Mansfield Park and Persuasion, retold by Gill Tavner, illustrated by Ann Kronheimer (Real Reads series)

A while ago, I offered to review two “Real Reads” retellings of Jane Austen for the Jane Austen Society of Australia journal. Unfortunately my review, plus those of the people reviewing the other books in the series, took up far more space than the editor could justify allocating to them, and so she was forced to ask our permission to severely cut the reviews to just a few grabs (naturally we all quite understood her dilemma, and were happy to give such permission). However, since lack of space is not a problem with a blog, I thought I might as well post my full review here. Though be warned – it is quite long.

It would appear that the Jane Austen Real Reads are aimed at the pre-teen, probably female, demographic. So my first question is why? There are many, many good books written for girls of this age. Frances Hodgsen Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mary Grant Bruce, Noel Streatfeild, Louise Fitzhugh, Hilary McKay, Odo Hirsch: for over a century, people have been writing books for girls that are stimulating, challenging, exciting, or simply really good stories. So is there really a need for girls to be introduced to “adult classics” at this age? Particularly since the majority won’t really want to go straight from the cut-down to the full versions: most (though, of course, not all) would probably be better off waiting until they are a few years older before reading Jane Austen. So I don’t really see the point in introducing the stories this early.

But obviously someone disagrees with me, and so we have Real Reads: “Pick up these great little versions of the world’s greatest books, and you’ll discover that Real Reads are a Real Treat.” I volunteered to read Persuasion and Mansfield Park, but I’m afraid I didn’t find them a real treat, and I’m not sure I would have even as an 11 year old. Unfortunately, I did not have a tame pre-teen to try them out on, so the following review is based purely on my own reaction to the books.

On starting to read, the first thing I realized was that, although the cover says “Jane Austen” in big letters, and “Retold by Gill Tavner” in smaller print, the key word is definitely “retold”. These are not abridged versions of the book, they are complete rewrites. The narration contains little to nothing of Jane Austen’s words, and although the dialogue fares rather better, I would say that barely 50% is from the original books.

In some ways, the storytelling reminded me of film novelizations. An author writing a book-of-the-film, who has probably had nothing to do with the original production, presents the story in a perfectly competent manner, but is not allowed to put any stamp of his/her own individuality into the retelling. Similarly, in these two Real Reads, all of the Austen narrator’s personality is removed, and it is replaced with … nothing.

The books are also very short: 54 pages each, including illustrations and a two page character list (plus another ten pages on “Taking things further”). Unsurprisingly, therefore, a number of subplots are sacrificed, and most of the rich characterisation is also lost.

Persuasion does a reasonable job of covering the salient plot points, although the removal of all reference to Fanny Harville means that Benwick’s personality is something of a blank. (In case you are wondering, it also means that Anne does not talk about constancy to Captain Harville, who barely appears. But she has a similar, if shorter, conversation with Admiral Croft, enabling Wentworth to overhear and write an abbreviated version of the letter we all know.) I was also a little surprised that the book actually opens with the events of the year Six, rather than presenting them in flashback. But perhaps Gill Tavner felt that her readers do not yet have the literary sophistication to cope with a non-chronological ordering: as she is a teacher, I will defer to her greater knowledge of this age group’s capabilities.

The cuts to Mansfield Park are more extreme, but then the book is longer and more plot-intensive. I was particularly struck by the curtailing of the Sotherton scenes: the various meanderings through the garden are reduced to “[Mary] wanted to discuss the matter [of Edmund taking orders] with her brother, but as he and Maria had left the group to explore a more overgrown path, she would have to wait”. And the visit to Portsmouth is removed entirely! Gill Tavner also seems to have had some trouble with Lovers’ Vows: she describes it as “inappropriate”, without explaining why, and redefines Henry’s and Maria’s characters as lovers (in the same sense as Mary’s and Edmund’s characters), rather than as a mother and her illegitimate son.

The books are full of colour illustrations: these are not unappealing, but they didn’t always seem entirely right. However, this might just mean that Fanny Price and Anne Elliot aren’t really suited to this style of illustration: I thought the cover pictures for Emma and Northanger Abbey really did capture the spirit of the books.

But, for me, perhaps the single biggest problem with these retellings is … they aren’t funny. Admittedly, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are perhaps the least “light, bright and sparkling” of Jane Austen’s books, but they nevertheless have some wonderful comic scenes and ironic authorial comments. And all of these are totally absent from Gill Tavner’s versions.

