Wordy Wednesday: The Garden Trope

It’s my last week of classes of college! Next week is finals and then the week after that is graduation and I don’t know what to do with myself.

Things that have happened in the past week:

  • Went to my last release party for a university lit mag I have a story in! I was lucky enough for my short fiction to be accepted to three university lit mags/anthologies this school year. If you’d like to read any of those, I’ll link to them as they become available online on the “My Writing” page.
  • Did interviews for a couple very cool things that I am SUPER EXCITED about! I’ll give details on those once the features themselves are released, but what I can tell you now is that one interview was about being a graduating senior at U of M and the other was about Ch1Con (and did I mention that I am SUPER EXCITED?).
  • Illustrated, put together, and ordered the picture book final project for my writing children’s literature class! Fingers crossed it gets here soon because I am dying to see it. (Also: that was my last project of the semester, so all I have left to do now are final exams ahhhhh!)
  • Took my first final of the semester! Only two more to go. (And then my first day of freedom will be my birthday, so good job on the symbolism there, Life.)
  • Had the showcase for my dance class! I was barely in it, since I had to sit out so much of the semester with my bum knee, but it was really fun and I loved getting to watch my class kick butt after working so hard all term.
  • Got nine hours of sleep last night! I don’t know about you, but this is the thing I am most proud of.

And, now that I have bored you with my life (per usual): this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. In honor of it being my final week before my final finals (say that one five times fast), I figured I’d share one last paper from an undergraduate class with you. This is from my history of children’s literature class, discussing the use of the Garden Trope (term defined in the essay, if you don’t already know it) in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Disney’s The Princess and the Frog.

As always with these essays for classes, apologies for the obnoxiously long paragraphs and all that jazz.

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Children’s literature encompasses a great variety of stereotypes and running themes. From the rise of the child as the trickster figure in works such as Peter and Wendy and the stories of Brer Rabbit, to the use of magic in order to empower the child in novels such as Matilda and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, it’s easy to pick out the threads that run from work to work in order to altogether come to define the literary category. However, perhaps the most intriguing of all of these tropes is that of the garden, or: the connection between the child and the natural world. Rousseau first developed the garden trope in the eighteen-century, with his work delving into the philosophy behind childhood and child development. He believed that children and nature were inherently connected, using terms such as “sapling” (Rousseau 5) and extended metaphors about trees in order to explain the child’s soul—and how best to protect it from the darkness of the increasingly urbanized world. In his book Emile, he writes that “education comes to us from nature” (Rousseau 6), and it is this concept of Rousseau’s that arguably has been most pervasive throughout the years. This relies upon placing the child in nature—and giving him or her freedom to explore this space (and thus his or herself)—in order for the child to properly develop and grow, thus protecting Rousseau’s “sapling” (or, the child’s soul). By drawing a connection between children and the natural world, the garden trope offers a safe space in which the child can explore his or her identity, away from the pressures of societal conventions and adults’ expectations. However, many storytellers interpret this in different ways. Thus, through works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film The Princess and the Frog, it becomes clear that different elements of the garden trope—from the journey into nature, to learning from nature, to the role of nature in the final lesson conveyed—all play roles in presenting differing representations of this trope, which altogether ultimately convey each work’s unique interpretation of the role of nature in the child’s development. (Rousseau)

The deviations between Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Princess and the Frog become clear almost immediately in the two works. In his classic novel of fantasy and nonsense, Carroll presents Alice as connected with nature from the beginning. In fact, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland opens with a line about how “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank” (Carroll 1). In other words, Carroll immediately associates Alice with nature by situating her on a river bank, which one can infer to combine both the more common elements of nature (such as grass and trees) as well as a slightly less common element (water); Alice is entirely surrounded by the natural. The fact that Alice is sitting still amongst all of this, much like she herself is rooted to the ground (similar to Rousseau’s sapling) solidifies this connection. This passage also quickly goes on to include references to the “hot day” (Carroll 1) and “making a daisy-chain” (Carroll 1), both of which strengthen the enmeshment of Alice and the natural world, especially in comparison with Alice’s early complaint about her sister’s book, which she thinks is pointless and boring. By rejecting the opportunity to read the book, Alice likewise rejects the infiltration of the domestic into the natural world, which prefaces the fact that she will soon embrace the natural, instead, further by following the White Rabbit down the rabbit-hole. In contrast, the animated Disney fairytale film The Princess and the Frog opens with the titular princess, Tiana, far away from nature. Tiana lives in a big city—New Orleans—and, due to this, she spends the first several scenes entirely immersed in the urban. In particular, she finds herself surrounded by her rich friend Charlotte’s opulence, which takes Tiana as far from the natural world as possible. When a young Tiana is presented with the natural—which occurs when her mother reads the two girls the classic fairytale “The Frog Prince”—she outright rejects it, disgusted, stating, “There is no way, in this whole wide world, I would ever, ever, ever—I mean never—kiss a frog” (The Princess and the Frog 2:25-2:32). This separation and abhorrence of nature continues when Tiana grows into a down-on-her-luck young woman who finds herself presented with the opportunity to kiss Prince Naveen, in frog form. It takes all of Tiana’s will power to complete the act, and she is horrified when she finds herself transformed into a frog as well, rather than Naveen into a human. In line with this, even as a frog, she continues to reject the natural, only reluctantly leaving the urban for the bayou and grousing about things like how frog skin is covered with mucus and “[t]here is no way [she’s] … kissing a frog and eating a bug in the same day” (The Princess and the Frog 43:49-43:54). This shows how Tiana sees herself as separate from nature, and thus she does not understand it (or herself). Altogether, the examples of both Alice and Tiana’s journeys into the natural world portray how this element of the garden trope affects the child character’s development overall, as it is Alice’s initial acceptance of nature—and Tiana’s rejection of it—that shape the lessons each character must learn throughout her story.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise that said lessons are a second way storytellers can represent their differing interpretations of the garden trope. These two works teach their protagonists lessons in greatly differing manners, aligned with the relationship between the character and the natural. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for instance, because Alice is already part of nature, she is open to learning from the creatures she encounters, and thus is able to learn through broad conversations with them concerning a variety of topics. This means that although Alice truly is learning in part from Wonderland’s residents, she is doing so through compromise and interpretation—by not just listening, but interacting as well—so that it feels almost as if she is teaching herself. For example, in the chapter “Advice from a Caterpillar,” the advice the Caterpillar gives Alice in terms of her size is that she will “‘get used to [being three inches high] … in time’” (Carroll 61); however, Alice disagrees with this and so is able to learn something about herself (that she is not the kind of person who will just get used to something she dislikes) in the process. The Caterpillar presents her with an intended lesson, but Alice reinterprets it to learn something else instead. In essence, because Alice is part of nature, like the Caterpillar, she is able to take the lessons conveyed by the Wonderland creatures and decide whether or not they fit with the sense of self she is developing, so that ultimately she decides the lessons she learns. On the other hand, because Tiana of The Princess and the Frog rejects nature, she is not able to be in conversation with it. Instead, nature essentially must talk at her, with the hope that she will listen. The filmmakers convey this by having Tiana interact with a number of bayou creatures, all of whom have strong senses of self from which she must learn. However, at first Tiana dislikes these characters, because each of them believes in something seemingly impossible. For example, Ray the lightning bug is in love with a star, which he calls Evangeline. This at first appears to associate the natural with the impossible, but it becomes clear that these dreams only appear impossible because Tiana does not accept things she does not understand (i.e. nature). Tiana must accept these impossible things—and thus the lesson each character represents—in order to reinterpret her personal identity and be able to move the plot forward. Essentially, Tiana must listen to nature, and find it in herself to accept nature, in order to learn the lessons necessary in order to achieve her goal of becoming human and returning home again.

