Why I’m Thankful for Brandon Sanderson +Steelheart

A few years ago I first caught wind of the writing of Brandon Sanderson.  It was in one of Gabe’s posts on Penny Arcade, briefly praising a fantasy novel he’d recently read called Mistborn: The Final Empire.  The title of the book, as well as Gabe’s words, piqued my interest.  I made a mental note, which I quickly Brandon_Sanderson_signfiled away in the back of my mind because I was obsessively reading through the complete library of Stephen King (a task that I’m still working on, now with the end in sight).  I also had then-recently fallen mostly out of love with the fantasy genre because of a number of mediocre books that I had read over the year previous– the exceptions to my genre abandonment being King’s The Dark Tower series and Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time.  So, when I later heard that Sanderson had been selected to finish The Wheel of Time after Mr. Jordan’s unfortunate passing, I felt hope that the series might be given the conclusion it deserved.  A quick glance at Sanderson’s Wikipedia page stated that he was selected for the Herculean task after Robert Jordan’s wife had read Mistborn and had, like Gabe, been impressed.  I moved the novel up a few notches on my to-read list.

It was not long after this that I went on my LDS mission, so all of my fiction reading was halted for a couple of years.  When I got home, Sanderson was about to release his second of the three Wheel of Time books he is responsible for, so I quickly set myself to acquiring and reading the continuing adventures of the Dragon Reborn and his companions.  I was, of course, overjoyed at how 9781429997171seamlessly Sanderson picked up the series.  His style for the books was very similar to Jordan’s, and the story picked up with almost the same momentum it had left off.  I felt like Sanderson knew the extensive collection of characters almost as personally as their creator had.

So, there’s my first reason to be thankful for Brandon Sanderson: he finished The Wheel of Time, and did a dang good job doing so.  I was distraught the day that I learned that Robert Jordan had died– I needed to know how the story concluded.  Now, some people may think that selfish of me, thinking only of how much of a cliffhanger I’d been left on, but I think that’s one of the greatest honors that I could pay him.  I was upset because I just had to know how the wonderful story I had been reading for around 10,000 pages ended.  I loved the world he created, and I wanted his legacy– one of the greatest of all fantasy series– to be complete.  Brandon Sanderson honored Jordan’s legacy, praise the light.

Between the time Mr. Sanderson released Towers of Midnight and A Memory of Light, my wife-to-be and I visited some extended family in Arizona.  My favorite uncle and I were chatting about books and our discussion turned to The Wheel of Time, and how happy Brandon Sanderson’s handling of it was making us.  My uncle mentioned that he had read a number of his other books, and that they were excellent.  He mentioned that one of Sanderson’s books, Warbreaker, is a free PDF on his website, so I quickly downloaded it (you can acquire it here).  I put it on my kindle.

A few months later, I got married.  While waiting in the airport to head off to our honeymoon, I dug my kindle out of one of my bags warbreakerand suggested to my new wife that give it a read.  She is also a big fan of The Wheel of Time, and had read a little of Sanderson’s other writing already, liking what she had thus far read, so she was excited to agree.  She had already indicated to me that his writing would be fun for us to pursue.  We silently read the prologue in the terminal, then the first chapter or two in the air, nodding to each other for page turns.  Soon, taking turns reading Warbreaker aloud to each other became a nightly ritual, with additional large chunks being knocked out whenever a lengthy car ride occurred.  We fell in love with the characters (Lightsong is my personal favorite) and with the vivid, fascinating world of the novel.  The magic system was especially spectacular– and refreshing– because of how unique yet logically sound it was.  With how impressive the system is, it was no big surprise to me that he has published laws for writing magic systems in fantasy.  The story is wonderful, with some very intricately set traps for the reader.  I recommend it to anybody who loves good fantasy lit– plus, it’s free if you don’t feel like making a trip to the bookstore.

After finishing Warbreaker, my wife and I decided that reading Brandon Sanderson’s writing at night was a ritual that should remain unbroken, so we quickly moved on to the first book in the Mistborn trilogy, The Final Empire.  This time we weren’t just drawn into the world he had created, but were yanked in.  The series (which we are reading the third book of currently– we’re taking our time to really savor its wonderfulness) is simply some of the best fantasy I’ve ever read.  The characters, especially Vin and Kelsier, are compelling, strong, complex.  Sanderson also boasts three mistborn(three!) magic systems in the series, all of which are based around metals.  Just explaining the main system, allomancy, has caused a number of friends to immediately purchase all three books in the main series (there is also a novel set hundreds of years after the trilogy that I look forward to reading).

