Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction for that year and has since been adapted into a widely-panned film by Ang Lee, although part of the critical response is because Lee used a super-high frame rate that apparently is quite distracting. That’s a real shame given how strong the story and dialogue are in Fountain’s novel, which all takes place on one day and deftly blends elements of satire, indignation, and hope.

Billy Lynn is part of an Iraqi platoon, Bravo company, involved in a firefight that was caught on video and has turned the group into American heroes, feted across the country, attached to a Hollywood agent trying to strike them a lucrative movie deal, and, on this day, an appearance at the halftime show on Thanksgiving at a Dallas Cowboys game. There are flashbacks to events from before the day on which the book takes place, but the bulk of it follows the boys around the stadium, into luxury suites, meetings with the team’s owner (not Jerry Jones … but okay, that’s pretty much Jerry Jones), a fortuitous meeting with the cheerleaders, odd encounters with fans, and a tussle or two with overzealous security guards. There really isn’t any football to speak of in the book – the Cowboys get destroyed, and fans get drunk – and the halftime show is just one scene in the entire story, which is far more about the kind of reception Bravo gets, especially in the heart of rah-rah ‘Merica, compared to the nature of their experiences and the signs of PTSD throughout the unit.

Fountain accomplishes a ton in this relatively short, quick-moving book. He crafts a number of interesting, clearly distinct characters among the soldiers, most of whom appear to be damaged to some degree from the ordeal – one dead, one severely injured, with numerous insurgents killed – and coping or not coping in different ways. Billy Lynn, just 19 and forced to grow up in a big hurry after joining the army to avoid jail after he destroyed his sister’s ex-boyfriend’s car, gets the most thorough treatment, since we get to spend time in his head and face his confusion over various moral questions, not least among them whether to finish his tour of duty or desert and become a symbol for the war’s opposition. But despite the relative lack of page time for most of Billy’s platoon-mates, Fountain manages to infuse each of them with enough unique attributes to make them distinct and memorable on their own, notably Sergeant Dime, Bravo Company’s leader.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk also creates a stark contrast between the reality of warfare and the perception of it back home – especially when the war is half a world away, against not a nation-state but groups of terrorists who don’t look, sound, or worship like us. Bravo Company’s actions are celebrated, and Fountain makes most of the Texans the soldiers meet come off as jingoistic and wholly naive about the state of the soldiers. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll even beyond the deaths and physical injuries; multiple government agencies have said at least 20% of Iraqi war veterans have come back with post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of Bravo Company are worse off than others, reflected in their actions and levels of substance abuse, but Billy Lynn in particular finds a real disconnect between their mental states and the way the locals, right up to the Cowboys’ (possibly sociopathic) owner, treat them as conquering heroes who did what they did because they just love their country so damned much.

If there’s a weak spot here, it’s the cheerleader subplot, although I suspect Fountain included it to provide a single thread of light in what is ultimately a dark comedy – funny, yes, but a very unflattering look at how we wage war today and treat returning veterans. Fountain brings up masturbation way too often, and then works it into Billy’s lust-at-first-sight dalliance with a cheerleader named Faison, a relationship that starts crude but ends up feeling like a desperate teenage love story. The contrast helps lighten the book, but there’s also a sentimental aspect to this thread that doesn’t fit the novel’s overall tone … but it did allow Fountain to introduce the only female character of any substance at all in the book, which probably didn’t hurt when it came to selling the film rights either.

The movie version was filmed at 120 frames per second, five times the normal frame rate for a movie, which even positive reviews have criticized for distracting from the plot and dialogue; that’s enough reason for me to skip it, as I’d say 90% of the time I see a book and associated film, I prefer the book anyway. In this case, I wonder if a film version could really capture the characterization Fountain has created in the novel, given how movies tend to eliminate or merge characters, and filmed versions of dialogue-heavy novels have to cut substantial amounts of the chatter to fit everything into two hours. But I can’t imagine choosing to make a movie about an important idea – that contrast between the reality of war for those in it, and the way those of us over here tend to sanitize or glamorize it – in an experimental way that detracts from the story’s core message. And none of the reviewers I trust has given me any reason to go see it.

Next up: I’ve been reading at a torrid pace since Christmas, finishing four books in the last seven days, including John Banville’s chilling novel (and Booker Prize finalist) The Book of Evidence, written as the confession of a sociopathic murderer, and Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner’s Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. I’ve just started Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, the sixth Lord Peter Wimsey mystery and the fourth I’ve read.

Love and Friendship.

My latest Insider post discusses why September prospect callups are a thing of the past.

If it’s possible for a Jane Austen work to be unknown, her novella Lady Susan likely qualifies. Written before her six completed novels but unpublished until fifty years after her death, the shortepistolary work tells the story of the widowed Susan’s attempts to marry off her daughter to a wealthy, amiable dunce, as well as her own juggling of affairs with two men, one the married Lord Mainwaring, one her sister-in-law’s brother Reginald de Courcy. As in most of Austen’s works, Lady Susan is full of dry wit, and the pressing need for women of that era to marry well for their own financial security is a major plot point.

American director Whit Stillman adapted the work for the 2016 film Love & Friendship (amazoniTunes), which peculiarly takes its name from an entirely separate work written by Austen as a teenager (with the title misspelled as “Love & Freindship”) and stars Kate Beckinsale as the conniving seductress of the novella’s title. Stillman’s direction is heavyhanded at times, but the dialogue is sharp and sparkling, while the key performances, especially Beckinsale’s, absolutely carry the film.

