Great Stories: Penelope

I’ve always loved a good love story. Good is the key word here, because I have no patience for romantic tales built upon eye-rolling contrivances, paper-thin plots or sloppy characterizations. Most of all, I’m wary of stories that romanticize behaviors that are toxic or dangerous, like the boy who aggressively pursues and even stalks a girl while the narrative frames it as sweet and swoon-worthy. I like romances that celebrate mutual respect, kindness and the ability to choose rather than being forced by “fate” or “destiny.”

So I like Penelope. It’s a essentially a fairy tale, with fanciful happenstances and a little bit of magic, but the female lead is granted far more autonomy than the prototypical princess-in-a-tower, and the romance is plenty swoon-worthy without leaving a sour taste in my mouth. The title character (played by Christina Ricci) is the victim of an old curse placed on a family of blue bloods, and thus born with the nose of a pig. Supposedly, the only way to break the curse is for “one of their own kind to claim her as their own.” So her parents keep her shut away from prying eyes and try to find a young man of the upper crust who is willing overlook her hideous appearance and marry her.

All of this is quite absurd to us in the audience, because Penelope could hardly be considered hideous by any reasonable standards. It seems an insane overreaction to lock her away and tell the outside world that she died as a baby. But such is the family’s obsession with maintaining appearances. Alongside its other features, this film offers a sly critique of the body image issues that mothers often pass along to their daughters, thanks largely to Catherine O’Hara’s well-honed skill at playing a terrifyingly overbearing parent.

But then we have the romance, which begins very promisingly as Penelope begins to connect with a potential suitor as she never has before. He seems different from the others, less snobby or judgmental. So she eventually ventures out from behind her two-way mirror and shows her face.

Then he tells her he can’t break the curse, and flees.

We find out later that he has a good reason for doing so, but for now we’re worried that this might break Penelope for good. Heartbreak is supposed to be followed by long, sad montages of staring out the window in the rain, right? Not this movie. Instead, Penelope finally decides she’s had enough of her cloistered life. She runs away — first hiding behind a scarf, and then with her face and identity revealed — and begins to experience life in all its fullness at last. I won’t give away every detail of the movie, but suffice it to say that Penelope doesn’t need to wait for anyone else to save her. And the resolution of the romance is satisfying without detracting from Penelope’s own growth and character arc.

Girls need stories that teach them that they can be their own heroes, that romance doesn’t have to overshadow the rest of their story, and that happy endings can be actively pursued rather than waiting and wishing. And those stories don’t have to be tedious and didactic. They can be fun, clever and hilarious. That’s what I like about Penelope.

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Great Stories: Lord of the Rings

J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy trilogy has been a bestseller for over half a century, not to mention its boost in fame thanks to the blockbuster movie adaptations in the early 2000’s, so it might be easy to take its success for granted. But let’s consider how unlikely it really was.

Tolkien did not consider himself a novelist. Above all he was a professor, a scholar of literature and language. This field of study did lead to The Lord of the Rings, but only by  circuitous route. His passion for philology led him to create his own fanciful languages, and then, bit by bit, he began to build a world around those languages. It was a linguist’s hobby, and it might never have extended beyond that if he hadn’t idly scribbled the line “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” on the back of a student’s paper he was correcting.

From that sentence came the idea for a race of people who much resembled Tolkien himself in many respects. Country gentlefolk, happiest and most comfortable in their snug homes with plenty of food and a pipe.  The Hobbit is a children’s story, both in tone and content. There are grumpy dwarves, squabbling trolls, scary spiders, talking dragons and a whimsical wizard. The threats are perilous but not too terrifying for the average young reader, the main character is conveniently unconscious during the big battle, and everything turns out happy in the end. In many ways, Tolkien was writing a lighthearted story for his own young sons.