So if you lose the authorial voice, the rich characterisation and the comedy of the original novels, is there any real point to these versions? I can’t help feeling that if the objective is to introduce young readers to the Austen’s stories – and I’m still not convinced that this is a good idea, particularly for an age group this young – it might be more effective for them to watch one of the better film/television adaptations. Even where these diverge markedly from the original plot (and in some cases, the amount of divergence is no greater than Gill Tavner’s) they offer an artistic reinterpretation of the novel, rather than just a cut-down, blanded-out retelling.

This is not to say that a child reader might not enjoy Real Reads. They are competently written, and pleasant enough. But if one ignores the fact that they are based on classics, then they don’t really have a great deal to offer. It seems to me that the time spent reading them could be much better spent on Saffy’s Angel, or Something’s Fishy Hazel Green, or Harriet the Spy, or Ballet Shoes, or The Secret Garden – classic or modern, these children’s books offer a much richer reading experience than Gill Tavner’s retellings of Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

Let Austen wait until the reader is ready for the originals – be that at age 12, age 17 or age 35. And let her (or him) enjoy seeing the story unfold, without pre-knowledge of the plot. We only ever have one chance to read Jane Austen for the first time. Why spoil it?

The Golden Compass at Hoyts, Broadway

The accepted wisdom is that the film The Golden Compass is much weaker than the original book, Northern Lights. Certainly, everything is much more obvious and unsubtle, and some nuances are missing. Having said this, however, I felt that they did a pretty good job of compressing the actual plot of the book (except for the ending – more on this later). I didn’t think that the removal of all references to the Church, to God and to sin actually detracted in this instance, though how they plan to sustain this for the later books has me baffled. Aside from the ending, I thought the single biggest problem was the scene with the intercised Billy Costa: the equivalent scene in the book (with the not-appearing-in-the-film Tony Markarios) was intensely powerful and heartbreaking, and it was somewhat emasculated in the film – particularly since Billy Costa still seemed to be alive at the end. Actually, I was a bit worried about seeing this on screen, as I thought it would be too harrowing, but by making it less disturbing, they also reduced the impact of how evil the intercision process is.

I thought all the performances were good. Actually, given the way the plot was trimmed, it was basically just Lyra and everyone else. Possibly Ian McKellen’s Iorek sounded a bit too cultured, but Sam Elliot was great as Lee Scoresby, as was Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala (for the tiny amount of screen time she got) and the rest. I had imagined that Nicole Kidman would be perfect as Mrs Coulter, but when she first spoke I got a bit of a shock – her voice sounded a bit high and “little girlish”, rather than mature and sophisticated. But she looked exactly right, and either her voice changed or I just got used to it as the film progressed.

But Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra was brilliant. I have never really been able to warm to Lyra. A bit like Jane Austen’s Emma, I have never been able to make sense of the fact that other characters in the book love her, when all I can really see as her faults. But Dakota Blue Richards finally made me see it (as Alicia Silversone did as the Emma equivalent in Clueless, but Gwyneth Paltrow completely failed to do in the big screen Emma). All of Lyra’s faults were still there – she was a liar, she was shamelessly manipulative – and yet through all that, she completely shone through as a pure and even lovable character.

The “look” of the film was great – particularly some of the early scenes with the group of children and their daemons running around, and some of Pantalaimon’s transitions from one form to another. The big battle scenes were also good: clearly riding on the coat-tails of Lord of the Rings, but then there are only so many ways you can show a battle.

So the only real problem with the film – and it’s a biggie – was the ending. I’m really not comfortable with the idea of cutting off the last few chapters, and writing a new, upbeat ending to the book.

Michael, who hasn’t read the book, found the final scene rather saccharine, and felt that it undercut what had gone before. So in at least one case, the changed ending didn’t work for someone who didn’t know any better.

But for me, knowing what was to come, the ending was neither upbeat nor even saccharine – I found it unbelievably heartbreaking. Because they think everything is alright, and it so completely isn’t. Finishing the film on Lyra’s totally optimistic – and totally wrong – understanding of what is happening just feels wrong. In fact, she is even more wrong than she was at the equivalent point in the book, since I think we are meant to assume that she will also be able to get Ratter back for Tony Costa.