It is the ultimate goal of each character that draws the most attention to the importance to the role of nature in the child’s development. After all, it is Alice and Tiana’s shared goal of getting home that drives them to explore the other worlds in which they find themselves. However, the role of the natural differs greatly here. Because Alice is part of nature, and has been learning in conversation with nature—and thus in large part from herself—her resolution relies not upon continued learning from the natural, but upon learning to control it and thus learning to empower herself as an important element of the natural. To be more specific, Alice spends the entirety of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland voraciously eating and, due to this and the magic associated with the nature of Wonderland, her size continually changes, out of her control. However, in the final chapters, Alice’s size changes not because of something she has eaten (a type of change which Carroll has presented throughout the text as “natural”), but rather because she has felt a strong emotion. She has deposed of what has been natural thus far in order to create a new natural order—one in which, rather than something else controlling her, she takes control of herself and, because she is part of it, the natural world at large. In doing this, Alice is no longer subjected to the rules of nature, but instead defines the rules herself. This is especially clear when, in finally taking control of her growth, she “ha[s] … grown to her full size” (Carroll 140)—the first time she has been her proper size since entering Wonderland—and she is able to state to those who are antagonizing her that they are “‘nothing but a pack of cards!’” (Carroll 140), at which point they transform into just that. It is Alice taking control in this manner that allows her to wake up from Wonderland and find herself back on the river bank with her sister—only now, she isn’t bored. In contrast, Tiana’s resolution relies not upon controlling nature, but simply embracing it. She must learn to overcome her urbanized prejudices against the natural world, and acknowledge herself as part of it, in order to return to human form. She does so by falling in love with Naveen, so that when he is given the opportunity to return the two of them to human form—by kissing, and then marrying, Charlotte—Tiana asks him not to, because she’d rather be a frog with him than a human without him. She says that her “dream [of opening a restaurant upon becoming human again, for which she has worked her entire life] wouldn’t be complete without [him] … in it” (Princess and the Frog 1:1:23:29-1:23:35). Because Tiana accepts being a part of nature—and thus remaining a frog for the rest of her life—she and Naveen stop trying to become human again, and instead choose to move on with their lives, happily, as frogs. Due to this acceptance, they then get married, at which point the curse is finally able to lift and they do become human again after all. These are two very different interpretations of the role of nature in the resolution of the child’s story, but ultimately do both reflect the trope of learning in and from nature, as it is each child’s reevaluation of her place in relation to nature that allows her to return home.

Truly, it is all three of these elements, combined, that reflect how storytellers can interpret the garden trope in different manners. Alice’s immediate immersion in nature leads to her ability to converse as an element of it, which subsequently also leads, naturally, to the need for her to take control of nature—to assert her agency as part of it—in order to return home. Tiana, on the other hand, first rejects nature, and so must learn to accept it and find her place within it in order to find her happy ending and thus become human again. However, both of these interpretations do ultimately reflect the Rousseauan model of development, as both Alice and Tiana rely heavily upon nature to shape their character arcs and the plots of their stories. Although they learn different lessons, both learn from nature, which exemplifies Rousseau’s idea that children are part of nature. Therefore, through works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film The Princess and the Frog, it becomes clear that different elements of the garden trope—from the journey into nature, to learning from nature, to the role of nature in the final lesson conveyed—all play roles in presenting differing representations of this trope. Ultimately, these elements work together to convey each story’s unique interpretation of the role of nature in the child’s development—and altogether show how children and the natural world truly are connected, making nature crucial to the child’s growth in order to become who he or she is meant to be. (Rousseau) (Carroll) (The Princess and the Frog)

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Bibliography

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

The Princess and the Frog. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Walt Disney, 2009. Online.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emile. London: J.M. Dent, 1993. Print.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: First Person POV in Literature vs. Film

As far as weeks throughout this semester have gone so far, this isn’t too busy of one. Somebody forgot to tell my body that though and I am absolutely exhausted. (Hooray.)