As the movie opens, Lady Susan is seen leaving the Mainwarings’ estate, having been thrown out by Lady Mainwaring – who is in hysterics every time she’s on screen – and arrives at Churchill, the estate of her late husband’s sister and her family, having nowhere else to go. Shortly after her arrival, she begins her temptation of Reginald, the young, handsome brother of Lady Vernon, an eligible bachelor who is intelligent but naive and quickly succumbs to the beautiful and more worldly Lady Susan’s efforts. The plot thickens when Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, arrives, trailed by the amiable dunce Sir James Martin, who has £10,000 a year and is as dumb as a sack of hair (although one of the script’s greatest strengths is making comedy gold of Sir James’ stupidity). Frederica wants no part of Sir James, while Lady Susan, who cares little for her daughter except as a means to a lucrative end, tries to put her maternal foot down, a move that eventually causes a conflict between her and her late husband’s entire family.

Austen’s plots are all straightforward, but she never crafted another central character as venal as Lady Susan, whom Beckinsale plays to the hilt as by turns coquettish and condescending. Beckinsale, now 43, fits Austen’s description of Lady Susan (“from her appearance one would not suppose her more than five and twenty, though she must in fact be ten years older”) quite well, but given her history of playing one-dimensional characters in mass-market action films, her acting prowess here came as a pleasant surprise; her performance drips with disdain for just about everyone around her, except her American friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny), who appears to live vicariously through her avaricious friend. (The character’s nationality is unspecified in Austen’s novella, and Sevigny’s American accent is jarring amidst all of the upper-class British characers.) Beckinsale has to drive the film, as she’s at the center of every strand of the plot, but she does so with alacrity.

The one other key performance is Tom Bennett’s turn as Sir James Martin, looking and sounding a bit like Discount Colin Firth but managing to pull off his performance of an extremely likable, well-meaning dimwit, to the point where the viewer has real empathy for him even while understanding why Frederica might balk at his companionship. Although the trailer highlighted Sir James’ confusion over Churchill boasting neither church nor hill, his scene around the “twelve commandments” was the film’s real comic highlight.

We get just a bit of Stephen Fry as Lady Johnson’s husband and Lady Mainwaring’s guardian, but he’s woefully underutilized, as are Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet (Four Weddings and a Funeral) as DeCourcy’s parents. But the novella itself comprises mostly letters from Lady Susan, so Stillman’s script had to invent much of the dialogue and reimagine most of the characters beyond hers. He was more deft with that than with some of the peculiar shots in the film, from the odd way the characters are introduced to the strange close-ups we get of characters (one near the end of Lord Mainwaring looked like a mistake) at various points. Lady Susan is a trifle of a story compared to Austen’s novels, so the challenge for Stillman here was greater than it might have been in adapting Emma or Persuasion, but he and Beckinsale in particular have developed it into a fast-paced, often hilarious movie where no one gets what they want yet Lady Susan still seems to come out on top.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (miniseries).

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 best-selling novel and winner of the Hugo Award, in November of 2008, an experience so immersive and enjoyable that I can remember specific places where I sat and read it. It’s as perfect as any contemporary work of fiction I’ve encountered, with numerous complex characters; a soaring, multi-faceted plot; and the highbrow British-English prose style appropriate to its early 19th-century setting. I’ve read at least a half-dozen novels of a thousand pages or more, including some considered among the greatest novels of all time, but I’d still take Jonathan Strange over all of them, not least because there isn’t a wasted word among the over 300,000 in its text.

That experience with the book raised my expectations for the BBC adaptation of the book to unreasonable levels, even though the network chose to adapt it as a seven-hour mini-series rather than trying to cram its bulkl into a single two-hour film. The resulting series, available on iTunes for about $20 (it’s not streaming anywhere I can see; amazon has the Blu-Ray for $25), is one of the best TV series I’ve seen in years, better even than season one of Orphan Black or Broadchurch, even on par with The Wire for giving viewers so many well-acted, complex characters intimately involved in the central plot.

The titular characters of the novel and series are magicians in the early 1800s who endeavor to restore English magic, which has been lost from the land for about 300 years. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the mousy, pedantic, egotistical magician of learning who sets off the book’s events when he restores a dead noblewoman, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), to life by summoning a creature known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), making a bad bargain that reopens the door between England and the otherworld where magic resides. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is the young prodigy whose innate talent for magic draws the interest of Norrell, who wishes to tutor Strange in book-learning rather than in “practical” magic, only to set off a rivalry between the two when Norrell’s acts exact a very high cost on Strange and his young, beautiful wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the Gentleman, having regained access to this realm, lays his claim to Lady Pole, enchants the servant Stephen Black (Arikon Bayare), the “nameless slave” who is to become king under the prophecy of the fairy/magician known as the Raven King, who appears only briefly on screen and looks like a refugee from a Norse black metal band.

The series is remarkably faithful to the original text, preserving all of the essential characters, including many I didn’t mention above such as Norrell’s servant (and occasional practitioner of magic) John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, whose voice I wish to steal) and the vagrant street-magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), while limiting diversions from the book’s plot to minor changes of convenience. Yet the series is powered primarily by the command performances of its two leads, Marsan and Carvel, with Marsan playing Norrell as a sort of upper-class Peter Pettigrew, simpering yet also dismissive, while Carvel imbues Strange with the passion and exuberance befitting his character’s youth before the character’s disillusionment drives him to madness. The great performances extend to the actors I’ve cited here, playing secondary roles, particularly Warren as the predatory charmer The Gentleman, with clawlike fingernails and “thistledown” hair, and Kaye apparently having the time of his life as the staggering, filthy Vinculus.