So, the second reason I’m thankful for Brandon Sanderson is for his magic systems.  They both make for some refreshingly different fantasy reading and have helped me as a writer.  I’ve been working on a fantasy novel off and on for years.  Actually, for just about as long as I’ve been wanting to be a writer– since sixth grade (and I’m now a college graduate).  The ideas I have for the story are pretty decent, I think, but the story was always missing something that could make it have something that made it distinct from the numerous small group of good vs overwhelmingly powerful evil stories that tend to make up most of the fantasy genre.  By reading Sanderson’s books, I’ve come to realize that my magic system was a mess– an amalgam of pretty much all of the typical magics I’ve read over the years.  The only way I can save the story is to start yet another draft, this time with a solid system of magic drawn out.  Mr. Sanderson’s laws will really help me do so.

The third reason I’m grateful for Brandon Sanderson is that his writing is an example to me as a writer.  As I’ve noted before, I’m LDS.  I’ve been long trying to figure out what that means to my writing.  I want to write in a wide variety of genres, focusing on horror, and sometimes the material I want to write, that I have great ideas for, has resulted in extended periods of time staring at a blinking cursor, pondering what to do next.  I often find that my characters do not have the same moral perspectives that I do, or find themselves in extreme situations, which leaves me wondering where the line is.  How do I balance being true to the story and characters against my own views on profanity, violence, and evil?  I have no desire to go the direction of LDS literature (that is, lit specifically written for a Mormon audience), as I find most of it tacky at best.  I’m glad to have two popular literature writers who are LDS– Sanderson, and Orson Scott Card– whose work I both enjoy and can learn from.  I haven’t found the most absolute footing in this conundrum yet, but looking at Warbreaker and Mistborn have helped point me in the right direction.

Plus, he just brings me lots of joy. I really want to go to one of his workshops. And just be as awesome as a writer as he is.

Since it doesn’t 13452375quite fit in with the “thankful” motif (I can’t think of any solid ways to tie it in to that seasonal idea) I’m just going to break to talk about some of Brandon Sanderson’s other writing that I’ve acquainted myself with.  The first discussion will be brief– his novella, Legion— while the second will be a bit more extensive– Sanderson’s newest novel, Steelheart.

I became acquainted with Legion as the result of some ad I came across for Audible.  For most of my life I’ve tended to pay audio books no mind, but the ad caught my interest as it featured the name of Sanderson– next to the word “free.”

Free will almost always catch my attention, and will manage to hold it if I can quickly determine that free is actually free.  So, I clicked on the link, saw that Audible would actually allow me to download Legion, in its entirety without taking my credit card information, if I set up an account with them.  A few hours later, in a car ride of moderate length, I was listening to it.  I was pleased, I’d like to note, that the reader for the novella was very good.  He has a voice that kept my interest and I liked that he gave each character their own unique feel.

The basic premise of the novella is that a protagonist is able to see and interact with a titular legion of vivid, unique people, most of whom are brilliant experts on different subjects– but all of whom are actually just in his head.  Working with them, he’s able to solve the most baffling of mysteries– if any catch his interest.  I must say, I really enjoyed the idea, and felt like it was well-executed.  I would really love to see more with the character (or should I say characters?) in the future.

Now, on to Steelheart17182126The idea of this book is also very fun– when I read a little promotional card for the book in my local bookstore a few months before it came out, I was immediately enthralled.  Basically, the book is about a world where people begin to get super powers– but, every person who gets these powers is evil.  One of these Epics– as these superhumans are called– named Steelheart has declared himself the emperor of Newcago.  Steelheart is virtually invincible, having defeated any challengers to his power.  The story follows a young man, David, who has sworn revenge on the dictator of his city for killing his father years before.

I really like this idea, though I do have one concern with it.  Essentially, the idea of a believed-invincible emperor being challenged by a small, specialized group who theoretically has no chance of standing against him does feel a lot like the basic story of Mistborn: The Final Empire, and was a little difficult to shake in my listening to it (I listened to the audio book at work– it was also very well done, and it is my understanding that it’s been nominated for Audible audio book of the year).  But this feeling of similarity is really my only criticism of the story.  It does a lot to stand on its own, and I especially loved how the powers of the Epics worked.  Instead of all following a set system, each had its own rules with strengths and weaknesses, giving the story a feel quite different from Sanderson’s fantasy novels.  Instead, the world felt an homage to the universes of comic books, though in many ways having a wide variety of powers and abilities in a way that worked much more seamlessly than the worlds of Marvel or DC, which seem to be inconsistent in how balanced their universes are when attempting to blend the stories and abilities of their heroes and villains.  For example, in the DC universe, I always feel like writers really struggle in bringing the tone of Batman and his associated allies and villains into the universe as a whole, especially when he has no superhuman powers himself, and many of his foes tend to be a little more plausible than that of Wonder Woman or John Constantine.  There are plenty of good stories that manage to blend Batman in, but with a story like Steelheart Sanderson has already set himself up for success in that the world is set up with many heroes already in mind, rather than trying to mediate between very different backstories and general atmosphere.  The origin for all of these Epics is the same– the arrival of the star Calamity.

