Sunday, 27 July 2014

Do Androids Dream of Accurate Scripts? (Part 2)

I posted recently about a radio adaptation of  Philip K. Dick's sf classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book which provided the basis of the film Blade Runner. The great thing about the radio play is that it finally motivated me to read the original novel. And I was seriously impressed.

I have a confession to make. I'd always regarded Dick as a second rate writer. Or rather (quick, before I receive hundreds of enraged comments) a second rate stylist. I thought he had great ideas but his prose was crude and clumsy. This impression was largely based on reading his book Galactic Pot Healer, back when I was at university and living in sin in a damp freezing flat in Clapton with Linda Simpson (Hi Linda!) who was a big fan of that novel, and of Philip K. Dick in general. Well, Linda was right and I was wrong. Galactic Pot Healer may or may not be a dud (I must re-read it). But Dick is the real McCoy.

True, there are some clumsy moments in his prose, even in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Instead of saying his characters disembarked from an elevator, he says they "disemelevatored"(!)... But there are also moments of considerable beauty. 

Here is a description of what it was like before an apocalyptic war denuded the world of animals (the owls were the first to go, hence the emphasis on owls in the movie and on the book covers): "the entire peninsula had chattered like a bird tree with life." 

Or when bounty hunter Rick Deckard is performing the Voigt-Kampff test on Rachael and discovers she's an android. The billionaire Eldon Rosen (Tyrell in the movie) who manufactured her, and expected her to pass as human, "regarded him with writhing worry." The book is often startlingly well written, and peppered with odd and intriguing observations. In a discussion about what it really means to be alive, ants are referred to as "chitinous reflex-machines". 

The novel is surprisingly witty, too. The Voigt-Kampff test involves questions designed to provoke an emotional reaction, and in a world where animals have almost disappeared and are sought after and priceless, these questions often focus on cruel and inhumane treatment of animals. 

It's a sign of Dick's prescience, and his compassion, that these are things we callously take for granted today, or at least did when the book was published in 1968: calf skin wallets, bullfights, killing jars for butterflies, deer heads mounted on a wall, lobsters dropped in boiling water, bearskin rugs. When Rachael is about to go to bed with Deckard, she declares her love for him by parodying the test questions, "If I entered a room and found a sofa covered with your hide, I'd score very high on the Voigt-Kampff test."
Voigt-Kampff is a great name and it survived intact into the film, as did the test questions. Dick had a knack for names, great, unusual, ludicrous, hilarious. We have a Milt Borogrove (a common mis-spelling of "Borogove") in this book. But what is really characteristic of Dick is the unsettling sense of reality about to give way under the reader like a tattered spider web. Here it arises in the uncertainty of who is an android and who isn't. In a spectacular scene, not replicated in the movie, Deckard is arrested and taken to an entire parallel San Francisco police department who have never heard of him or his branch of the police.
This is deeply disturbing stuff. Suddenly you don't know whether Deckard is the android passing itself off as human. And here Dick is at his best. Deckard is interrogated by a police officer called Garland. As they square off we're no longer sure which one is a real person. An uncertainty which even infiltrates the prose. As Dick puts it "Neither man — or rather neither he nor Garland — spoke for a time." 

It's impressive how Dick zeroes in unerringly on the most interesting aspect of his material — what it means to be human. There are weaknesses to the book, though. The whole religious element, concerning a cult called Mercerism, is something which I could have done without. Especially when the prophet Mercer pops up out of nowhere to arbitrarily help Deckard in the climactic final shoot out. Very sensibly, this aspect was entirely dropped from the movie.
Nevertheless, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is a striking, profound and often slyly well-written novel. If you are only familiar with the film it is very much worth checking out the original.

(Image credits: All are from good ol' Good Reads where I was spoiled for choice. There are more editions of this book — with more good covers — than any other title I have researched. Look at that great Greek one!)

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Edge of Tomorrow by Christopher McQuarrie and the Butterworths

What a fantastic movie. I was expecting just another sf-action summer blockbuster, but it really is outstanding. It's a substantial hit, too, so by the time you read this it will still be hanging on in cinemas. Or, at worst, it will be available on DVD, Blu-ray or for download. Well worth seeing on the big screen, though.

As you may have heard, it's a kind of hybrid of Aliens and Groundhog Day, but that doesn't begin to convey what a splendid experience it is. It's an expert piece of work by the director Doug Liman, who did the first Jason Bourne thriller The Bourne Identity, and Jumper — not a film about knitwear, but instead another inventive science fiction thriller.

The script is credited to three writers.  Christopher McQuarrie previously won an Oscar for his screenplay The Usual Suspects  and wrote and directed the excellent Jack Reacher and worked on the script of Jack the Giant Slayer.

Jez Butterworth is a distinguished stage writer who wrote the stage plays Mojo and Jerusalem and previously worked with Liman on the thriller Fair Game in collaboration with his brother John-Henry Butterworth, who is the third credited writer on the script.

It's based on All You Need is Kill, an amusingly titled Japanese novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka which was later adapted into a manga (a Japanese comic book).

It's a beautifully written, engrossing film and the time-loop structure allows for some very interesting character development. Most refreshingly, Tom Cruise does not begin the movie as a square jawed hero with nerves of steel. Instead he's a kind of craven, draft-dodging PR man. Only through the iterations of the story does he transform, very gratifyingly, into a square jawed hero with nerves of steel. Indeed Cruise is great in the film. He has never been better.

And Emily Blunt is just wonderful (be still my heart) and adds tremendous emotional depth to the story. Only an utterly ungallant and churlish fellow would point out that it's not her doing that difficult yoga posture in the long shot.

Blunt and Cruise are really only the tip of the iceberg in terms of acting talent on display here. Brendan Gleeson is first rate as the sceptical commanding general, the ever dependable Ben Mendelsohn (so superb in Killing Them Softly and Starred Up) is once again on fine form. 

But special mention has to be made of Bill Paxton as a deep fried Southern master sergeant ("You're American!" exclaims Cruise, delighted to find a compatriot. "No suh!" sax Paxton. "I'm from Kentucky.")

The time loop structure also allows (as in Groundhog Day) for much comedy. Wait for the beautifully choreographed sequence in which Cruise and Blunt infiltrate the military headquarters.

There is great use of London locations. And I had the oddly moving experience of watching the film — which hinges on a bloody beach head invasion of the European mainland — on the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

 Writing this makes me want to see it again. Where's my local movie listings?...

A delightful, terrifically exciting, deeply moving movie. Watch. Enjoy. Repeat.

(Image credits: rather surprisingly thin pickings at the usually reliable Ace Show Biz for this major movie.)

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Do Androids Dream of Accurate Scripts?

Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep was, of course, the basis of the film Blade Runner. It was also recently adapted, in two parts, by Jonathan Holloway for BBC Radio 4 as part of their Dangerous Visions project, a season of science fiction audio dramas. Dangerous Visions is a prestigious and highly enjoyable enterprise, but I can't quite overcome my irritation that they've stolen their great and evocative title from Harlan Ellison's milestone series of science fiction prose anthologies without so much as a nod in Ellison's direction.

The radio adaptation of Dick's novel was immensely intriguing. It resembled Blade Runner, but was also radically different. The effect was so fascinating that it prompted me, after all these years, to dig out my copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep and read it.

Now that I've read the book I realise that Jonathan Holloway's energetic and inventive radio version departs considerably from Dick's text. For example, in the radio play Rachael is a tragic loss to Deckard. In the book she gets his goat — literally. Holloway's dramatisation also fixes some structural weaknesses: in the book Roy Batty turns up way too late.

In fact, the radio adaptation is almost as different from Dick's original concept as the movie was. Indeed, continuing the 'Dangerous Visions' tradition of, ahem, borrowing material without full acknowledgement, the radio play is based not just on the book but also on the screenplay of Blade Runner by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples.

For example, the whole film-noir private eye Chandleresque gumshoe approach which informs the radio adaptation originated in Blade Runner, and is completely absent from the novel. In keeping with this, Luba is changed from Dick's opera singer to a night club torch singer in the radio play. (The equivalent character in the movie is an exotic dancer.) I can quite understand why this was done, given how profoundly Blade Runner overshadows Dick's book in the public imagination. 

Still, there was no credit given to the film writers in the radio version, nor presumably any money paid to them for the use of their concepts...  a dangerous, if not visionary, course of action given how litigious Hollywood film companies can be.

Nonetheless, Holloway's radio version is a notable piece of work and well worth catching if you get the chance, and I'm grateful to it for getting me to finally read Dick's classic novel which I'll be writing about — if all goes according to plan — in my next post.

(Image credits: The photos of the actors in the radio adaptation, Jessica Raine and James Purefoy, are from the BBC Radio 4 web page. The movie poster is from Geeky Nerf Herder.)

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Come to Grief by Dick Francis

By now I've read quite a few thrillers by Dick Francis, but this outstanding novel is by far the best of them. It had the remarkable quality that I both couldn't put it down and was afraid to pick it up.

It concerns hideous mutilation of young horses by a psychopath, which accounts for my perpetual trepidation about reading the next page. But of course I was utterly swept up in Dick Francis's account of his hero trying to stop this nutcase.

One of the brilliant things about this book is that it is not a whodunnit. Reversing the procedure of most of his other novels, Francis tells us who the guilty party is on virtually the first page. 

This is a stroke of genius, and it in no way diminishes the suspense of the tale, because our hero has to battle to make himself believed. The villain is a well known and beloved public figure, so it's an uphill battle and the good guy is vilified and attacked (both figuratively and literally) for exposing the truth.

The hero in question is Sid Halley, the one-handed former jockey turned detective who also figured to splendid effect in Whip Hand. In Come to Grief he sadly no longer has the services of his likable sidekick Chico Barnes, a resourceful fellow with useful judo skills. Indeed, Chico was so savagely beaten in Whip Hand that he's now retired from private detection.
Instead Dick Francis cleverly introduces a new helper for Sid, and a very unlikely one at that. It's in the dialogue of this teenager that we find the only false note in the book: "He's Establishment, man."

A very minor quibble though, concerning a book which is a masterpiece. It is also extraordinarily dark  — and startlingly complex. 

Even at the end, after all the suffering which has been inflicted on him, Sid can't bring himself to hate the villain. Indeed he still feels some affection for this monster, a fellow jockey and former friend of his.

Quite unforgettable.

(Image credits: The blue glove image, which is the edition I read, features a cover photo by Leslie Howling and is taken from the website of Jan-Willem Hubbers, photographer and fellow Francis devotee. The others are all from Good Reads including the main picture which is the only one which has any real relevance to the plot of the book.)

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Bloodline by Felix Francis

I'm generally opposed to writers who make a career out of exploiting the name of more famous writers (and famous writers who get unknown authors to pen their books for them — James Patterson, stand up please). 

But when a nice lady called Judi Heath mistakenly bought a Felix Francis novel thinking it was one by his father, Dick Francis (Dick's name is huge and prominent on the cover, Felix's less so) and she offered it to me to read when she was finished — I resolved to keep an open mind about the son following in his famed father's footsteps.

My first reaction was pleased surprise. I had low expectations, but it turns out Felix is a skilled writer. The horse racing background (in this case, the television presenting side) is thoroughly researched and well evoked. Not surprising when you learn that Felix used to help his dad with the research for his novels. And I was soon involved in the story. I was actually looking forward to picking up the book and finding out what happened next.

Felix Francis has some weaknesses in comparison to his father. Felix's dialogue is a bit awkward: "I hear through the press's grapevine that he'd found out about your affair." I don't think people really speak like that. And all the talk of presses and grapevines makes me think of winemaking.

Also, he suffers from what I call the hesitation syndrome (Peter James, another hugely successful crime writer also manifests this). It's a maddening tendency not to just state something explicitly, but to hedge it around with qualifications. Hence Felix writes "I could almost feel the injection of adrenaline into my bloodstream that the countdown to the start had produced." Why not have the guy feel it instead of almost feeling it? Elsewhere he describes the music at party being turned up, "making further conversation difficult if not impossible." Why not just make it impossible? You get the picture. It bugs me.

On the other hand, Felix Francis provides an enjoyably high standard of malevolent mayhem. There is some truly shocking violence. He also generates terrific suspense and provides some first rate surprises. These are all hallmarks of his father's writing, and indicate that Felix has studied the form carefully and done an admirable job putting the lessons into practise. 

The sequence which would have really made his dad proud is the bit where our hero leaves a party, gets into his car and is about to drive off when a shadowy assailant lunges from the back seat and proceeds to garrote him. He only manages to save his life by starting the car and crashing it. But the best bit comes when the police turn up and, instead of being concerned about the assault, assume our hero is drunk and set about trying to charge him.

This is the sort of set piece which Dick Francis did so well (see the aftermath of the knife attack in Banker). It really revs up a reader's emotions — those goddamn cops! — and the ability to stir us up like that is the sign of a masterful writer. Felix Francis has learned his craft scrupulously and applies it skilfully. His stuff is highly readable and I'd happily devour another of his novels.

What is missing from his work only becomes evident when you pick up another book by his dad. There is an element of poetry — of vividness and beauty in the writing — and depth and subtlety in the characters and dialogue which Dick Francis has and which Felix (so far, I've only read this one book) doesn't have.

When you consider all the excellent things Felix Francis can do — and then realise that his father could do all that and more — you begin to see just how special Dick Francis was, and what a loss he is.

(Image credits: All the covers are from Good Reads, except the green audio book which is from Down Pour. I particularly like the elegant one at the top, by the very talented artist and designer Ben Perini. This is the edition I read. Thanks, Judi.)

Sunday, 22 June 2014

One Fat Amis Man

Continuing my pleasurable project of reading all of Kingsley Amis's fiction, in more or less chronological order, we now arrive at his fifth novel One Fat Englishman (1963). Amis's development as a writer is really quite impressive. The book is stylistically strikingly different from its predecessors, as if Amis was constantly experimenting with technique and setting challenges for himself. It's also very well crafted and confidently written.

It begins with nearly two solid pages of dialogue, with no exposition or scene setting. This reads almost like the work of George V. Higgins or Elmore Leonard (two American crime novelists who wouldn't be writing like this for another decade). So we are plunged straight into the world of Roger Micheldene, the eponymous obese Brit, an obnoxious publishing executive visiting America — the book draws heavily on Amis's experience of teaching in Princeton a year or two earlier.

And obnoxious is the word. Roger is a drunk and a rage-addict. He is a snob and a connoisseur of snuff and cigars. Although he is in America (a country he hates) on business, his primary objective is pursuing another man's wife, with whom he is deeply infatuated. Oddly, Roger is religious, saying his prayers at night, a first for an Amis hero. Perhaps this is a nod to Graham Greene (or 'Grim Grin' as Amis called him). 

Roger is also unusual in the Amis canon in that he is utterly upper class — such types are often beautifully evoked in Amis, but up to now have always been at the periphery of the novels, never the central figure. Similarly, never before has such an entirely negative and offensive person occupied centre stage. In Take a Girl Like You, Jenny stops Patrick from throwing gravel at some chickens. In One Fat Englishman nobody stops Roger from taking a child's toy robot and throwing it away, deep into the woods. And in Take a Girl Like You Patrick wasn't always like that, nor was he the only character the novel focused on. But Roger is always like that, and he is always the character we're stuck with here. 
Indeed, Roger is such a rebarbative and repellent figure that the book is virtually dead in the water from the word go. We are effectively stuck inside Roger's head, and in his world view, and since he is so thoroughly unsympathetic — and moving through a realm of characters who are equally unappealing — the novel isn't exactly a cheerful experience.

But, as you'd expect in Amis, there are moments of brilliant observation and comedy. A shirt is described as having "a pattern reminiscent of cushion-covers in typists' flats." (I suppose the day isn't too distant when no one will no what the hell a typist was.) When the girl he lusts after dons a bikini and goes swimming, "Roger sat watching like a sniper waiting for a clear shot at a general." And Roger's opinion of satire is compared to his feelings about "mentholated snuff or an African politician." 

There are also a lot of moments which present a very dark view of humanity. After describing a hideously bratty child, Roger ruminates "It was no wonder that people were so horrible when they started life as children".

Amis generally writes his American dialogue very well, but occasionally comes a cropper. I doubt if any American when telling time says "a quarter of" the hour (as opposed to "a quarter to") or used the word "shan't", or uttered the phrase "I should say not," in 1963 or any other year. 

One Fat Englishman calls to mind another portrait of America by a foreign writer who was a novelist of genius — Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. It is reminiscent of Lolita in the darkly comic, acid outsider's perspective it has on the Cold War USA and its ways. And also, quite strongly, in the scene where the hero's beloved runs off with the villain of the novel. Amis would not have appreciated this comparison. He detested Nabokov in general and Lolita in particular. His son, Martin, on the other hand loves Nabokov. So perhaps it's no surprise that of all his father's novels, this is the one which seems to have had the most emphatic influence on Martin. Indeed, perhaps to the extent that he's never got over it.

One Fat Englishman is written in an unusual and striking style: sharp edged, angular, cartoonish, with a heightened sense of reality (or unreality). It would provoke a furious and venomous outburst from Roger to say this, but it is very American, resembling the work of, say, Terry Southern or John Barth from the same period. Come to think of it, it's also a work of satire. 

Pass the mentholated snuff.

(Image credits: The Penguin first edition with the great hairy-belly and Union Jack snuff box cover — design by Freire Wright, photography by Karl Ferris — later a great psychedelic photographer of rock stars) is actually the copy I read, bought from eBay. The rest are from Good Reads. Except the American hardcover which is from ABE.)

Sunday, 15 June 2014

An Amazing Spider Dud

I'd reached the point where my praise of Marvel comic book movies had become so all pervading and almost automatic (see recent examples here and here) that it's a considerable relief to report that one is a real stinker.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a complete dud. And in discussing it I shall be revealing some plot twists so you may want to look away now. 

There have always been some built in problems with Spider Man movies. For a start — unlike Batman, say — Spidey's adversaries are some of the worst and weakest super villains imaginable.

This film begins with our hero battling a stupid blue electric guy (Jamie Foxx wasted in a thankless role) and ends with him confronting a big stupid rhino guy. Other crappy Spider Man villains include Doctor Octopus and the vulture guy. Even the goblin guy is a bit dull.

Yet none of this has prevented some fine earlier films. Indeed, the first Amazing Spider-Man was well made, impressive and great fun. So why is this sequel, still starring the excellent Andrew Garfield, such a comprehensive failure?

Well, it's the script I'm afraid. It gives me no joy to say this because two of the writers involved, Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci are among my favourite writing partnerships while James Vanderbilt wrote the superb White House Down. (The fourth name on the screenplay credits is Jeff Pinkner who was, like Kurtzman and Orci, involved in the TV shows Alias and Fringe.) 

But this movie is a mess. And boring. A whole bunch of big noisy stuff happens but the audience (or at least this audience member) remained completely uninvolved. There was nothing to invoke sympathy or interest. It was a long dull slog. The only brief flickers of relief were the scenes about Peter Parker and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). They are an appealing, engaging couple with great chemistry.

So when Gwen is perfunctorily bumped off at the end of this film, the only possible source of interest is cut off. Oh well, now we need never watch one of these abjectly apathetic arachnid adventures again.

(Image credits: Not surprisingly, no shortage of pics available for this mainstream multiplex blockbuster. All courtesy of Ace Show Biz.)