Why do we feel we have to censor our writing in order to please the general public? The same old stories with their same old characters and same old plot-lines keep coming back over and over again onto our shelves. The same archetypes that have circulated the literary globe since the dawning of time. I can’t help but wonder, where are the real gruesome stories? Where is the blood, the incest, the fucked-up catastrophes that, let’s not forget, exist in real life.
Why is it socially unacceptable to write stories/poetry/lyrics about the topics that are a litle bit too ‘out there’ for a select few over-sensitive people? For some reason, there are a great number of people in the world who refuse to acknowledge that shit happens. Some people acknowledge it, but refuse to accept it. And what then for those of us that do both? I know there is some messed up stuff in the world, and I accept that. So why should it be considered ‘wrong’ or ‘taboo’ to stay quiet on the subject in literature?
I admit, I am not a great writer. I was under the impression for years I was great, but honestly I just know how to manipulate the English language in a mediocre way. But this aside, every story I come up with has some form of fucked-up shit happening either behind closed doors, or bang in the centre of a public place. For example, I just wrote a six word story for my university coursework:
Pale, cold, naked; Daddy’s Little Girl.
To many people the twisted suggestion of this will be too much to bear and in their heads they will be screaming why has something so vulgar been written? But I say to you, why not? Why shouldn’t it be written? Allow me to explain the meaning behind this story. On the face of it, it is a young girl loved by her father – maybe too much, and in the wrong way. The initial impression is perhaps some form of abuse. The point of the semi-colon is to split the physical attributes with the suggested context. But this can be read another way. Pale and cold, both applicable to the living and dead is it not? The other possible scenario here is a dead girl, treasured by her father. We don’t know why she is naked, but she is ‘pale and cold’, dead. In either case, the impact hits you like a truck on the highway.
This is why I love twisted literature.
What is the point of having one thousand books that all have similar characters, end happily and never have a single catastrophe, when you can have one book that smacks you in the chest with the iron fist of transgression? Dark writing is what I do best, and it is what I love to read. Shit goes wrong; death, disaster, sex drugs and tuck-and-rolling from speeding vehicles. Okay, so maybe the last one is a little unreaslistic, but why is it so wrong to use this unrealistic scenario to imply something much more sinister?
Basically, what I’m trying to say, is that vulgarity can make a much more moving piece of writing than a boring same-old-same-old mass produced pile of garbage mainstream literature. If you aren’t made to feel something when you read it, what is the God-damned point?
“Pale speckled eggs.”
I can’t remember what book this line is from, but I do know it was the very first sentence. It was this that my creative writing tutor drew our attention to on the subject of a punchy opening to any novel. I remember the moment perfectly: He stood in the middle of the room, we watched expectantly wondering why he looked so pleased with himself, and then he says it. Slowly, one word at a time, with a smile in his voice, “Pale speckled eggs.”
His point was that the first sentence of a novel can make all the difference as to whether the reader continues on. Cliched openings can make the reader immediately heave a sigh and close the book. I wish it wasn’t so, but it’s true. So what makes a good opening line?
Here is what I personally think makes a catchy opening. Don’t take my word for it as the only rule of thumb because I’m sure other writers would have different opinions. This is just what I believe would work and what I try and do in my writing.
Something different. Cliches have been seen time and time again, ‘It was a warm afternoon in July and the sun bathed the grass in its ambient heat.” Difference is key. For example, when was the last time you read the sentence ‘pale speckled eggs’? The first thing your potential reader will see should stand out from other books or stories. If they read something they’ve seen countless variations of, their interest will wain at this crucial early stage. Something unique will stick in the reader’s mind. One example can found in Wallace’s Infinite Jest – “I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies.” This sentence could take the story in any number of directions and it so uniquely phrased that it immediately grabs interest.
A set up. Give the reader a teaser. So you’ve got a punchy sentence that has grabbed your reader, now what are you going to do with them? Reel them in. It will be confusing and conflicting for your reader if you mention the three armed ninja drop-kicking a potato in your first line and then not bring him up again. Your first line should relate to an important part of your story. It should set up something key to be revealed in that first paragraph/page/chapter. For example, it may give a brief summary of the main plot themes as in The Woman in White – “This is a story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It may reveal something about the main character, ie their personality, as in Great Expectations – “My Father’s name being Pirrip, and my christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.” The first sentence should give the reader an indication of something they will find out about the story.
Intrigue without over-sharing. It can be tempting to reveal too much in an opening sentence to get your point across right away. Be stingy in your first sentence. Be a tease. Reveal something but leave your reader wanting more. An opening sentence should give a hint of what’s to come but should hold enough back to reveal over the next paragraph/chapter. For example The Elder Gods – “The Land of Dhrall, if we are to believe the sometimes fanciful legends of the region, has existed in its present location since the beginning of time.” Straight away we are thinking, what is The Land of Dhrall? Who’s legends? Why would it not be in the same location as it used to be? It gives the intrigue but doesn’t give the whole game away. Similarly, The Yellow Wallpaper – “It was very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.” Why was it rare? Why did they want ancestral halls in the summer? Who is John? Gilman has introduced a number of interesting variables without over-sharing It makes us want to know more.
Here are the opening lines of some of my favourite books:
Embassytown – “The children of the embassy all saw the boat land.”
The Secret History – “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”
War Horse – “My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head.”
Mysterious Skin – “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life.”
And just because I can, and because I hope that I’ve followed my own rules, here are the opening lines of some of my pieces:
Bed of Roses (Chapter one, not the preface) – “The light-bulb moment: the point in time where an idea or answer pops into your head and you just know: it is going to be good.”
Meanwhile in A&E – “Bluebottle fuckers buzzing in his eyes.”
Rebellion – “The walls were painted white today.”