Many of the Epics had powers that I thought were particularly excellent.  The idea of one of Steelheart’s generals, Nightwielder, was particularly compelling, with his incorporeal nature and his ability to bring darkness upon the city.  How he fights, flying and stabbing with tendrils of darkness, is, simply, very cool.  The technology present in the novel, such as gravitonics and the tensors, is also very cool and contributes to the world.  It’s great to see everything that Sanderson does with the sci-fi genre instead of fantasy.  It’s great to see one of my favorite writers change things up.

I look forward to seeing what happens in the future books of the Reckoners series.  I also look forward to reading the other novels that Sanderson has written.  I’ve been curious about Elantris, and I’m eager to see what The Stormlight Archive is going to hold.

P.S. – This post has a sequel!

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Three Faces of Hannibal Lecter (plus one of Hannibal Lecktor, whoever that guy is)

About 5 years ago I watched The Silence of the Lambs.  I was bored and was in the mood for something a little dark.  I didn’t know much about Hannibal Lecter– I had just heard that he was a cannibalistic fictional serial killer.  I think a friend had described a scene (I didn’t then know what movie it was from– it turns out it’s from Hannibal) in which Hannibal offers a child sitting next to him some human flesh on a flight for a snack.  Anyway, it was around that time that I decided I really wanted to see– or at least find out if I wanted to see– a majority of the most iconic horror films, so the Hannibal Lecter films were on the list.  I didn’t know what order they were in, so I just went with the one that I was pretty sure was the oldest and that had a cover image that had haunted me in video rental stores as a child (which, of course, has one of the creepiest hidden images of all time in it, with the dead women in the skull on the butterfly).

Yes, I was years behind on this whole thing.  I’ll kindly refer you to my previous post Waiting for Pyramid Head if you have any questions as to why I knew so little about something so big in the horror world.

Needless to say, The Silence of the Lambs blew me away.  It was easily one of the best films I had ever seen– and not just because of the compeI wondered about this image for years.  No lie.lling story, but in general quality (it did win Best Picture, after all).  The way it was directed, with methodical pacing that unceasingly drew me in deeper and deeper, was incredible (the director won Best Director that year).  The script was exceptional, each line of dialogue perfect.  And there cannot be enough said of the acting in the film– the whole cast was incredible, with Jodie Foster making Clarice Starling a character that somehow manages to be distant while you still cheer for her (while winning Best Actress), or Ted Levine bringing a truly unnerving realism to the film’s main monster, the serial killer “Buffalo Bill,” or most of all, the legendary, award-winning (with the smallest amount of screentime) portrayal of the famed Dr. Hannibal Lecter by Anthony Hopkins.  I cannot forget how truly unnerved I was made by that performance.  Every tiny face muscle seemed to be giving its all for acting perfection as Lector first turned his head toward Clarice, and it just got better from there.  I had seen some truly exceptional films before, but to have one which such high caliber in every way was eye-opening to me.  I simply didn’t know that a film could be so flawless (after all, even my favorite film of all time, The Dark Knight has a number of elements that are imperfect).

So, by the time I finished the film I had come to the conclusion that I had gotten myself into something incredible.  I knew that there was more to be had of this Hannibal Lecter, and so I set to figuring out what direction I needed to go next to get the most out of pursuing the series further.

A cursory search on Wikipedia quickly revealed that the brilliant film I had just seen was adapted from a book, actually the second book in its series.  I wasn’t too surprised– after all, Hannibal is first seen in a cell– and I decided that before I watched any more Hannibal movies I would read the books.