I spent the weekend getting caught up on schoolwork. This week so far has mostly been more of the same–but Monday I had the honor of reading a short story aloud at the Cafe Shapiro event at the undergraduate library for the third year in a row (photo and monstrously long caption available on Insta!) and met for the first time with the company of the play I’m producing (more details on that coming soonish).

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. This time ’round: a paper about the differences in the first person perspective between literature and film, which I wrote for my (you guessed it) literature to film adaptations class last semester. Spoiler alert for both the lit and film versions of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Double Indemnity, and Shawshank Redemption.

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Every story adapted from page to screen offers a different challenge. Truly, any element of a written text could come to present itself as a challenge to filmmakers. However, altogether, arguably one of the most difficult types of stories to adapt from page to screen is that of the first person narrative. First person narratives are popular in prose, as they allow the protagonist to speak directly to the reader—thus giving the opportunity to share inside information, thoughts, and feelings—and, through this, they allow the reader to more easily and fully connect with the protagonist. The reader sees the world through the protagonist’s eyes, so the reading experience generally feels more intimate and immediate; it’s the difference between reading a memoir versus reading a biography. This becomes a problem when filmmakers choose to adapt these stories to the screen, however, because films cannot strictly be first person experiences. The viewer does not view the world through the narrator’s eyes, but as the roving camera, an extra, non-diegetic person in the room of whom the characters are unaware. A popular method of solving this challenge is by translating the internal monologue of the page into voiceover narration on screen. Three stories studied this semester—Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity—all translate their first person perspectives into voiceover narration for their onscreen adaptations, and thus also transfer the inside information, biased perspectives, and more personal understanding of each story, in order to ultimately create deeper and more meaningful films.

First person pieces of literature thrive on their narrators to convey information to the reader. The narrator has multiple responsibilities, from keeping the reader invested through his or her voice—whether humorous or philosophical, emotional or stoic—to sharing information in order to convey the story to the reader in the most interesting and entertaining manner possible. For example, Double Indemnity begins with the line:

I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. (Cain 1)

This sentence is a great example of voice, as it alone establishes the unpolished suaveness of Cain’s protagonist without ever once explicitly saying anything about him. It is this sharing of information that makes narrators so useful, as they are able to convey what is happening to the reader much more concisely than if the reader was to have to figure it out on his or her own, through implications and dialogue. Voiceover narration functions differently from the internal monologue of textual works, due to the fact that movies involve a greater number of senses than literature—not only does the audience use their eyes, as they do when reading, but they also hear the story, through dialogue, music, and more. Due to this different functionality, even films that qualify as first person experiences are still more impartial than their related pieces of literature, as while voiceover narration and the existence of the narrator in many—if not all—of the scenes helps the viewer gain an understanding of the world through the narrator’s perspective, visually, the camera still is a separate entity from the narrator. This difference comes into sharp exposure in the film adaptation of King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, called simply Shawshank Redemption, as the film moves between scenes that contain narrator Red—and, in correlation, his voiceover narration—and scenes that track his friend Andy instead, scenes which contain information to which Red is not privy, and thus which do not contain voiceover.

Despite this difference in function, however, voiceover narration still takes after written internal monologue by existing primarily to convey information. For example, in the screenplay for Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, narrator Charlie explains through voiceover how he had “hoped that [his] sister Candace and her boyfriend Derek would have let [him] eat lunch with their earth club” (Chbosky 4) while heading for her table in the cafeteria—to which Candace gives the very concise reply of, “Seniors only” (Chbosky 4). Without the voiceover narration, this quick and simple exchange between the siblings would not produce the desired effect; rather, the filmmakers would instead have to create a longer, more involved scene, in which Charlie and Candace might discuss the fact that they are siblings, the fact that she eats lunch with her boyfriend and their earth club, and how she does not want her dorky younger brother to sit with them. Plus, a scene such as this could easily grow cumbersome, as it would not feel natural for characters to outright share this sort of information in a conversation with one another, because they would already both be aware of these facts. So, Charlie’s voiceover narration streamlines this process. In essence, voiceover narration is the difference between telling the viewer about the siblings, versus showing the viewer. If overused, this can come across as a cheap narrative device; another work studied this semester, Adaptation, refers to this problem. However, if used in such a manner as to advance the plot and save time without losing characterization or world-building—such as how The Perks of Being a Wallflower uses it—voiceover is an effective shortcut in conveying information. This also, as in literature, allows the more explicit sharing of important information, rather than requiring the viewer to interpret a scene in an effort to gain the same knowledge, which could lead to an incorrect conclusion.