So if the changed ending doesn’t necessarily work for people who haven’t read the book – and those who have will obviously know what comes next – it would surely have been better to climax with the tragedy, and then finish – as the book does – with Lyra, sadder but wiser, moving forward and making her own choices. This is not exactly a happy ending, but neither is it despairing: Lyra is no longer anybody’s puppet, and she may well achieve what she sets out to do.

2007 in review

Books

I read 167 books in 2007, of which 106 were re-reads and 61 were new (though of the 61, there were two I didn’t finish – Lolita and Crime and Punishment). Dividing up by category, 104 were adult fiction, 32 children’s fiction, 20 young adult fiction and 11 non-fiction. By genre, I read 55 crime/thriller and 53 SF/fantasy – though SF/fantasy is spread across all age categories, and crime/thriller was only adult books. My most read author was Agatha Christie, of whom I am slowly doing a chronological re-read – this probably also skewed the genre numbers, since slightly over half the crime/thrillers I read were Christies. There was a big drop to my second-most-read author (Donna Andrews – also crime/thriller, and also a complete re-read – with 10 books) and there were 47 authors of whom I only read one book.

Probably my favourite “discovery” for the year was Sonia Soanes – I absolutely loved her verse-novel Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy. Though I found her other books much less gripping – Stop Pretending was a very emotional book, whereas the others were a bit more lightweight. The other young adult book I was very impressed by was Alex Flinn’s Fade to Black, and I will probably be chasing up more of her work. In the adult fiction line, I have been enjoying Amanda Grange’s diary-of-Austen-hero books, and (at the other end of the “literature” scale) I am glad to have read The Odyssey, though at times it was a bit of a struggle.

None of the other new authors I tried really grabbed me, and of the new-books-by-favourite-authors probably the one I was most pleased to get was Susan Geason’s new(ish) Syd Fish story, Hook, Line and Sinker. This isn’t actually published, but it’s available for download from her website. The new Dick Francis was very readable, but not out of this world, and I was a bit underwhelmed by the new Lois McMaster Bujold fantasy – I don’t find this particular fantasy world all that interesting, and in any case I prefer her SF books.

Films

I saw 10 films at the cinema, and another 8 or so on various planes. There were no real stand-outs, though my favourites were probably Breach (which I unaccountably failed to blog), Hot Fuzz and Music and Lyrics, with honourable mentions to Pan’s Labyrinth and No Country for Old Men – these two were probably the “best” films I saw, but Pan’s Labyrinth was rather depressing – and very violent – and No Country for Old Men didn’t quite work for me. Amazing Grace and Sunshine are also worth mentioning.

The worst film I saw was probably Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, though there was competition from 300.

Plays

I only saw 6 plays, all by the Sydney Theatre Company. The two best were Riflemind and The Art of War, and I probably got least enjoyment from The Season at the Sarsparilla and Tales from the Vienna Woods – though neither of these came even close to the awfulness of 2006′s The Lost Echo . But I’m definitely going to make an attempt to get to the theatre more often in 2008.

Mr Darcy’s Diary and Captain Wentworth’s Diary by Amanda Grange

The number of Jane Austen spinoff books seems to be growing exponentially.

I have read a couple of Austen sequels – ages ago, before the recent fad for them – but they didn’t really do a lot for me. I think my main problem is that the original books end on an unquestionably positive note – at least for the main characters – but sequels need to have conflict of some kind, or there is no story. So they often introduce problems in the main characters’ marriage, or with their children. Which I don’t like, because I’d rather have them just living happily ever after. Also, of course, by making up new events, the authors often have the characters behaving in ways that I don’t agree that they would.

An alternative to sequels, though, is the stories retold from another point of view. Often these can be quite fun. Ages and ages ago, I read Jane Fairfax by Naomi Royde Smith – I remember very little about it, except that I enjoyed it more than the one or two Austen sequels I read at about the same time. More recently, I read Diana Birchall’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek In Defense of Mrs Elton with great pleasure. Of course, both of these are retellings of Emma, which is not my favourite Austen.

Amanda Grange appears to be planning a full set of retellings. She has already published Mr Darcy’s Diary, Mr Knightley’s Diary, Captain Wentworth’s Diary and Edmund Bertram’s Diary, and I believe the next to come is Colonel Brandon’s Diary. She has also written a couple of fairly generic looking romances. I’m not entirely sure whether they are self/vanity published, or whether it is just a small independent publishing house. However, the physical books seem to have perfectly adequate production values, and they aren’t full of typos, which suggests at least some level of editing and commitment on the part of the publishers.