The demands on the editors of this series must have been huge, with a variety of sets and settings and impressive special effects for a television series, leading to many potential points of confusion as the focus shifted from Strange to Norrell to the King’s Roads (the “otherworld” of magic and fairies) and back around. I’m of the lay opinion that editing is a lot like umpiring in baseball: you notice it far more when it’s bad than when it’s good, and if it’s really good, you forget it’s even there. It was only while watching the final episode that it occurred to me how seamless the transitions from scene to scene or even shot to shot were, even though the pacing had increased in the final two hours of the series. Once Strange has entered the King’s Roads and descended into the madness that drives all of the related subplots toward one huge conclusion, the story starts flying and the use of more magic within the story could easily create confusion for viewers unfamiliar with the story, but strong editing and camerawork ensure that the viewer never loses the perspective required to keep pace.

One of you mentioned some dismay that Strange’s time serving as the official army magician under Wellington was given relatively less time on screen than on the page, an understandable disappointment at a choice that was likely made either for budgetary reasons or because the writers didn’t want to bog the story down in a segment where Strange and Norrell are completely apart. I thought the portrayal of the sycophantic fraudster Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) was too much of a caricature, and the relationship between Strange and Flora Graysteel in Venice required some more on-screen explanation. On the plus side, the series did a better job portraying the book’s ambiguous conclusion than Clarke herself did on the page, and while I still wanted a happier ending, at least the series turned the vague resolution into clear images the viewer could take away.

I would still suggest anyone interested in the series start with the book, both for background and for the sheer pleasure of the experience. The novel has much dry wit that can’t translate to the screen, as well as copious footnotes that mostly add humor to the story, and Clarke’s prose sparkles in ways that will never come through on film. But the adaptation here is so thorough that I believe any viewer could approach it without the background of the book and still follow the entire story without any trouble, which, for a work this dense, is a major achievement. I know in the time of “peak TV” there’s tremendous competition for your eyeballs and nowhere near enough time to watch everything you want – I might see a tenth of the series I’d like to see – but if you’re going to binge anything this offseason, put Jonathan Strange on your list.

The Killer Angels.

Michael Shaara only wrote four novels during his life, one of which, the baseball book For the Love of the Game, was published posthumously and turned into a critically panned movie, but his magnum opus was the Civil War novel The Killer Angels, for which he won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That book, which takes its title from one general’s father’s reaction to a line in Hamlet, served as the basis for the four-hour epic film Gettysburg, and Joss Whedon has said it inspired him to create the series Firefly.

The book retells the Battle of Gettysburg in substantial detail, using memoirs and letters from the generals involved where possible, narrating from the perspective of five of those generals and showing the discord on the Confederate side on how to attack the Union’s positions. General James Longstreet wrote an extensive memoir after the Civil War and we get much of his view on the South’s ill-fated decision to hold Gettysburg rather than retreating to more favorable ground; instead, Robert E. Lee, who is depicted here as in failing health and of a distracted, stubborn mind, chose to attack Union positions on two hills south of the town that provided the blue troops with a decided defensive advantage. (Longstreet was roundly criticized for decades afterwards for these failures and his request to delay the assault until an additional brigade arrived for support.) The main voice for the Union, Joshua Lawrence Chamberain (called Lawrence by his brother, Tom, throughout the book), led the defense of one of those hills, Little Round Top, and became one of the war’s primary heroes after the battle, commanding the Union troops at the surrender ceremony at Appamattox and later serving four years as Governor of Maine.

The Killer Angels is a war novel through and through, which means there’s very little else in it – including no female characters at all, but also little dialogue or even thoughts beyond the exigencies of the next battle. If you’re interested in military tactics, there’s likely quite a bit in here for you to enjoy and digest, especially with Longstreet’s recollections of the battle informing so much of the text. If you like character development or any plot threads at all beyond the war itself, this isn’t the book for you – or me, as it turned out, because despite strong prose and a quick pace through the action, The Killer Angels struck me as rather dry and, no pun intended, an antiseptic look at a pivotal moment in U.S. history. They came, they fought, some of them died, and those losses – nearly 8000 soldiers from both sides were killed, with around 50,000 total casualties – seem horribly pointless through the narrow lens of the book, which gives no broader context to the battle. (Not that the broader context makes the deaths any less lamentable.) The generals in Washington who were directing the overall war effort are only present on these pages as the idiots the leaders on the ground criticize for their dimwitted direction, while families are off-page distractions mentioned only in passing. There’s none of the substance I’d expect to see in a work of literature, because Shaara chose to make the novel all about the battle itself. That may suffice for many readers, and it does qualify the work for the Pulitzer criterion that the winner “preferably (deal) with American life,” but it’s not my personal preference for higher-end reading.

Next up: Another Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, A.B. Guthrie’s The Way West, which won in 1950.

A Scanner Darkly.

I love the works of Philip K. Dick, prolific author of science fiction novels and short stories that often dwelt in paranoia and paradoxes, unrespected during his lifetime but finding a cult following since his death in 1982, with an increasing interest lately from Hollywood. The upcoming Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle (based on his best novel) and the Fox series Minority Report (based on a short story) are both derived from his works, as were the films Blade Runner, Total Recall, and The Adjustment Bureau. So you know PKD’s writing even if you haven’t ready any.

