Great Stories: Hogfather

Terry Pratchett crafted a truly unique world in the vast Discworld series, and that’s not only because he wrote in the rare sub-genre of comedic fantasy. Even when his ostensible purpose was to spoof a myriad of tropes and character types, he still managed to offer some surprisingly deep insights into human nature.

His prolific works are a mixed bag of in terms of quality, particularly the early ones, but Hogfather is one of the strongest. The title refers to the Discworld analogue of Santa Claus, who was referenced in previous books as the mythic tusked figure who brings presents for children on Hogswatch night. But now he is in serious danger of being murdered. How do you murder a mythic figure? By convincing people to stop believing in him, of course.

The culprit is Teatime, an assassin hired to take out the Hogfather by any means necessary.  Oddly enough, his principle opponent in this endeavor is the personification of Death. As the Hogfather’s existence diminishes, Death takes on his duties on Hogswatch, ensuring that children will continue believing in the jolly old fellow. Much of the book’s humor comes from the image of a skull-faced grim reaper figure trying to play what is essentially Santa Claus.

But then we have our main protagonist, Susan, who is Death’s granddaughter (by adoption; it’s a long story). By profession she’s a governess, which is a much more perilous profession than you might think — the children she cares for keep imagining real monsters into existence under their beds. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that something very odd is going on that Hogswatch night. It’s only through her resourcefulness and determination that disaster is averted.

What is that disaster? Whenever Susan asks, Death claims that without the Hogfather, the sun will no longer rise. It’s not until the end that we discover what he really means, and it becomes a interesting discourse on the nature of belief and mythology. I don’t necessarily agree with every point of the philosophy that Prachtett is presenting, but it’s some intriguing food for thought. More importantly, it comes in the form of a very funny story. I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the gags and jokes. It’s good stuff.

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Great Stories: The Thief of Bagdad

Every year it seems like movies get bigger and noisier, leading many of us to look back wistfully toward those vague “good old days” when cinema valued substance over flash. But let’s be honest — movies have always been about spectacle. The very mechanism of film is trickery; that is, fooling our eyes into believing the images before them are real rather than light projected through strips of film or a series of digital pixels. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s part of the fun of movies.

And some of the old spectacles are truly charming. Special effects have advanced a great deal during the relatively short lifetime of film, and I’m certainly not one of those people to complain that CGI has ruined movies. I’m all for creating better and better verisimilitude. But it’s fun as well to watch the old stuff and appreciate the artistry that went into each illusion, even when we can see — in a manner of speaking — the strings that the puppeteer is pulling. When those spectacles are accompanied by a delightful, cleverly-plotted story, all the better.

Such is The Thief of Bagdad from 1940. It’s a product of its era, no doubt, which means that too many of the supposedly Middle-Eastern characters are played by white actors, and the female lead is given little to do other than look pretty and faint. Acknowledging that, let’s look at the good it has to offer. The film begins in the middle of things, with a blind beggar and his dog in the busy streets of a city. When the dog proves clever enough to spot a false coin, the beggar tells his curious listeners that he was not always a dog, nor was the beggar always blind or poor. We are then given a prolonged flashback in which we meet the impish Abu, sneaking food from the venders in the marketplace. Arrested for thievery, Abu encounters Ahmed, the king, who has been betrayed and imprisoned by his treacherous advisor Jaffar. Together they must foil Jaffar’s evil plots and unite Ahmed with his true love.

If this sounds familiar, then you’re probably thinking of Disney’s Aladdin. There’s no doubt that they were heavily influenced by this film in many details. (I have to say, it doesn’t reflect well on them that they changed Abu into a monkey.) There is also a beautiful princess, her pudgy, over-protective sultan father, and even a genie (though this one is a giant creature mad with rage, more inclined to squash people with his massive foot than to grant wishes.) We see sorcery, curses, flying horses, mystical all-seeing eyes, daring quests and heroic rescues. The spectacle was quite good for its time. The effect of the towering genie emerging from his bottle, for example, is a lot of fun. If you judge it by its own metrics rather than comparing it to modern special effects, it’s plenty entertaining.

The best part, for me, is the title character. Abu might not be the dashing romantic lead, but he is definitely the hero. He’s the one who frees Ahmed from prison and helps him sneak in to see the princess, setting aside his own dreams of adventuring on the sea. He’s the one who outsmarts the genie and journeys deep into unknown realms to find a lost Ahmed. He’s the one who fulfills the prophecy first spoken at the start of the film, the one who finally defeats the evil Jaffar (with a little help from a magic carpet and an enchanted bow and arrow). And at the film’s triumphant ending, when Ahmed is restored to his place as king and offers Abu an eventual place as his royal vizier, Abu is the one who cheerfully says “No thanks!” and flies off on his carpet in search of adventure. Abu is awesome. Sabu, the actor who portrayed him, is also awesome. Watch the movie and enjoy.