And one example of a mistake of mine where I fell into the cliche pitfall. This is from The Bucket List Boys – “When Richard woke up on that bright July morning, bare chest damp with a light sheen of sweat, red mark appearing where the key on its blood red ribbon had imprinted, it was that last thing he expected when his phone rang to change his plans for that day, and many to come.” I don’t like this sentence, but I like the rest of the chapter. I’ll probably change this.
For those of you who are writers, look back over your opening lines. Are they catchy? Do they grab the attention but leave the reader wanting more? Are they cliche? Perhaps share some of your opening lines here in the comments. For everyone, have you got any favourite opening lines that were particularly effective or memorable?
To be or not to be: that is the question.
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?
The firsts lines of the ever-famous soliloquy of Hamlet. And such lines they are.
I have always had a passion for Shakespeare. In a way, I have often understood the language of Shakespeare better than modern day English. I can read the entire soliloquy and perfectly understand what Hamlet is trying to say. Not many people get this, but it’s true and I love it. Shakespearean English has so much passion, imagery and beauty in it. Hamlet is by far my favourite Shakespeare play. Romeo and Juliet follows not too far behind, but Hamlet is top.
I love Hamlet for a number of reasons.
First, on a material level. My copy is a small, slightly worn copy. The cover is a faded blue, which you can tell used to be rich in colour, and the edges of the pages are worn with use. Some of the pages are falling out, but that adds to the charm. The book is so delicate that it must be handled with care, much like the subject inside the pages themselves. As with all Shakespearean works, there is a certain glimmer about them which I cannot describe, but that makes me feel as though I have to treat the very pages as though fragile. With this copy ever more so. It seems as though the pages would crumble in my fingers if I held them too tight. But the thing about this book which makes me adore it above all others, is the smell. My copy smells different to the other books, and it adds to the charm again. As Rupert Giles of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, “if it is to last then the getting of knowledge should be tangible, it should be um, well, smelly.”
Hamlet’s character is complex, and I feel it gets a lot of mixed reviews. I don’t know which is right, or even if there is a right. I personally feel bad for the guy. It seems to me as though he gets a lot of stick for being the way he is: denying sending the letters to Ophelia, being absent-minded, etcetera. But when you look at it from his point of view, wouldn’t you do the same?
At the beginning of the play, he appears bitter towards King Claudius – but he is now married to Hamlet’s mother and taken over the country as King in place of Hamlet’s father. He is also trying to call Hamlet ‘son’, which he really isn’t. Wouldn’t you be bitter? His father is dead, he hasn’t had time to mourn and suddenly his uncle has swooped in, married his mother and taken over the country, trying to force Hamlet to call him ‘dad’. I think that’s harsh how hard they are on him for this. “‘Tis unmanly grief” he says to mourn. How fucking rude. “It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,/A heart unfortified, a mind impatient” etc. He’s having a go at Hamlet for grieving. He is only in his twenties from what I remember and has just lost his Dad. He should be allowed to grieve. Furthermore, Hamlet wants to go back to school in Wittenberg. His uncle’s reply? “It is most retrograde to our desire”. Our desire. So Hamlet doesn’t matter? Claudius wants him to stay but Hamlet wants to go. If it will help him, be beneficial to him, and is what he wants then he should be allowed to go, but Claudius doesn’t take this into account. They make him stay.
Hamlet has to keep his cool through this entire scene and does, quite well. He remains impassive, albeit a tad melancholy, but is only able to show his inner turmoil when they leave. He is hurt tremendously by his father’s death but cannot show it in public. If your father died and you were forced to keep it together outside of closed doors, you would struggle too. His Dad is dead and his mother, in his eyes, has married his uncle without a moments hesitation. In Hamlet’s eyes, she cried a little, then got over it and married his brother with “most wicked speed”. But he knows he can’t say anything, that he has to keep his thoughts to himself. How frustrating it must have been to have this anger and grief bottled up with no way to let it out: “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
He then hears of his father coming back as a ghost to his best friends. They tell him they’ve seen him – imagine how that must have felt. He is still heartbroken over his death and his best friend tells him he’s seen his ghost. Your emotions would be all over the shop – confused, scared, but at the same time intrigued and almost excited at the prospect of seeing him again. Not long after, Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, as well as her father, Polonius tells Ophelia that Hamlet’s love is probably a sham. They both say it wont last. That even if he loves her now, he’ll be too involved with his princely duties later to love her. I think this is bollocks. How rude must they be to both be telling her they doubt his love is real. Admittedly we as an audience are led to doubt it ourselves later, but at this stage we know nothing. Perhaps he does genuinely love her but is too wrapped up in his immediate grief to go around professing his love for her. I think it’s a bit harsh for them to lay into Hamlet before they even know the score.
He then finds out his father was killed by his uncle in a case of foul play. The same man who is sleeping in his mother’s bed and running Denmark murdered his own father. The man who implored Hamlet to call him Dad killed his real Dad. And not to mention, all of this information is coming to him from his father’s ghost. An emotional tornado if ever I saw one.
I won’t go on much more about his character, but there a couple other notable things which make me love his character. When he finds Ophelia dead, although the scene in which himself and Laertes jump into her grave is grim at best, we as an audience can see immediately that Hamlet really did love her. Despite the doubts Laertes and Polonius had, despite denying sending the love letters to her, he loved her and this scene proves it.