A Scanner Darkly is one of his least speculative novels, hewing very closely to reality other than its depiction of a war on drugs that has gone even further than it ultimately did, using some futuristic technologies (and yet still relying on payphones) and putting its protagonist narc, Fred, undercover with suspected drug dealers where he ends up a user himself. The drug in question, Substance D, is a highly addictive, synthetic, psychoactive drug that has become hugely popular while stymieing attempts by the feds to discover its manufacturer. Fred, posing as the low-level dealer Bob Arctor, tries to learn the source via another low-level dealer Donna, for whom he also has unrequited feelings. His adoption of these dual roles is exacerbated by his use of Substance D, which can cause the hemispheres of the brain to stop working together and start competing with each other, so that he’s no longer aware of what his other persona has done. When this occurs, the story shifts into high gear, as Fred/Bob’s real role in this charade becomes apparent and he has a chance to carve some meaning out of his experience in addiction.

Dick’s paranoia is still present in A Scanner Darkly, with the government using increasingly invasive methods and technologies to investigate Substance D’s distribution; the novel, written in the mid-1970s, foresaw much of what our government now does in the name of fighting terrorism. But the focus of the novel is on the effects of the drug itself, the terrible spiral into which it sends addicts, with Fred/Bob’s descent into cognitive failure taking over from what appears for the first half of the book to be a demented detective story. Dick even concludes the novel with a postscript that discusses drug addiction and laments the many friends he lost to death or disability as a result of their use of drugs, although he argues that drug “misuse” isn’t a disease but “a decision,” a position on to which modern medicine has at least cast some doubt.

Whereas many of Dick’s novels offer incomplete resolutions or deliberately unsatisfying endings, A Scanner Darkly ties up its story in a neat and clever fashion, but in a bait-and-switch manner that leaves that first half to two-thirds of the novel feeling like it was irrelevant. Perhaps Dick meant for the the structure of the novel to mimic the timeline of a drug addict’s (bad) experience – you’re fine for a while until you’ve gone too far, when everything goes pear-shaped – but the result is a novel that feels disjointed, and not in the good way that many PKD novels feel disjointed. We also don’t get to know any characters, least of all Fred-Bob, in any depth, although characterization was not a strength of Dick’s overall – his greatest attribute as a writer was his ability to craft unnerving settings and scenes that often struck at the heart of metaphysical matters like consciousness, perception versus reality, and privacy. A Scanner Darkly veers away from those strengths, and the result left me somewhat cold.

The novel was also adapted into a 2006 film by Richard Linklater, but I haven’t seen it.

Next up: I just finished Dorothy Sayers’ second Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Clouds of Witness, and have begun Alison Lurie’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Foreign Affairs.

Broadchurch vs. Gracepoint.

The 2013 ITV series Broadchurch was a single-story, eight-episode arc that began with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer on the beach of the small Dorsetine tourist town and followed the investigation led by new Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, whose son Tom was Danny’s best friend. The series focused on the personal impacts of Danny’s death and the subsequent revelations uncovered by the police, the media (local and national), and through the consequences of the various questions those entities ask of anyone who might have been connected to the crime. By splitting the show’s attention across two foci, the writers gave us something we seldom see: a show about a murder that depicted real grief, sorrow, anger, and denial. The script gave the characters the space to develop the depth to make them play like real people, able to show a broad range of traits and emotions that don’t appear in shows that try to tell a story in just 44 minutes.

Broadchurch earned broad critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the BAFTA for best drama in 2013 while Olivia Colman won best actress for her performance as D.S. Miller and David “Argus Filch” Bradley won for best supporting actor for his role as Jack Marshall. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix named it one of his top 20 shows of 2013 as well. The show was a huge commercial success in the U.K., and will return for a second season next month, even though its creators originally conceived the series as a one-and-done.

Of course, this called for an American-made version to air on a U.S. network, because God forbid anyone ask us to watch a show that isn’t set here. At times a shot-for-shot remake of the original, Gracepoint lengthened the series by 25%, spending more time with side characters and misdirections that blurred the sharp focus of Broadchurch on the people involved. The superlative cast of the American series continually delivered, with David Tennant reprising his role as D.I. Hardy (renamed Emmett Carver, because reasons), two-time Emmy winner Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as Ellie, two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) as Susan Wright, and three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as the renamed Jack Reinhold. I doubt any will receive major award nominations, given the mediocre reception critics gave the remake, but all four were above the threshold for consideration, especially Weaver. However, the story meandered away from the heart of what made Broadchurch great – the focus on the emotional lives of its characters – in what I think was a misguided attempt to heighten the mystery, which misunderstood the point of the original series entirely.

I’m still convinced the main reason FOX chose to remake Broadchurch rather than air the original is the accents. David Tennant’s Scottish accent isn’t as easy to understand as an upper-class English accent would be, and I think in general there’s a belief in Hollywood that Americans won’t watch a TV show where all of the dialogue comes at them in the King’s English. (You’d think by now the success of Downton Abbey would have left that myth as dead as a doornail.) The former part I can understand – I had a few instances where I had to rewind to catch something Tennant said – but I hold no truck with the latter. And FOX made the innkeeper character Becca into English expatriate (named Gemma) on Gracepoint, even though she wasn’t American on Broadchurch.

Such changes in characters made up the bulk of the gap between the American and British versions of the show, and in almost every instance, the alterations were for the worse. Gracepoint appeared to be trying far too hard to appeal to the audience, commensurate with the #SuspectEveryone marketing campaign, with multiple characters rewritten or recast to be more suspicious or just creepier:

* The vicar Paul Coates is just that, a clergyman who runs the town’s computer club for kids and plays the peacemaker in a town with few churchgoers; the American priest Paul has carried a torch for Danny’s mom for over a decade, and becomes increasingly forward with her rather than just providing comfort and counsel, while he engages in a sort of cold war with her husband, Mark.