Great Stories: The Miracle Worker

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t believe that it’s possible to analyze art with perfect impartiality, nor should one try to be impartial. The personal effect that art has on us is not some sentimental after-thought; it is the very purpose of art. So when I talk about a play wherein a voiceless child gains her voice, I’m going to be emotional about it. And I’m not going to apologize.

The story of Helen Keller can be found in her own words in her autobiography, as well as plenty of other sources, but if you want a truly affecting portrayal of how her teacher brought her out of darkness into the world of language, there is William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker. Though it was a bold, even risky, choice to write a play with a main character who literally speaks only one line, with a strong cast it can be an extraordinary experience.

The play briefly portrays how Helen loses her sight and hearing as a toddler after an illness, then reveals how the intervening years in dark silence have left her frustrated, lost and dangerous. So her family sends for someone who might know how to help Helen. They don’t expect a girl of twenty who is herself half-blind. Annie Sullivan, in her short years, has already lived a life full of tragedy and hardship. She is tough and hard-headed, which makes her an ideal match for Helen. No one has dared attempt to discipline Helen. Her mother says she knows she is bright. Before her illness, she was already talking; her first word, water, came at only six months of age. But now they fear it’s all been lost. They pity her too much to expect anything of her.

Annie expects a great deal. She teaches Helen to spell words into her hand, knowing that language is the only thing that will free her. Helen imitates the gestures readily enough, but for most of the play it’s nothing but a game to her. She hasn’t yet made the connection between gestures and meaning. There are long stretches of the script with nothing but Annie’s insistent monologues and the stage directions of Helen’s expressive non-verbal responses. It’s very unusual for a play, but when it’s acted well, it’s absolutely captivating.

The crowning moment arrives when Annie drags Helen out to the pump to refill the water jug she knocked over during a tantrum. Over and over she pours the water onto Helen’s hands, and over and over she spells water. And then, suddenly, Helen understands. Haltingly she speaks the word. Wah. Wah. She knows. It’s not just a game. They are words; they have meaning. Everything has a name. She begins running from one object to another, seeking its name, spelling it back into her teacher’s hand. The prison is broken. She is free.

I assume this scene is fairly affecting for the average person, but for me, with a non-verbal child of my own, it’s enough to completely wreck me. I can’t even think about it without crying. It is absolutely transcendent to see the understanding dawn on Helen’s face, to know that there is so much intelligence and enthusiasm buried deep in her mind. She just needed the key to unlock it. Nothing quite so dramatic has happened with my son, but I’m fervently grateful to all the teachers who have had the patience and persistence and knowledge to help him communicate. Every glimpse I can get of his inner world is precious. And whenever I feel sad or frustrated that so much of him still seems to be locked away, it’s stories like this one that give me hope.

Great Stories: Warm Bodies

I love science fiction and fantasy, but horror is a genre I usually avoid. I just don’t have the stomach for it. Either, it’s too gory, too frightening, or both. Even reading the plot synopsis for a horror film can give me nightmares. So the whole zombie thing has never been my thing.

Unless it happens to be funny, self-referential, and sweet. The trailer for Warm Bodies seemed to promise such things, so my husband and I decided to give it a try and make a date out of it. Happily, the trailer was not misleading. Yes, there is some gore and some jump-in-your seat moments — it is about zombies, after all — though it was mild enough that even my weak constitution could take it. And it was a great date movie.

The story (based on the novel by Isaac Marion, written and directed by Jonathan Levine) is an unlikely romance between a human (Julie) and a zombie named R — at least, that’s the best he can articulate it. The names aren’t coincidental; there are definitely shades of Romeo and Juliet.  R meets Julie under decidedly inauspicious circumstances: he and his fellow zombies are battling Julie and her fellow human soldiers; her boyfriend Perry is killed; R eats some of Perry’s brains. But as R begins seeing Perry’s memories of his girlfriend, he hesitates to attack her. He hides her from the other zombies, sharing with her the large collection of human-made artifacts he has collected in the abandoned airplane that serves as his home. And gradually, as R interacts with Julie, his humanity begins to return. It’s interesting to see this conveyed with very few spoken lines on R’s part.