Additionally, as these three works exemplify, voiceover narration makes the viewer a co-conspirator in what is happening. Because it feels as if the narrator is speaking directly to the viewer, it makes the viewer feel as if he or she is part of the action, and like he or she has insider information about the world and protagonists of the film. Shawshank Redemption does a particularly brilliant job of this, as narrator Red explains the ins and outs of Shawshank Prison. For example:

Most new fish come close to madness the first night. Someone always breaks down crying. Happens every time. The only question is, who’s it gonna be? … It’s as good a thing to bet on as any, I guess. I had my money on Andy Dufresne… (Darabont 15)

Here screenwriter Frank Darabont departs from the beginning of King’s novella in order to take a moment to develop Red’s character. He takes into consideration the fact that—by losing how Red’s voice underlies every word of the novella, due to the nature of literature—his character naturally then becomes harder to develop as deeply in the film. This section of voiceover shows how Red is knowledgeable about Shawshank Prison and has spent a significant amount of time there, through use of words like “always” and the fact that he bets on someone’s suffering like it is a joke; essentially, he has become desensitized to the horror of the first night. This also gives the viewer a deeper understanding of both Red and life at Shawshank Prison. Because he is the narrator, the viewer naturally relates to Red—even more than the viewer would were he simply the protagonist; as narrator he is not only protagonist, but also guide through the world. The viewer has no choice but to trust him. So, it is easier to find Red sympathetic than the other characters—and if this is how even Red treats these circumstances, the viewer quickly learns that Shawshank Prison must be a terrible, calculated place. As this shows, voiceover narration tends to present itself as opinion in order to convey facts, or vice versa, and this once again aids in streamlining the process of disseminating information to the viewer.

Double Indemnity is also an interesting example of the nature of trust in a narrator, as, through the voiceover narration, protagonist Walter Neff literally steps the audience through the story of how he murdered a man for personal gain. Through his voiceover, he lets the audience in on the crime, like he is telling them a deep, dark secret. In the novella, he tells his story to an unspecified audience—essentially, the generic idea of the reader—while in the film, he tells the story as a recorded confession to his friend and colleague, Keyes, whom he has duped up until this point. Despite the more specific target audience of the narration in the film versus the novella, it still feels as if Neff tells his tale directly to the viewer, and because of this, the viewer trusts Neff’s interpretation of events. This leads to the story essentially outsmarting the viewer, as Neff leads the viewer in one direction—with his self-assured narration about what he thinks events mean and how they will turn out—while the truth, taking place beyond his limited, biased perspective, slowly crafts the story in a different direction, and ultimately leads to his downfall. As Keyes states in the screenplay, “You can’t figure them all, Walter” (Wilder and Chandler 131)—and Neff certainly has not figured all the times others would outsmart him. Likewise, Charlie of The Perks of Being a Wallflower presents a biased perspective of the events that unfold throughout his story, as he blocks memories and, most memorably, blacks out during a fight in the high school cafeteria. Also likewise, Red of Shawshank Redemption doesn’t figure out Andy’s plan to escape until Andy has already disappeared, thus correspondingly keeping the viewer in the dark. This biased perspective is more difficult to utilize in films than in prose, due, once again, to the less biased perspective of the camera. This means that one of the viewer’s two involved senses intrinsically receives the story as unbiased. So, accordingly, the filmmakers must then put more work into creating more biased—but not too obviously so—voiceover narration in order to keep the viewer under their thumb.

On the other side of bias, however, is the relentlessly positive nature of the fact that including a narrator in film, like in literature, creates a more personal experience of the story overall. While this gives a narrower, more biased view of the world, as the audience generally only experiences events from one, first person perspective versus from a third person perspective, this also gives the audience a more intimate view of that one point of view. This allows the audience to become more deeply invested in that character’s life, leading, arguably, to a more emotionally charged, and thus more enjoyable, film-going experience. For example, without voiceover narration, the audience would not get to hear Charlie’s thoughts as he and his friends enter the tunnel at the end of the film, stating:

I can see it. This one moment when you know you’re not a sad story. You are alive. … And in this moment, I swear … we are infinite. (Chbosky 95-96)

These lines are so important, as they are the lessons Chbosky most hopes to relate to the viewer with this story. These are the types of thoughts that would not feel natural to say out loud, but also are difficult to convey without words. Voiceover narration allows them to exist. It is these types of intimate thoughts that lead to the audience really rooting for Charlie to get better and survive, and similarly for Red to find freedom and happiness. The audience even roots, odd as it is, for Neff to get what will ultimately leave him at peace, whether it be to get away with murder or to give up his opportunity to in order to share how cunning he is with the one man whom he wants to make proud. Voiceover narration, like internal monologue, grounds the story more firmly around one central character, with the rest as the supporting cast in his or her life. Even in Shawshank Redemption, wherein arguably the true protagonist is Andy, as the plot revolves around his time in Shawshank Prison and ultimate escape, in the end the story does turn out to be about Red—his thoughts about Andy, what Andy means to him, and how that relationship inspires him to seek a better life.

While voiceover narration differs in many ways from the internal monologue of literature—again, primarily stemming from the fact that film engages more than one sense, thus dampening the power of each singular sense within the overall experience—these two, similar devices certainly share in their ability to convey information, develop character, and draw the audience more deeply into the world. While literature requires either one third person or first person narrator per scene to directly guide the reader through the world, films allow a greater variety and combination of experiences, wherein, even with a narrator, the viewer still physically sees the world through a technically objective perspective. Where literature can only be objective or subjective, film is the combination of objective and subjective experiences. Thus, by utilizing voiceover in order to translate the first person narratives of their literary counterparts to the big screen, Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity all deepen their characters, streamline the dissemination of information, connect the audience with the protagonist, and more in order to ultimately create deeper and more meaningful films—ones that, in conclusion, stick with the viewer in a way that, as Charlie would say, feels “infinite.”

*****

Bibliography

  • Cain, James M. Double Indemnity. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.
  • Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. 2012. Screenplay.
  • Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Print.
  • Darabont, Frank. Shawshank Redemption. 1994. Screenplay.
  • Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Paramount Pictures, 1944. Film.
  • King, Stephen. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption: A Story from Different Seasons. Thorndike, Me.: Thorndike, 1982. Print.
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Dir. Stephen Chbosky. Lionsgate, 2012. Film.
  • Shawshank Redemption. Dir. Frank Darabont. Warner Bros, 1994. Film.
  • Wilder, Billy and Chandler, Raymond. Double Indemnity. 1944. Screenplay.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: Comparing Literature to Film

It has been such a long week.