The book was published in 1937 and gained instant popularity. But when the publishers requested a sequel, Tolkien offered instead some drafts of the Silmarillion, a massive cosmology and history of Middle-Earth that represented an ongoing development and expansion of the mythology surrounding his languages. Obviously that wasn’t what they wanted. They wanted more hobbits.

Tolkien began to work on a sequel, but it quickly become clear that this story was evolving into something very different from The Hobbit. The tone was darker, the stakes more serious, the scope far wider than a simple “there and back again” adventure. He even re-wrote the sequence introducing Gollum to make it more consistent with the role that character would play later in the story. Rather than willingly relinquishing the ring after Bilbo wins the riddle contest, he howls and rages and calls Bilbo a thief. However, trying to rewrite the entirety of The Hobbit to mesh with his new ideas would change its original flavor too much. So he left it at that and focused on the new story.

Fantasy for adults was an anomaly back then. Nowadays there are still elitists who consider any type of speculative fiction to be juvenile and silly escapism, and fantasy is usually the most looked-down upon, but it’s not a near-universal opinion by any means. However, when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, no one was likely to consider that there might be a significant market for fantasy aimed at adults. Because of the success of The Hobbit and some other light-hearted stories by Tolkien, the publishers were willing to take a chance. Even when he warned them that he wrote slowly. Very slowly. In between his full-time job at Oxford and other duties, very very slowly.

At last, The Lord of the Rings was published in three parts in 1954 and 1955. Initial reviews were not all favorable, but this did not impede its popularity in the least. People of all sorts of ages and backgrounds embraced it. Most intriguing, perhaps, was the inclination to assign allegorical meanings to the story, varying according to one’s personal agendas. It was about World War I. No, it was about World War II. No, it was about the Bomb! Or pacifism. Or environmentalism. Tolkien himself hated allegory and insisted that he never intended a direct correlation between elements of the books and any real-world event or concept. There are symbols, yes, but those symbols can be interpreted an almost infinite number of ways. Allegory is limited. Pure fantasy is not.

The story itself is a sprawling tale of good versus evil, of unexpected heroes and terrifying perils. Frodo, nephew to Bilbo, finds himself in possession of Bilbo’s magic ring only to learn from the wizard Gandalf that the ring is far more powerful, and far more dangerous, than he ever imagined. The fate of Middle-Earth itself depends upon the destruction of the ring, but that can only be accomplished by returning the ring to the fires in which it was forged, deep in the stronghold of the evil Sauron, the ring’s original maker. With his loyal hobbit friends and a handful of others, Frodo travels to Mount Doom, struggling more and more to fight off the ring’s dire influence the longer he bears it. There are epic battles, devastating losses, shocking betrayals and wondrous unexpected victories. And if the main text of the three books isn’t enough for you, there’s plenty of supplemental material in the appendices. Tolkien wrote slow, but he wrote plenty.

The influence of Tolkien’s work upon the realm of fantasy fiction cannot be overstated. You might say that he created an entire new genre. He certainly opened the door for countless other writers, as the genre of adult fantasy is a now a rich and vibrant part of the publishing world. Even if a writer deliberately sets out to subvert all the conventions first established in The Lord of the Rings, they are still writing in response to Tolkien. It’s easy to find the flaws in his work, to note the meager number of female characters or the fact that evil often seems to be based on race rather than choice, but that does not erase the genius of his creation. However we might seek to improve the conventions of the genre — and we should; we absolutely should! — it’s always illuminating to examine the roots of the modern fantasy epic. And those roots grow very deep in Middle Earth.

Great Stories: Les Miserables

Like many people nowadays, my primary familiarity with the story of Les Miserables comes from the Schönberg/Boublil musical. I did read Victor Hugo’s original novel back in high school, but it’s been quite a few years, and re-reading a 1400+ page book is a little daunting. In any case, the original is an extraordinary and memorable epic tale, and the adaptation is an extraordinary and moving translation to the stage.