So far, I have read Mr Darcy’s Diary (which was originally published simply as Darcy’s Diary) and Captain Wentworth’s Diary, and I am just about to start Edmund Bertram’s Diary. One could perhaps argue that the writing style is a little bland, though I would prefer a term like “unobtrusive”. She certainly makes no attempt to imitate Austen’s ironic turns of phrase – and a good thing too, since most of the Austen pastiches I have seen fail miserably (IMHO). I found a couple of jarring moments – Darcy used the word “saucy” to describe Elizabeth rather too often, and I also wasn’t 100% sure of whether he should have been referring to “Caroline” rather than “Miss Bingley” (though I could be wrong about that) – but in general I found the unobtrusive/bland style worked well. The only real downside of it is that the “voice” of the two diarists is virtually the same. But I can live with this.

I think one Amanda Grange’s great strengths is her familiarity with the source novels. So in the opening part of Captain Wentworth’s Diary (which covers the events of the year six) I think she does a very nice job of showing a young man who is “spending freely what had come freely”, and who “knows” that he will soon have a ship. Furthermore, she doesn’t feel the need to make any explicit reference to Austen’s words – she lets the reader make the connection for her/himself, and if that connection isn’t made, well it doesn’t really matter to the story.

She also appears to have a genuine interest in exploring the emotional journeys of the two heroes: whether she will sustain this through six or more books is open to question. It seems likely she has started with the ones that interest her most (and it probably helps that Darcy and Wentworth are my own two favourites – I haven’t yet read her Knightley, which she wrote in between these two), but she may struggle more if she doesn’t find as much to interest her in Henry Tilney. And it may say something about her interests that she has chosen to do Colonel Brandon’s Diary over Edward Ferrars’ Diary.

But she does seem to be trying to give an internalised presentation of the heroes’ changing thought processes and emotions that we only see externally in the original novels, and in both books I enjoyed the journey. I think she is at her best when she is only one degree removed from the originals. So I found her picture of Anne in the year six harder to reconcile with the novel than her picture of Wentworth – probably because Austen gives us a clearer picture of her hero at that time than she does of the heroine. We know Anne has changed a great deal in the time since, but we don’t really know from what, so Amanda Grange has to do a lot more character creation with the young Anne than with the young Wentworth.

Similarly, her development of Anne de Burgh (and to a lesser extent, Colonel Fitzwilliam) was definitely not consistent with the original. But then it was a very small part of Grange’s book – and maybe it’s just that she felt sorry for Miss de Burgh. I also thought the slight glimpse we got through Darcy and Elizabeth’s bedroom door was a bit unnecessary, though I guess it’s not that much of an issue.

So I think she is at her best when giving the “other side of the story” for events that actually occurred in the original books. I found I really could believe in the Darcy and the Wentworth she created. They weren’t Austen’s characters – but they were sufficiently consistent with them that I didn’t keep going “no, that’s wrong”. I don’t know how well the books would stand on their own merits alone – as I said, the writing style is arguably on the bland side, and maybe the character presentation is as well. But then, it is highly unlikely that anyone will by trying to read them on their own merits alone. They are designed as … I was going to say “companion pieces” to the originals, but maybe that elevates them to a level of equality that I don’t think any spin-off deserves. Perhaps “adjuncts” or “appendices” – completely and utterly unnecessary, but for some who love the originals (and by no means everyone) they offer an enjoyable diversion. (I am not the only one to enjoy them – AustenBlog has positive reviews of both Darcy’s Diary and Captain Wentworth’s Diary – as well as Mr Knightley’s Diary.)

One thing to note – Amanda Grange is not the only author to have written a Mr Darcy’s Diary. There is another book of the same title by Maya Slater, which I will not be reading, as it sounds completely awful. AustenBlog has a commentary on a Daily Mail review of this book.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman, and Stardust at Hoyts, Broadway

I’m not a huge Neil Gaiman fan (except for Good Omens) but when I found a copy of Stardust going cheap, I thought I might as well read it before seeing the film. In some ways, it reminded me a bit of Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, in that both books are written in a very self-consciously twee style (particularly at the beginning), and yet their purpose is really to subvert the conventions of fairy tales. While I quite enjoyed Stardust, I don’t feel that my life would be any less if I had never read it. It is probably more subversive than Howl, but I think Howl is a bit more fun.