I keep reminding myself that I just have to survive this first month or so of the semester, then everything should hopefully be a little easier for a while. But, honestly, things are really tough right now (like “I am on the verge of bursting into tears multiple times a day out of stress” kind of tough), which is something I haven’t had to deal with in a long, long time. (Basically: not since freshman year Spanish class.)

But also, all the stressful things I’m dealing with right now are going to lead to really fun things later on–I just have to get to that point. So I’m dealing with them. And I’m taking deep breaths. And I’m doing my best to remember to enjoy the little successes in the midst of everything else.

And, on the upside, in the past week and a half since the semester started, I’ve learned to super appreciate sleep?

Anyway: This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. (I knew I could count on you to vote for that!) This is a paper I wrote for my literature-to-film adaptations class last semester, so it’s a little long and not entirely focused on literature, but I think the differences between books and movies are really intriguing, and ultimately tell you about literature as a medium. (Which, you know, ultimately helps you with writing.)

Spoiler warning for anyone who somehow does not know what happens in The Great Gatsby. (And sorry that the formatting on this is a little rough! I don’t have time to make sure it translates properly from Word to WordPress, unfortunately.)

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Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of dashed hopes and the American dream, The Great Gatsby, is an accurate one, in many senses. The film brings all the important players to the screen, from Nick to Gatsby to Daisy; it draws attention to the symbolic importance of the green light at the end of the dock; and it shows the extravagance of Gatsby’s wild parties. However, it also changes the way the story is told. In particular, the film strives to make narrator Nick Carraway a more active player in the plot, which makes sense, since movies allow less opportunity for internal monologue and the role of voice than novels. The filmmakers seek to do this, in large part, by erasing F. Scott Fitzgerald so that they may rather insert Nick in his place. Setting Nick in this authorial role—not simply narrator, but someone who has the ability to pick and choose what he says, how he says it, and, to an extent, how the viewer perceives it—additionally, naturally changes the way Nick tells the story. And this changes The Great Gatsby on a principle level. Nick no longer is whispering the story of his friend Gatsby into a void, but shouting it—via words on a page—to a specific audience. He does not write the story voluntarily, but at the urging of his psychiatrist, and the psychiatrist is not interested in Gatsby; he is there to figure out how to help Nick. Thus this change, in essence, makes the story no longer about Gatsby, but Nick himself—and, because of this, the story no longer comes across as generally objective, but extremely subjective. Nick’s emotion, his pain over all that transpired in New York, tints—and arguably taints—everything. While of course this is also true for the novel, it happens to a much lesser extent there, due to Nick’s lack of awareness to the fact that someone is paying attention to what he says. The novel version of Nick has this magical ability of disappearing into the story, melting into the shadows in order to throw focus onto the characters who are more crucial to the plot. On the other hand, the film version of Nick finds a way to insert himself into every situation so that he is always present, everything is at least vaguely about him, and it is clear that he ultimately is aware that he controls what happens in the story. Thus, by utilizing Nick as not only narrator, but author as well, Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby changes not only how Nick phrases things, but ultimately what these things mean—as exemplified by a seemingly minor change in the opening monologue—, and this therefore transforms who Nick is as a character.

This decision to allow Nick to edit the story he tells becomes apparent almost immediately in the film, as his famous opening monologue begins as voiceover. However, the monologue is condensed—and thus changed—from the version found in the novel. Tweaks and deletions abound in the opening monologue, but one of the most intriguing changes is one that actually does not make it through to the final cut of the film. Rather, screenwriters Luhrmann and Craig Pearce made the change in the screenplay, then rescinded it—returning to Fitzgerald’s phrasing—in the actual film. This change is small, seemingly inconsequential: the removal of the words “and more vulnerable” in Nick’s opening line, otherwise written and spoken as, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice…” (Fitzgerald 1). In the screenplay, the line appears simply as, “In my younger years my father gave me some advice” (Luhrmann and Pearce 1). However, these three words greatly alter the viewer or reader’s perception of the story that follows. The fact that Nick admits to having not only been vulnerable when he was younger—but “more vulnerable,” as in he is still vulnerable, only less so, now—serves multiple purposes. Besides the obvious fact that this tells the audience to think of the past Nick as weaker—and the present Nick as someone who has learned from that weakness, although he is aware that he is not perfectly strong even now—, this phrasing also evokes a sort of sympathy.

None of the characters in The Great Gatsby are generally likeable, but this opening line makes a strong stride towards endearing Nick to the audience, and he is the sole character to truly get this sort of treatment. Everyone else comes across as impenetrable. In this way, it is Nick’s self-awareness, as much as his awareness of others, which makes him such a good narrator. The Great Gatsby is a naturally reflective story, as even in the novel, Nick spends his time looking back on the past and making judgments about it; while he claims, in another portion of the opening, to be “inclined to reserve all judgments” (Fitzgerald 1), he spends the entire novel making judgments about those he knew, what happened, and the various roles he played in it all. Even his last moment with Gatsby is a judgment on Nick’s part, as he states:

“They’re a rotten crowd … You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” / I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, because I disapproved of him from beginning to end. (Fitzgerald 154)

Here Nick judges the Buchanans and their friends, as well as Gatsby and ultimately himself. He is glad he paid Gatsby a compliment, less because of what it says about Gatsby—as Nick hastens to add, he “disapproved of him from beginning to end” (Fitzgerald 154)—but because of what this comment means about Nick. It makes him feel like a good person, the fact that he unknowingly complimented a man just hours before his death, even if at the time he did not entirely believe in his own words. Luhrmann and Pearce transplant this section word-for-word to the screenplay, with the exception of the phrase “because I disapproved of him from beginning to end” Fitzgerald 154)—a change which, in opposition to the exclusion of “and more vulnerable,” works to draw the focus more to Nick’s judgment of himself rather than his judgment of Gatsby, and thus to Nick’s judgment of himself in general. It is decisions such as this that draw attention to the fact that it is this ability of Nick to judge himself that ultimately makes him who he is as a character and narrator in the novel and film.