Personally I believe he knew something was wrong when she handed the letters back. I mean, he professed his love quite ardently in the letter we see, and Ophelia’s words throughout the play lead us to believe hat she really loved him too. So why, if she loved him so much, would she give the letters back of her own free will? This is what I believe Hamlet thinks. He loved her, told her so in many letters and perhaps she responded, we don’t know. Either way, she received them and had never tried to give them back before. So why the sudden change of heart? In my opinion, he knew something was up, and maybe suspected they were being spied on. It isn’t made clear whether he knows, but the situation must have caused him to suspect something was up. I don’t think he denied sending the letters because Ophelia brought it up and he was embarrassed that she had. I think he denied it because he knew the situation was weird and suspected something more was going on, so, as the Prince of Denmark, he had to protect his position by denying it. Yes, it ended badly for Ophelia, but it could have ended worse for the both of them if he had have said “yes I sent them”. He is the prince, and she is nothing in terms of social status. That relationship would have been nothing short of scandalous. It was going to end badly for Ophelia either way, a young girl in that situation was never going to get out unscathed, but Hamlet could save himself. And maybe he thought that if he denied it, it would come down less harshly on her because the involvement of the prince was in fact not true. If he had have been involved, perhaps things would have been worse, and maybe he knew it.
The other thing that makes me love the character is his relationship with Horatio, his best friend. In particular the scene that hits me hard is Hamlet’s death. I wanted to write about this scene in an essay on inter-generational relationships, but I ran out of words to be able to do it justice. I shall explain it here. The thing I loved about this scene so much was that, as Hamlet is dying, Horatio goes to drink from the poisoned chalice to join him in death. Hamlet knocks the cup away and tells him no. He begs him to live. Whereas Claudius stands by and watched Hamlet’s mother drink from the poisoned cup without giving her any warning or showing any signs of regret, Hamlet, even whilst dying painfully from poison, manages to reach up and stop Horatio with his own hand from following him. It makes me so mad to see Claudius stand, in full health, quite capable of stopping her, and watch his wife drink from a cup he knows will kill her. He doesn’t even subtly tap her shoulder, or cough, or hint in any way that she shouldn’t do it. Hamlet is dying, has only minutes to live, and is able to talk Horatio out of suicide. This scene gets me every time. To bring it down a level, it gives me all the feels. It is such a heartfelt moment of friendship and love, and show the generation gap so well. While Claudius was willing to kill his own brother, marry his wife and try to kill Hamlet – se poisoned Laertes rapier so that is he hit him the poison would kill him, and if Hamlet won then the poisoned wine was for him to celebrate his win – Horatio loved Hamlet so much that he was willing to give his own life to not live without his best friend. But, being best friends, Hamlet stops him and implores him to live on. The separation of the generations here is clear, and only makes me love Hamlet all the more.
Moving on from Hamlet, another reason I love this play is Ophelia. The ‘original suicide girl’. This is what I would love to do my final dissertation on if I get the chance. Was she crazy? Was she bipolar? Was she driven crazy? Or was she completely normal, but merely seen as crazy by everybody else? Also, did she kill herself, or was it an accident?
In the case of ‘was she crazy’? I think maybe not. Without getting elbow deep into research and reading over the passages thousands of times I can’t give a coherent answer. Or at least, not one that I can say for certain I truly believe. If I do this for my dissertation, perhaps I will know then. But right now, I’m thinking she wasn’t crazy. Not at the start at least. In my eyes, she was a young girl in love with a man who appeared to love her back. She had a brother and Dad who were protective, possibly overly so, and her social status was not exactly of the highest standing. Polonius worked for the king, but he wasn’t really of that high a status himself, and so his daughter was going to be even less so. This possibly aided her downfall.
As a woman of the time, she would have been under certain rules of etiquette and social position: stay quiet, keep out of sight, and look pretty. So for her to claim to be in a mutually loving relationship with the prince was really not what she was meant to do. The king, the queen, and even her father, looked down on her. She was forced into a corner with nowhere to go, nowhere to run, or to hide. She was stuck in this image that she was meant to be, and when she overstepped the boundaries it was too late for her. She knew that she would never be viewed with any respect. This is why I believe the later scene, Ophelia’s famous ‘Mad Scene’, was all an act. I don’t believe she was crazy. I don’t believe she was mentally ill at all and simply rapid cycling. If anything if she was crazy, she was driven mad by the pressure and expectations thrust upon her by everyone else. For her, it became easier to play the part of the crazy girl because that was how people already saw her.
Emilie Autumn also believes this. At this stage, Ophelia was already being viewed as a little mad, so why not just be mad. If everyone is already going to see her as mad, no matter how hard she worked to be viewed as normal, why not just play up to the part. She acts completely crazy, unrestrained, and possibly has fun with it, because who’s going to care? She’s crazy after all. Most characters during this scene say something relating to one subject: “How do you do, pretty lady?” / “Pretty Ophelia!” / “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, she turns to favour and to prettiness”. Essentially, what they are saying is “She’s mad? But she’s so pretty!” Her sanity is based on her looks. She’s pretty, and they say it’s a waste and a shame because she’s mad, but she’s so pretty.
Did Ophelia kill herself? We don’t know. We can’t know. She may have slipped while picking flowers, or she may have thrown herself in. Both are interesting theories. Neither can be solidly proved. Only Shakespeare knew, and he never left a note to tell us. If I had to give my opinion, I would say that it wouldn’t surprise me if she drowned herself. Perhaps she slipped, but if she did kill herself, I wouldn’t be shocked. During her mad scene, all they could say was, “but she’s so pretty”, and lamented her state. But no-one tried to talk her down and find out if she was okay. They didn’t try to help her. They just looked on her in pity and moved on. She couldn’t get by trying to fit in, and she couldn’t get by being the crazy girl they expected her to be. Her father was dead, her lover had denied being so, and her brother was off in France. She was totally alone, and no-one cared. Even when Laertes came back, he only felt bad for her. He didn’t try and help. So if she did throw herself into the river, could you blame her?
The reason I’m thinking so much over Hamlet today is because I am writing an adaptation piece for my coursework which, ironically, never began as anything close to a Shakespearean piece. The original text was a Spike Milligan poem. I hear maybe it comes from a longer poem ‘Silly Verses for Kids’, but I will have to look that up. It goes thus:
I’m not frightened of Pussy Cats.
