I would be wary of claiming that I could define what makes great art, or what qualities bestow the term ‘classic’ on something – particularly when that term can turn most kids off it quicker than pressing the power button. But for me, a great story is one that ticks all my various and demanding boxes and leaves me saying ‘I don’t know how they could have done that better’. And ‘Addams Family Values’ has that effect on me. The first film, ‘The Addams Family’, was really good, but the second outdid it. It is just beautifully darkly weird and wickedly funny, with the kind of script that just leaves you waiting for the next character to speak. It’s perfectly cast, imaginative, theatrical and visually fantastic, but it’s the dialogue that does it for me. There are just so many good lines in it. This was a big influence on my Wildenstern books. If you haven’t seen it already . . . what the hell’s wrong with you?
I had been meaning to pick up ‘Harry Brown’ for a while. The other night, while I was out browsing through Xtra-Vision, I decided that it might fit my requirements for a well-paced, intelligent film that wasn’t going to be too taxing on my tired brain. As it turned out, Michael Caine’s latest was just the ticket. He once said of his prolific career: ‘I wanted to do so many films, that by the time people realized I wasn’t a big star, I’d be one’. That might explain how he’s managed to be in quite a few absolute turkeys (keep well clear of ‘On Deadly Ground’ with Steven Seagal). But he rarely gets it wrong, and when he’s on form, he as good as anybody. And ‘Harry Brown’ is a prime example. The plot is hardly original – an old man who turns vigilante after the death of his friend – but Caine brings an ordinariness, a pathos to it that lifts it above being just another revenge film. He’s ably assisted by Emily Mortimer and some scarily realistic thugs.
Anybody who had Charles Dickens forced on them in secondary school probably, like me, wondered if the definition of literature was supposed to be a dense text full of archaic language and meandering narrative that had to be analyzed to death. And I had really good English teachers. But these books are good, it’s just hard to appreciate that when you’re being made to read something that doesn’t reflect your interests. And when the language, we are told, is beautifully written English but is, at the same time, difficult for anyone in their teens to understand. So every schoolkid is left wondering: Is that what we’re supposed to be aiming for? The curriculum has a lot to answer for, but there’s a reason Dickens is considered a cracking writer, and ‘Bleak House’ is a great example. I downloaded it onto my phone a few weeks ago (for when I’m in the car, or out walking), from South Dublin Libraries’ website.
It’s probably not ideal material for an audio-book, as it’s long, with a wide range of separate plot-lines that take time to weave together, and a massive cast of characters. And at the start, I was only listening to it from time to time, so it took a fair bit of recalling to remember everything that was going on. After some begrudging years studying long, old-fashioned novels, printed in small, dense type, it’s easy to forget how colourful and distinct Dickens’s characters are, how witty the dialogue and the level of near-slapstick humour and wonderfully over-the-top description he uses at times. The description of Mrs Jellyby’s house, whose grand plans for building homes in Africa result in her own house falling down around her ears and her children running riot, is brilliant – and the scene featuring Mrs Pardiggle’s bulldozer opinions on social justice, her destructive skirts and her long-suffering sons is hilarious. As is the scene where we first meet the Smallweed family, headed by the malignant Grandfather Smallweed and his slingshot cushion. Imagining his feeble body barely containing his vitriolic hatred for his wife’s babblings just has to put a smile on your face. The book is packed with humour and character and wisdom and a mastery of language. But students take note: that language is just how Dickens told his story – we don’t have to write like that today!
Speaking of classics, this year’s ‘One City, One Book’ campaign for Dublin has adopted ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. I read the novel years ago, but now I’ve just read the graphic novel, adapted by writer Ian Edginton. I’ve enjoyed Edginton’s work on comics such as ‘HG Wells’ War of the Worlds’ and ‘Leviathan’, so I was looking forward to this. With illustrator Ian Culbard, he has delivered a sound adaptation.
There are loads of comic versions of the classics, but most of them are crap – badly adapted and drawn by amateurish illustrators. Edginton is a pro, and Culbard’s simplistic (but well-executed) drawings with their brush-stroke portraits and crude digital paint toning have a flavour of European comics and I think the look works well. It’s a deceptively hard style to do, and I’ve seen better, but Culbard makes it work. There’s not much money to be made in books like this, so you rarely see them being done (competently) in any very realistic or finished style, and this is a story that leans heavily on Wilde’s cutting dialogue anyway. This is a fine adaptation of a classic story of hedonism, sin and the destruction of the soul.
I also checked out the recently released film adaptation, directed by Oliver Parker, entitled simply: ‘Dorian Gray’. Well worth a look (especially as it delves with a little more detail into the sins that Wilde brushes over – wa-hey!), I saw a couple of mediocre reviews for it, but I think it’s better than that. Ben Barnes (previously known as Prince Caspian) does well as Dorian, going from innocent to cursed with great aplomb – although I’d wonder if he quite has the charisma to carry the whole film – and Colin Firth is excellent as Lord Henry Wooton. Modern CGI also gave the painting a whole life of its own, which could have spoiled it, but was nicely underplayed.
I’m going to be giving a talk next week in Ballymun Library about the story, specifically the comic adaptation, to Transition Years, so I’m working on a pitch that will grab their attention. Despite all my chatter about modern adaptations and how classics can have universal appeal, I know that making these kinds of stories relevant to teenagers is a tall order. So, only time will tell if I’ll be able to put an acceptable face on the eminent Mr Dorian Gray.