I decided to start with what I was already familiar with– The Silence of the Lambs.  I was so enchanted with the film that I couldn’t resist.  I immediately plunged into the masterful writing of Thomas Harris that was just as tantalizing as the film that drew me to it.  Now, usually I prefer books to film adaptations (I mean, who doesn’t?) but this one was a rare exception to the rule.  The film wasn’t better than the book (though that does happen, and I’m sure it’ll make it onto this blog as a post eventually), but I felt like it was equal.  I found that the film was, essentially, a perfect adaptation of the novel, following the plot very well, even using much of the dialogue directly, and even capturing the very tone, the very essence of the base work.

In all of the Lecter novels, Thomas Harris writes in a way that is beautiful and dark, and the greatest strength is the way that he paints his characters in ways that are very real, very human– even (maybe especially) the monsters.  The serial killers– “The Tooth Fairy,” “Buffalo Bill,” and, of course, “Hannibal the Cannibal–” are the most fascinating element of his writing.  They are their own blends of crazy (well, is Hannibal crazy?  Can’t really say), but their internal logic is strong, and as you read the sections of the novels that get into their heads you can’t help but sympathize, a little, with them.  This was especially true for me as I read Red Dragon, the first Hannibal novel to be written.  My heart still aches a little for the titular “Red Dragon,” when, in the course of the novel, his more human side begins to have things go his way, just to have the monster inside of him rise up and take control of his life again.  It was one of the most emotionally evocative pieces of writing I have ever read.

I unfortunately think I read the Lecter novels in the worst order possible.  As I’ve already stated, I read The Silence of the Lambs first, which was really starting off with the best of the best, which made the others not quite as good as they may have seemed had I not been prone to compare them to it.  The second book I read is the most recently written, the prequel novel Hannibal Rising.hannibal rising  Now, it’s a good book, but it is extremely different from the rest of the series.  Instead of telling a relatively contemporary serial killer story, it follows a young Hannibal, surviving (in the most horrible of ways) World War II in Lithuania and afterward moving to France.  It’s a very strange story, filled with the dark context for Lecter becoming a monster, but failing to ever begin to tell the story that one expects from a story named Hannibal Rising.  I figured it was the story of how he got to be in the insane asylum that Clarice finds him in, and was a little disappointed that it was not.

It is a beautiful piece of writing, in spite of very peculiar thematic elements including cannibalism, not-quite incest, racism, war, survival, revenge, and more.  The imagery of young Hannibal making himself into a samurai of sorts was very evocative.

So, a good book, but one that I should have saved for last.

Next, I read Red Dragon.  It was extremely good, but once again I was disappointed to find that it was not the story of Hannibal’s serial murders.  I, as with The Silence of the Lambs, found Lecter sitting, a serene hurricane, in his asylum cell, contributing to the story as a strange consultant-of-sorts on another serial killer case.  The story was littered with hints of what had happened before, especially since its protagonist, Will Graham, was the man who had put Hannibal there, but I wasn’t satisfied.  That again didn’t keep me from being drawn into the dark world of the story’s main serial killer and the surprisingly equally dark man who was hunting him.  I really was fascinated with the character of Will and his incredibly strong empathy that allows him inside the mind of the man who was killing families and putting shards of mirror in their eyes.  I was haunted by Hannibal’s words to him, telling Graham that the reason he had caught his was that they were just alike.

This idea, and similar ones, have been teased out a number of times since Red Dragon— the popular Dexter series comes to mind– but none have come close to so interesting an execution as Harris managed in his first Hannibal novel.  I love that the idea is being brought out even more with the new TV series, which I’ll get to later.

I finally got to the remaining book– Hannibal— with a fervor, having ridden a wave of great, scary writing to it.  Maybe it was that I had just read the intense ending to Red Dragon, but as I started what I thought what would serve as the opus of the series– with the titular Hannibal finally escaped, free to resume his monstrosities– I immediately became bored.  Not with everything in the book, but I could definitely tell that Harris had again allowed himself to really dig into the story, which, unlike with his other novels, caused the pace to slow.  I felt distanced as a reader from the story, when I was used to being drawn into the world of Harris’ writing.  Finally, as murders began and the story moved forward, I felt a little more drawn in– but not as much as I expected.

There was one particularly interesting thing about the book– the way it described Hannibal’s mind.  Harris finally shows his audience the private, queerly beautiful thoughts of his pet monster.  He shows us how they are neatly ordered, that his very mind– not just his actions– screams of his genius.  We see hints of his awful childhood and his beloved late sister, Mischa, whose death plays such a key role in his shaping.

