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.

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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.

Great Stories: Big Fish

What is the difference between a charismatic storyteller and a delusional liar? That is the question that most intrigues me in the film Big Fish (directed by Tim Burton, with a screenplay by John August). The main character is Edward Bloom (Albert Finney), but it is his son Will (Billy Crudup) who undergoes the most significant journey throughout the movie. To everyone else, his father is a charming, larger-than-life entertainer whose autobiographical stories captivate his listeners. To Will, he’s a fraud who makes up tall tales about his own life and is too cowardly to confront reality.

Most of the film consists of flashbacks detailing the extraordinary adventures of a young Edward Bloom (played by an ever-smiling Ewan McGregor). He meets witches, giants, werewolves, and conjoined twins; he joins the circus, completes a daring wartime mission, and wins the love of his life in truly dramatic fashion. But in the present day, as Will returns to his childhood home to see his dying father, he asserts quite bitterly that none of those stories are true. He’s heard them all hundreds of times; he knows the idealized hero. But he doesn’t really know his father at all.

Why does Edward adhere to this fictitious version of his life? He has quite the knack for storytelling, and there’s nothing wrong with following that passion. But he takes it far beyond a little bit of embellishing. To put it bluntly, he lies. That’s certainly how Will sees it. And he resents his father for never truly opening up to his son and showing his genuine self. From Edward’s perspective, though, the version of himself in his stories is his truest self — the man who spins the mundane, the disappointing and the boring circumstances of life into pure gold. It makes reality a little easier to handle when you infuse it with magic and wonder.

(Just in case you haven’t seen the movie and would prefer not to be spoiled: I’m going to spoil the ending here.)

The harshest reality, of course, is that Edward Bloom is dying of cancer. He refuses to acknowledge this, insisting that he’s seen how he dies thanks to a witch’s vision, and this isn’t how he goes. On his very deathbed, Edward pleads with his son to tell him how it ends. And Will finally enters his fanciful world and crafts a tale worthy of his father’s skills. He breaks him out of the hospital, drives him to the river where all his old friends are gathered to celebrate, and carries him into the water where he becomes the Big Fish itself. None of this is real. Edward dies in his hospital bed. But he dies smiling.

For me, the ending is bittersweet. Will finds some measure of peace, and yet he may never fully understand his father, having always been kept at a distance by his stories. Edward is far from perfect. He spent a lot of time away from home as a traveling salesman. It’s possible he might have had an affair, though we’re left to guess what really happened. His courtship of his wife, however idealized, could be considered stalking. He’s probably just an average man in most regards. And maybe he’s afraid to admit that. Afraid to let anyone, most of all his son, catch a glimpse of his vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It’s not fair that Will was never offered that vulnerability.

But it’s also important that Will accepts the only way he can connect with his father while he still has a chance. It might not be ideal. It’s still better than watching his father die in stubborn, bitter anger. It’s the best he can hope for, so he embraces it.

I love stories. Obviously. They carry a power and a fascination that can be wielded to great effect. But I believe that stories shouldn’t be used to hide from reality or cover up truth. They should, instead, provide the tools to help us better understand and cope with reality, while illuminating truth. I’m not sure about Edward Bloom as a storyteller. But the makers of Big Fish create a masterful and moving story of fathers, sons and the contradiction of a truthful lie.

Great Stories: The Music Man

Stories about con men are rather common, perhaps because we like to imagine being clever and charming enough to fool a whole town of people, even though we know it’s morally questionable. The trick is whether to make the con man a likable character or not. If he is intended to be, you can usually expect that he’ll be changing his ways and turning respectable by the story’s end. This is a tricky balance to maintain, but The Music Man is one of those stories.

Harold Hill is a traveling salesman notorious for selling band instruments and uniforms with the promise that he’ll start up a band for the boys of the town, a promise he never keeps. Once the wares arrive and he gets his money, he skips town. Things change when he arrives at River City, Iowa. There is a piano teacher, Marian Paroo, who sees right through him and his fake musical expertise from the start. When he tries to romance her as a distraction, he ends up falling for her, as well as developing a special rapport with her shy little brother Winthrop.