The film of Stardust, on the other hand, is not really subversive at all. It was all very nice and pretty, and there were some fun performances (Robert De Niro, playing a part that basically didn’t appear in the book, was having just way too much fun) – but ultimately it was fairly lightweight and forgettable. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, and I have even recommended it to people, but if it was trying to be this generation’s The Princess Bride (and I think it is), well, it just doesn’t come close.

Being completely honest, I probably preferred the film to the book – in that I’m slightly more inclined to see it a second time than I am to re-read the book. However, I think the book had more substance to it: it was deliberately playing with the genre, whereas the film was just trying to be a crowd-pleaser.

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence and Becoming Jane at Roseville Cinema

I first read Becoming Jane Austen after Penny Gay recommended it during a talk to the Jane Austen Society of Australia. I found it an engaging biography, particularly in the picture it painted of how Jane the young scribbler evolved into Austen the professional author. (One of the points Penny had made was that Spence looks at how Austen began referring to her writing as her “work”). I also enjoyed thinking about the idea that Elizabeth and Darcy could have been inspired by Tom Lefroy and Jane herself – but with Tom’s traits going into Elizabeth, and Jane’s into Darcy. On reflection, I decided I wasn’t totally convinced, but it was still a fascinating line of thought.

I also found his suggestion that Jane and Tom may have met again in London interesting – the evidence he presented was certainly suggestive, if not absolutely convincing.

However, I was emphatically not convinced by the suggestion that every one of Austen’s novels references a Tom Jones character, and this is a link to Tom Lefroy. After all, Tom Jones has a large cast of characters, and there is such a thing as coincidence. I was left with a sneaking suspicion that if one tried, one could also find links to character names from – to randomly select another long 18th century novel – Tristram Shandy. And towards the end of the book, I started to be bothered by the fact that Spence presented assupmtions and suppositions, but using language that implied they were proven fact.

In spite of this, though, I enjoyed the book enough to put in a Christmas present request for it, and I re-read it with pleasure.

The film of Becoming Jane, though …

Well, I suppose it was pleasant enough, and the actors did a nice job, but it really didn’t have anything much to do with the book. At times I felt that Spence was stretching in his assumptions, but at least he did start from – and remain basically consistent with – known facts. The film just made stuff up. It took a few character types from Jane Austen’s novels, trimmed off most of the things that makes them good and interesting, and presented a fairly bland and conventional romance (except without a happy ending). And the storyline, which had started off with a vague connection to (one chapter of) Spence’s book, suddenly took a radical divergence into complete fiction. I tend to think they should have either stuck vaguely with the known facts – or reasonable extrapolations from them – or else done a film in the style of Shakespeare in Love, which is clearly unrealistic. Or – if they really found Jane Austen’s life so boring that it had to be spiced up with an elopement – maybe they should have considered not making the film at all?

But I am glad I got Spence’s book in hardcover, before the film came out – otherwise I would have had to face the dilemma of deciding whether I wanted to own it enough to put up with the film-inspired cover of the paperback.

My Daemon

For those who haven’t read it, Philip Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials involves an alternate world, in which everyone has a “daemon” – an external, physical soul. The daemon takes the form of an animal – children’s daemon’s can change form at will, but they settle into a single form as the child grows up.

The official website for the upcoming film has a “meet your daemon” section, where you answer 20 personality questions, and you are told the name and form of your daemon. Mine is an ocelot called Lutheus. As an added feature of the site, for 12 days other people can provide feedback, which may make the daemon change before settling into a final form. If you want to provide feedback on my daemon, click the picture. (NB The 5 questions you get asked in the feedback form are not the same as any of the original questions – they are just based on the summary of characteristics the first questionnaire identified.)

30 April – Update
Lutheus has transformed twice – first into a raven, and now a lynx.

2006 in Review

Films

I saw 22 films this year. The high points were probably Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and Superman Returns. The biggest disappointment was X-Men: The Last Stand, because it was so much weaker than the first two X-Men films. However, the actual Worst Film would be a competition between Lord of War (which I saw on a plane, so didn’t actually waste any money on), Tristan + Isolde and Mission: Impossible III.