They only eat up mice and rats,
But a Hippopotamus
Could eat the Lotofus!
What our group came up with as a possible adaptation was twisting it around to show the Hippo’s point of view. He is misunderstood. We created the Lotofus, a mythical creature of the forest who is deathly afraid of the Hippopotamus’s power. Spike Milligan empowers the Hippopotamus here by saying it could eat the Lotofus – it could. We played on this. Maybe the Hippopotamus could eat the Lotofus but doesn’t want to. Maybe he just wants a friend, but he is so large and powerful that everyone is scared of him. Perhaps he is an anti-hero.
What we did, was we decided that we would turn this children’s poem into a tragedy. It would be a stage play. Originally we thought of trying to make it good for kids still, and I’ll try and keep this element by not being too violent. However, as a tragedy, people have to die. So I’ll lessen the blow by only damaging the lesser characters and leaving the Hippopotamus alive, though alone and sad again. I feel horrible just typing it.
So to turn it into a tragedy, I started thinking of the writing style. Immediately Shakespeare came to mind. Particularly Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. I took the idea of a prologue from R&J, and gave our anti-hero Hippopotamus a soliloquy reminiscent of Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ one, as quoted at the start of this post. I don’t know if I can pull off five acts, but I’ll give it a go.
It goes to show how the influence and power of Shakespeare never lets up. It is a big part of my life – he is my favourite playwright. Hamlet is my favourite play, and I literally swoon over the language. It is one of the few things on this Earth that make me genuinely so happy and peaceful, so inspired to write, that I can smile for no reason, and turn children’s poems into full-scale stage tragedies.
Shakespeare, I fucking love you.
To read this, it took me two and a half hours. I expected it to take longer, but once I started, I couldn’t put it down. It was almost as though some invisible force had sucked me into the pages and the idea of trying to leave was too scary to even attempt. From the first page to the last, I was caught hook, line, and sinker. There was no escape once I’d read the first line.
The book in question is Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott. A non-fiction book about the impact our energy consumption and climate change will have on our future. Here is the synopsis as given in large, bold, black lettering on the fluorescent orange cover:
This is a book about us.
It’s a book about you, your children, your friends. It’s about every one of us. It’s about out failure: failure as individuals, the failure of business, and the failure of our politicians.
It’s about the unprecedented planetary emergency we’ve created.
It’s about the future of us.
And that was no joke. Reading the book, seeing the graphs, charts, photographs. Reading the facts. Witnessing with my own eyes in the print before me everything we as a planet and as a people do wrong. And noticing that I do a lot of it myself. I certainly felt like a failure.
But the book does more than point out our flaws as a human race. Sure, it does that a lot. Almost entirely, in fact. But it also makes us think about what we’re doing. It gives examples of where we’re going wrong, and what it means in the long run. Certain examples including the ‘hidden water’ usage really hit home. For instance, quoted straight from the pages: ‘It takes around 27,000 litres of water to make one kilogram of chocolate. That’s roughly 2,700 litres of water per bar of chocolate, This should surely be something to think about when you’re curled up on the sofa eating it in your pyjamas.’ And I was. Not in my pyjamas, but I was curled up on my bed, reading this book, with a box of Mint Matchmakers to hand. Suffice to say I shot a nervous, albeit guilty, glance at the box, closed it, and carried on reading.
The very structure of the book is interesting. Barely any page is full with words. Several contain a mere sentence. And even then, between every large chunk of mind-blowing fact is a graph, a chart, or a photograph just to make sure you get the picture (no pun intended). And it works. Just when you think your brain will explode from taking in too many numbers, or trying to process a difficult amount of information, WHAM. You’re hit with a photo of decaying fields, crop farms or out-of-control car manufacturing.
As I’m sure was the point of the book, I felt extremely nervous for the future of our planet by the close of the book. I’ll go so far as to say I was scared. It really affected me. After I’d closed the final page I sat for ten minutes with my hands to my head just thinking. What were we going to do? What can I do?
But it’s not entirely doom and gloom. Though the majority of the book is dedicated to metaphorically slapping each and every one of us around the chops, it does give us hope for the future. I found myself towards the end thinking, ‘Well if this is really how bad it is, how are we ever going to change it? We can’t just sit back and do nothing. What can we do?’ And to an extent he answers this. Admittedly, it gives large scale action suggestions which the individual wouldn’t be of much help towards. But it does leave you with a sense that change is needed, and change can be made. And as the final pages fade from white, to light grey, to dark grey, to black, you are left with a feeling of foreboding, but the will to change.
Compact, and easy to read, this book deserves every human pair of eyes to look over its pages. An incredible telling of our future downfall, in a way that feels almost fictional, and is perhaps why I was able to make it to the end in one sitting. Though a non-fiction book, the way Emmott tells the facts is done so in a creative way that hits home with a punch, whilst not giving the reader an information hangover.
My rating: 4/5.
This book, for me, would have received all five stars had it given more advice for how the individual can make a difference. I found myself at the end of the book wanting to change, but having been told by Emmott himself that the things I was doing were probably not making a difference. Had he given some advice to the individual, I would have rated this five. I was left wanting to change, but with no idea how.
Highly recommended read. And did I mention it was fluorescent orange? I did? Well good. Because it is. Now go buy it.
Chapter lengths in novels can vary greatly. Some are very short, some change in accordance with a character’s point of view. Some books don’t have official chapters at all – instead they have a star, or simply a gap which indicates that it’s a good opportunity to go to the bathroom, get a snack and replenish your tea. This can ultimately affect the text as a whole. The pace may be changed from this – a barrage of short chapters may skip quickly through time, where one hefty chapter of several thousand words can be a long hard slog in which a large chunk of detail can be put across without breaking the flow of the action.
