27 August 2014

When a Book Becomes a Television Event

Diana Gabaldon's Outlander broke new ground when initially published in 1991. Not quite sci-fi, nor fantasy, it had lots of sex and grand adventure but didn't quite fit the rules of romance either. A smashing success, it went on to span a number of novels, continuing on to the newest just released this summer, Written in My Own Heart's Blood.

After twenty-three years, you can imagine how excited fans of the series were to learn that Claire and Jaime and the Highlanders of Scotland would finally make it to film. Now Outlander is a series on the Starz cable network, which has many people eagerly contacting their cable companies and looking forward to Saturday nights again.

One of the executive producers is Ronald D. Moore, who was the wizard behind the refurbished Battlestar Gallactica series that took a campy space show and turned it into a gritty, realistic commentary on the absurdities of war and the human condition. This boded well in my mind because I knew he wouldn't turn it into some sappy Hallmark sweet-sop or melodramatic Lifetime special.

But I'll admit, I had my reservations about seeing this book brought to life. After all, one of the pleasantries of reading is envisioning the characters in your own mind's eye. The reader comes to care about these people, picturing their faces and hearing their voices in a particularly personal way.

Casting beloved characters is always tricky. Just ask the men who have played Batman over the years in different films. Ben Affleck has been slated to play him after Christian Bale reinvented the character in three films, and the fans have been less than kind. Many fans were not thrilled with Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Bennet after watching Jennifer Ehle embody the role in the 1995 production of Price & Prejudice. And truly, could anyone actually believe Lucille Ball as Scarlet O'Hara instead of Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind?

With hesitation, therefore, I watched the first episode. I was thrilled with the cinematography, the locations in Scotland, the beautiful costuming. plays Claire Randall, and does all right with it. She's perfectly thin--for 2014, not post-WWII Britain, but well, okay.  Jaime Fraser is played quite well by , a native Scot who definitely brings some authenticity to that Scots burr. Frank/Black Jack Randall is played by who played Brutus on HBO's Rome series. Not at all what I pictured.  Let's say Rupert Friend might have been a bit more sexy. I would hope the chemistry that should ignite the triangle between the leads will kick in at some point, because so far to me it seems to barely sputter.

I have major issues with the way this story is being told. Because it is literally being told. Claire narrates so much I wonder if she really means to be doing a historical documentary. Authors are constantly warned to SHOW, not TELL, and movies are all about the showing. Claire's narration drives me to distraction. She could talk to herself for heaven's sake instead of the near constant voice-over as she wanders along a hallway or field. Often directors will add a new character as a foil, a sounding board for the protagonist to express his thoughts. They did that in the Hornblower series by keeping Lieutenant Archie Kennedy in the storyline far longer than C.S. Forester ever had him in the books. Horatio discussed things with Archie in a way that let the audience see and hear his doubts, his fears, and his intentions. It worked.  Give Claire a dog to share her doubts and fears with if necessary, but shut that damn narration up.

 I have watched two episodes out of three that have aired, and the disappointment level simply continued to grow. Yes, I am in the minority, I know. Most of my friends who love the books are eating this series up and enjoying the experience. I like the costumes. I adore the landscapes and the camera work is breathtaking. But for me there's no spark, no burning reason to keep tuning in. I might give one more episode a go, but the moment Claire goes into her Ken Burns mode, I'm done.


16 August 2014

Words Don't Help.

Robin Williams, quite possibly one of the most intelligent comic geniuses to walk this planet, died this week. In the aftermath of the news that he took his own life at the nadir of his long battle with depression there has been a slew of information about depression and suicide prevention.

Forgive me if I'm more than a little cynical about this surge of newfound "concern" over depression. These platitudes anger and frustrate not only those who suffer from this condition but those who love them. It will be all forgotten when one of the willfully stupid celebrities society worships pulls another bullshit stunt.

Because that is part of what this disease inflates: the sense of futility, hopelessness, and despair that nothing will improve as long as the world worships moronic behavior and stupidity. From Honey Boo Boo to Kim Kardashian, the Westboro Baptists and ISIS, to every polarized self-serving jerk in Congress, the idiots are glorified, worshiped, adored--and emulated. Apathy runs rampant among those who could potentially change the world because they see the majority of people choose to love stupidity and refuse to change.

Perhaps there was a subliminal reason the Genie character Mr. Williams voiced in Aladdin was blue. They say most comedians are in psychic pain; it allows them to see how inane and ridiculous the world can be. His death hit me hard. If someone as funny and amazing as Robin Williams couldn't manage to see his way through, how in the world will I?
This video illuminates a little of what depression feels like. It's different for each individual, of course. But one thing missing is the comment that aggravates depression and often drives sufferers into total silence about how much agony they are experiencing. If you truly care for someone battling depression, never EVER say this to them:

"What do you have to be depressed about?"

No aspect of depression is logical. Get that? It makes no sense when the darkness descends and the light hurts. There are no steps to follow down or up, and you can't just "snap out of it" by thinking cheery thoughts. It's a spiral into an abyss of despair that generates self-loathing because you can't pull yourself up, you can't do what everyone wants you to do, and you hate yourself for resenting those who are only trying to help but making you feel even worse.

Sometimes writing allows you to climb up from the depths. Sometimes even words on paper are acidic and sour and the screen is too bright. And yet, sometimes--most of the time--it lightens the heavy psychic burden and makes it tolerable to breathe again. It's an outlet only you can access.

Words, platitudes, cheerful intentions, and slogans from well-meaning friends don't help. Being there, silently supporting, making an effort to understand, does. I sympathize completely with Mr. Williams and his frustration with treatment. There are no easy answers. My heart goes out to his family who have suffered for decades with him and his efforts to keep going. They are heartbroken now and yet, surely they understand that at last he is at peace.

[This post has been simultaneously published on The Writers' Vineyard.]