While this basic plotline is predictable, watching it play out is quite entertaining. Much of its charm comes from the songs, brilliantly composed by Meredith Wilson. The opening number provides exposition in the form of a chorus of traveling salesmen on a train, grousing about how Hill is ruining things for honest salesmen, but also offers a rhythmic imitation of the train’s chugging wheels and hissing brakes. “Ya Got Trouble” showcases Hill’s hilariously effective use of rabble rousing to generate panic about the city’s youth, which then allows him to wax eloquent about marching bands in “Seventy-Six Trombones.” And there is nothing quite like the peculiar talk-singing patter of Robert Preston, who originated the role of Harold Hill.

But perhaps the reason I’m especially fond of this musical, for all its silliness, is what happens with Marian and her little brother. At the start of the play Winthrop is so embarrassed by his lisp that he hardly talks at all. Hill convinces him to try out the cornet, and gradually Winthrop comes out of his shell. Marian is on the verge of revealing that Hill is a fraud when her little brother eagerly sings in front of the whole town while waiting for the delivery of their band instruments. And she decides then and there to let it be. Because this man, con man or not, has just gotten her brother to talk. This is me taking it personally, but let me tell you, if someone could genuinely get my son to talk, I’d be willing to forgive a lot of fast-talking chicanery.

Well, Hill is a fraud and a phony. But when he can’t bring himself to leave this city he’s fallen in love with, when they demand that he prove his nonsensical “think system” of musical learning actually works, the band plays. And they’re terrible. Just awful. Of course they are. But their parents are brimming with pride regardless. The think system doesn’t teach any real musical skill. It’s just rose-colored glasses. Still it’s all the town needs to call Hill a hero. A change in perspective can be very powerful. Sometimes it’s almost like the real thing.

Great Stories: Anne of Green Gables

When Lucy Maude Montgomery first created the character of Anne Shirley, she could hardly have anticipated that the little orphan girl would become so popular, she would eventually publish seven sequels about her. Over a hundred years later, Anne is still beloved to countless readers, while the book has been adapted into numerous different mediums. There is something truly enduring about Anne’s legacy.

The simplest explanation is that reading about Anne makes us happy. She’s a cheerful, over-imaginative chatterbox, and her various hijinks — such as cracking her slate over a boy’s head for insulting her, or accidentally dying her hair green — keep us smiling and chuckling. But I think the appeal goes deeper than that. Anne is a survivor.

Some critics have claimed that Montgomery paints an unrealistic view of Anne’s world, that everything is too easy and fluffy and there’s not enough darkness. I would counter that Montgomery wasn’t delusional about the darkness in the world. She herself probably suffered from undiagnosed depression (it’s suspected that her cause of death was actually suicide), and you see glimpses of truly grim circumstances in Anne’s story. Her parents die while she’s still an infant, and she spends her early childhood living in one loveless home after another, until she is finally sent to a brother and sister, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, by mistake. They wanted a boy to help on the farm. They didn’t want her.

But here’s where the hope begins to glimmer. Matthew, soft-spoken and timid, takes an immediate liking to Anne and convinces Marilla to let her stay. Marilla’s no-nonsense attitude clashes with Anne’s temperament from the very beginning, but she too begins to care for this strange little girl. In her loneliness, Anne has created a number of coping mechanisms, like an imaginary friend in the mirror, and a dream world where she has the poetic name of Cordelia and beautiful raven locks of hair. Somehow she has managed to keep her bleak childhood from breaking her. And once she finds a loving home, she truly thrives.

What’s interesting is that although Anne is the title character, and she does plenty of growing and maturing as the book covers the next five years of her life, Marilla Cuthbert is the one who changes the most dramatically. Anne’s presence truly transforms her, and by the end she is able to experience an outpouring of emotion that wasn’t possible in her sparse, lonely life before Anne.

Is Anne of Green Gables realistic? Bah. Who cares? It’s plausible within the world Montgomery created. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s presenting a hazy, idealized portrait of that era of history. I can read non-fiction books detailing the hard, cruel life of people in the late 1800s. Anne offers something different. It’s humor, it’s optimism, and it’s timeless.