But how important are chapter lengths?
Does it make a difference for you?
I find when I write that I can be ploughing through, constructing conversations, building suspense, creating action. And then suddenly it’ll occur to me that my writing is automatically stopping itself. I’ll find myself drawing naturally to a conclusion where the chapter will come to a natural end. This tends to be around 1,200-2,000 words, depending on how much action I decided to put into the first half of the chapter. If I’ve included a lot, I tend to write a bit more so as to bring it to a natural stop. Likewise if the point of the chapter is character development, or building relationships, it may be a shorter chapter focused around a single conversation that doesn’t last long, but forms a path for the next piece of action to go down.
Yet despite this, I find some people writing very long chapters all the time. This can go either way, in my opinion. Sometimes, if a chapter is interesting and captivating enough to make you want to read in one sitting, it’s a good idea to let it run on. But it’s also true then that if a chapter is really going nowhere, yet keeps going and keeps going, but you know you should finish it before you put it down for a rest, it can be relentless. I’ll even go so far as to suggest that long chapters can sometimes be painful.
I recently chose to start a new novella for the purpose of a competition I heard about online (link in an earlier post, Project Spotlight #3, for anyone interested). I decided there would be four main characters and that each chapter would cycle between them. I started with an introductory chapter cycle where we meet each character on a specific day to see how different their lives were. But, in writing the first of the series, for my character Damien Lethe, I found it was only 820 words long when I drew it to a close. Is this a good idea? Maybe short paragraphs of condensed action into short chapters is a good place to start, but I’ve never written a chapter this short before.
What do you think? Long or short chapters to start with? When you first pick up a book, would you rather have a few shorter chapters or longer chapters?
Please note: this post will be hella full of plot spoilers toward the latter half of it. Clue is in the title. Also, I let loose on the profanity. I’m not sorry.
When reading a book, and then watching the film adaptation, or watching the film and then going back to read the book, it can become easy to spot differences, and these can oftentimes divide opinion. You can watch the film for what it is: a film. By itself, it may be successful as a stand-alone piece. The humour, the suspense, the music even, can all add or take away from the mood of a film. And when it is a film that has been adapted from a book, the mood created in the film can be different to the original intentions of the author.
Some film adaptations of novels can be very good. I believe that to do this, the film must do the following:
1. Stay true to the characters. If a character has been written a certain way made to be loved or to be hated, and then this is changed for the film, it can not only be confusing, but also really frustrating. There is nothing worse in a book to film translation than destroying the integrity of a crucial character. They may stand for something, be an asshole, love someone or something with their entire being … and these things all help to shape their character. They make them who they are. It creates the foundation for the way they will live their lives, the things that they will do, and the way they will handle certain situations. Altering the protagonists to a point where they become unrecognisable is both insulting to the story and the author, but also to the characters themselves. If they lived their life in one way in the novel, the film should show that. Sure, they may be altered slightly for the purpose of the screen, but only slightly. The essential characteristics must be there.
2. Not add anything unnecessary. Staying with the idea of character, don’t add extra characters that don’t enhance the plot. In fact, don’t even add them to enhance the plot. If they did not exist in the original story, they are not essential to the proceedings. And if they do become essential, then that means something wrong with the original story, in which case, perhaps it shouldn’t be considered for film. Similarly, don’t add events that will not enhance the story or advance the plot. This is a basic rule when writing a novel, so why should it be dismissed when adapting for the screen? Insignificant scenes which were not in the original story will not make a difference in the long run. As a stand-alone film, sure it may look important. But when adapting from an original text, you should only portray what the author has already portrayed. If they haven’t mentioned it, it probably didn’t need to be mentioned. Which brings us nicely on to the next point.
3. Not lie. In a similar way to adding unnecessary events, if it didn’t happen originally, it was probably not meant to happen. The author of a book is aware of every small detail. The little things matter. When adapting a novel to film, it is important to stick to the original like a fucking fish to water. As soon as you change something, or add something that wasn’t there, or take away something that was … you are in trouble. An author will write in certain events into a character’s history for a reason. If their parents were heavy drinkers in the past, this will ultimately affect the mindset of the protagonist. If this is then changed, or removed completely, this instantly takes away a significant part of their life. Maybe their parents drinking made them want to begin an anti-alcohol campaign. Maybe it made them start to drink themselves. Either way, their parents alcoholism became a significant part of who they are. Once things get added, or get taken away from a story simply for the purpose of film, it can mean the death of the character. Not a literal death (unless this happens to be deliberate on the film-maker’s part, in which case what the fuck, man?) but death of the character as the reader knew them. The original character is gone, because something has changed in their life which shaped an opinion, and in turn the character’s life.
I recently read Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse. Telling the story from the perspective of the horse, yet never giving the horse – or any of the horses for that matter – a voice was truly remarkable. Morpurgo got us to care about Joey and Topthorn, even without the use of speech. This in itself is quite the achievement. The story is told in two ways – the humans giving the speech, and the animals driving the plot. Joey never stops to tell us what he’s thinking for longer than a few sentences. 97% of the narrative is plot based. When there isn’t someone speaking, the narrative is more of a literal commentary on events: doing military drills, ploughing a field, running for their life. The dialog serves to give us the information that the horses just simply can’t: this is what is happening in the war, this is what we think of the horses, we will be going this way for this reason. The people speak, and the horses don’t. This is why the narrative and the actions dominate the book. Because it is being told from the perspective of the horse. In a sense, it is almost as though Morpurgo only introduced as many human interactions as he did so that the reader knew what was happening outside of the literal bubble of Joey the red-bay.