Accordingly, the exclusion of “and more vulnerable” then begs the question of why the filmmakers thought to remove it in the first place. Based on the general paraphrasing of the opening monologue, the easiest answer is that they initially cut it to save time, which is a more limited resource in films than novels. However, three words do not take long to state; in fact, actor Tobey Maguire’s recitation of “and more vulnerable” takes less than a second—more specifically, seventy-three hundredths of a second. Likewise, the majority of the paraphrasing distributed throughout the monologue works more to reduce Fitzgerald’s wordiness rather than to change the meaning of the writing. For example, Nick remembering the advice his father gave him transforms from: “‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had’” (Fitzgerald 1) to the less wordy: “‘Remember, not all the people in this world have had the same advantages as you” (Luhrmann and Pearce 1). It’s about streamlining, not steamrollering. Thus, the deletion of “and more vulnerable” must have been very purposeful, and the next most obvious conclusion is that the writers must have believed that their version of Nick—the one who is aware of his audience and his control over the story he weaves—would not admit to this vulnerability. A Nick Carraway who does not want the audience to know that he was, and continues to be, vulnerable is one who closes himself off from the viewer. He judges others, but not himself. Whether due to a lack of trust or simply a lack of sincerity, this lends itself to a Nick who, if the rest of the adaptation were to follow suit, would be as unsympathetic and ultimately unlikeable as the rest of the cast. Although Nick indeed does function as an audience surrogate in the novel version of The Great Gatsby, this role expands when he becomes the author of the story. Since he is in control, it is important for the viewer to feel safe in his hands, as if he will be honest and forthright about all that transpired. The viewer must believe the story in order to connect with it and learn from it, and that’s only possible when the viewer believes the person telling it. The viewer needs Nick to not only be vulnerable, but to readily admit to this vulnerability, in order to buy into everything else. This means that the phrase “and more vulnerable,” in essence, is a promise, upfront, to the viewer of what is to come.

Of course, it does appear the filmmakers realized this while recording the voiceover with Maguire, because amongst other changes to the opening monologue between the screenplay and film, “and more vulnerable” also reappears. While Nick’s character still transforms between the page and screen due to his increased role, as author, his vulnerability—and thus his ability to judge and therefore become relatable to the audience—remains intact. This decision works in the filmmakers’ favor, as Nick’s willingness to judge also plays into one of the story’s deepest-running themes. What Luhrmann captures best in his adaptation is that The Great Gatsby is a story of want: Desperate, contagious, inescapable, insurmountable, uncontrollable want. As the screenplay and film versions of Nick tell Gatsby, “[Y]ou can’t repeat the past” (Luhrmann and Pearce 140). The Nick of the present, the one telling the story in the psychiatrist’s office, has not forgotten this lesson. Thus, he decides how to tell the past in order to shape the future into the one that he wants. He has witnessed the effect of the green light at the end of the dock. He knows where Gatsby’s passionate, un-satisfiable type of want inevitably leads. Thus, where the novel ends on a note of hopelessness, the filmmakers are aware of their opportunity to end the story differently, and so choose to give a hint at something more—a slightly more positive ending that might better appeal to the movie-going audience, which is generally broader than the contemporary audience which reads classics such as The Great Gatsby. It is at this point, with the story of Gatsby completed and all the focus narrowed in, tight and center, on Nick, that Luhrmann’s film veers from its accuracy to the novel to truly charting its own territory, even if only for a few seconds. Nick does not tell this part. The voiceover narration has finished and the source material has run out. Here the film moves from the subjective first person point-of-view to a third person one actually far more objective than the perspective shared in the novel. Finally, the filmmakers grant the viewer the opportunity to see Nick from a distance, rather than from inside his head. They show here, explicitly, how Nick is choosing how he remembers the past. While not all of the changes Luhrmann makes improve The Great Gatsby, or even arguably work, this one does. The camera follows Nick as he finishes typing a manuscript titled Gatsby. He has finally become a writer, as he always wanted to be. He binds the manuscript, ready to leave the past behind. With a pen, almost as an afterthought, he decides to add the words “The Great” to the title. He chooses to remember Gatsby in this way. And with the binding of the manuscript, like the closing of a book, Nick leaves the past behind in order to move on with his life. He is aware of his vulnerability, but willing to embrace it, learn from it, and live with it. Nick judges himself, but also grows from these judgments. Although time might bear him back “ceaselessly into the past” (Luhrmann and Pearce 224), he has made the decision to meet it head-on. By utilizing Nick as not only narrator, but author as well, Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby changes not only how Nick phrases things, but ultimately what these things mean, which therefore transforms who Nick is as a character. In this case, he is vulnerable, judgmental—and, in consequence, actually a more hopeful Nick Carraway.

*****

Bibliography:
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner Trade Paperback Edition ed. 1925. Print.
Luhrmann, Baz and Pearce, Craig. The Great Gatsby. 2013. Screenplay.
The Great Gatsby. Dir. Baz Luhrmann. Warner Home Video, 2013. Film.

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Thanks for reading!

