on. Logan and Xavier knew they were putting that family in danger, and nothing in the movie or the previous movies suggests they would put folks’ lives at risk. I call bullshit on that.
They did get the violence right, though. Finally. Rated R for brain-stabbing.
This is a game I bought on Steam because I enjoyed BASTION, although it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. The premise is simple: In a weird but pretty and possibly virtual city, a group of urban planners have unleashed something called The Process to remake things to their liking. Then The Process gets out of control, and Only You Can Stop It.
The main character is a woman named Red, with a giant-ass science sword that gives her attack powers, each of which comes from dead people she finds and uploads into the sword. The very first person to be killed and uploaded is Red’s unnamed boyfriend: he’s the “narrator” throughout the game, although he’s not really narrating because he’s talking to Red (and by extension, you the player).
They hired a great voice actor for the part, and his dialog is well-written. The city looks fantastic. The enemies are varied and fun (I especially liked the eggs w/ chicken feet). Even the music is interesting. And the game is long, but not insufferably long.
But look at those choices: the lead character is a woman who has had her voice stolen by The Process. She’s a singer and we hear her songs, but she doesn’t get to speak. Only the man does. And her name, Red, is a stage name because of her hair. In short, he’s specific and interesting, with a voice. She is a cypher who runs around doing the work. And at the end, when they realize she can’t get her lover out of the sword, she impales herself, over his pleading, so they can be trapped in the weapon together.
She gives up her life for a guy.
This is something I’ve been saying a lot about modern entertainment: it’s beautifully executed but makes questionable choices.
Do you like mopey detectives? I do. The first two seasons of BOSCH are on Amazon Prime, and they’re excellent examples of a really common and generally mediocre thing: the American police procedural.
One of the things BOSCH gets right is that it doesn’t put cops on a pedestal. Some of them are bad at their job. Some are lazy, careless, or corrupt. They’re people, not a corps of heroes who are always proved to be righteous.
And it changes things up from the books. I thought I’d spotted the killer in S1 because I read the book it was based on, but nope. They tricked me. I’m easily tricked, I admit, but I’m pleased when it happens.
I can be a cheap date, story-wise.
Season two was stronger than season one because the character motivations were more believable, and I’m hoping that, when the third season comes out next month, it’ll be another improvement.
Here’s the thing: I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I don’t get all excited. I don’t cheer. I don’t rattle on about the stuff I enjoy.
But I do like things. Sometimes too much. And when I do, I experience it as an unpleasant, obsessive anxiety.
I’m feeling that way about IRON FIST, which is due out from Netflix this week. I know reviews have been bad, but I’m still anxious to see it.
Yeah: Iron Fist’s origin is a racist narrative in the “Mighty Whitey” tradition. As much as I like the character, there’s no quibbling with this. But there is great stuff about the character, too.
First, martial arts is awesome and it looks fantastic in the comics.
It’s great in movies, too, obviously, because you can see movement and speed, but sometimes that speed makes it hard to follow. Martial arts illustration in the comics, when it’s done well, is beautiful and dramatic. It captures a moment, and that’s why it’s so common. The medium is a wonderful way to portray it.
Second, punching things like a wrecking ball is awesome.
This honestly worries me about the show, because sometimes I would love to just smash something without breaking my hand. Punch through a wall. Smash a tree to splinters. Whatever. Even if I didn’t do it often, just knowing I could would be intensely satisfying.
But the show runner for IRON FIST isn’t impressed. Having the iron fist is
not the greatest superpowers. All he can do is punch really hard … you can use it in some ways but in rest of his life, it’s not really all that significant.
Um, yeah. Let me introduce you to the concept of superheroes. They live in a narrative universe where punching is a significant part of life. That’s a basic part of the appeal. It’s not realistic, but it is fun.
There are several warning signs about the show, and this is one of them.
Third, Danny Rand went to a cooler school than I did, and he learned more interesting stuff.
I was 11 or 12 when I discovered Iron Fist, in the summer before seventh grade. August, 1977. I bought five comic books out of the spinner rack at a local drugstore: One was the issue where the X-Men fought the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and I couldn’t even tell which characters were the good guys, or who had which name, or what the hell was going on. Eventually, I realized the hero’s faces were on the cover, so I went through and picked them out, and comic made more sense.