And yet, in spite of that inspired element of the book, there seemed to be abundant problems.  Harris seemed to be trying very hard to re-cast his protagonist as something that is less of a monster and more of a thing of beauty.  While I had been fascinated by the complexity of the character– he was even more dark and frightening and brilliant than the other killers that the series had showcased– I could not have undone what the other books in the series had done to me.  I had made up my mind that Hannibal was a monster.  Yes, a genius, cultured, gentleman monster (not unlike my perspective of Satan), but still a monster nonetheless.  The “villain” of the piece was another issue– a surviving victim of the original Lecter murders who is a disgusting, crippled, pedophilic troll.  It was immediately clear, upon  his introduction, that he was the one the reader was not supposed to like, while the handsome, clever Hannibal was to be the one you root for.  It is an interesting idea to set the story as a monster setting a trap for another monster, but everything moved too slowly.  There wasn’t the opportunity that the other books had to move things along– another fresh homicide scene to be appalled by, more clues to follow.  Instead, there is Lecter, who seems to be tamed from the necessity to hide (he’s still dangerous, but only when necessary), narrowly dodging trap after trap to find and catch him, and Mason Verger, whose scenes just seem to be either disgusting shows of what a horrible person he is, or scenes of him being pissed that he isn’t torturing Hannibal yet.  The only character I could find myself caring about was Clarice Starling, but she, too, seems comparatively lifeless in comparison to her role in The Silence of the Lambs.

And then there’s the biggest issue of all with the story– it’s ending.  [SPOILERS, DUH.]  The ending of the story, after Hannibal is saved by Clarice from Verger, then in turn saves her, is the problem.  He attempts to brainwash her in really weird ways into thinking she’s Mischa, or that he’s her dead father, or something like that.  I don’t really know, the writing style gets very purposely trippy to imitate the drug-haze and, unfortunately, ends up becoming near-unreadable.  And then, there isn’t even the payoff of a good ending.  Instead, Clarice breaks free of the haze and still maintains her identity– which seems good, right?– but then choses to submit to Hannibal as his accomplice and lover, and they eat some annoying jerk’s brains and run away together. [End spoilers.]

What the frick, right?

Instead of a brilliant conclusion to the story, the audience is presented with some high shock factor twist-ending bullcrap that feels totally untrue to the characters involved.  I put the book down, pissed off, declaring to all in the room, “That sucked.”

I wish I could end my discussion of the books in some other way.  Blame Thomas Harris for me ending the discussion of his writing on such a negative note.

Anyway, after that disappointment, and allowing myself a couple weeks to distance myself from how mad I was about it (it still elicits feelings of anger from me), I returned to the medium that had introduced me to Hannibal Lecter.

I quite enjoyed the film version of Red Dragon.  I thought that Edward Norton was a pretty good choice for Will Graham, and I liked Ralph Fiennes’s portrayal of Francis Dolarhyde as well (a much better performance than him as Voldemort– it’s refreshing to learn that he actually could act, even though he hid it so well in the disappointing Harry Potter films).  It was no surprise that Hopkins was still the star of the show, even still with a relatively minor role.  I don’t have too much to say about it other than it was a solid, quite faithful film adaptation, though it did not draw as strong an emotional reaction from me as the book did.  In other words, it was good, but it was definitely no The Silence of the Lambs film good.

It was with reluctance that I moved on to Ridley Scott’s Hannibal.  Hannibal_movie_posterAfter all, the other two Lecter-related films did such a solid job of closely following the source material and, frankly, I didn’t want this one to follow suite.

It didn’t.  Thank heaven.

It was a pretty okay movie.  I didn’t feel nearly as awed by Anthony Hopkins’ performance, but I suppose that even the best of actors can struggle a bit when they’re given material to work with that is not of the same caliber as their acting abilities.  Let’s be real, though– Anthony Hopkins at his worst is still better than many other actors at their best.  I liked Julianne Moore as Clarice, though I prefer Jodie Foster.

The story seemed to work better as a movie, though.  The pacing issues largely disappeared as, by virtue of being an entire piece in 131 minutes rather than that amount of time spent reading equaling pretty much nothing happening, it moved along at a brisk clip.

Oh, and they didn’t ruin the ending.  Did I mention that?  The ending went the direction that may have (partially) redeemed the book.  I finished the movie not wanting to throw things at the screen.  That helped out a lot.

Finally, I watched the Hannibal Rising movie.  I thought it was very visually striking and was a very entertaining adaptation of the book.  I liked the performance of Gaspard Ulliel as the young Lecter, though I felt it did struggle at times in that it occasionally slipped into mediocre imitation of Hopkins rather than standing on its own.  I understand that it was panned by critics, but I honestly don’t feel like any such negative press is warranted.