I am now watching the film. Below is a list of all the things Spielberg did wrong in his translation from paper to screen, as made during my first viewing. Note the special guest, the WAR FLAG. Let’s see how many guest appearances it makes, bearing in mind it was never even mentioned in the book:
1. We begin by watching Albert witness Joey’s birth, and watching him grow from baby to mostly grown. In the original text, the opening scene is the auction. Albert doesn’t meet Joey until his father buys him at said auction. It is upon seeing him in his father’s stable that he falls in love with him. According to the film, Albert had already met Joey – how this was supposed to have happened I’m not entirely sure.
2. Where is Zoey? The entire reason Joey is called Joey, is because it rhymed with Zoey (this is almost a direct quote from the book). Albert even tells him that. With his own mouth. Zoey was like the big sister/mum figure that Joey never had (because of his early separation from his own mother, though Spielberg decided having no mother figure wasn’t important to Joey’s character. Blergh, whatever). So where is she? Zoey becomes Joey’s rock. When he feels threatened, she comforts him. When he is struggling with work, she encourages him. He looks up to her, and yet there is no sign of her in the film. What made Spielberg decide she wasn’t an integral figure in Joey’s life?
3. Albert’s dad isn’t a prick. While this may seem like a good thing, it really isn’t. In the original book, Albert’s dad got drunk every Tuesday, bought Joey just so his rival couldn’t, and on a number of occasions threatened violence against Joey. In the film, yes he drinks, and true he did buy Joey to stop his rival. But the only threat of violence was a brief, and rather unexpected, moment of insanity in which he turned a shotgun on him, only for Albert to jump in the way and ensure he didn’t pull the trigger. The point of the character is that he is a complete and utter, Grade A, dick. Yet according to the film, he is a poor woe-is-me type farmer who only drinks because he’s so sad. We’re meant to feel sorry for him. But wait, didn’t we hate him in the novel? Yes, yes we did. Morpurgo created a character that we all despised. He was mean to Joey, a terrible father to Albert, and a general all-round bastard with no redeeming quality to his name. And what’s more, as if completely flipping the fucking tables round to make us not hate the guy wasn’t enough, Spielberg even went so far us to make him a war hero so that we even kinda like him. ENTER THE WAR FLAG. What? Why? What?
4. 40 minutes in and we are still on the fucking farm. In the book, Joey is being led away from the farm by the end of Chapter 3. In the film, we have hit the 40 minute marker and there is no sign of Albert’s dad sneaking into the stables at midnight to sell him on. Maybe if they spend enough time on the farm, the war will be over before they even consider sending Joey to it. Hooray for no war! Oh wait, the film is called War Horse. You see the problem we have here, Spielberg?
5. We have spent no time with Joey. Again, with my DVD paused at 40 minutes in, I am noticing another big problem. We’ve spent more time with Albert’s fucking goody-two-shoes dad than we have the horse that the book is about. This goes back to my very first point on this post – stay true to the characters. If it’s a story about a horse at war, show us a horse at war, not some drunken farmer crying about his bloody drowned turnips (this actually happens by the way. I know, humanity is doomed).
6. Who the hell is this guy? Now I like David Thewlis as much as the next Harry Potter fangirl, but seriously man, what are you even doing here? Thewlis plays the part of The Rival that leads Albert’s dad to purchase Joey. He also makes a bet he can’t turn him into a farmhorse in a week. That is his only actual involvement. Not according to Spielberg. Thewlis is now somehow Mr Knowledge. He is Mr Money. He makes housecalls to struggling farmers to take away their money, and suddenly is a fountain of wisdom and random facts that we actually don’t give a damn about because the film is called War Horse. Not Man in a Tweed Jacket. Word of advice? Go back to Hogwarts, Thewlis. I liked you better as a werewolf.
7. All the country folk sound like Samwise Gamgee had a lovechild with every Fable character ever.
8. A goose. Yes, there is a goose which thus far has made four appearances in the film. That’s an average of once every ten minutes. Michael, I am sorry. It would appear this (failed) humour-inducing, personality-deficient goose is the replacement for your beloved Zoey. It’s okay, Michael, some of us still remember her.
9. The music. I understand that when in the country, it’s nice to have a bit of fitting music. John Williams, I am sorry to have to say this, but you took it too far. We can see they’re in the countryside. We didn’t need the stereotypical country bumpkin tunes to remind us. Sadly, John Williams never managed to pull it back. I’ve never been so disappointed in you, man.
10. Captain Nicholls contemplates death. The Captain Nicholls that I know and love was a true hero. A strong, courageous man. He held no fear in his heart, only bravery. He was young, yes, but he showed no fear of death. While this is not a significant change as all soldiers must get scared, Captain Nicholls made a point to never let it show. This is a character trait that Morpurgo makes abundantly clear during his time in the novel. In the film however, he lets his weakness show. ENTER THE WAR FLAG. He uses the war flag for courage. As the Captain, the men should be able to look up to him. The readers should be able to look up to him. He is the epitome of bravery, and in appealing to the viewers’ emotions, Spielberg defiles his character.
11. Sie Germans sprechen sie English. Okay, so it’s an English film, directed at an English audience, with mostly English actors. But still, I doubt every German soldier in the war could speak perfect, albeit mildly accented, English. Yes, it was written in English in the book, but Morpurgo wasn’t exactly going to put a translation under every sentence, was he? If you have to use subtitles, do it. Most people won’t mind if it’s historically accurate. The Germans would have spoken German in 1914, so make them speak German when representing that. So what if we have to read a little? Some of us read Morpurgo’s War Horse and that didn’t harm us. Oh wait, this is War Horse? Oh, I hadn’t noticed. My bad, Spielberg … or I suppose, technically your bad.
12. Trooper Warren is missing, and so is a massive chunk of plot. Morpurgo’s novel is not a long one. My copy in fact has a mere 182 of them. Hardly a long novel by some standards. And yet Spielberg still managed to skip over the recovery of Joey after the first failed ambush – in which Captain Nicholls dies (Tom Hiddleston’s sad eyes being the only convincing moment of it) – and in turn, an entire section where Trooper Warren is introduced to Joey and becomes his new rider. Instead of establishing this connection and keeping the second ambush – where they run into barbed wire and are forced into German territory – the first ambush takes us straight to using Topthorn and Joey to pull the guns. This does not happen until Chapter 12. After they are used to pull the ambulances, and not at the same time as the film suggests, and after they spend a year or so as farmhorses for little Emilie and her grandfather. The thought of them pulling guns does not even come up until this point in the novel.
12. There are suddenly two brothers handling the horses whilst under German possession. This is not a major thing, just an unnecessary change from the original story. The handler of the horses is meant to be the older gent with the limp and the bad eye, He’s nowhere to be seen, and instead we have two young, barely German, Germans. We hear them talking about life at home. How his father signed him up even though he was only 14, and how his mother taught them how to fold a shirt. It bears no importance on the story whatsoever. As I said at the start, a good adaptation doesn’t make pointless alterations. ENTER THE WAR FLAG. The older brother, who stole it from Joey earlier in the film (thieving fuck) gives it to the younger when he is sent out to the frontline. Again, an unimportant, unrelated gesture. And then the older brother makes a mad dash on Topthorn to the marching Germans, swoops his brother onto Joey’s back, and gallops off into the distance. Then they get found. And murdered. Are you sure you read the same book I did, Spielberg? Because I’m confused. Why are you trying to make us care about these people? That’s easily 20 minutes of my life I’ll never get back. I don’t even know who they are. I’m not sure I even remember who I am anymore.
13. The French Emilie and her Granpapa are .. wait, they’re English too? Can none of the foreign people in this film speak their native language? Emilie spouts off random facts that do nothing for the film, and tried to teach Joey how to showjump. Oh, and she names the horses Francios and Claude. Stereotypical French names. Then the Germans come for the horses. ENTER THE WAR FLAG – Grandpapa stashes it in his pocket to “hide the evidence”. I would like to make it crystal clear that these did not happen in the novel. Michael, I deeply apologise.
14. Albert ends up on the frontline. He should never have been on the frontline. We do not see him until the final few chapters of the book. He was employed in the role of a vet. He looked after the injures horses brought to the recovery stables. He was never a part of the main battle. Personally I believe this goes against everything Morpurgo created in his character. Albert was never a fighter. He loved horses. He was kind and gentle. He only volunteered to go to war so he could stay with Joey but as he was denied entry he joins later in a veterinary role. Furthermore, the book is told from Joey’s perspective. We do not find out Albert has joined up until the end of the novel when he is brought, injured, to the area where Albert is working. How do we know what he was up to at this point? And why is it even important? The point is, Albert survived, Joey survived, and they met each other at the end. Spielberg has essentially destroyed and rewritten Albert’s character, and in doing so, only served to move further away from the original story. Let us not forget, this is not War Soldier, this is War Horse.
15. No fuss over Topthorn’s death. Quite a big deal was made about this in the novel. Joey’s best friend, mentor, fellow soldier dies and Joey stays with him all night whilst he is sick, and again when he passes. He flees in terror, but the image if Topthorn’s body next to the much loved Friederich was so emotionally stirring that his reaction is acceptable. He has to choose between life or death and so must leave him behind. I cried like a little bitch when I read this. Spielberg chooses not to dwell on it. This upsets me. Not only has a dearly loved character died, but it has once again detracted from Joey’s character. By not letting him stay with him as in the book, the bond is not shown. We are not able to see his loyalty. Spielberg did not stay true to the characters.
16. There was no way the barbed wire scene was meant to be that horrific. In the book, Joey catches his foot and ends up with a bad limp. I’ve just come across the equivalent scene in the film. My blood is actually curdling watching this barbarism. Headfirst through two sets of barbed wire, it wraps around his body, and then on impact with the third his entire body somersaults. He is then entangles in three layers of barbed wire and his whole body is covered. Morpurgo never wrote this scene to be so visually repulsive. Yes, war is terrifying, bloody, and grotesque. But it’s one thing to see a man shot down as has happened in countless films, and will continue to happen. It’s another to see an animal hurt. We may not admit it but it’s so much more horrifying to us as humans to see animals get hurt. Maybe this wasn’t Morpurgo’s intention, but it’s how I interpret it. Joey, the hero of the piece, was never meant to suffer such violence. There’s just something nauseatingly wrong about watching Spielberg’s adaptation of this scene.
17. The incredibly cheesy *facepalm* moment in which the title of the film is said in the film. I had to force myself not to punch myself in the neck as soon as he said it. Well, I suppose at least one guy read the script.
I must apologise as this next section has bundled up as one big paragraph and I can’t work out how to separate it again. My bad.
18. The wrong man fights for Joey to be saved. While I don’t deny I love that he fought Joey’s case, it was not his place. The man who wins Joey in no man’s land was supposed to send Joey to the veterinary station where Albert worked. Instead, Spielberg temporarily blinded Albert from a gas attack (you prick) and sent the winner of the no man’s land barter to plead his case. The entire point of this scene is that Albert finally finds his beloved Joey and begs for the head vet to save his life. Good Ol’ Bertie was finally reunited with his best friend, and worked his arse off to make sure he came out the other side alive. I love you man, but it shouldn’t have been you.19. No David. This makes me sad. Albert’s best friend at the veterinary station, David, was the one that gave the happy news to Albert that it was, in fact, Joey. I grew to love him in the short time he was in my life. Morpurgo was fantastic at that: making you react to a character (love, hate etc) even if they were only around for a chapter or two. Some I loathed, some I adored. David was one of the nicest men in the novel. He died a few days before the war ended. I was heartbroken at his death, and so was Albert. It was his bond with Joey that got him through. I loved this idea, as it showed once again what a magnificent creature he was. So much depth of character and not a single word spoken aloud to anyone, and yet Spielberg glosses over it like it’s nothing.
19. ENTER THE WAR FLAG … of lies! It was not your father’s. It was never a part of the army. Because it never. ever. even. existed.20. Corny-silhouetted-in-the-setting-sun-homecoming-with-lead-character-staring-wistfully-into-the-distance-scene. Does what it says on the proverbial tin. Oh, and in case we’d forgotten about it, ENTER THE WAR FLAG.
Things Spielberg got right:
1. Joey and Topthorn. As the main character you would hope Joey was the most endearing, charming, loveable character. And indeed, the horse chosen to act the part of Joey is quite magnificent. He is the only convincing character aside from Topthorn and Captain Nicholls. The relationship between Joey and Topthorn in the book is important. Topthorn becomes the best friend/older brother/role model for Joey, and this is represented well in my opinion. Perhaps because there is no spoken communication between them in the book, and also none in the film, this translation works better than characters with a speaking role. Joey always looks so proud. This is one of the only things the film got right. At least they stayed true to some of the characters.
2. Tom Hiddleston. Because you can never go wrong with Tom Hiddleston.
3. The irony:
Englishman to German: “You speak good English”. German to Englishman: “I speak English well”.
This is directed at the only German in the entire book who Morpurgo intentionally gives the gift of the English language to: the German half of the treaty to barter over Joey. After the horrendous scene as described above, this scene has had to be adapted too. It is no longer a simple choice of who gets the horse. It’s about saving Joey’s life from the thousand of poisonous barbs on him. This in itself is enough to make me slap myself in the face and sigh. But I have to admit, the irony of the above conversation was almost worth it. Almost. Well, not really, but it made me smile for a second. The German’s shouldn’t be able to speak English, and if done properly, they should all have been speaking German with subtitles. The only English speaking German should have been this man. The irony of “You speak good English” was hilarious. It’s a shame that I doubt it was intentional.
In summary then, and I know this has been a long journey, so I shall try and keep it brief. I hope you can stay with me a little longer.
Appearances of the WAR FLAG during my complaining (because unfortunately it shows up at times I didn’t mention too) : 6
Number of times I wept for Spielberg: 17
Number of times I plan to watch this film from now on: 0
Spielberg digressed hugely from several key plot moments, omitted existing characters with no flaws in place of his own, the point of which I’m still unsure of even having now finished watching it. Characters were almost always stereotypical, badly acted, badly portrayed and unrelatable. Michael Morpurgo managed to make me fall in love with every single nice character and want to violently murder every bad one, even if they only appeared on a single page. The entire film was not enough for me to really get behind anyone. I agree, the portrayal of Joey and Topthorn were the best in the film, but the constant diversions, alterations and downright ignorance made even this hard to enjoy.
So, on behalf of readers everywhere, Michael Morpurgo, I am sorry. War Horse was a true masterpiece and it was not done justice. Not even close. Spielberg, I think maybe it’s time for you to retire. A book of such absolute quality as this deserves better.
P.s. I started this post at 11.30pm. It is now 5:22am. The things I do for you, eh?
Love to write creatively?
Want to earn money for it? Or want to get published?
Then come on down!
No, seriously. My university is amazing and have recently handed out a bunch of links to websites looking for creative writers. Some have deadlines, some don’t. Some have cash prizes, some have publication prizes. Some have entry fees, some do not.
Project Spotlight #3 is to draw attention to, and celebrate, creative writing opportunities. In particular, the ones open now. Now me, I love a good creative writing competition. I have had a number of poetry submitted and received for publication, and while perhaps only small time, at least it’s some time. I don’t mean to brag – who am I kidding? I totally mean to brag – but I’ve had the following poetry published:
‘The Dream’ into PoP, aged 12.
‘Traveling Tide’ into somewhere I can’t remember the name of, aged probably 13.
‘Claustrophobia’ into somewhere else I can’t remember the name of, aged 16.
‘Vampire Me’ into Young Writers, aged 18 (only just made it before I was to old to enter).
I’m rather proud of my achievements, even if I have a memory like a sieve that’s let out the names of some of the places I entered. Although, I would be lying if I said I remember all of the poems I wrote. I had only one copy of ‘Traveling Tide’ that I gave to my teacher to look at. She liked it and so sent it off for me. I never saw it again. I know it was good for a thirteen year old, but I wouldn’t know. I can vaguely remember something along the lines of standing on the shore watching the boat leave with everyone but me, feeling all alone because they’d left me for better things, but turning around and seeing others like me standing on the beach, and we turned and walked away together. In theory it was probably cool, but I don’t remember the words.
Anyhow! Here are the links to the competitions. Check them out if you want to have a look. I assume they are all open to anyone, however I must say I haven’t looked too closely at them all. Have a look, and hopefully you’ll find something interesting.
Short Fiction Story Prize – Deadline of January 1st – March 31st.
Writing for Radio – Opening Lines – Deadline of January 6th – February 14th
Dead Ink – Call for Reviewers – Deadline of February 1st
Personally, I’m thinking I might enter the Short Fiction and Modern Dreams competitions. I’m no good at reviews and wouldn’t be any cop at radio. I have a few short stories up my sleeve, and for £10 you can enter two stories and get a free issue. Modern Dreams may be a challenge, but I like creative challenges. It’s a novella with specific guidelines – apologies to anyone not in Britain as, though I believe you can enter from anywhere, it must be set in inner-city Britain.
Good luck, and have fun.
Write on, folks.