* Both versions of Mark commit the same transgressions, but the American one is colder to his wife, openly hostile to Paul, and miserly with his employee Vince.

* Vince – called Nige in the British version, which won’t do because no one born in America has ever been named “Nige” – is an angry but sometimes well-meaning simpleton in Broadchurch; his American counterpart is constantly scowling, is more devious and greedy than Nige, and is shown butchering something (which turns out to be a deer he shot) in his shed.

* Susan Wright is irredeemable in both versions, but she’s far more sinister in the remake, appearing to threaten Tom and frequently seen spying on others’ in the background; the only time she reveals her true nature in the original is the threat to Maggie.

* Maggie, meanwhile, was turned into a bad punchline in Gracepoint. The original Maggie receives no backstory; we hear nothing of a personal life or her orientation. The American version is a lesbian who says she “realized (she) didn’t like penises,” and is given a raccoon-like hairstyle that ages her at least ten years. (I assumed her character was supposed to be in her late 40s or early 50s, given her looks and demeanor, but the actress portraying her is only 38.) There was no point to revealing Kathy’s orientation other than to provide a token gay character and play it for that one cheap laugh; her personal life never comes into play in the story, and she’s largely a minor character the rest of the way.

* Karen White, the big-city reporter in Broadchurch, shows actual signs of humanity when her articles on Jack are rewritten to vilify the shopkeeper, and again at the end of episode eight when she twice shows her remorse through tiny yet significant actions. Her American doppelganger, Renee Clemons, has no second dimension beyond her ambition, and appears to be there just to look hot and annoy the viewers with her lack of empathy. She doesn’t appear at all in the Gracepoint finale.

* Even Chloe’s character changed, although at least the Gracepoint actress looked like she could possibly be the biological child of the two actors playing her parents. The American version was more rebellious, and what was an innocent “happy room” her boyfriend created for her in Broadchurch became a more sexualized dance in the bar area by the docks.

There were character shifts in the American version that worked, but those appeared more organic, the result of different casting rather than changes in dialogue or actions. Anna Gunn’s Ellie is a stronger character from start to finish – less mousy, more vocal, less tolerant of Carver’s indignities as they happen, although in the end none of it amounts to much given the conclusion of the story. Jacki Weaver, who was amazing as the matriarch of an Australian crime family in Animal Kingdom, made Susan Wright more three-dimensional with her portrayal, making her seem almost addled at times even as she reveals herself to be vindictive. I found it easier to accept her as a victim than the English version, played more stoically by Pauline Quirke. (According to the Broadchurch wikia, Vince the dog was played Quirke’s dog Bailey.)

Tennant’s performances varied beyond the shift to an American accent – which never bothered me in the least, although I’ve seen several critics harp on it as a problem for them – as he was more curt and dismissive with Ellie in Gracepoint, lacking the signs of empathy he flickered in the last few episodes of Broadchurch. His heart ailment seemed to only factor into the core narrative as a way to force a time limit on the investigation, since he has just a few hours to finish the case before he’s forced to take a medical leave. However, the American remake’s insertion of his daughter as a brief subplot proved a complete waste of time, a way to stretch the original series by 88 minutes of content.

Red herrings – like the backpacker, who was a total dead end – ended up giving Gracepoint a sense of density and slower pacing than Broadchurch with no added payoff; if anything, the result was a net negative, taking a series that focused exceptionally well on the emotional impacts of the murder of a child and the ensuing investigation and turning it into a murder mystery. American police procedurals rarely give much if any screen time to grief; we get a quick police interview with the next of kin, some tears or perhaps some wailing, and then we don’t see the family member again unless s/he is the killer. Broadchurch threw that script out the window; the fabric of Danny’s family starts to strain at the seams, while the investigation ruins one man’s life and exposes secrets and lies in those of several others. The finale of Broadchurch was more British than any other aspect of the series: It was slow by design, so that the viewer couldn’t help but linger over the wounds opened or reopened by the revelation of the killer’s identity, followed by the beautifully shot memorial, for a much stronger buildup to Paul’s “I passed the word; maybe the word was good” response that closes the season.

Below this point, I’ll discuss the ending and the identity of the murder. If you haven’t watched either series, you may wish to stop now.

The writers made a slight change to the conclusion of Broadchurch when remaking it as Gracepoint, although the shift was as much about motive as it was identity, providing a much less satisfying explanation in the end while also straining credibility around Tom’s ability to keep his part of the secret from his mom for the entire length of the investigation. It points, again, to the American version’s compulsion to sharpen its edges, which felt to me like a way of talking down to an American audience that FOX felt wanted a bigger emotional impact. (The conclusion didn’t matter for viewership, though; the series was DOA after the first week’s ratings were weak, something I blame on FOX marketing the show strictly as a murder mystery rather than as a high-quality drama.)

Danny’s murder at the hands of Joe was half a surprise, because the writers shoved it in our faces in the penultimate episode’s confrontation between Ellie and Susan outside the police station, where Ellie asks Susan,
“How could you not know?” and thus sets herself up for an ironic outcome where she learns just how Susan might not have known what was happening in her own house. That heavy-handedness aside, however, the writers did a better job planting the seeds for Joe’s role in Danny’s death in both versions of the show, depicting him at various points as a devoted father and husband who finds himself gradually fading in importance from the lives of his wife and older son. It was a simple explanation, one that took place right under the noses of everyone in town, and Danny’s death is the result of the unmollified rage of a repressed pedophile. Gracepoint made Joe’s attraction to Danny more explicit, and turned Danny’s death into a tragic accident that involved Tom, who was trying to protect his friend, not hurt him. Such things can happen, of course, but the crime was no longer a murder, but the ensuing coverup by Joe. It felt like a change for change’s sake, made because the American series had to offer a different ending.