(If my sister hadn’t called me an idiot for buying a copy of Dr. Strange that ended on a cliffhanger–with Strange facing off against a warthog version of himself–I might not have gone back the next month just to prove her wrong and I might not have become a lover of comics.)
I discovered Iron Fist shortly after and he was one of the earliest characters I followed. I loved the way he was drawn in those early John Byrne issues, and when I tried to teach myself to draw comics, it was often Iron Fist illustrations that I tried to copy. And why not? Was I supposed to draw Spider-man with his nasty, gross armpit webs? Or Iron Man flying through the sky with his elbow slightly bent?
Nope, I tried to draw Iron Fist kicking some dude in the face.
This was seventh grade, and seventh grade sucks. It wasn’t just the usual teasing and other bullshit, not for me. I had a kid hold a knife blade to my throat. I had… I had all sorts of shit happen. If I could have gotten away from all of that to go to a place where a guy named “The Thunderer” would teach me how to be a superhero, I would have gone in a second.
It’s similar to the wish fulfillment inherent in Hogwarts, except Hogwarts is better because it’s not a generic racist fantasyland.
But liking the character in the comics is different from whatever they put in the TV show. Look at this fucking trailer:
It’s just so disappointing.
Every trailer has to intrigue. It has to set up the central elements of the show, establish tone, and assure the audience that they’re going to see something clever and interesting. This trailer absolutely falls on its face in the last task.
“How in the hell did he learn martial arts?”
“Where did you train?” “K’un Lun.”
I get it; they have story elements they need to set up. But you don’t put a line like “How in the hell did he learn martial arts?” in a script, let alone a trailer. Anyone can learn martial arts. I could, even, if I was willing to practice hurting people and take a cross-town bus a few times a week.
No, the line is “How in the hell did he take out a team of our best hitters?” or something like that. Something that sounds dynamic.
And you don’t need to put the name “K’un Lun” into the fucking trailer. It’s meaningless to the people who don’t know the character’s history, and the people who do don’t need it. Just say something indirect like “A far away place” or “you haven’t heard of it” Even better, make a joke:
“Where did you train?”
Montage of Danny in monks’ robes, Monks, the beautiful city of K’un Lun.
“Oh, there’s a little place near the mall.”
The trailer needs some grace. It needs to show cleverness and competence, which it absolutely doesn’t. Is it any surprise that the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand why fans were hoping for an Asian-American Danny Rand?
Early reviews of the show have been pretty terrible, slamming it for being dull and talky, but you know what? I’m doing my usual Marvel Netflix thing anyway. On March 16, I’m buying two six packs, ordering a late pizza, prepping a pot of coffee for 4 am, then I’m going to binge the show straight through. I expect to finish sometime Friday afternoon. That’s what I did with the other Marvel Netflix shows. Then I watched them a second time that same weekend. Then, for Jessica Jones and S1 of Daredevil, I watched a third time the following week.
Will I be disappointed by Iron Fist? Probably. I still have hope that they’ll make his origin work somehow (After all, the MCU Punisher’s origin changed from a random tragedy into a complex plot and coverup that ran through most of Daredevil S2.) Can the filmmakers do something unusual/interesting/worthwhile with the whole “White Guy is the Best at Everything” trope? I’m doubtful, but I hope so.
Notice I haven’t called myself an Iron Fist “fan.” That’s because, as I mentioned, I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I’ve seen people waiting in line for movies and books who are giddy about the new thing they’re about to experience, but I’ve never felt that.
I experience my enjoyment as a sort of anxiety. I’ve been anxious and distracted for two weeks, thinking about this show. Maybe it will be terrible, but it will be a tremendous relief if it turns out to be good. Or at least not as bad as it could be.
If you subscribe to my Patreon, you’ve already seen this, but here’s one for everyone else:
1. Long time readers of my blog and/or social media will know what this picture means. I’ve reached another major goal in my current work-in-progress. The book is ONE MAN, which is the fantasy/crime novel I’ve been working on for OVER TWO YEARS. The goal is that I’ve incorporated my agent’s notes and I think the book is much stronger and therefore ready to send to publishers.
There will be new drafts later on, whether publishers bite or not, but for now it’s off the table.
That means I can spend the week leading up to Giftmas doing family stuff, cleaning, cooking, and otherwise refilling the well.
2. I took the wife and son to see ROGUE ONE (no spoilers) on Friday afternoon. I liked it more than they did, but I’m more inclined to forgive the clunky, awkward moments so I can have space ships and shoot-outs. We all watch Star Wars as generic but enjoyable mass media entertainment, not as a fannish fetish object. But it’s more my kind of thing than theirs.
And the clunkiness was there–hoo boy–along with the plot problems that come with the way the films have used The Force. They also struggled with the constraints of being a prequel to “A New Hope:” Darth Vader is there, but he’s not the main villain. They need their own antagonist who can lose at the end (see above re: generic but enjoyable mass media entertainment) and not outshine the villains in ANH, but still seem powerful and effective. They might have had a better film if they’d managed it.
Still, it’s an enjoyable diversion from holiday stress.
3. Speaking of Giftmas, I’ve dropped the Amazon ebook price of the first novel in my Great Way trilogy to $2.99. If you know someone who likes ebook adventure fantasy, you might want to grab it for them. Also, once you own the ebook, the audio book becomes super cheap. That, too, might make a nice gift.
And that’s it. I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday, however you celebrate. And if you don’t celebrate at all, I hope your days are wonderful anyway.
I saw DOCTOR STRANGE this weekend, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The character combines two things I like–superheroes and modern-day wizards–but I’ve never really felt he was well served in the comics. Great name. Bad look. Unsatisfying stories. Part of that comes from his most popular villains: Baron Mordo and Dormammu, neither of which thrills me. I’d much rather read MGK’s imagined run of the comicsthan any of the actual comics I’ve seen so far.
So my expectation was that this would be a disappointment, and those expectations were reinforced by early reviews that went “Meh.” Or even worse “Competent Marvel Content of the Type We Have Come to Expect.”
Frankly, the film is much better than that. Not perfect, but I’d rank it in my top 5 MCU pictures, maybe top 3.
Yeah, it’s a problem that they whitewashed The Ancient One to make sure they could rake in all that sweet Chinese box office. It looks like they ran as far as they could from the possibility that some bureaucrat would decide the character was coded as Tibetan. But that casting decision is separate from Swinton’s performance, which perfect. She elevates every scene she’s in, effortlessly.
Yeah, it’s another origin story. People say they’re sick of those, but that’s not showing in the box office. It’s also a problematic origin, since it’s of the “Visiting White Guy Does Non-White Culture Best Of All” genre. The movie takes some of the sting out of that by making the wizards as diverse as possible, but it’s still in the mix.
Besides, this is an origin story that actually matters. It’s not “I grew up and took revenge” or “I am a good guy who got the power to be even better.” It’s the story of a terrible person who becomes a good one, and it’s also the story of coming to terms with a disability. Strange spends most of the movie trying to get back to where he was before the accident so he can return to (what he thinks is) his best self, but his best self was a massive shit head. He’s a doctor who won’t see patients who are very old or very sick, because he’s protecting his reputation.
The Ancient One tries to get him to understand he must surrender sometimes. He has to accept failure. He has to stop applying his brilliant mind to his own rep and start helping other people.
Strange just wants to be a fancy neurosurgeon again.
But then he needs his ex to save his life, and by that point he’s gotten kicked around enough to realize what a shit he’s been. He needs Mordo’s help. He needs Dr. West’s help. And to win the final battle he puts himself in a situation where he will lose over and over.
And the last shot, where he’s looking down at his trembling hands and straps on that broken watch, shows that he’s accepting that he has changed, and that he must now contribute to the world in a different way.
Yes, there are problems with the movie. Rachel McAdams’s role was thankless. The gorgeous visuals at the end of the movie weren’t as delightful as Strange’s first wild ride through the multiverse: cgi spectacle peaked early. The humor was welcome but sometimes fell flat. I’m not so enraptured that I thing it’s perfect. Far from it.
But that didn’t really matter, because I loved the character, loved the ending, loved the scars, loved the milieu, loved the performances, and loved the movie. After the stress of this election season and the revisions on my huge, unwieldy book, this movie made me joyful.
A few years ago, I picked up a copy of The Return of King Doug from my library, read it, loved it, returned it, and promptly forgot the title. No amount of Googling could call up the book again. “Satirical portal fantasy child…”
Here’s the basic plot: the centaurs, sentient trees and elfin creatures of pseudo-Narnia are gathered for the final battle against the Dark Queen. And they have a hero with them, one the prophecy says will lead them to victory! It’s a human person, named Doug. They put a crown on him, hang their most potent magical bauble around his neck, and declare him king.
Doug is eight years old. He’s happy to be made king, but once talk turns to the bloody battle at 100-to-1 odds to take place in the morning, Doug does what any sensible kid does. He runs all the way away, returning through his magical well to his grandmother’s place in the Poconos. And he brought the bauble with him.
Cut to mumble-mumble years later, Doug is all grown up, divorced with a kid. Years of therapy have convinced him that his adventure was fantasy, but he can’t get his own life together. Then his parents talk him into returning to the old cabin, and his son finds the bauble and falls back into pseudo-Narnia, and…
And you know what will happen. The prophecy he was unable to fulfill as a child will be fulfilled now that he’s an adult, and we’re going to get a satirical tour of fantasy land while we’re at it.
It’s a fun book, and I enjoyed it, but not because the plot was unpredictable. The basic outline of the story was right there, and the only surprises came from the details.
That same weekend, my wife said she wanted to see KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS, largely based on the beautiful animation in the commercials. My wife has no interest in fantasy (the only fantasy novels she reads are mine, and the only fantasy movies she sees are the big popular ones or the artsy ones) but she has a long history with animation so, of course, we went.
You should go, too. See it in the theater, and stay for the mid-credits stop-motion clips. It’s gorgeous and affecting, and while Laika’s previous films have been interesting but significantly flawed, this one is a real achievement.
It’s also utterly predictable. Once the first act ends (and this is a spoiler that isn’t really a spoiler) the plot turns into a Quest for the Plot Coupons, with the caveat that the Plot Coupons can’t solve the Plot, only the protagonist’s pre-existing self can do that.
And telling you that doesn’t spoil a thing, because the real joy comes from the details. It’s in the way the characters are portrayed, and in the specifics of the tasks they take on. Finally, when the expected ending arrives, all those little details have fleshed out the story so completely that the denouement carries weight. It satisfies.
This is a lesson that I just can’t seem to learn. No matter how many detective novels I read or action films I watch, I’m constantly trying to reinvent the wheel. I keep making things from scratch.
There’s joy in making stories from scratch, but so many missteps, too. Sometimes I think that what I really need to do is start with a Farmboy of Uncertain Parentage and spiff it up.
Not that I really will. It’s just interesting to think about.
Some time ago, on Twitter, another author was asking for Netflix movie recommendations, and I suggested THE HOST, a South Korean monster movie/family drama. I said the movie “didn’t need to be forgiven.”
That phrase surprised me, even though it was the one who typed it out. It sounded right when I said it, but I wasn’t sure what it meant or where it came from. Then it reminded me of something that happened when I was a kid:
In grade school, my second-favorite afternoon show was the Wee Willie Webber Colorful Cartoon Club. Basically, Wee Willie Webber got up in front of a camera, did a dumb joke, and said: “An now… Marine Boy!” and then an episode of that show would play. Some of the shows were racist as hell (every kid in my class loved Chongo on Danger Island but yikes) but it was running and fighting and slapstick and magic spells or whatever, so I loved it.
In the second grade, Wee Willie planned to hold a live event where he would play an episode of Ultra-Man, and I talked my parents into taking me. I was seven, and I sat in a huge crowd of kids in a shopping mall somewhere (not a theater) while they projected an episode of the show onto a little screen.
Now, this was 1973, and there was no pause button. I had never stopped a show in the middle in my life. But Webber shouted for the projectionist to pause the episode right in the middle of the fight, when Ultra-Man had his back to the camera.
“There it is, kids. Can you see it? That’s the zipper on the Ultra-Man costume.”
Which was a dick move. The costume was designed to mostly hide the zipper, so I’d never noticed it before, but of course I already knew they were just dudes in suits. The four-legged monsters went around on their hands and knees! Of course they were guys in suits!
But I loved the show anyway, because if Wee Willie was my second-favorite, Ultra-Man was my first. I was nuts for giant monster movies of any kind, even shit like Johnny Sokko. And it was a dick move for Webber to give seven-year-old me yet another thing I would have to forgive.
So, forgiving movies and TV shows is about all the things that you have to let slide if you want to keep enjoying what you’re watching. Monsters who are really just guys in suits wrecking a model city? Let’s pretend not. Did Wesley really spend five years murdering innocent people as the Dread Pirate Roberts? La la not listening! Is Neo really going to gun down all those cops and security guards just because they work for the wrong people?
In fact, why are those people dead at all? The gunfight happened in a simulation; couldn’t the evil computers just blah blah blah.
Movies and TV shows are full of plot holes, unconvincing performances, boring sequences, cringe-worthy special effects, and other errors that have to be overlooked in order to enjoy them. We have a good time despite those problems because we choose to minimize them while we watch.
Some shows have to be forgiven for more serious issues. As much as I’ve enjoyed the recent run of Marvel movies, it’s ridiculous that they haven’t come out with one with a female superhero as the lead before now.
I’ve also been hoping we could get another Remo Williams movie, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good idea to cast Joel Gray in yellowface as the Korean teacher, Chun. That’s a terrible idea. An amazingly terrible idea. Having said that, I also recognize that it’s Gray’s performance that makes that movie so much fun. RW:tab was a bore until he was introduced. He shouldn’t have been there, but he’s the one who made that movie work.
Finally, I’ve been recommending that people should watch The Man From Nowhere on Netflix because it’s amazing. Unfortunately, it has only four parts for women, three of which are vanishingly small. The last is for the little girl who needs to be rescued.
Another problem with the film: Manpain.
Despite all that, I found the movie incredibly affecting, and I’m hoping to create a similar feeling in the book I just sent to my agent. I love that movie. That movie has problems.
Now, I am absolutely not saying that a plot hole about the Dread Pirate Roberts is equivalent to casting a white actor to play an Korean character. They aren’t equivalent at all.
It’s in our responses where the similarities lie. You’re watching something on screen, and then [thing] is there. Suddenly, you have to choose whether you want to Nope all the way out of the show or shrug it off and continue watching. Maybe the flaw is something incredibly minor, like costuming choices, but you nope out because the show has literally nothing enjoyable in it. Maybe the flaw is a massive dose of racism or sexism, but you keep watching because other aspects are so good, or because the show is old enough that you were expecting it, or because noping out of a show for this sort of flaw means you’d never get to enjoy anything in the genre.
Of course we can’t expect everyone to have the same tolerance for a particular flaw. Lots of folks reading this, after what I’ve said about The Man From Nowhere, will think ‘Meh. Not for me.’ And that’s cool.
That goes for Remo Williams, too, or for any film. It’s easy for me, a middle-aged Irish-American, to say I “forgave” the shitty choice of casting Joel Gray as a Korean. I grew up with that stuff. Tony Danza playing a Japanese guy on Love Boat? I watched that as a kid without understanding why it was a bad idea. It doesn’t have the same meaning for me that it would have for others.
And forgiving a show for its flaws is something that happens in the moment, while the show is still playing. It doesn’t require the audience to defend those choices later, or be silent about them. If we want to change the world for the better, we must speak out. The fact that I didn’t turn off The Man From Nowhere when I realized how few female roles it had doesn’t disqualify me from saying “Women deserve fair representation.”
So then: Forgiving our entertainments so we can enjoy something. We’ve all done it. It’s a rare treat when we don’t have to.
And, obviously, my goal is to write books that never need to be forgiven, even though I’m sure I fall short.
On a personal note: on Sunday I finished revisions on One Man, and spent the rest of the day watching crime thrillers and drinking fancy beer. Monday, was the first day for work on The Twisted Path. (That’s the new Twenty Palaces novella I promised to work on.)
To start things off, I cracked open Circle of Enemies again. I haven’t looked at it since 2010, and I wanted to reacquaint myself with Ray Lilly’s voice. What I really did was remind myself of how many little details I’ve forgotten over the past 5+ years. I’ll keep at it, while continuing to take copious notes.