~Julia

Wordy Wednesday: We Need Diverse Books

It’s currently 6:55 PM and while so far today I’ve watched an episode of Gilmore Girls, read some of Eleanor & Park (using it for a project on banned books for my YA lit class!), attended two classes, taken a quiz, completed a film project, played guitar for a couple hours, run through my choir music, watched last night’s episode of The Flash (this show is so campy and wonderful), and made lots of really yummy food–I am yet to open my NaNoWriMo file. The NaNoWriMo file I need to add 5.5K to today, when you combine my allotted 3K for today, 2K from Monday, and 500 words from Sunday.

And Ch1Con is putting on a Twitter chat tonight about what it’s like to be a young writer using #Ch1Con at 9:30 PM EST, so time I have to write tonight = negative hours.

So that’s great.

But anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post. And, conveniently, I just got another paper back in YA lit, so I figured I’d share that. (This one got an A. Booya.)

Like last time, because this was a paper for class, I addressed the topic through the lens of the books and articles we’ve read this semester and had a three page limit. But hopefully this covers diversity in YA lit fairly decently.

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The need for more diversity in young adult literature has been an issue relevant in the publishing industry for years, but only recently has it come to mass attention. Now, it’s a prevalent topic in all segments of the industry, from editors and literary agents calling for more diverse submissions, to writers learning how to write diversity realistically and truthfully and readers begging for more. In order to face and solve the problems associated with diversity today, and provide hope for a better-represented and less challenging reality for everyone tomorrow, it’s time for young adult literature to diversify.

The term “diversity” itself refers to a number of different sub-definitions that are all relevant in their current necessity for further representation, including but not limited to all the various races, classes, genders, sexual orientations, religions, and disabilities that exist in society. It’s important when writing diverse literature to remember that no human being can accurately be defined by just one thing, and it is the layers and combinations of all these factors that make characters feel like people. Readers take interest in characters with whom they are able to relate, but these relatable features rarely are characteristics like the texture of someone’s hair or the ability to use her legs so much as the things she feels and thinks. For example, in Gene Luen Yang’s young adult graphic novel American Born Chinese, protagonist Jin’s classmates ostracize him for something he cannot control, and although many readers likely don’t know what it’s like to for others to define them in this way due to their race, they do know how it feels to want to change something they cannot and to be alone in a crowd. As Ponyboy realizes in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, “[m]aybe the … different worlds we live … in … [aren’t] so different. We … [see] the same sunset” (Hinton 41). While many parts of two people’s lives may be different, they will always be able to find some sort of common ground.

Writers can approach diversity in two primary ways: apparent and incidental. In apparent diversity, the writer references the diversity in such a way that it becomes an element that furthers the story. For instance, in a plot-driven narrative, events might occur that would propel the story because the protagonist suffers of obsessive compulsive disorder, or in a character-driven narrative the protagonist might do things that would propel the story because he suffers of OCD. This sort of apparent diversity appears in both issue books, in which the diverse element is central to the underlying concept, and more complex stories in which diversity simply has a strong influence. Matt de La Peña masters this second type in his young adult contemporary novel We Were Here, in which the protagonist Miguel’s story is primarily about his breaking out of a group home with two fellow juvenile delinquents, but race plays an underlying role as he also learns to reconcile the Mexican and white sides of himself. For example, at the Mexican border to which he has fled so that he will never have to return to the group home, he wonders:

Why [was that kid] on the Mexico side of the fence, and I was on the American side? … Just ’cause my moms is white? ’Cause … how gramps snuck through a sewage drain … just to make it to America? … What did I do? (de La Peña 218)

While this element of Miguel’s character is not the focus of We Were Here, it’s still important to him and the plot.

Incidental diversity, on the other hand, is diversity that just happens to be there without actually affecting the plot or central development of the character in question. If the character is gay, the story is not about him coming out to his parents or being bullied at school. He just happens to be a boy who likes boys, and the plot itself is about something else entirely. Many authors, including Matt de La Peña, argue against this type of portrayal, because it omits the truth behind what diversity looks like today. In modern society, diverging from the norm in any aspect generally leads to trial and adversity. However, it is also arguable that while incidental diversity might not be wholly realistic in a modern setting, the authors don’t fully mean their portrayals to be. Their primary goal, instead, is to sow hope.

In a world in which everyone is defined by both their similarities and unique features—and beautiful due to the combination—, hope for a kinder future is just as crucial as addressing the problems of today. By portraying a society in which it is not an issue to be someone other than a white, straight, protestant, able-bodied and minded, middle to upper-class male, authors normalize this vision. One of the most significant things diverse literature can do is let readers into the heads of others, so that different characteristics no longer feel like unknowns and therefore potentially dangerous. Showing a reality in which it is the norm to accept and understand diversity makes a future in which that occurs no longer feel potentially dangerous, and in turn makes such a future more likely to occur.

Perhaps someday soon literature and reality will mirror one another. Books will represent all the very different people reading them, and society will accept and embrace this diversity the way characters do—not only in the scarce offerings currently on shelves, but in the hundreds of manuscripts the various members of the publishing industry are currently feverishly writing, submitting, and editing in hopes that readers will fall in love with a more colorful future. It’s time.

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Thanks for reading!

Goal for today: 3,000 + Monday’s 2,000 + Sunday’s 500 = 5,500.

Overall goal: 22,000.

Current word count: 19,046.

~Julia

PS. The title of my paper is also the name of a really awesome organization that promotes diversity in literature. You can check them out at their website: weneeddiversebooks.org. (And they’ve got an Indiegogo campaign going on to raise funds to send diverse books and authors to underprivileged schools, support diverse authors, etc. that you NEED to donate to right over here. They’re so close to their goal!)