With that movie watched, I thought that I had a complete Hannibal Lecter experience (unless, that is, Thomas Harris ever gets around to finishing another Lecter book– which, based on his average of 7.75 years to finish a book, seems a due around now).  I didn’t think much on the character other than to show my wife The Silence of the Lambs.

But then I caught wind of an NBC TV series called Hannibal.  Of course, I was instantly intrigued.  Hannibal_key_artI looked up a teaser trailer on Youtube, but because I wasn’t instantly blown away by the 45 seconds of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting as the titular character, I forgot all about it for a few months.

I saw a blurb about the show on IMDb while looking up some actor or show or the like (something I spend way too much time doing) and decided to give it a shot.  If it sucked, I could always turn it off.  A cursory look at the character list on the page seemed to indicate Red Dragon to me, so I found it streaming online.

It was good.  Extremely good.  I watched four episodes that night.  I very quickly felt ashamed that I didn’t instantly recognize Mikkelsen’s performance as Hannibal for the brilliant performance (and more ethnically correct) it is.  Hugh Dancy is Will Graham to me.  The way that Graham’s mental process of getting into the mindset of murderers is portrayed is brilliant.

I’ve seen every episode to date (so, the entire first season) and every one of them immersed me into its fictional world.

It is quite dark and, at times, difficult to watch for its gruesome factor.  Fairly akin to the special effects of The Walking Dead.  Really cool, but messed up, stuff.  Like a human string instrument.

The series (so far) serves as the prequel to Red Dragon that I’ve long wanted.  Hannibal is a serial killer at large, though that serves more as a common thread through the episodes rather than the sole focus of the season.  From what I’ve read (on Wikipedia, the knower of all), the idea is to have 3 seasons before Red Dragon, then a season of each of the subsequent books in the series.  If the show continues to be as incredible as it thus has, that idea makes me very happy.  Well, the last season maybe not so much, but even still I expect good things.

It is of note that they make some changes to the established canon to make the show work.  The gender of several characters are changed (Dr. Bloom, Freddy Lounds) to allow for some romance and, I think, some general balance to the story.  Also, Lecter and Graham work together to solve serial killer cases instead of what is suggested by Red Dragon, which is that Graham meets Lecter when he interviews him about one of his dead patients and gets attacked by him.  But trust me, even though it deviates from the “real” story, this is much more compelling.

Just watch it.  I don’t want to spoil it.  I can’t wait for season 2 to start.

Looking up something on Wikipedia about the show, I discovered something interesting– I had missed a movie.  I learned that five years before The Silence of the Lambs would appear in theaters there was a film adaptation of Red DragonManhunter_michael_mann_film_poster called Manhunter.  Having seen and read everything else in the Hannibal Lecter universe, I decided to give it a shot.

This movie is the reason for the parenthetical face of Hannibal Lecktor.  They changed the spelling of his last name.  I hate it when things do this when adapting a story.

I don’t have too much to say about the movie.  Brian Cox’s performance is the least impressive of the four actors to play Hannibal.  It was interesting to see a young William Petersen (who I really only know from CSI) as Graham.  Tom Noonan did well with the role of Dolarhyde.  The movie does pretty well with the source material, not deviating in annoying ways.  I think I’d have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for the mediocre ’80s synth soundtrack and for the fact that the later film adaptation is overall better.  I felt like the pacing was a little off, and there were too many random scenes that just didn’t seem to contribute to the story as effectively as they could have.  I think my biggest issue with the film was how it mentioned Will Graham’s empathetic ability to get into the minds of killers, but did very little to show the audience that fact.

Wow, that was a veritable treatise on Hannibal Lecter.  I hope to get comments with all of your thoughts on all of these books and shows and movies.

 

P.S. This post has a sequel, discussing Hannibal season 2!

World War Z

After hearing everything from “it’s the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen” to “it’s so bad it’s like they told three sophomore creative writing students to adapt the book into a movie… and two left,” I finally got around to watching World War Z— and I must say, I disagree with pretty much every single thing others have said about it.

Of course, I’ll elaborate.

It was very difficult for me to have any sort of expectation set in advance for the movie.  Thankfully I was informed that it was an adaptation of the book in only the loosest sense, which definitely helped me be able to enjoy it.  Typically it’s good to know if one has to mentally separate the two pieces– for example, had I known it was so very different from the book in pretty much every plot element, I may have enjoyed The Bourne Identity film, but having read the book and expecting it to be roughly the same, I hated it.  A lot.  Having now stated that yes, the book and the film are very different from each other in almost every way, I’d just like to note that I did very much enjoy Max Brooks’ delightfully told novel chronicling a wide variety of tales that encompass different locales and phases of a zombie apocalypse.  You should read it, and also laugh and be surprised by how well-thought out his other book is, The Zombie Survival Handbook.  Both are sitting on my bookshelf.