This is aided, of course, by a frequently amusing voiceover of R’s thoughts. The initial narration perfectly sets up the wry humor that will characterize this movie: “What am I doing with my life? I’m so pale. I should get out more. I should eat better. My posture is terrible. I should stand up straighter. People would respect me more if I stood up straighter. What’s wrong with me? I just want to connect. Why can’t I connect with people? Oh, right, it’s because I’m dead.”

There are more than a few hurdles to the romance, of course, but I appreciate how they’re portrayed with complexity and nuance rather than ham-fisted melodrama. I mean, it’s a zombie story; it’s not going to be realism. But somehow the characters carry a sense of real-ness, even the grunting shuffling corpses. Another reason I avoid most zombie stories is because they’re so bleak, so unrelentingly horrible. Warm Bodies ends up being the very opposite — optimistic, sunshiny, and a celebration of what it means to be human.

Great Stories: Holes

Where did we get this assumption that children’s books should only be enjoyed by children? That an adult who reads children’s books for their own entertainment is in some sort of state of arrested development? Oh, there are some very silly children’s books, no question. But there are just as many silly adult books. And there is something about a well-written children’s or young adult novel that can cut right to the heart of a matter, without all the extraneous navel-gazing that fills so many novels intended for grown-up audiences. Not to mention that the writing of a book for young audiences requires tremendous discipline, a gift for conveying meaning with just a few well-chosen words, and the ability to empathize with young people without condescending to them.

From his book Holes, I would say it’s pretty clear that Louis Sachar has that gift. He had already won over young audiences with his goofy and fanciful “Wayside School” books, but this novel was something different, something very special. It straddles the line between children and YA, dealing with serious issues in a way that isn’t off-putting to young people. Those issues range from injustice in the juvenile court system, poverty, homelessness, racism, vengeance and forgiveness. Yet for all of these intense themes, it’s not particularly preachy and the plot never plods.

There are actually three plotlines, each taking place in a different era of history, yet all  of them curiously intertwined. The primary story is about Stanley Yelnats IV, a boy who has been wrongfully accused of stealing a famous pair of shoes and is sent to Camp Green Lake as punishment. This facility for juvenile delinquents has just one required activity: digging holes in the vast arid ground where Green Lake used to be. So the narrative will flash back now and then to the days when the lake was still there, when the local schoolteacher Miss Katherine falls in love with the kind-hearted peddler Sam. Unfortunately, Sam happens to be black, and their innocent romance ends in tragedy. The third plotline also tells of a past misdeed that brings misfortune, as we learn of Stanley’s ancestor, Elya Yelnats, and his broken promise to Madame Zeroni, the mysterious woman he made a bargain with. It’s rumored that their family was cursed with bad luck because of his failure to follow through on his side of the bargain.

What is truly astonishing is how deftly Sachar weaves all these threads together, holding back just enough information to keep us guessing, then bringing out the revelations at just the right moments. Eventually, all the holes are filled in quite satisfyingly. It’s a truly stunning moment when Stanley unwittingly comes across the chance to break the family’s curse. I know I never saw it coming. I was too old to have read this book as a child, but it was plenty impressive to me as a college student. And the film is one of best adaptations I’ve ever seen. Read it, then watch it, then read it again.

Great Stories: A Raisin in the Sun

What happens to a dream deferred?

 

      Does it dry up

      like a raisin in the sun?

      Or fester like a sore—

      And then run?

      Does it stink like rotten meat?

      Or crust and sugar over—

      like a syrupy sweet?

 

      Maybe it just sags

      like a heavy load.

 

      Or does it explode?

That’s  “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. There could hardly be a more fitting poem to provide the title for Lorraine Hansberry’s extraordinary play, a tale of too many dreams deferred. The fact that it was produced on Broadway in 1959 — a story about the black experience, written by a black woman, performed by an almost entirely black cast and directed by a black man — is nothing short of miraculous.

The play revolves around the Youngers, a lower-class African-American family living in Chicago in the 1950s. There is Mama, her adult children Walter and Beneatha, Walter’s wife Ruth, and their young son Travis. Their home is a cramped one-bedroom apartment. As her husband has recently died, Mama is expecting a life insurance payment and hopes to use some of the money for the down payment on a house. Beneatha has the potential to become a doctor if they can pay for her schooling. Walter, meanwhile wants to use the money to start his own business so he’ll no longer be in the demeaning position of chauffeuring rich white men. Their conflicting wishes are compounded by Ruth’s discovery that she is pregnant, by Walter’s dishonest friend who absconds with a large portion of the money, and by the racism they encounter while planning to buy a house in a predominantly white neighborhood.