Plays

I saw 12 plays in 2006 (though I only actually blogged 9 of them). Ten were from the Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions (although one of these – The History Boys – was actually a National Theatre of Great Britain production). Of the other two, one was the Russian production of Twelfth Night, which was here for the Sydney Festival, and the other was You Never Can Tell, which I saw in London. My favourites were probably Twelfth Night and Woman in Mind, and the worst was unquestionably The Lost Echo.

Books

I’ve been very slack about blogging books this year. However, in August I set up – and have been maintaining – a What I’m Reading book log. So I know that from August to the end of the year, I read 81 books – though two of them I gave up on, and another two I haven’t yet finished. 47 of them were first-time reads, and 34 were re-reads. Alternatively, I could sort them by target audience (48 adult, 9 young adult, 24 children) or by genre (25 fantasy/science fiction, 15 crime/thriller, 7 non-fiction, and the rest a variety).

It was quite a good year for new-books-by-favourite-authors. George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows (book 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire) was a bit of a let down, but I don’t think it would have been possible to maintain the intensity of the third book in the series, and I still have high hopes for the rest of the story. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Beguilement was enjoyable, but only half a story (the other half comes out this year), and I still prefer her Vorkosigan books. Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie was interesting, but unlikely to become my favourite of her books. On the other hand, On the Jellicoe Road could end up being my favourite Melina Marchetta. The other exciting event was Under Orders – the first new Dick Francis in six years. It wasn’t his best work, but it was a long way from the structural mess of his last couple.

I think my favourite new author for the year would be Donna Andrews. Her chick-lit/detective story crossovers are a lot of fun, if not exactly great literature. I read them from the library, and I’ll hold off on buying them until I know for sure I want to re-read them, but I’m certainly hanging out for the latest (No Nest for the Wicket) to come out in paperback and turn up in the library. Other new (to me) authors included Naomi Novik (Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O’Brien), Anthony Horowitz (James Bond for teenagers – and with some clearly conscious Fleming homages, which I’m sure people who’ve only seen the films don’t get) and Stella Rimington (spy stories by a former head of MI5). They were all enjoyable enough to read more than one of their books, but I didn’t get overly excited by any of them.

Casino Royale at BCC, Carindale (plus some thoughts on the original Ian Fleming book)

Casino Royale was definitely the best Bond film since GoldenEyeGoldenEye is probably still my favourite, but it’s hard to do a direct comparison of the two, as they are completely different types of film. Daniel Craig made a great Bond, Judi Dench just gets better and better as M, and I liked Eva Green as Vesper and Mads Mikkelsen as Le Chiffre. Overall I though it had the right balance between action, characterisation and snappy dialogue. I found the opening credits song a bit bland, but not unpleasant, and I liked the visuals that went with it. I also liked the way there were just hints of the Bond theme music throughout the film – generally when standard Bond things are being established (eg the dinner jacket) – but that it didn’t play in full until the very end. There were a number of scenes I really, really enjoyed: in particular, the parkour-inspired chase sequence in Madagascar, which was brilliant, and the exchange between Bond and Vesper on the train, which was very reminiscent of Bogart-Bacall scenes. The opening, black-and-white scene was also very strong, but had a bit less impact because I was already familiar with it from the trailer. And the poker scenes worked well – as a poker ignoramus, I still found that there was enough context provided that I wasn’t actually confused by what was going on. In principle, I would have preferred them to stick with baccarat, as in the book, but I guess it made commercial sense to change to a game more people are familiar with.

If I have an active complaint with it, it is that, at 144 minutes, it was really too long. I thought the action sequences in the airport and in Venice could definitely have been cut back a bit. Possibly some of the romance scenes near the end could also have been trimmed, though that might have affected the balance a bit much.

In preparation for the film, I re-read the book a little while ago. I had also read it a couple of years back, for a uni course, but before that it had been years since I’d read it, or any other of the Bond books. Possibly because of the films, it’s very easy to be dismissive of Fleming as a writer, but on re-reading Casino Royale I do find that there is a richness to it that I had forgotten. It’s extremely visceral. Bond had a sensuous enjoyment of food that never appears in the films. Also, one of the scenes that I did have a strong recollection of before this re-read was the explosion (which didn’t make it to the film) because you really get the impact it has on Bond’s senses – the smell, the raining flesh, all the things you don’t get when you see an explosion in a movie.