I want to note that there are some very critical elements of the novel that the film does capture.  No, the virus doesn’t really work the same way, the resolution is not at all similar, and the action of the film doesn’t really follow anything that happens in the film.  The zombies World_War_Z_posteronly have a handful of similarities, notably how the hordes work in some very frighteningly effective ways, such as climbing over each other to get over walls.  But, the film does do good with some of the parts that made Brooks’ WWZ a fairly unique piece of the zombie subgenre, specifically how much it relies on military actions in dealing with the masses of the undead (because, let’s face it, that’s who we would rely on to keep us safe from the monsters until we had no other choice) and how there is a prominent international presence in the film.  I really liked how boundaries disappeared and it became human against zombie, but that the fight was approached in different ways all over the globe.  The film had to build a character who would have a reason to go all over the planet  to capture that element of the book, and I felt like they did a good job of that.  I will state that I am sad that the filmmakers didn’t find a way to really capture what is the most distinctive feature of the novel– that it was told from many perspectives in different locations and at different points of time in the struggle against the undead.  It really felt like a full world war in the book, when in the film it seemed like a couple of brief battles and things were just resolved– maybe resolved is the wrong word, but rather, things are definitely improved— for the world quite quickly.

Okay, that’s enough about the book in relation to the movie, because, simply, many people who are going to see the film have not read the book.  Now, as to how the film does as its own piece of art.

I probably have already given the impression that I wasn’t that fond of the film, but that is not actually how I feel.  I enjoyed the film a great deal.

I want to note that , as with most of zombie films, I anticipated a strong horror element, which was not really present.  There are plenty of undead, hordes and hordes of them, but unless you are inherently frightened of them, the film relies on only a little of the scary.  Instead of the typical terror of being hunted, of totally insurmountable odds, one person versus the endless masses, we have a different approach, in which we see almost as many of the living as we see of the dead.  The creatures aren’t particularly gruesome or frightening in appearance as compared to many other contemporary zombie shows (such as The Walking Dead).  Rather than a horror film, it is much more a solid action film– a war film, actually, as the title (in an admittedly fairly cheesy fashion) suggests.  Of course it was over-the-top in the way that any action film is, but I honestly felt like the film was not in the same boat as many other films filled with explosions and violence.  It wouldn’t be fair to say that this is a film that only has enough plot to justify the number of bullets fired as I would say of a goodly number of other films.  Instead, with World War Z there is a refreshingly human element to the story.  The protagonist, Gerry, had some very real motivations that really drove the story very well.  He brought both unique experience to the conflict– having been in dangerous conflicts for his previous job– and was a strong, believable family man whose motivations and desires are all centered on keeping his family safe and happy.  One can see that he is often split, trying to balance his own survival and that of his family, and in bringing the same things for others he comes in contact with.

The acting was good.  Brad Pitt, as usual, brings a strong performance, and the remaining cast all felt pretty solid in their roles.  Even though the children in the film were only really featured for part of the film, they were also good and contributed to the believability of the film.

I do take some issue with the special effects.  Yeah, the explosions and computer-generated distant visuals of the masses were quite good, but I was not impressed with the zombies themselves.  Most looked like chalky, extra-veiny versions of people, much like Dark Willow in season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not like convincing animated corpses.  As I noted before, they really failed to bring any of the scares necessary for some of the more intense moments of the film to have as strong of an impact as was warranted.  Additionally, even though I mentioned I was pleased with the acting before, that applied only to the humans.  Most of the zombies were making noises not logical for zombies (I’m going to explain my thoughts on this in an upcoming post), and their movements were all inconsistent with each other.  Most of the time, zombies were full-on sprinters (which can be scary, in its own way) but near the end of Please heaven, make it stop!the film, we’re mostly dealing with the “dormant” zombies, which really showed the filmmakers’ flaws in dealing with the monsters.  The zombie with the most screen time (by far) just annoyed my wife and I while we watched the movie.  The thing about it that was intended to be the most frightening part of it– an overly-regular loud clicking of its teeth– elicited annoyed shouts from us at the TV.  “Really?” we yelled, “Again?”

I have heard some complaint about the film’s conclusion.  I agree it did move things toward resolution a little to easily and quickly, but it did make sense to me.  I liked that a zombie story took a route other than bullets to solve things.

So, in conclusion, this was neither the best zombie movie I’ve ever seen (as a note, that would be [REC], which I’ll soon be defending as being a zombie movie in the same post in which I talk about the zombie noises), nor was it bad.  It was a unique take on zombies, and one that is giving me hope that one of my favorite monsters isn’t approaching stagnation in modern media.  Definitely worth a watch.  Plus, I hear they are going to make a sequel, which (hopefully) may give the film adaptation of the book a more rounded-out feel, possibly capturing more perspectives on the war, rather than just sticking to Gerry.

House of Leaves

I recently read Mark Z. Danielewski’s first novel, House of Leaves.

Wow.

The book is a horror novel, but strangely, it is not straight-up scary.  When I was given an explanation of what the book was about– a friend, who was rereading the book while in the car on a long road trip, offered, “It’s about a house that is bigger on the inside than the outside”– I shrugged.  It seemed a fun little idea for a short story, but enough to form a book as hefty as the one he carried around?  He could see my skepticism, and thankfully, handed me the book, inviting me to just read the introduction.House_of_leaves

Suddenly, I was introduced into the mind of Johnny Truant, a sex-obsessed, drug-abusing tattoo artist who, through unusual means, is introduced to a manuscript, heavily needing an editor to prepare it and its complex documentation for printing, written by a blind man who died gruesomely and mysteriously.  Immediately I both hated Truant for his lifestyle and was strangely fascinated by him.  Then, as quickly as I began to be drawn into what he said about the manuscript, which makes up the majority of the text of House of Leaves, the introduction was over, and my friend had reclaimed his copy of the book to resume his study thereof.

The introduction referenced a short film, “The Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” in which the owner of the titular House films an unduly long hallway in his family’s new residence.  This method of presenting the “bigger on the inside” idea was surprisingly riveting, and I had to know more.

So, a week or so after getting back from the trip, I tracked down the lone copy of House of Leaves a local bookstore had.  Wincing to pay nearly twenty dollars for a trade paperback (yes, I want to be a writer and make my money selling books, and yet I usually buy books from thrift stores), I walked home with my new acquisition, reading while I walked (a skill I acquired in college).  I quickly reread the introductory section, then excitedly dug into The Navidson Record, the blind man’s manuscript as edited by Truant.

I was surprised to see that it was written very much as a scholarly paper, with extensive footnotes (complete with publication info) for almost everything in the text.  It chronicled and picked apart a documentary film (which Truant explains in his own editorial notes he can find no other reference to, nor to most of the noted texts) filmed by Will Navidson, the owner of the house.  Quickly, the story begins to work on two fronts, the blind man’s Record and Truant’s experiences while working with the text (which, in spite of fictionalized sexual exploits and parties he throws in, quickly becomes very dark).  Soon appendices, referenced in footnotes, begin to become part of the story as well, working to further and provide context for both of the novel’s stories.  The book even goes so far as to contain letters written in code, which resulted in me writing in the margins of the book, something I doggedly avoid in spite of years of being told to do so by professors and teachers.  Simply, as the story drew me in, I had to know everything the book had to offer me.  I started with one bookmark, but midway through my read had to incorporate four or five at a time to keep myself from missing anything as footnotes of footnotes quickly led me down the rabbit holes that litter this story.  It is also very impressive how Danielewski makes use of how the house-of-leaves-sideways-2words are laid out on the page, or what color certain words are, as part of how the story is conveyed.  The reading becomes very difficult at times to follow because of the novelist’s wildly experimental techniques, but as a reader you feel as though the novel is worth all of the time and effort that was necessary to put in to get through it.

So simply, if you like fascinating, well-written horror that breaks genre conventions, read this book.  But, be warned: the novel is ergodic, confusing, and difficult.  It is scary on a very psychological level.  You don’t walk away from it feeling truly satisfied, because there are questions that cannot be answered– it’s what keeps the characters up at night, too.  And a heads-up to readers who don’t care for certain types of mature content, there are some uncomfortably sexually explicit sections in Truant’s notes (I skipped over most of these notes– they are important only as far as they show Truant’s imagined self, which gets broken down throughout the text).

A pro tip for those who want to get a really full experience in their read of the book, it may be worthwhile to get the album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the musical artist Poe, which is a companion piece House of Leaves (featuring such songs as “5&1/2 Minute Hallway” and “Dear Johnny”).

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