The central character is Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for nearly two decades for a minor crime, which he only committed in a desperate attempt to feed his starving family. He is a bitter and angry man, perhaps with good reason. But a chance encounter with a kindly bishop sets him on a different path. He takes on a new name and identity and begins to live a life of compassionate service. Along the way, he helps a dying woman named Fantine and promises to look after her child Cosette. His foil is the police inspector Javert, driven by his rigid sense of justice to find Valjean and see him punished for breaking his parole.

This is an extremely bare bones summary, leaving out the countless other characters and plot-lines, the lengthy digressions Hugo was prone to undertake (Valjean doesn’t even show up for the first few chapters, it’s just the bishop and his good Christian antics! There’s an entire section about Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo that just barely connects to the rest of the story! There’s the Thenardiers! The student uprising in Paris! etc. etc. etc.) But the story is at its essence an exploration of morality, of a man struggling to follow the Christian ideal in a world full of misery and injustice and chaos. Victor Hugo and this novel especially were quite beloved by the people of France, so the idea of adapting it into a kind of pop/rock opera was not exactly safe.

It was a long work in progress. The original version of the musical was considerably different from the one we know today. It began with Valjean already living incognito as the factory owner and mayor, assuming the audience was familiar enough with the novel that they wouldn’t need the entire story explained to them. But as the concept made its way to a producer in England (Cameron Mackinctosh), he was intrigued enough to pursue a translation into English with a reworking and expansion of the original (Herbert Kretzmer was ultimately brought in to translate the lyrics). There was lot of exposition and emotion that needed to be conveyed, entirely through song. Even with a successful producer like Mackintosh, it was still a risky venture.

But obviously it paid off. Les Miserables is one of the most successful musicals in history, and its near-universal appeal is evident through the fact that it’s been translated into 22 different languages. The music is memorable and meticulously crafted, with an adroit use of recurring themes for particular characters and/or circumstances. The lyrics, which often need to convey a great deal of information, are an impressive feat of poetry and storytelling.

And the adaptive changes, though they might infuriate purists, are generally sensible. They tighten up the narrative flow and highlight the significant points so the story can move along quickly. It’s nearly three hours, true, but consider that it covers decades of Valjean’s life in that time, and seldom does it feel rushed or choppy. The student revolution is painted in a more optimistic tone than in the novel, but that’s largely because we’re seeing it from the students’ naive, over-idealistic perspective. It’s not long before we get a brutal look at just how hopeless their cause was.

Each major character is given the chance to be seen in a sympathetic light. Javert’s unforgiving rigidity is balanced by the beauty of “Stars,” which lets us understand his worldview even if we don’t agree with it. Eponine, a pathetic neglected girl whose life has no significance in the grand scheme of history, becomes infinitely relatable and real through her song of unrequited love, “On My Own.” I couldn’t name my favorite songs because I’d never be able to choose. I could say that I don’t really enjoy “Master of the House” because it’s filthy and repulsive, but then, that’s quite appropriate for the morally repugnant Thenardier and his wife.

Then there is “One Day More,” a brilliant first-act finale that combines a multitude of melodies, each character singing their part individually and then together in a transcendent blend. It’s basically the essence of what musical theater is all about, and I can’t get enough of it. I’ve probably watched twenty versions of it on Youtube. It’s the kind of exhilaration that I assume sports fans feel when their team does the thing with the ball and they all start screaming.

The story is called “the miserable people” and it’s not an exaggeration. We have a bitter thief, a joyless policeman, a woman abandoned by the father of her child and forced to prostitution, that same child neglected and abused by her foster parents, scenes of massacre and degradation and despair. So why in the world do I enjoy it so much? Why do I consider it, not only not depressing, but actually uplifting? (Why did I, um, write this insanely ambitious retelling of the Star Wars saga to the tune of Les Miserables? Because I’m a little crazy, but that’s not the point.) Because we already know that the world is full of misery. That’s nothing new. It’s not that the story portrays misery, but that it portrays a way out of it.