A number of people have said that Daniel Craig is much more like Ian Fleming’s Bond than his predecessors were. I don’t actually think this is true – or, at any rate, it’s not true of the Casino Royale Bond. Daniel Craig was something of a blue-collar thug, with a very thin veneer of sophistication. I thought this worked very well for the film, but it was no closer to the Bond of the book than any of the other interpretations. I know Pierce Brosnan, and maybe also Timothy Dalton (whose Bond might have come close to Fleming’s, if he’d ever been given a decent film) were interested in doing a Casino Royale. With the script as it was written, I don’t think either of them would have done as good a job as Daniel Craig. However, with certain shifts in tone to suit their different styles, I think either one could have put in a good performance that would have been at least as true to the book – in different ways – as this one was. Actually, probably any of the Bond actors could have. The plot of the book is so slight that it could have been adjusted in any number of directions, while still remaining true to the emotional centre of the original work. Nevertheless, I thought Craig was brilliant, and I just hope he isn’t let down by future scriptwriters/directors (as Brosnan was after GoldenEye, and Dalton was for both his films).

One of the things I read in the lead-up (which made me think it could be really good) was that they had promised to keep the torture scene and the last line of the book. As it turned out, I found the torture scene in the film far less confronting than it was in the book. This is probably a good thing, but it did leave me feeling a bit dissatisfied.

I also felt that they’d copped out somewhat over the ending. Warning: spoilers follow. The book finishes with the line “The bitch is dead now”, and I find it a very powerful, if bleak, ending. As promised, they did have this line in the film, and I thought he delivered it with the right level of bitterness, but it was immediately softened by what M says, which brings back some of the emotion, and then by the triumphant closing scene. The ending they gave it is very cinematic, and I can certainly see that they wanted the audience to go out on a positive note, rather than feeling depressed. It wasn’t even inconsistent with the book (where, after reading Vesper’s suicide note, Bond decides that “Here was a target for him, right at hand”). And the last image of him standing there with the gun, and finally uttering the immortal line “The name’s Bond, James Bond” which launches the theme music and the closing credits, was great. I certainly can’t say I didn’t like it – I thought it was wonderful. But … I do kind of regret losing the downbeat ending from the book.

Favourite Children’s Books

A little while ago, there was an article in The Guardian, in which Lucy Mangan gave (very funny) summaries of the children’s books that “that have meant the most to me, that have taught me vital lessons about life, love, truth and camping – books no child should be without.” As a result, Judith Ridge did the same thing in her blog, and I have also been inspired to join the fun, although it’s taken me weeks to get around to it. I’ve decided to define “books read in childhood” as books that I read for the first time while still in Primary School (i.e. before the age of 12).

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis

I’m told I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was six. Naturally, I don’t remember this first reading, and I’m pretty sure I was a bit older by the time I read most of the other books in the series, but I do know that I read them again and again and again during my Primary School years. Both Lucy Mangan and Judith Ridge included this in their lists, so I don’t really have much to add about the book itself, except that I was another reader who completely and utterly missed the Christian allegory. Even when I got the connections of The Magician’s Nephew and The Last Battle, it didn’t occur to me that there might also be a Christian side to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. For me, it was just a great story about a magical world with talking animals.

Enid Blyton

For about eighteen months of my life – I think aged about seven to eight and a half – pretty much the only books I would read were Enid Blytons. Lucy Mangan said “I am listing Blyton instead of a single book because the fact is, she wrote the same one eight billion times a year: it is both pointless and practically impossible to elevate one above another”. I am doing the same thing, but for almost the completely opposite reason: although I read almost all the Blyton series (except, for some reason, Mallory Towers) and vast numbers of the stand-alones, at different times, different genres were my favourites. I probably started with the Faraway Tree books (fantasy), then had a lengthy period of devotion to the Famous Five (adventure), followed by St Clares (school stories) and finally the Five Find-Outers and Dog (classic detective). The Cherry Tree Farm/Willow Farm books fitted in somewhere as well – they taught me all I know about fauna of the English countryside. I think Blyton had a great talent for capturing the essence of a genre, and although she didn’t flesh it out a great deal (or at all), her stories provide a wonderful introduction to the concept of plot, basic characterisation, and the other fundamentals of good storytelling, and offer a starting point from which to move to more subtle, nuanced children’s books.