As odd as it might seem, I’d still recommend both series. If you only want to make the time investment in one, make it Broadchurch – it’s better written, has much more heart, and is 88 minutes shorter. You still get David Tennant, and several of the secondary characters, especially the vicar Paul, get more sympathetic/less prejudicial treatment. But Gracepoint has equal or better performances from several cast members, and because the central story is so similar it’s no less compelling, just a little out of focus when compared to the superior source material.

The Painted Veil.

I appear to be totally out of step with the literary establishment on W. Somerset Maugham, whose roman-à-clef Of Human Bondage seems to be his magnum opus, appearing on the Modern Library list of the top 100 novels of the 20th century (although the construction of that list was fraught with problems). Meanwhile, his shorter novel The Painted Veil, published ten years later, receives far less praise and even less attention, even though it’s a far more interesting and readable story – that is, a book written for the reader, rather than written for the author. Unlike Of Human Bondage, which I found a chore, The Painted Veil flew by with a combination of high tension and an insightful portrayal of the protagonist’s inner turmoil.

Set in southern China during the height of British colonialism, Veil focuses on Kitty and Walter Fane, a young married couple in Hong Kong, where Walter has taken a position with the colonial authorities. Kitty, bored to tears with her bacteriologist husband, embarks on a dangerous affair with a caddish colleague of Walter’s (from the administrative side of the government), but the novel opens with her husband’s discovery of the affair. He presents her with a choice: Accompany him to a remote Chinese village where he has taken a position fighting a cholera epidemic, or face shame and ruin when he sues her for adultery. When her paramour does exactly as Walter expects him to do – that is, throws Kitty overboard in favor of the wife he never intended to leave – she heads into the hinterlands, where she’s confronted by reminders of both her faithlessness and her superficial worldview from all corners.

Kitty is the only character in the book to get a full treatment; Walter is kind of two-dimensional on the page because that’s all his character is, a stiff-upper-lip British gentleman who adores his wife – at least, before her betrayal – but shows very little emotion, one small part of her alienation from him. (Maugham eventually tells the story of their brief courtship and engagement, at which point it’s clear that the betrothal was ill-fated from the start, with plenty of blame to go around.) Coerced to journey with him to a village where death is a likely outcome for one or both of the couple, Kitty is confronted with the vapidity of her life to date, between the sacrifice of the Catholic nuns who run the hamlet’s orphanage while providing palliative care to other victims and the almost nihilistic attitude of the British envoy Waddington. You can almost predict what two things will happen next, but Kitty faces several decisions that eventually send her back to England, but as a far different woman than the one who left it three years earlier.

Maugham detailed his rather spectacular falling out with the Christianity of his father in Bondage, but his depiction of the faith of the nuns is respectful, neither mocking it nor lionizing them for their work. There’s no divine justice for Kitty, no direct retribution for her sins, and no hope given of a reward for a life given over to sacrifice either. Maugham toys with some Buddhist and Taoist themes, but Kitty’s spiritual awakening is minimal and forced upon her by outside circumstances; even as she leaves the remote village for London via Hong Kong, she still has time for one more mistake that will blow up what little sense of enlightenment she thinks she has. Yet there’s a realistic aspect to her character that sells the book; she’s flawed as real people are flawed, deludes herself as real people do, and faces the same moral and existential questions most people face throughout their adult lives. The book’s ending, for her, will only be as happy as she makes it via her own decisions.

There are several film adaptations of The Painted Veil, including a 2006 version with Naomi Watts and Ed Norton, but I’ve seen none, and that most recent one changes several key plot elements. Also, I found Maugham’s prose in Bondage to be awkward and choppy, but Veil suffers from none of that at all, with highly descriptive and more poetic phrasing.

Next up: David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity.

Sherlock, season three.

Sherlock, season three, executive summary: fun, amazing, disappointing, in exactly that order.

When your seasons are just three episodes long and each one of them is the length of a short feature film, it’s hard to build up longer story arcs or engage in large-scale character development. For the third season of Sherlock, Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffatt’s adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character and stories into a modern setting, we do get some surprising alterations in Sherlock’s character, but unfortunately some of it comes at the expense of what makes him who he is: The deductions.

(I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you’re familiar with the series already; you may want to start with my reviews of season one and season two.)

We last saw our titular hero taking a dive off the edge of a building in a staged suicide attempt that was intended to foil the evil plans of evildoer Moriarty and save John Watson, a riff on the short story “The Final Problem,” where ACD killed off Holmes, only to bring him back a few years later in response to public outrage over the character’s death. We knew Holmes didn’t die here, but the first episode had to, as it were, un-kill him – and the writers had a bit of fun with it, posing increasingly preposterous solutions before showing what might be the actual one, only to have Holmes himself cast doubt on his own explanation of actual events. (Gatiss has pointed out that there are only so many ways to jump off a building and survive, so I think we can accept Sherlock’s last answer as the correct one.) “The Empty Hearse” thus brings Holmes back to life, to London, and to Dr. Watson, the last of which provides some of the series’ darkest comedy to date – as one might expect Watson to be a little peeved that his BFF faked his own death and disappeared for two years without a word. The series of reunions that bring Sherlock back, more or less, to his old circle of partner-antagonists takes up the bulk of the episode, but we do get an actual case, this time an act of domestic terrorism that Sherlock has to stop both by deduction and by action. The balance of intellectual crime-solving, the interplay between Sherlock and Watson, and the filling in of the blanks of the previous season’s cliffhanger differs greatly from the formula for the previous six episodes, but Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) carries the extra weight beautifully and the episode felt like an appetizer for the remaining two parts of the season.