There were concerns when the play was first produced about whether it was universal or too particular to the black experience. To which I would say, if we’ve been producing plays for this long that are particular to the white experience, a play with a different perspective is long past due! If this play was incomprehensible to anyone but African-Americans, it would still be of tremendous value and import. However, as it happens, it’s not that insular after all. The racism subplots and other details specific to blacks are significant and eye-opening, but there is also an exploration of poverty, of the desperation it breeds, and all the pathos of a dream deferred. From my perspective and personal experience as a white woman, I don’t feel alienated at all by this play. It is deeply familiar yet intensely illuminating, heartbreaking, and beautiful.

I feel it’s important that the one white character in this film is a very friendly, well-meaning racist. In the original play and the 1961 film, he is portrayed by John Fiedler, none other than the voice of Piglet. And his soft-spoken, earnest Mr. Lindner is perfect for the part. When we think of racists we usually think of angry or sneering types — the obvious, ugly face of the enemy. But Linder’s racism is softer and thus far more insidious. He bears no overt ill will toward the Youngers; they seem like a lovely family and so on and so forth; but wouldn’t it be easier for everyone if they stayed with their own people instead of stirring up trouble? He really believes he’s being quite reasonable. That’s the kind of racism that’s harder to detect and root out, particularly within our own selves.

This play does not have a joyful happy ending. It’s not a fantasy, and in this era of American history, it wasn’t plausible for a family like the Youngers to have all their dreams gloriously realized. Yet there is a somber, significant triumph. Walter has lost the money to his cheating friend; he is devastated. He’s prepared to accept Lindner’s offer: they won’t move into the neighborhood, and he’ll compensate them generously. But then Mama admonishes him, and Walter realizes the lesson it would teach his son to grovel and apologize to a white man for their very existence. So instead he stands his ground and proudly declares that they will never accept Lindner’s money; that they have every right to own that house and live in it.

The reality is that they will face terrible racism in that neighborhood. They will all have to continue working at their low-wage jobs to scrape together enough money for the mortgage payments. There is a long, hard road ahead of them. But the alternative is simply unthinkable. In Walter’s choice, we see the stark, undeniable dignity and worth of the human soul.

Great Stories: Scrubs

Here’s another television show that I would only recommend with some caveats. I’ll get those out of the way first. There is fat-shaming, and lots of juvenile humor, particularly when it comes to sexual situations. And some of the romantic relationships can be infuriating with the will-they, won’t-they; off-again, on-again dynamics worthy of a soap opera.

However. Having acknowledged that, I’ll also acknowledge that Scrubs is reliably hilarious, often heartfelt, and frequently as deep and meaningful as any drama. Many in the medical profession have said that for all its surreal and goofy humor, it’s one of the more accurate depictions of doctors and hospitals. Rather than creating increasingly bizarre medical situations as hospital dramas and mystery-based shows are wont to do, Scrubs focuses on the lives of the doctors, on the wild roller coaster that is working in a hospital.

Sitcoms were starting to change when the show first aired in 2001. There was no laugh track; it was filmed in a single camera style. There was no need for a “very special episode” to introduce serious topics. In any given episode, the mood could switch quite rapidly from a goofy gag to a life-and-death situation. For me, serious moments are easier to take when they’re surrounded by humor. When I think of the really powerful episodes like “My Screw-Up” or “My Lunch” dealing with the guilt of suddenly losing a patient, I find it comforting to remember the funny stuff alongside the drama.

The main character and narrator of the voiceovers is J.D., who begins as an intern at Sacred Heart hospital. Much of the silliest humor is found in his tendency to engage in elaborate daydreams. Of course, the rest of the main cast has their own absurd quirks and foibles to keep us entertained. There is a certain self-reflective, wry quality to the show’s structure, like when the 100th episode, “My Way Home” reveals itself as a Wizard of Oz story, or “My Musical,” when a patient’s brain condition makes her think everyone is singing around her. Sometimes it’s broad comedy; sometimes it’s subtle. Both are good.

And with all the soap opera-type relationships, I’m rather fond of the couple who gets together near the start of the show and stays together through the entire run, from dating to marriage to becoming parents. Because Turk and Carla were always intended to be a couple, the show can explore what happens after the point when a lot of love stories end. They have a serious rough patch during their first year of marriage, and it’s treated as a real problem that needs to be worked at — but also as something that can be dealt with, if both partners are willing to put in the effort. I didn’t love everything about their dynamic, but I really appreciated the portrayal of a committed couple from the beginning onward.

The show ran for eight seasons, and it’s true that it started to lag a little by the end, as long-running shows unfortunately tend to do. But the finishing scene is one of the sweetest endings I’ve seen, with loads of nostalgia and optimism for the future. When a story can make me laugh or get teary-eyed in equal measure, I call it a good story.