The other thing I remember about Blyton is that, at some point after I had completely outgrown her, I saw my first ever production of Romeo and Juliet on television. It probably wasn’t a great production, but I was terrifically moved, and the only way I could unwind enough to get to sleep that night was to pull a Blyton off the shelf and reread it.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

I’m not sure when I first read Black Beauty, but it was probably after the Blyton period. It may or may not have been my first experience of death in a book (something both Lucy Mangan and Judith talk about) but it was certainly the first instance of a book in which I skipped a certain section on every re-read. Thirty years later, I can still remember that in my edition, the chapter about Ginger started in about the middle of a right-hand page, and finished near the bottom of a left-hand page. I’m certain that at one point in my Primary School days, I unhesitatingly described Black Beauty as my favourite book.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Since my M.Litt. treatise was on the subject of Noel Streatfeild, and a substantial portion was a comparison of Ballet Shoes with Streatfeild’s first (adult) novel, The Whicharts, I feel somewhat written out on the subject. For more information on Ballet Shoes, see my Noel Streatfeild website.

Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott

Lucy Mangan and Judith each included a 19th century “classic” girls’ story in their lists – What Katy Did and Seven Little Australians respectively. For me, it was Little Women. I don’t quite know why, but I think it might be that Jo was the first real character to catch my imagination. She had some of the rebelliousness and independence of George from the Famous Five, but so much more personality and depth and capacity for growth. (As I said above, Enid Blyton had a talent for simplifying down to the fundamental essence, thus providing a stepping stone to much more sophisticated authors.) But why it was Jo rather than Katy, or Judy, or Anne (of Green Gables) or Rebecca (of Sunnybrook Farm) I really can’t say. I also liked Beth a lot, so maybe it was partly the strength of the Jo-Beth relationship that worked for me. I was never very interested in Meg, and I actively disliked Amy.

As far as I can remember, I was never one who wanted Jo to marry Laurie. I liked him, but I thought he was a bit too superficial and immature for her (though I did think he deserved better than Amy). In fact, I never had much of a problem with Jo marrying an older man, who provided her with stability. But I do wish he wasn’t actually described in the text as physically unattractive. I’d like to be able to think of him as like Gabriel Byrne in the 1994 film of Little Women, so that even if Amy’s husband is younger and richer, Jo’s is sexier. But unfortunately I can’t, as it is directly contradicted by the text. However, even though Professor Bhaer isn’t particularly sexy, I am still much happer to see Jo with him than with Laurie.

Elidor by Alan Garner

Actually, my favourite Alan Garner book is The Owl Service but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read that until I was in High School. Elidor, however, I definitely read earlier, and loved right from the start, though I’m sure I didn’t appreciate all the subtleties of it initially. At first, I just took it in the same spirit as Narnia – a bunch of children from the real world going into a magical one – though I did like the fact that a lot of the story was set in the real world, with the magical characters impinging. And I loved the humour of the scene where the Treasures make all the electrical appliances play up.

But the more times I read the book, the more I came to see the complexities, the lack of clear black and white, the tension of the relationships between the characters. And I also came to see that it is not, ultimately, a happy book. Yes, Elidor is saved, which I do think is important, in spite of the rather ambivalent presentation of Malebron (who is not at all the Aslan figure I thought the first time I read it). But part of the power of the book is that the situation is not clear-cut. On an initial reading, I think I equated Roland with Lucy Pevensie – the youngest member of the family and the only one who can truly see and understand the magic. I still believe Roland is closer to being “right” than Nicholas, or even David, but I have come to realise that he is idealistic and obsessive, and that Elidor is not necessarily the symbol of perfection that he believes.

And the ending of Elidor is more gripping than anything in Narnia (though, to be far to Lewis, he was writing for a rather younger audience). Findhorn’s death is tragic, and the fact that, both structurally and symbolically, this is Helen’s fault makes it even worse. And I find the closing lines of the book intensely powerful in the way they convey a sense of bleakness and emptiness:

[The children] threw their Treasures. They struck together, and the windows blazed outward, and for an instant, the glories of stone, sword, spear and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light.
The song faded.
They were alone with the windows of a slum.

I don’t think I paid much attention to this when I first read the book – I was caught up in the fact that four normal children had saved a magical world – but as I got older they became increasingly evocative. The children have gone through intense physical and emotional stresses, and have saved another world, but … now what? They are left with absolutely nothing. The book ends not on a note of celebration, but on one of emptiness. It is more than simply anticlimactic: it is actively stripped of emotion. And although I didn’t recognise this initially, I now believe it is among the most powerful endings I have read in a book.

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