The second episode, “The Sign of Three,” was a high point for the series, perhaps my favorite episode to date, in large part due to a tour de force performance from Cumberbatch, balancing Sherlock’s discomfort with social situations (here, as the best man in Watson’s wedding) against his intense fascination with the puzzle of any case – here, two mysteries that intersect at the wedding in a third incident that Sherlock has to try to prevent while giving the traditional speech. Cumberbatch owns the screen, pushing the boundaries of the character, mostly showing more humanity through his evident affection for Watson (hey, the short stories were one of literature’s original bromances), radiating huge quantities of energy through his voice, his body language, and his facial expressions as he first stalls for time and then solves the case without ceding the floor. It’s a peculiarity of the episode that Watson is relegated to a side character in an episode devoted to his own wedding, but as great as Martin Freeman is as the good doctor, we are here to see Mr. Holmes do his thing, and in “The Sign of Three” (an allusion to the short novel The Sign of Four) he does it superbly.

That peak made the third episode, “His Last Vow,” an even bigger letdown than normal. Sherlock has disappeared again, this time for a shorter period, and Watson finds him working undercover, in the middle of a case, with the target the media magnate Charles Augustus Magnussen, a blackmailing version of Rubert Murdoch who holds a trove of damaging information on virtually everyone of importance in the Western world. The client is unclear, at least at first, although the case eventually takes on a more personal aspect for Sherlock, leading him to an emotional reaction that puts his ability to solve the case rationally in jeopardy.

Aside from the return of Janine (played by the Irish-Pakistani comedienne Yasmine Akram) from the preceding episode, “His Last Vow” fell short in every aspect that has made this series so great. The interplay between Holmes and Watson is limited, and strained when it occurs; the rapid-fire His Girl Friday dialogue that populates most of the first eight episodes is nearly absent here, and their chemistry with each other is short-circuited by Watson’s ire over Holmes’ initial disappearance and later by the personal nature of the case. We get very little of Holmes’ deduction, and what we do get is short of the mark. Lestrade doesn’t appear – in fact, he’s in far too little of this season overall. The villainous Magnussen is too odious, comically repugnant beyond the point of realism. I don’t wish to spoil the twist, but my understanding of that method of information storage is that it works for short-term storage but not the kind of long-term solution Magnussen would require.

So while “The Sign of Three” was revelatory, a leap forward for the series by developing its central characters while meeting or exceeding its previous standards for intelligence, the rest of the season was a disappointment. Had “The Empty Hearse” been the only deviation from the series’ main formula, the season could have been as good as or better than the first two, but the decision to craft a melodramatic finale that deemphasized Sherlock’s essential Holmesness did not succeed.

A Game of Thrones.

I posted my final top 100 ranking for this year’s draft, and had draft expert Jim Callis on today’s edition of Behind the Dish.

I received George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones as a gift, and gave it a shot after many of you encouraged me to do so, even though I am generally not a fan of the sword-and-sorcery genre. Unfortunately, the book met my expectations, and while I finished its bloated length, I won’t be sticking around for book two.

The plot appears complex, but at heart is quite simple: two main factions are competing for control of the Seven Kingdoms, jockeying for position under the current King, the slightly naïve Robert, and preparing for an eventual succession. There are two separate plots only loosely integrated in this novel with that main strand – one leading to the possible birth of an heir to the previous king, the “mad king” Aerys II, the other set on the ice Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the unknown denizens of the North. Martin based some of the plot on the English Wars of the Roses, which pitted the Houses of Lancaster and York against each other over a thirty-year period that ended with the rise of the House of Tudor.

The false complexity of the plot was not my main objection to A Game of Thrones, but it is one of the book’s three major flaws. Martin populates the book with far too many people, even requiring an appendix to list most of them by the houses to which they belong or have sworn fealty, and as a result almost no characters receive any kind of depth or development, and most of those outside of the central core are utterly disposable. Martin separates the book into numberless chapters, each of which revolves around one of the main characters, of which there are at least eight: Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell; his wife, Catelyn; four of their five children; Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf who belongs to the rival house of Lannister; and Daenaerys, the daughter of the mad king. King Robert, Tyrion’s sister Cersei, his brother Jaime (“the Kingslayer”), Daenaerys’ brother Viserys, her eventual husband Khal Drogo, Catelyn’s sister Lysa, and Robert and Cersei’s son Joffrey are all significant characters in terms of ink received, yet all are one-dimentionsal and their presence quickly becomes tiresome. The result is that Martin can weave lengthy plot strands, yet never has to do much more than set the swords in motion to advance any of the storylines, because he’s got so many people running around and never chooses to (or needs to) develop any of the characters.

The quality of the writing is also extremely poor, which I was warned about ahead of time; Martin spends much of the book forcing awkward middle-English phrasing on the reader, or altering spellings the way that bad bars and stores like to include “Olde” in their names to make them seem authentically crappy. His syntax is clumsy, and he spells far too much out for the reader in little details, both scene-setting – his descriptions of food are embarrassing if you’ve read any Murakami, and the made-up foods thing is just annoying – and emotions, where he explains far too much of what characters are thinking or feeling, which ends up leading the reader around by the nose. And I have no explanation for the line where he said a character was behaving like he had a “dagger up his butt.”