Wordy Wednesday: The Unreliable Narrator in Young Adult Fiction

I swear, someday I’ll begin posting Wordy Wednesdays before midnight again. (In my defense this week, I spent the entire day either in class or doing homework, then tonight friends came over and we all watched Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and ate funfetti cake Hannah had made in honor of the occasion, so I was kind of busy.)

Anyway. The past week’s been pretty uneventful. I walked a 5K Sunday with my parents, then spent Monday barely being able to move because I am actually SO OUT OF SHAPE that walking three miles in a row destroyed my muscles. (You don’t need to make fun of me. I did enough of it myself between winces as I walked to class.) Monday night, I turned in my final research paper for Oxford and very melodramatically drank Sainsbury’s peppermint tea out of my Magdalen mug while missing England.

Long story short: I’ve gone to a ton of classes and done a ton of homework and eaten a ton of cookies.

This week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post that takes form in an essay I turned in for my YA lit class recently, discussing the idea of the unreliable narrator. [Update: I got a very deserving B on this, primarily for a flawed representation of the unreliable narrator, due to not expounding enough on my argument, and the multitude of typos that occur when you finish a paper fifteen minutes before it’s due. So. Keep that in mind while you read. Hopefully I can do a post actually discussing the unreliable narrator from a writing perspective at some point, to clear up the issues posed by this essay. But in the meantime, enjoy!]

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The unreliable narrator is a trope that pops up again and again in fiction. It involves, most commonly, a protagonist written from a first person perspective that asserts one idea to be true when this idea is actually false. The idea directly relates to the narrator in some way, to the point of defining him or her. However, all narrators are unreliable to an extent, due to their age, position in the world, personal ideology, etc. Hazel in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars tells her story after the fact, which means readers will never know for sure who Augustus Waters was as a person, because what they only know him through Hazel’s eyes. What arguably makes a protagonist not just commonly unreliable, but definable as an unreliable narrator, is the fact that it is possible for him or her to understand, with effort, his or her idea to be false. Maybe he or she knew the truth at a time but chose to believe it wasn’t true or forget it, or has known the truth the entire time and simply chosen to knowingly lie. Which is to say, what makes a protagonist an unreliable narrator is his or her decision, whether conscious or not, to lie. Within fiction, a category the unreliable narrator is especially prevalent in is young adult. From the way teenagers often relate more easily to the unreliable narrator than other age groups do, to the way stories utilizing this type of perspective are more likely to be twisty and fast-paced, the unreliable narrator trope finds its home in young adult fiction.

The teenage years, as presented in young adult fiction, are generally spent sneaking around with boyfriends and pulling one over on authority figures. In E. Lockhart’s The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, the title character spends the majority of her story lying to her friends and playing elaborate pranks on the administration of her elite boarding school. Even if teens don’t personally take part in these types of activities, they’re fun to read and demonstrate sentiments teens are likely to relate with: hating how adults and peers underestimate them; wanting to be special but feel normal at the same time; needing a wild adventure to stay sane amidst of midterms and soccer practice. While a story with a straightforward narration style and normal characters can accomplish these things, like in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, an unreliable narrator pulls them one step further. In the S.E. Hinton classic The Outsiders, narrator Ponyboy is an accessory to a murder, but after the friend who actually commits it dies, he can’t stand the idea of remembering his friend this way—as a murderer—so he chooses to believe he is the one who murdered, instead, so that at least in his mind, Johnny might still be alive. He knew “Johnny was dead [and knew] it all the time … [but] just thought that maybe if [he] played like Johnny wasn’t dead it wouldn’t hurt so much” (Hinton 177). This adds another layer to Ponyboy’s story and actions. Perhaps one of the reasons the unreliable narrator appears more frequently in young adult fiction than other categories is because teenagers connect more with the narrator who chooses to believe one thing when another might be true. After all, they’re figuring out what they believe and don’t believe too; sometimes they lie about things happening in order to make life easier to live too. Maybe for a teen reader the distraction is a lie about the state of her geometry grade, rather than about whether or not her friend is dead. But details don’t resonate as loudly as overall actions. As unreliable narrators allow themselves to grow and admit their truth, so do their readers about their own.

On top of this, the unreliable narrator automatically adds another layer to how interesting the story is and involves the reader more. Not only must the reader try to figure out what’s going to happen, but also how much of what has already and is currently happening to believe. Also, unreliable narrators lend themselves to the sorts of stories in which it would be more logical to have a character who cannot handle what’s going on around them. While The Fault in Our Stars’s Hazel can choose to direct the reader’s opinion in one way or another, the fairly ordinary circumstances of her life would make it difficult for to be believable as an unreliable narrator. Ponyboy, on the other hand, lives with the constant threat of getting “jumped by the Socs” (Hinton 2) or the authorities tearing his family apart. His best friend dies from injuries incurred in a fire after murdering a boy who attacked Ponyboy. These extreme circumstances merit the mind shutting the truth out. Stories like these, with an abundance of plot twists and action, tend to be shorter and snappier, which keep readers on the edges of their seats and are more likely to keep teens turning pages, rather than putting the book down to check Facebook. With the way young adult fiction itself generally runs shorter and more to the point that other categories of fiction, it has a reciprocal relationship with the unreliable narrator: the unreliable narrator helps the novel move along, and the novel has no choice but to move in such a way that backs the interest created by the unreliable narrator.

From the way teens are more likely to be able to relate to a story featuring an unreliable narrator, due to the circumstances of the period of life they’re in, to how the unreliable narrator supports the form of the young adult novel and leads to stories with more inherent interest in them, this literary trope finds its home in young adult fiction. Together, as Ponyboy’s friend Johnny would say, they “[s]tay gold” (Hinton 148).

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Thanks for reading! (Now: Off to sleep. SO TIRED.)

 

~Julia