Valjean begins as a man full of hate and resentment. The play ends with him finding perfect peace. And it’s not because his circumstances get better. He has spent that time doggedly pursued by Javert, fearing for his own safety and more for the safety of his adoptive daughter. But through it all he is determined to show kindness to others, to follow his conscience and to never fall back into the despair he once knew. And in this new life, whatever its difficulties, he has found joy. The song originally used to rouse the students to fight, “Do You Hear the People Sing?” is reprised to represent a different kind of fight, not at the barricades, but in our own hearts. “Will you join in our crusade? Who will be strong and stand with me?” Maybe I’m easily manipulated by music, but that’s a cause I’d be glad to stand with. By the end of it, I always end up singing along at the top of my lungs. Well, except at live performances. I’m not quite that crazy.

Great Stories: Star Trek

It’s fairly safe to say that we will never again see a show quite like the original Star Trek. For one thing, the show itself changed the realm of science fiction television so dramatically that every subsequent sci-fi show is at least somewhat influenced by it. And now that television is almost universally serial in its storytelling style, there’s very little remaining of purely episodic TV. Star Trek was a product of its time. Yet it was also remarkably prescient, revolutionary; like nothing else before or since.

In many ways the show resembled an anthology program like The Twilight Zone. Each episode was a self-contained story, unrelated to the last. The difference was that the characters and the basic premise were the same from week to week, offering some familiarity to ground us amid all the strangeness:  several centuries in the future, the crew of the Starship Enterprise explores the far reaches of space, encountering unfamiliar life forms and civilizations.

There’s Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock, Dr. McCoy, Scotty in Engineering, Uhura at Communications, Sulu and Chekov and Nurse Chapel. You’ve probably heard all the cliches about their characters, particularly Kirk: he’s pure machismo, bedding a different alien vixen each week and solving every problem with a bout of fisticuffs. Well, if you actually watch the show, you might see a very different picture. Sure, Kirk is an impassioned foil to the logic-driven Spock, but he’s more likely to resolve a situation with a fervent speech than a punch to the face. And as for his womanizer reputation, well, just check out this meticulous debunking.

Sure, it was the sixties. The women’s uniforms are miniskirts, and most of them are relegated to subordinate positions like nurses and yeomans. On the other hand, you have Lieutenant Uhura, a truly remarkable role for a black woman in that era. The overall diversity of the crew was unprecedented. Elements might come across as corny or quaint nowadays, but considering its context, it’s amazing this daring show ever got made.

They tackled issues spanning the range of human experience — prejudice, overpopulation, violence and warfare, free will, social responsibility, even genocide. Many talented science fiction writers were enlisted to help with the scripts. That’s not to say that every episode was brilliant. Some were so-so, and some, particularly in the third and final season, were downright awful. But oh, those great ones. “City on the Edge of Forever.” “Amok Time.” And the sheer entertainment factor of lighter ones like “A Piece of the Action.”

Even the worst can usually be enjoyed on a cheesy level. Sure, it’s goofy to imagine that the trappings of the Roman Empire somehow showed up in precise detail on a planet other than Earth. But isn’t it intriguing to imagine gladiators contests being televised with modern-day technology? If you relax your disbelief, you can consider it a thought experiment and just enjoy it.

(As a side note, much fuss has been made over which of the space franchises is better, Trek or Wars. The question has always been pointless to me. I adore Star Wars, but there’s plenty of room in my heart for Star Trek as well. The first is a sprawling epic space fantasy; the second is social sci-fi. There’s no need for them to compete.)

Gene Roddenberry had to fight to get the show made, and he (and the writers and fans) had to fight every year to keep it going. It only lasted three seasons. But it generated a passionate fan base that has lasted for decades past the original show’s cancellation. I’ll tell you frankly that I do not like much of what’s been done with the franchise in recent years, but the fact that it still exists after all this time is impressive enough. Six films with the original crew, multiple spinoff shows, and an entire culture of Trekkies (Trekkers?) who just can’t get enough of Star Trek’s spirit of optimism, curiosity, compassion and adventure.

Great Stories: The Dark Crystal

I love fantasy for a lot of reasons, but one of the simplest is how it provides the chance to enter weird worlds, worlds that stretch — possibly even break — the bounds of imagination. And such is the world of The Dark Crystal.

Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t see this film until I was an adult. It’s possible I might have liked it as a child, but it’s also possible I would have been completely freaked out. Of all Jim Henson’s creations, this is probably the strangest, and some scenes with the creepy villains could be pretty frightening for young people. As a grown-up, I love it. There are no visible actors; no real-world locations. The characters and setting are portrayed entirely through puppetry, elaborate set design and a number of other imaginative artistries. Instead of humans, we are introduced to gelflings, mystics, podlings, and Skeksis. Everything from the background plant and animal life to the film’s haunting score has a decidedly other-worldly quality like no other film I’ve seen.

The story itself is rather typical, in terms of fantasy quests to overthrow tyrannical rule, fulfill prophecies and prevent the world’s end. The wicked Skeksis have destroyed all but a few gelflings, and those survivors must seek a mysterious crystal shard and break the Skeksis’ rule before the three suns converge in the great conjunction.  They journey through swamps and along rivers; they consult with wise sages; they flee the Skeksis’ evil agents. But all of this takes place against a marvelously peculiar backdrop with such detail that you’ll want to pause and examine each individual shot.

Though the resolution of the conflict is perhaps unconventional, it’s foreshadowed strongly enough that you can see it coming. But predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is something compelling about watching Jen and Kira, the last of their kind, find each other and begin to understand what we already know about their role in saving the world. And much of the dialogue conveys a certain wry awareness of fantasy tropes. “The prophecy didn’t say anything about this!” “Prophets don’t know everything!” Or this delightful exchange: “Wings? I don’t have wings.” “Of course not. You’re a boy.” Not to mention just about everything spoken by the enigmatic Augrah. “End, begin, all the same. Big change. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad.”

Above all, The Dark Crystal is memorable. So many fantasy films have such similar visuals, they tend to just blend together so you can hardly remember which is which. That is not a problem with this movie. It’s no psuedo-medieval Europe or Tolkien-wannabe; it is entirely different and striking in every detail. If you really want to be transported to an entirely different realm — “another world, another time” as the narrator describes — you can’t go wrong with The Dark Crystal.

Great Stories: Stranger than Fiction

As a writer, I’m naturally interested in stories about the writing process. Not every one of those stories is to my liking, of course, particularly when they make it look like becoming a published writer is a whimsical, simple matter. But there are some stories that really capture the agony and absurdity of the eternal striving for writing excellence. If you can throw in a little surreal fantasy, all the better!

Stranger than Fiction is an odd little movie (directed by Marc Forster, written by Zach Helm), with a very understated role for the usually over-the-top Will Ferrell. He plays Harold Crick, who is introduced by the narrator as a mild-mannered, routine-driven IRS auditor…who can suddenly hear the narrator speaking. The narration is unaffected by this phenomenon, continuing to describe Harold’s goings-on undisturbed, but Harold is understandably perturbed, particularly when the narrator announces his impending death. Unlike a character in a screwy comedy, he addresses the mystery methodically, as perhaps any of us would. When doctors and therapists have no explanations for him, he finally approaches a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), figuring that if anyone understands narrators, it would be someone who studies books for a living.

Their conversations are quietly hilarious, as the professor systematically determines what sort of category character Harold would be, and hence who would be writing him. Meanwhile, the audience is allowed to find out before he does with an introduction to the reclusive Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has a bad case of writer’s block. All of her books kill off the main character. Now she’s trying to figure out how to kill Harold Crick.

There are other plot strands, including Harold’s unexpected romance with a tax-dodging baker (leading to one of my favorite puns, “I brought you flours.”), but it’s all leading up to the question — is Harold really about to die? Is there any way to avoid it? Does Karen have any idea what’s going on?

Eventually, just as Karen gets her brilliant idea for the death scene, Harold and the professor realize who his narrator is, and he manages to contact her. There is a marvelous scene with Karen typing her manuscript on a typewriter, and as soon as she types, “The phone rang” her phone rings. She’s already sensing something odd is happening when she finally answers — and finds herself speaking to a character of her own invention.

There is no explanation for this, whether Harold existed before Karen wrote him, how much of his life is under his control, or whether this has happened with any of her other characters. Too much of that would muddy the story. The important question is: if you have created a beautiful story, with a perfect, heartbreaking death for your main character, is it worth it to sacrifice him? Even if he’s a real person? Surely not. But Harold’s potential death is heroic and meaningful. Even Harold, when he asks to read Karen’s draft, can understand its poignancy. But how could you kill a real person just for a good story?

Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that it’s satisfying, and beautiful, and thought-provoking. It’s a truly bizarre story that can only serve as a metaphor, since we can reasonably assume that no writers have the power to actually create real people. But sometimes they feel so real. What if you could meet them face-to-face? Would they hate you for tormenting them so much? It really can be a terrible wrench to put them through all the suffering necessary for a good story. Sometimes being a writer can feel downright cruel. And sometimes it feels like ruthlessness is the only way to break through writer’s block. These are lots of hard questions without any simple answers, but this movie is a kindred spirit for any writer devoted to seeking those answers.

Great Stories: Elantris

If there’s one thing that makes Brandon Sanderson stand out among fantasy writers, it is his tremendously vast and intricate world-building. Not only has he fabricated the extraordinary history, culture and magic system of the Mistborn world, he’s doing it again with the vast scope of the Stormlight Archives series….and again with yet another alternate world…and again and again, until you have to wonder if the man ever sleeps. He expanded the world introduced in the Mistborn trilogy with several novels set centuries later, and has written three of ten planned novels for the Stormlight Archives. Then there are his many short stories, anthologies, and his several young adult series(es?), nearly all of them contained within the massive multiverse he calls the Cosmere.

But though I enjoy a ridiculously long series the same as any epic fantasy fan, there is something to be said for a novel that tells a complete, self-contained story all on its own. A ten-book series can be pretty intimidating (I still haven’t managed to pick up the last few Wheel of Time books, written by Sanderson himself after Robert Jordan’s passing, because I’ve forgotten too many details and I don’t want to have to re-read ten or more books!). So that’s why I was particularly pleased with Elantris, Sanderson’s first published novel. The problem is introduced at the start of the book, and it concludes with the satisfying resolution of that problem. If you don’t have the time or brain-space for something more epic, this book is far more manageable.

Elantris begins with the description of a mysterious magical city and its charmed inhabitants, their wondrous powers and apparent immortality. Then it delivers the blow — something changed, and now the city is cursed, its denizens considered the damned. One of the main characters is a prince who wakes up to find himself carrying the curse and forced to flee to Elantris in exile. His princess fiancée arrives for their wedding only to be told that he has died. She is left to pick up the pieces of the political mess that’s left behind. And then there’s the third main character, a religious zealot who skirts the line between hero and villain. It has elements of mystery, political intrigue and pathos, with thick plotting that rarely lags.

I did have some annoyance at some of Sanderson’s stylistic quirks (he’s improved in later books) but the story was so fascinating that I could easily overlook them. For all its considerable length, I read it quickly because I was so eager to find out what happened next. And then I was happy to pick up more of Sanderson’s books, though I’ve still only gotten through a fraction of his enormous output. I don’t yet know the ultimate fate of many of the worlds he’s created, but while he’s leaving me hanging with other lengthy series(eseses?) I can enjoy the once-and-done story of Elantris.