But nothing in the book was as awful as Martin’s obsessions with sex, violence, and especially sexual violence; it is the most rape-y book I have ever read, treating its women as objects and reveling in degrading them, especially female side characters, Martin’s equivalent of the red shirts of Star Trek. Women are raped, often, quite violently (not that rape is ever nonviolent, but Martin chooses to make it more violent), both in the present of the novel and in descriptions of the past. Victors in war in Martin’s universe engage in gang-rape, and it is accepted. Forced prostitution is rampant, and it is accepted. And when he describes rape, or even semi-consensual sex, Martin chooses to describe it in detail to further the degradation of the woman. (The idea that a woman might enjoy sex, or even assume an equal or dominant role in it, is completely foreign to him.) Martin’s women are props, and the only woman of clear strength in the book is a sociopath. That doesn’t even get at the incest in the book, made explicit in one scene but hinted at many other times.

On top of his loathing of women, Martin absolutely loves to devote ink to the carving up of the human body by knives, swords, and even weapons found along the way. Characters are cleaved, dismembered, burst open, disembowed, and eviscerated, and one can almost hear Martin panting at the keyboard as he describes these acts of violence. Given that he takes the rascal’s escape from a plot he can’t untangle – he sends everyone to war and kills a bunch of people off – there’s a lot of cleaving and disemboweling going on, and copious quantities of blood spilled, enough that you’ll need to wash your hands to get the damned spots out before you’re through.

When I commented on Twitter the other day that A Game of Thrones was one of the most misogynistic books I’d ever read, a few of you said that I needed to stick with the series to see some of the female characters develop. That may be true – the situation might improve in later books – but I should not have to read beyond the first 670 pages to see a female character with any kind of depth. That’s not to say that his male characters are much better developed, but they might reach two dimensions while his women are limited to one.

I’ve never seen the HBO series, so I have no idea how that compares or if it addresses any of the book’s flaws. A thin plot in a novel can often seem rich on screen with the right adaptation. All I can say is that I won’t be moving on to book two of the series.

Next up: Jim Thompson’s grim, darkly funny novel Pop. 1280.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

I had a post this morning on Taijuan Walker, Nolan Arenado, and some other M’s and Rockies. No game for me today, but thanks to all of you for your well wishes after hearing that my daughter’s stomach virus sent us to the ER last night. She’s fine now, but everyone’s exhausted, of course.

Horace McCoy’s novella They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? reads like an extended film treatment, a la Graham Greene’s The Third Man, which is what it actually was, although in McCoy’s case the film wasn’t made until long after his book was published and he had already died. The film earned nine Academy Award nominations, a record for a film that didn’t get a Best Picture nod, with Gig Young* winning the award for Best Supporting Actor. While it deviates somewhat from the book’s plot, both revolve around a dance marathan that exploits desperate would-be actors and hangers-on in Hollywood in the 1930s, all run by a sleazy promoter who takes advantage of the contestants to line his own pockets. (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen the film.)

*Young eventually killed himself and his wife of one month in 1978; his final film, Game of Death, was also Bruce Lee’s final film, compiled from unfinished footage shot before Lee’s death from a cerebral edema in 1973.

The sparse 120-page book is more a showcase for McCoy’s bleak, hard-boiled writing style and worldview than for any depth of plot, although there’s enough story here to sustain you through its 30,000 or so words. The book opens with Robert confessing to the murder of Gloria, essentially pleading no contest, after which we get the full story of how they met and how he came to kill her. The two are in Hollywood trying to land bit parts as extras – Gloria wants to be an actor, assuming she wants to be anything at all, while Robert wants to be a director, although it’s not clear he knows what that entails – and meet on the street after failing to earn parts that morning in their auditions. She mentions that she’s heard of a dance marathon being held with a small cash prize and the chance to be noticed by some Hollywood big shots, so he reluctantly agrees, mostly because he has nothing better to do.

The marathon is a rough, demeaning endurance contest, with dancers pushed to the limit by the unscrupulous organizers, including a bizarre nightly racing “derby” in which the losing couple is eliminated from the marathon, and a staged marriage designed to court positive and negative attention from the local press. Gloria is quickly revealed to be depressed and hopeless, picking pointless fights with other dancers and wishing aloud that she were dead. Robert is more interesting in going along to get along, but he’s just as aimless as Gloria, without the rage or hopelessness. When the contest ends in tragedy and the dancers are all sent off with a pittance for weeks of effort, Gloria pulls out a gun and tells Robert that she wants to kill herself but doesn’t have the guts, an ending foretold from the beginning of the story.

The book’s introduction says it was well-received in existentialist circles in France while it was derided or ignored in the United States until decades after its publication, and the connection to Sartre and Camus is apparent – but McCoy writes with a fire that the classic literary existentialists, so bent on telling us that everything is pointless, always lack. They Shoot Horses has an angle of suspense even though you know it ends in Gloria’s death, which to me reads as a rejoinder to existentialism: That life ends in death does not mean it lacks all meaning. We can know the ending of the story and still find interest in the journey. McCoy’s message isn’t uplifting – after all, his main characters are all devoid of purpose – but it’s not inherently nihilistic, since Gloria, the most hopeless character of all, is shown in the most unflattering light.

Next review: Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank.