Accounting for Taste

I’ve got a confession to make.

I don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin. There, I’ve said it.

The strange thing is that I generally do like long and complex fantasy and there’s no denying that Martin is a very good writer… But as I slogged through the first two books of A Song of Ice And Fire, I became increasingly conscious that I was only persevering with it because I felt like I had to; partly because in my pride, I never like to leave a book half read and partly because everyone else seems to like it. But when you’re really not enjoying a story and there’s still another whole five books left to read after you finish the one you’re on, there’s only one course of action.

Even as I write this, I can feel my fellow book-lovers judging me for (temporarily!) giving up on it and my fellow fellow fantasy-readers judging me for not liking one of the most popular fantasy authors of his generation. But why waste your life reading books you’re not enjoying?

The truth is, there’s a lot of snobbishness surrounding fiction. People who read literary fiction often look down upon people who read genre fiction; people who read hard sci-fi often look down their noses at people who watch Star Trek or Doctor Who; people who read anything at all often judge those who prefer to get their fiction-fix from TV than the pages of a book; most bizarrely of all, there seems to be some dispute about whether or not e-books constitute ‘real’ books.

Am I alone in finding this a little strange? No matter how much I may love fiction (and I do!), it is, ultimately, just that. Fiction. Untruths. Entertaining lies. Why, then, does it matter which ones we enjoy and which ones we don’t? We often speak of our ‘guilty pleasures’; TV shows or books we like but know we shouldn’t but… hold the bus! Why shouldn’t we?

I earlier referred to my dissatisfaction with A Song of Ice And Fire. I should say that I am not for one second suggesting that Martin wrote a bad story. It’s a very clever story, a very well developed fantasy world and very well written but… it just wasn’t for me. Equally there are some things I do like but feel irrationally guilty about, usually because they are mindless escapism without any real substance to them. Normally I prefer to read something with a bit of meaning to it but why should that put me off enjoying the odd bit of drivel, too?

So, I think it’s time for a change. I think it’s time we all just read what we like to read, write what we like to write and ditch whatever doesn’t suit us. What you’re about to read is my completely unashamed, unabashed Confession of my Fiction Preferences (okay, so it has been slightly abridged but only because I like to keep my word count to under 1000 words per post).

My Unashamed, Unabashed, Heavily Abridged Confession of Fictional Preferences

  • I liked The Lord of the Rings books, but not the films.
  • I like fantasy in general, especially if it is based on myth.
  • I loved Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace and the subsequent 1959 Hollywood epic based on it.
  • I loved the unabridged version of The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, translated by Robin Buss. I’ve never seen the film.
  • I love Sherlock Holmes. I particularly enjoyed:
    • the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
    • The House of Silk and Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz
    • Whitechapel: The Final Stand of Sherlock Holmes by Bernard Schaffer
    • the BBC drama Sherlock
    • Jeremy Brett’s unique portrayal of Holmes.
  • However I do hate everything about the CBS TV show, Elementary.
  • I am a full blown Trekkie. I love everything about Star Trek (including the Abrams reboots!) except for Enterprise.
  • In spite of being a Trekkie, I also love Star Wars (however I still have not seen The Force Awakens).
  • I love Doctor Who (BBC sci-fi drama TV series)My favourite Doctor of all time is Tom Baker although Peter Capaldi is in serious danger of becoming a close second. It’s just a shame he is wasted on the disappointing stories that have been produced recently.
  • In fact, I just love sci-fi and speculative fiction in general. Sci-fi books I particularly enjoyed included:
    • The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick,
    • Dune by Frank Herbert,
    • The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov,
    • the Awakened series by Jason Tesar,
    • Becoming Human by Eliza Green and
    • The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis.
  • I do not like disaster films.
  • I do not like horror films.
  • I do not like rom-coms.
  • I hate Twilight and everything similar to Twilight. In fact I hate anything to do with vampires which isn’t Dracula.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed The Illusionist (2006 film) but I don’t know anyone else who has ever seen it.
  • John Steinbeck is one author who can do no wrong.
  • I love Agatha Christie’s Poirot. The best actor to portray Poirot was David Suchet.
  • I do not like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.
  • I got bored of A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.
  • I think Harry Potter is overrated at best.
  • I do not like Friends (NBC sitcom)Sue me.
  • I never met a C.S. Lewis book I didn’t like and I regret that he didn’t write more stories.
  • Remember what I said about guilty pleasures? I like Holby City (BBC medical drama). Sue me again.
  • I love Doc Martin (ITV comedy drama).
  • I love Fawlty Towers (BBC sitcom).
  • I love Only Fools and Horses (BBC sitcom).
  • I like most of the James Bond books and films. Daniel Craig is my favourite Bond with Roger Moore a close second.
  • I like superheroes in comics and movies.
    • I do not care too much for the darker manifestations of Superman that we have been seeing recently. I recently re-watched the ’90s TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. It was very cheesy but that didn’t stop me watching all four seasons.
    • The Amazing Spider-Man (films) were oh-so-much-better than the Spider-Man films featuring Toby McGuire.
    • I liked the first two Batman films. I wasn’t so fussed about Batman Forever. I did not like Batman and Robin. I love The Dark Knight trilogy.
  • I like the Christopher Marlowe play, Doctor Faustus.
  • I bitterly regret being the only British person in history to have gone through the whole school system without a single lesson on the work of Shakespeare.
  • Yes, I do think e-books are just as valid as paper books, though I will admit that paper books have a delicious smell you don’t get with e-books.

The Much Maligned Movie Re-Make

‘The book was better!’ was the cry.

You know you’ve said it a million times over. I know I have. And I bet you secretly judge people who tell you they preferred the film/TV adaptation to the book. I know I do.

Of course the age we live in now is such that it is difficult to write a book without it being made into a film; it is difficult to produce a film without it being turned into a computer game; worst of all, computer games have a nasty habit of spawning cinematic abominations with all the substance of a reality TV show for amoebas.

So, do re-makes ever have any value?

It’s tempting to just say ‘no’, but they often do, if they are executed very carefully by someone who appreciates the different strengths and weaknesses of each medium.

For example, Mortal Kombat pretty much defined its particular genre of gaming and to this day continues to be one of the most successful fighting game franchises on the market. Like all good games, Mortal Kombat does have a story, but it’s not really central to the game. And that was okay, because the story wasn’t really the point; it was about the fighting. But when they transferred it over to film and TV… suddenly, it was awful. Mortal Kombat (1995 film) was at best an okay bit of martial-arts escapism; Mortal Kombat: Annihilation was terrible; and don’t even get me started on Mortal Kombat: Defenders of the Realm (Mortal Kombat is not for children; they should not try to make it child-friendly).

Let’s take the main bad guy for example: Shao Kahn. In the game he comes from another dimension and wants to take over our dimension. He has a distinctive costume and says the odd catch-phrase while fighting like ‘Bow to me!’ and ‘You will never win!’. He also appears in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation wearing more or less the right outfit and saying most of his catchphrases from the game and… well, that’s about it. He’s as 2d in the film as he was in the game.

He also appeared in the 1998-’99 TV series, Mortal Kombat: Konquest, where he was portrayed by Jeff Meek. His costume was quite different from the games and he made far less use of the recognisable catchphrases but in my opinion, he was also the best thing about this (otherwise unspectacular) show. He had been given a bit of character. He was cunning, paranoid and merciless. He was swift to anger but still had a soft side which came out around his adopted daughter (granted, he still killed her but it was apparent that he regretted it). If only everything about Konquest had been re-made as well as Shao Kahn had been, it might have been a really good TV show. Alas, they still relied a little too much on familiar characters, fight scenes and scantily clad females and I think that ruined it.

I used a game-to-movie as an example because that tends to be where you see the most stark examples of this type of thing but the principle applies to any story you want to transfer from one medium to another: it needs to be altered sufficiently to suit its new medium. Superhero comics, for example, often make for excellent films because the elaborate costumes, fast paced action scenes and super powers tend to look great when there is a well-budgeted special effects team behind it. Of course, even here, a little thought needs to be put into it. You may have noticed that in the X-Men films, they all wear black leather costumes whereas in the comics they tend to wear much brighter outfits. This was a wise decision; could you imagine Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) wearing the tight yellow and blue number he wore in the comics? Not a good look. Nevertheless you walk a tightrope as a film-maker between remaining faithful to the comics (as the fans all want) and making a film which is pleasing to the eye.

To some extent, you don’t have the same problem transferring books to films or TV. The big problem you do have is remaining faithful to the plot and especially maintaining the essence of every character. When reading a novel, we have access not only to what characters do and say but also to their thoughts and feelings; moreover the author will have carefully selected his/her words and will have crafted them in such a way that we gain a very precise understanding of what is going on. You don’t get that in films. Everything has to be made clear visually and there are only so many books that naturally lend themselves to this without ruining it (there’s a reason Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men has been adapted for film so often!). Of course, plot-based novels (especially thrillers) make good films. We tend to forget that the ever-popular James Bond franchise started out as a series of novels (incidentally, I encourage you to read these and tell me which actor the books remind you the most of; I was a little surprised how often I imagined Daniel Craig while reading things like From Russia With Love).

So… is the re-make ever better than the original? I’m a little cautious of making broad general statements but I’ve never yet preferred the re-make of anything to the original. The original is usually written for the medium that suits it best by someone who ought to be an expert in that medium; a playwright writes a play that, in their professional opinion, will work well on stage; a novelist writes a novel that, in their professional opinion, will work well in print; a screenwriter writes a script that, in their professional opinion, will work well on film and so on. When you convert a novel to a film, for example, you’re asking a screenwriter to write for film something that came from the mind of a novelist, originally intended for print. Of course, someone especially skilled in their craft, who cares more about their art than the money they might make, can make a great success of this… but they will also have the wisdom to know when not to attempt it.