Adaptation, Biography, Non-Fiction, Science

Page to Screen: Masters of Sex

Cover image for Masters of Sex by Thomas Maier by Thomas Maier

Written by Michelle Ashford

Directed by Michael Apted

ISBN 978-0-465-0799-5

Sexual research is legitimate field of scientific inquiry that continues to be restricted by social mores. Dr. William Masters and his colleague Virginia Johnson were among the first to breach those taboos in the mid-1950s. While their predecessor Alfred Kinsey collected subjective sexual histories for his work at Indiana University, Masters and Johnson ventured into the much more objectionable direct study of human subjects engaging in sexual acts. In Masters of Sex, author Thomas Maier chronicles the complexly intertwined lives and work of the two researchers, who also eventually married, and then divorced. In 2013, Showtime adapted his biography for television under the same title.

Dr. Masters gained the leeway to perform his controversial research through fifteen years of work as a renowned ob-gyn and fertility specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. He was personally responsible for the reproductive success of many of St. Louis’ most prominent citizens, including the police commissioner, a debt he did not hesitate to cash in when he wanted to begin conducting research in the city’s brothels. Although Johnson is clearly portrayed as the people person in their duo on the television program, the biography shows that Masters was adept enough at leveraging his professional relationships and credentials to get what he wanted. This would become evident again when he needed to assemble a board for his research institute in order to secure tax-exempt status.

By starting their work in the less accommodating 1950s, Masters and Johnson were poised to break onto the scene when the sexual revolution took hold a decade later. However, their controversial work was not without consequences or complications, professional and personal; Masters was ousted from Washington University’s hospital, with the aura of respectability it provided, and had to set up his own institute to continue the work. Their ground-breaking research debunked many myths about human sexuality, and particularly female sexuality. However, while their goals were laudable and necessary, their means were not always kosher by modern standards, beginning with Masters’ asking Johnson to have sex with him in the lab, ostensibly for the purposes of the study. Today we recognize the unacceptable power differential inherent in this proposition, as well as the unethical nature of being involved as subjects in their own study. They are far from unimpeachable scientists, though their legacy is significant. Moreover, they make for fascinating biography subjects, and things only become more tangled in later years.

Maier was able to draw from the unpublished memoir of William Masters, who died in 2001, as well as interview the then somewhat reclusive Virginia Johnson, who was living under the name Mary Masters. Though she was known to turn other writers away, she shared her complicated feelings about her relationship with Masters, and grappled with the question of whether or not she ever really loved him.  She passed away in 2013, only a couple months before the TV pilot was set to air. And though he touches on controversies, such as their later work on conversion therapy and AIDS, Maier is certainly a friendly biographer, which perhaps explains the cooperation he was able to obtain.

The Showtime series Masters of Sex is based on Maier’s book, and he also serves as a writer and producer on the program. Three full seasons have now aired, with a fourth scheduled for later this year, but for the purposes of this review, I have only covered seasons one and two. Although plenty of the content comes directly from Maier’s book, there are ample departures from its pages. In particular, Maier devotes little attention to Masters’ wife, Libby, in the book, but on the show she is one of the primary characters, and things must be found for her to do. With Maier along for the ride, it is hard to say what is entirely fictional, and what might be drawn from research that didn’t find its way into his book. However, he has definitely stated that Libby’s storyline with racism and the Civil Rights Movement is the writers “creative interpretation.”

The lead characters are played by Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen. They capture the push and pull of the extremely complicated relationship that existed between their real life counterparts, and both possess the necessary ability to shift from confident portrayal to vulnerability, often in quick succession. The power dynamic is a fraught one, as is especially evident in the early episodes when Virginia has to figure out how to say no to Bill’s proposal that they have sex together as part of the study. As much as Masters’ needed Johnson’s skills, without credentials of her own, she could not walk away from him without also having to give up the work they were doing. The conflict is quite evident, even without being addressed in modern terms within the show. In this respect, the book has the advantage of being able to pull back from the time in which the events took place to address this more explicitly, including broaching the subject with the real Virginia Johnson in interviews.

One disturbing aspect of the book is Masters’ and Johnson’s involvement in early conversion therapies for gay people, who at that time were considered to have a mental illness. Homosexuality would not be removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. Although the TV series does not reach this period in the first two seasons, the character of Provost Scully, played by Beau Bridges, follows a story arc that addresses views of homosexuality at that time. Masters and Johnson’s later work (1968-1977) would delve more directly into this area, though Johnson later expressed serious reservations about the conversion therapy work, and Thomas Maier concludes that much of the data was probably faked by Bill Masters. It will be interesting to see how this topic is treated in later seasons.

Scully is far from the only composite or fictionalized character in the series. Combining various plot points inspired by different real events and people into an ongoing set of largely fictionalized secondary characters both allows the cast to be kept small, and potentially avoids some legal issues. Though both Masters are Johnson are now dead, their respective children are still alive, and there has been much speculation about changes to the program in order to avoid legal entanglement with the families. My own favourite character is Lester, the videographer who is charged with documenting Masters and Johnson’s work. In reality, most of their documentation was in the form of audio tapes, as well as readouts from the machines they attached to their subjects, but Lester’s work ties much more nicely into the visual format of a TV program. He drops bon mots about film theory, and takes his dates to obscure foreign films. In the second season, he is recruited to double duty as a study subject for the foray into the field of sex therapy to treat sexual dysfunction.

The Showtime series clearly dramatizes and condenses, and has the added advantage of two extremely compelling performers. However, for those, like me, who are always curious about what is really true in a historical drama, Maier’s book is a necessary companion. Maier does much to elucidate the legacy of Masters and Johnson, most of which has faded from popular memory. However, his clear admiration is not always sufficiently critical of their more flawed endeavours.


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Adaptation, Fiction

Austen-Mania Round Up

I recently went on a bit of a Jane Austen-themed binge. Starting over the holidays and extending into the New Year, I read a couple of spin-off novels based on her work, reread Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time, and rewatched two film adaptations of the novel. Rather than writing a full-on review for each, here’s a round-up of my thoughts on some of these works!

Austenland by Shannon Hale

Cover image for Austenland by Shannon HaleJane Hayes is a single New Yorker with a secret Jane Austen obsession. Her somewhat ridiculous shame stems in part from the belief that her idealization of Mr. Darcy has prevented her from being able to settle for the average, modern man. Then the death of a wealthy relative leaves her a strange bequest—an all-expenses paid trip to Pembrook Park, an exclusive English resort where wealthy young women come to live out their Regency fantasies, inspired by Austen’s work. Faced with the reality of her fantasy, Jane becomes uncertain about what she wants, and tormented by doubts about how to conduct herself in such a bizarre scenario. The events going on at the estate mix plot elements from various Austen novels, making it harder to predict what is going to happen. The tension comes from Jane’s efforts to tease out what is real and what is pretend at Pembrook, complicated by the fact that she feels different because she could never afford to holiday at Pembrook on her own, and the proprietress isn’t likely to let her forget it. Hale is walking a fine line trying to critique unrealistic romantic expectations without denigrating Austen fans, while still delivering a happy ending, leaving the message somewhat muddled, but overall this was a fun romp.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Cover image for Longbourn by Jo BakerJo Baker takes us belowstairs at Longbourn, Mr. Bennet’s estate in Pride and Prejudice. Her narrative dogs the footsteps of Austen’s original work. Baker grafts her story onto the day-to-day underpinnings of the Bennet’s lives, spinning scant clues from the text into a full-on life below stairs for Mr. and Mrs. Hill, Sarah and Polly the housemaids, and James, the newly arrived footman, who is conjured out a single mention in Austen’s novel. The first two-thirds of this novel are fairly dry, perhaps unsurprising given the grueling work Sarah and her fellow servants are responsible for. Baker does give things a good twist in the last third, and surprisingly it is Mr. Bennet who is the character most fully reimagined and fleshed-out by this undertaking. However, other of her tweaks are less than fresh, such as having Mary be secretly in love with Mr. Collins. In many ways Longbourn is a more self-serious novel than Pride and Prejudice; Baker lacks Austen’s playfulness, and her way with words has less of wit and more of reflection. It certainly goes a long way towards bringing to life the harder realities of the Regency, something modern Austen fans sometimes over-romanticize.

Pride and Prejudice (2005) directed by Joe Wright

Cover image for Pride and Prejudice (2005) directed by Joe WrightThis most recent P&P adaptation (no I will not acknowledge the zombie one) starring Kiera Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen was generally popular when it came out, if not particularly acclaimed by more ardent Austenophiles. Its main problem is that it is rushed; everything has to move along at an extremely brisk clip to get even the rudiments of the story told in 129 minutes. Knightly wasn’t entirely popular as Elizabeth Bennet, but her tomboyish take is serviceable, while Macfadyen’s Darcy is rather hang-dog. However, this version does do some beautiful things with light. Jane and Bingley—well played by Rosamund Pike and Simon Green, even if Green is a bit bumbling—fairly glow as they fall in love. And the sunrise scene that concludes the film is beautiful enough to allow you to ignore Knightly and Macfadyen’s lackluster chemistry. Donald Sutherland, however, makes a great Mr. Bennet, and by far the most affecting scene in the film is when he gives Lizzie his blessing to marry Mr. Darcy. Admittedly, however, I usually only rewatch this version when I don’t have six hours to give its predecessor.

Pride and Prejudice (1995) directed by Simon Langton

Cover image for Pride and Prejudice In addition to a superb cast, this BBC adaptation benefits from actually being a six hour mini-series rather than a feature-length film. Many of the faults of the more recent version can be remedied by not being rushed, allowing time for things like establishing shots and transitions without sacrificing content. The down-side is trying to find six hours to watch it when you have a P&P craving. The picture quality of my 10th Anniversary Limited Collector’s Edition is looking a little dated, but I understand that the 2010 remastered version remedies many of these ills. I guess I might be buying this series again in its updated form! I do find Allison Steadman’s take on Mrs. Bennet a little bit overwrought, but overall this version is extremely enjoyable, and it is always a pleasure coming back to it. I wouldn’t call it definitive—only the book can be that—but it is a favourite in the adaptation department. Update: The remastered Bluray edition is indeed a vast improvement on the older DVD set! I highly recommend the upgrade.

Have you read or watched any of these? What are your favourite Jane Austen adaptations and spin offs?

Adaptation, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Travel

Page to Screen: Wild

Movie tie-in cover for Wild by Cheryl Strayedby Cheryl Strayed

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

ISBN 978-0-307-59273-6

“I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back into the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.”

In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed had managed to turn her life upside down. After her mother’s early death from cancer when Strayed was twenty-two, her family fell apart, she got divorced from the man she had married when she was only nineteen, and she was regularly doing heroin with a new boyfriend in Portland, leading to an accidental pregnancy. In an effort to get her life back on track, Strayed decided, almost on a whim, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2650 mile path that stretches from Mexico to Canada. Her trip began in Mojave, California, and ended in Cascade Locks on the Oregon/Washington border, bypassing the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle section, a distance of about 1100 miles.

Strayed devotes a few chapters at the beginning of the book to her childhood and the events that led her to the trail, but she largely avoids falling into the trap of front-loading her back story. Instead, much of it is dispersed throughout the book, coming up at relevant moments in her ruminations along the trail. While we find out in the beginning that she fell out with her step-father after her mother’s death, we don’t find out why until about halfway through the book. This means that we get to the meat of hike and the PCT experience more quickly than in many memoirs.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s film adaptation takes this structure even farther, relegating almost the entire backstory to flashbacks while Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) is on the trail. A large portion of the film’s runtime consists of these memories, along with a generous helping of voice-over. Vallée also resequences and consolidates events and characters, and omits others entirely. Strayed’s step-father and sister are among those who have been deleted from the story, along with a large number of the other hikers. Major incidents are consolidated for added drama, while several minor characters are combined in the guise of Ed the trail angel. Other items, such as Strayed’s famous Bob Marley t-shirt, appear in the film merely as a nod to the book, without surrounding context or events. However, most of these changes have relatively little impact on the story.

Strayed went into her trip woefully unprepared, a fact that begins to become clear to her from her first day on the trail, and which only grows more apparent from there as she struggles to carry a pack she can barely lift. As she gains some experience, she does wise up a little bit, opting to bypass the snowed-in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The book strikes a decent balance between cautionary tale and inspiration; Strayed doesn’t undersell the importance of the experience she had on the PCT, but she also readily admits to the situations where her lack of knowledge and preparation could have cost her life. Hopefully those who are inspired by her trip will take her mishaps as a cue to be better prepared themselves.

Overall, both the book and the film it inspired are much more about Strayed’s personal journey than the hike itself, and Wild certainly doesn’t purport to be any kind of guidebook, for all the mimicry it has spawned. We see this reflected in the film’s understated cinematography, which spends much of its screen time on Reese Witherspoon, and lavishes relatively little attention on the dramatic landscapes of the trail. The most recurring feature of the natural landscape is the fox that represents Strayed’s deceased mother. Unfortunately this conceit, which is touching in its single appearance in the book, is overdone in the film. The movie similarly manages to stamp the life out of other powerful and affecting scenes, most notably the death of her mother’s horse in a flashback.

Though much has been made of Strayed’s recklessness as a solitary hiker, far from being in danger most of the time, other hikers on the PCT readily helped one another out, and as a woman alone Strayed actually found that she experienced more kindness from strangers who were worried about her. This comes through clearly even in the film, where several such events are omitted. Most (but not all) of the dangers came from the trail itself (snakes, bears, rough terrain, snow) or her own lack of preparation (not carrying enough water, buying boots a size too small) rather than other people. Strayed’s account of her trip is actually a great testament to the sense of community that has grown up amongst PCT hikers, and those who live and work at the outposts along the trail. Strayed is a strong writer who can evoke both the day-to-day grind of trying to walk up to twenty miles under a heavy load, and also the charm and magic of the culture than surrounds this undertaking.


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Adaptation, Biography, Challenges, Non-Fiction

Page to Screen: Mary Poppins, She Wrote/Saving Mr. Banks

Cover image for Mary Poppins She Wrote by Valerie LawsonBook by Valerie Lawson

Directed by John Lee Hancock

ISBN 978-1-4767-6292-0

“Helen Lyndon Goff had two fathers. One was real. The other she imagined. The traces of both men can be found in a third father, the completely fictional George Banks, the melancholy head of the household in the adventures of Mary Poppins.”

Born Helen Lyndon Goff in Australia in 1899, Pamela Lyndon Travers, author of the Mary Poppins series, was an intensely private figure. While she was happy to discuss her work, she was reluctant to talk about personal topics, and known to mislead interviewers, resulting in conflicting information about her history. Travers did not want so much as a biography written of her after her death, so the idea that her life might be made into a film—by Disney no less—would probably have horrified her to no end. Valerie Lawson, the author of Mary Poppins, She Wrote wanted to write about the author for some years, but respected her wishes until after her death. During her life, Travers sold her papers to the Mitchell Library in Sydney, where they are publicly available, forming the basis for Lawson’s biography. Divided into three sections—Nymph, Mother, Crone, titles apparently inspired Travers’ own interest in spirituality and the occult—Lawson follows Travers from her childhood in Australia, to her youthful forays into acting, which transformed into theatre journalism, across the ocean to England, where she continued to work as a reporter, and became an author, a mother, a mover in literary circles, and the follower of a bizarre and charismatic guru known as Gurdjieff.

Poster for Saving Mr. Banks Lawson has done a lot of research to try to piece together the life of a secretive and long-lived figure who tried to leave her provincial past far behind her. There is a lot of ground to cover, and Lawson struggles to tease a coherent story arc out of a long and varied life. Lawson asserts that the fictional Mr. Banks was “the father, and lover, Lyndon wished she had,” but offers very little in support of this theory, which really only seems to work if you are thinking of the Mr. Banks of Disney’s film, rather than the character in Travers’ books, who is much less in need of saving.  Rather, it seems Lawson is reaching desperately for a narrative conceit, a thread to string together her rather sagging and shapeless biography. A life is a life, not a story, and Lawson’s efforts to turn Travers’ life into a cohesive narrative fall flat.

Lawson’s interpretive choices aside, her biography is one of very few sources against which to compare Saving Mr. Banks, the Disney film which recounts how Walt Disney finally convinced Travers to sell him the rights to make Mary Poppins into a movie after more than twenty years of trying. It was certainly a source for Kelly Marcel’s original script, which was then sold to Disney. For Disney to tell the story of the making of one of its own films is something of a conflict of interest, since the company is hardly likely to take a critical look at its own history, or stir up a controversy surrounding the creation of one if its most beloved classics. However, there are certain perks that come with the conflict. The Disney archives still contain the tapes that recorded the sessions in which Travers met with the development team for the film, and can be heard playing during the closing credits. Disney also has the rights to use music and video from the original Mary Poppins, permission for which almost certainly never would have been granted to another studio.

Challenge Badge for the 2014 Book to Movie ChallengeWhereas Mary Poppins, She Wrote covers Travers’ whole life, Saving Mr. Banks homes in on the production of the film. This focus on the making of Mary Poppins leaves out most of Travers’ life, and turns her into something of a caricature with overly simple motivations. The character of Pamela Travers, as portrayed by Emma Thompson, undoubtedly depicts Travers at her most extreme and unlikeable, though the period in question does indeed seem to have been a difficult and lonely one in her life. In the film, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, asks Travers if she has children, to which she replies, “No, well, not precisely,” neatly eliding her adopted son, Camillus. The two became estranged when, at seventeen, Camillus learned he had been adopted, and around the period Travers and Disney would have been negotiating film rights, he was serving time in prison for drunk driving. And although Travers had a series of close male and female friendships that may or may not have also been romantic in nature, she did tend to fall out with them. She lived alone, and had to support herself with her writing.

The film development storyline is counterpointed by sun-drenched flashbacks to Australia in 1906, where Travers’ father has just moved his family to Allora, a tiny town more than a hundred kilometres from Brisbane. Supposedly a fresh start, her father soon returns to his drinking, while her mother attempts suicide in the river. Like Lawson’s biography, the film strives for neat parallels, suggesting a simple connection between Travers’ childhood and her later creative works.  Travers’ father is equated with Mr. Banks, and her aunt with Mary Poppins, who arrives with a carpetbag full of medicine intended to cure Travers Goff’s tuberculosis. Her father is portrayed by Colin Farrell, who excels, as ever, at playing a charming but dissolute character. Indeed, perhaps the best thing that can be said of the film is that it is well casted and acted. Tom Hanks is charming and persuasive as Walt Disney, while Emma Thompson is supercilious and blustery as the tightly wound Travers.

Taken as a work of fiction, Saving Mr. Banks is a moving if somewhat simplistic story, carried by talented actors and beloved songs. As an interpretation of real events, it leaves out much, and Mary Poppins, She Wrote is a rather dry read for those who want to get at more of the facts.


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The Pillars of the Earth 

Adaptation, Challenges, Fiction, Historical Fiction

Page to Screen: The Pillars of the Earth

Cover image for Pillars of the Earth Movie Tie In Edition by Ken FollettNovel by Ken Follett

Directed by Sergio Mimica-Gezzan

ISBN 978-1-101-44219-7

“His aim was the glory of God, but the glory of Philip pleased him too.” 

Tom Builder is a master mason who dreams of building a grand cathedral, but must mostly be content to build stone houses for minor lords, and teach his son, Alfred, his trade. Philip of Gwynnyd is the young head of a cell of monks at St. John-in-the-Forest, a small outpost of Kingsbridge Priory. In only three years, Philip has reformed the cell and made its farm profitable. When a visit from his brother sends Philip stumbling into the complex rivalry of church and state in twelfth century England, a devil’s bargain with Waleran Bigod, an ambitious aid to the Bishop of Kingsbridge sees Philip unexpectedly elevated to Prior of Kingsbridge. The deal offers Philip the chance to reform Kingsbridge Priory and rebuild its crumbling cathedral, but his every move is dogged by his mistrust of Waleran, and the political ambitions of the new Earl of Shiring.

Challenge Badge for the 2014 Book to Movie ChallengeKen Follett fits his tale into the cracks of history, referencing known events and famous figures, but setting the story at a fictional priory, and focusing on a broad cast of invented characters. The war of succession between Stephen of Blois and the Empress Maud forms the context of the story, as law and order crumble, leaving ample room for local power skirmishes with little hope of intervention by the Crown. Follett tells his story simply, but carefully, so that the myriad disconnected events slowly fit together into a complex narrative with a sweeping scope. The book is one for those who don’t mind history and architecture, and getting into the details of a contested succession, and the anatomy of a cathedral, though there is certainly no shortage of action.

Even as a miniseries rather than a movie, The Pillars of the Earth is overflowing and a bit frenetic, struggling to cram in the fifty years of events covered in Follett’s novel. Many scenes are barely set before a character is thrust unceremoniously onstage to deliver a hasty bit of dialogue and then hustled off. There is little time for subtlety or finesse as the plot is hurried along. The acting is generally strong, with most of the false notes coming from scenes that are too rushed to allow the interactions to feel natural. Ian McShane is particularly noteworthy in his turn as Bishop Waleran. Follett tells us that the Waleran of the novel is a man of deep faith despite his political methods and high ambitions, but McShane does a wonderful job of illustrating this aspect of Waleran’s character as he engages in mortification of the flesh, and prays rapturously at the feet of the miraculous weeping Madonna statue.

Follett’s novel comes with plenty of built-in melodrama and violence, so I was bemused by the many adjustments for the miniseries that seemed to be aimed at amping up the conflict and excitement, such as when Jack and Walter duel for the rights to mine the Shiring quarry. Another character’s tragic but accidental death becomes a brutal outright murder. The characters’ already lofty highs become stratospheric, and the lows are positively hellish. The Hamleighs of the novel were already rather one-dimensional villains, and the addition of incest and intrafamilial murder simply makes them seem totally overwrought. Meanwhile, the Kingsbridge cellarer, Cuthbert Whitehead, gains an unrepentant whore for a sister, and Subprior Remigius gets a backstory as a secret sodomite. While adaptation necessitates change, the miniseries might have been better served by focusing on streamlining this megalithic story rather than fleshing out minor characters with scandalous details.

Follett’s narrative voice is straightforward, but the scope of his story is epic, and intricately plotted. The Pillars of the Earth is a carefully constructed novel, with each piece of the plot supporting and introducing another. The series adapted from it is much more sloppily built, sacrificing some of these elaborate connections for unneeded additional drama.


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Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Catching Fire

The Book Thief 

Adaptation, Canadian, Challenges, History, Memoir, Non-Fiction

Page to Screen: Argo – How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History

Cover image for Argo by Antonio MendezMemoir by Antonio J. Mendez

Directed by Ben Affleck

ISBN 978-1-101-60120-4

The trick is that you have to believe the lie and believe it so much that the lie becomes the truth.

In 1979, the American-backed Shah of Iran was deposed, and after some turmoil, was replaced by the cleric Ayatollah Khomeini at the head of a new Islamic republic. The Shah fled the country in January, and in October was admitted into the United States seeking medical treatment for cancer. On November 4, 1979, protestors stormed the American Embassy in Tehran amidst demands for the Shah to be returned to Iran for trial. Fifty-two members of the embassy staff hostage were taken hostage. In the chaos of the occupation of the embassy, some of the staff were able to escape, and six of the Americans eventually took refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, and the home of Canadian senior immigration officer John Sheardown. As the hostage crisis dragged out, the Canadian government, Ambassador Taylor, Hollywood costume designer John Chambers, and the CIA collaborated on a secret operation to exfiltrate the six houseguests right under the nose of the Iranian government. The unusually flamboyant cover story disguised the houseguests as a Canadian film crew on a location scout for a fake science fiction film dubbed Argo, in order to put them on a commercial flight out of the country.

Challenge Badge for the 2014 Book to Movie ChallengeAfter the plan was assembled, the exfiltration operation was undertaken by CIA operative Tony Mendez, who went into Iran to assess the houseguests, and coach them on their cover stories before taking them out of the country. On the fiftieth anniversary of the CIA in 1997, the Argo story was declassified, and Mendez was asked to break his silence about the operation as a celebration of the accomplishments of the agency. His 2012 memoir was released in conjunction with Ben Affleck’s dramatization of the events often referred to as the Canadian Caper. Prior to the declassification, the CIA denied any involvement in extracting the diplomats due to the ongoing hostage crisis, and subsequent difficult relations with the Iranian government. The amount of credit given to the various parties who helped the American diplomats escape has been a matter of controversy since the release of the film, and the subtitle of Mendez’ memoir certainly adds to that perception. Of course, at the time of the events, Canada received all of the credit, so perhaps a little overbalancing in the other direction is not so terrible. When Mendez received the Intelligence Star for his work on the operation, he couldn’t tell anyone about it, and his family was not allowed to attend the ceremony, after which the award went right back into the CIA vaults.

Mendez’ memoir is a straightforward narration, undramatic but filled with interesting details about the real art of spycraft. There are plenty of tense and dramatic events being related, but Mendez doesn’t really make you feel them; he takes you through them calmly and analytically, like the professional that he is. The book begins well before the extraction of the houseguests, providing much-needed context about the Iranian revolution, which the film skims over in a quick montage in order to get to the meat of the story. In the book, it is not until chapter eight that Mendez digs into the cover story, which is where Argo the film begins. The memoir also establishes Mendez’s history and credentials in a way that is almost entirely neglected by the film, which prefers to depict Mendez as a bit down on his luck, separated from his wife and not particularly well-respected at work. The fictional Mendez is redeemed by the successful mission, but I found the reality of a married man with three teenage children and a painting hobby to be more interesting than the typical narrative of a strife at home caused by too much time on the job.

The fundamental difference between Mendez’s memoir and Affleck’s film is that the memoir is informational, while the film stretches the truth in its quest to tell a more streamlined and dramatic story. Some of the choices simplify the story with little impact on the truth; Argo depicts all six houseguests staying together in one location, when in fact they first tried a few different houses owned by American diplomats, and were eventually split between the homes of Ken Taylor and John Sheardown. Affleck’s film adaptation takes an event with plenty of inherent drama, and adds tension through details and events that never took place. For example, there was no in-character visit to the Grand Bazaar, and no need to whip out the storyboards at the airport to convince suspicious Revolutionary Guards to let them go on their way. There were certainly no militants in jeeps dramatically chasing the plane down the runway, which is the crowning piece of the film’s heart-pounding finale. Luckily, in the film, it is only a matter of minutes—rather than a factual matter of hours—before the plane crosses into Turkish airspace, beyond the jurisdiction of the Iranian government.  On the flipside, the film forgoes using events that actually did happen, such as the fact that the Swissair flight on which the houseguests escaped was delayed for an hour due to mechanical issues. Ultimately, Affleck’s film is more escape thriller than political drama, and the facts have been tinkered with accordingly.


Further Reading:

Slate breakdown of fact vs. fiction in Argo

Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor sets the record straight

Adaptation, Challenges, Dystopian, Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Young Adult

Page to Screen: Catching Fire

catching-fire-movie-tie-inNovel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

ISBN  9780545603683

“We star-crossed lovers of District 12, who suffered so much and enjoyed so little the rewards of our victory, do not seek our fans’ favor, grace them with our smiles, or catch their kisses. We are unforgiving. And I love it. Getting to be myself at last.” 

In the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Melark from District 12 pulled off a historic stunt; by playing up a star-crossed lovers romance in front of the cameras, for the first time ever, two victors were allowed to win the Games. But this victory has not come without a heavy price. Katniss’ suggestion of a double suicide was interpreted as an act of love in the Capitol, but in the Districts, it was recognized as an act of defiance. Now, as they embark on the Victory Tour through the Districts, meeting the families of the Tributes they killed, Katniss must try to convince the Districts, and President Snow himself, that she is truly in love with Peeta, and quell the unrest in the Districts with her act. But the things she sees in the other Districts cause her to seriously question whether rebellion would be such a bad thing after all. The already impossible task of placating the Districts is made more difficult by the fact that Katniss and Peeta have barely spoken to one another since he realized that she wasn’t really in love with him. And for all that the romance with Peeta was an act for the cameras in the arena, it has irrevocably altered Katniss’ relationship with Gale as well. Katniss’ only thought is to keep herself and her family safe, but she must also contend with the fallout of her choices in the Games, and her own confused feelings.

booktomovieIf, like my husband, you were expecting the rebellion to really get underway in Catching Fire, you may find yourself a bit disappointed; this middle movie is about stirring the pot, and bringing Panem to a boil. Desperate to eliminate Katniss as a symbol of defiance for the Districts, President Snow announces an extra-special 75th Hunger Games—a Quarter Quell, which reaps the Tributes from the existing pool of Victors. As the only female Victor from District 12, Katniss is inevitably going back into the arena, and the only question is whether Peeta or Haymitch will go in with her. Despite being a set up for the grand finale in Mockingjay, and revisiting the premise of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire is engaging and gripping. It is only regrettable that they weren’t able to find the screen time to give District 13 the bit of set up it receives in the book. Undoubtedly there will be plenty of time to lay it out in the two-part Mockingjay, but for those who haven’t read the books, District 13 might seem to have come out of nowhere.

Given that the The Hunger Games series is narrated in the first person from Katniss’ POV, the movies have a lot of work to do to convey the nuances of the story that were explained in her internal monologue. Jennifer Lawrence has to do a lot of wordless emoting, which fortunately is something she is very good at. From the serious scenes, such as staring her defiance at Snow from the chariot, to the more humourous, like making faces behind Johanna’s back as she strips off in the elevator, Lawrence is able to give us a lot of Katniss’ thoughts through her body language. Whereas the abrupt ending of the book concludes with a line of dialogue from Gale, and no reaction from Katniss, the film ends on Lawrence’s face as she processes the news he delivers. Lawrence had a lot to do in this movie, from moving the audience to tears in District 11, to giving wooden, unbelievable speeches in the other districts, to conveying her fear at being forced to revisit the arena, but she pulls it all off, carrying the movie with her.

Catching Fire also gives the secondary characters more room to shine. Elizabeth Banks has much more to work with in her role as Effie Trinket when the horror of the 75th Hunger Games begins to crack her Capitol facade. In The Hunger Games, Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane wasn’t much of a presence. He is felt much more in Catching Fire, after his demise, as Katniss uses him as a subversive symbol of the ill-effects the Games can have even on residents of the Capitol. But his death paves the way for new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee, who has a much more fleshed out presence in the film than he receives in the book. It would have been a shame to waste Philip Seymour Hoffman on the role as it was written in the book, but by showing Heavenbee and Snow plotting the political messaging and spin of the Games, his character becomes much more interesting. The new secondary characters, particularly Johanna and Finnick were well-cast—in fact, Jenna Malone occasionally steals the scene. Unfortunately, the character development and back story we get for Haymitch in the book—his victory in the second Quarter Quell with its double-sized Reaping of Tributes—didn’t make the cut.

Catching Fire stuck closely to the book, and reaped the benefits, lifting many pieces of dialogue line-for-line. While some of the back story was removed for run-time, the movie didn’t suffer too much for it. The groundwork for Mockingjay is solidly in place.


More Page to Screen reviews:

The Book Thief

City of Bones

The Great Gatsby 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Host 


Adaptation, Challenges, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult

Page to Screen: The Book Thief

Movie tie in cover image for The Book Thief by Markus ZusakNovel by Markus Zusak

Film directed by Brian Percival

ISBN 978-0375842207

“He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.

She was the book thief without the words.

Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.” 

When I first launched Required Reading last year, one of my first reviews was the beloved YA novel The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. It is the story of Liesel Meminger, an illiterate book-lover with an innate understanding of the power of words, even as she struggles to possess them. Her story begins in Nazi Germany, where she lives with a foster family on the outskirts of Munich, sitting on the secret of the Jew who is hiding in their basement. But although the story is about Liesel, it is narrated by Death, who is everywhere during the war, and is particularly haunted by Liesel’s tale. This year, The Book Thief was released as a film, adapted by Michael Petroni and directed by Brian Percival. Since I have already reviewed the book in the past, this review contains spoilers for both the book and the film.

booktomovieIf it is unsettling to read The Book Thief and see a child innocently blundering through Nazi Germany, it is even more compelling played out on the screen. It is gut wrenching to see Rudy and Liesel wearing the uniforms of the Hitler Youth and the Bund Deutscher Madel (League of German Girls), complete with swastika patches, playing soccer under Nazi flags, and being forced to throw books on the bonfire. Perhaps the most chilling sequence of this terrible innocence begins with a close up of Liesel as she sings, and the camera slowly pulls out to reveal an entire children’s choir in uniform. The German song sounds beautiful, but the English lyrics that subtitle it reveal the vile anti-Semitic and racist content.

In the lead up to the big screen debut of The Book Thief, there was a great deal of speculation about whether the narrator would be featured, since he is one of the most beloved aspects of the book. While the thing I loved most about the book was the rare opportunity to take the German perspective, for many, it is that narrator that sets The Book Thief apart from other World War II fiction. The answer is that he is here but, for better or worse, in a much smaller capacity. He does not interject in the middle of scenes as he does in the novel, but helps move the narrative from place to place, and through time. This change helps the film to run smoothly, and for the most part, all of the other minor changes tend towards streamlining the story as well.

The Book Thief adaptation does make some larger changes that I felt were wrong and unnecessary. First, when Max arrives on the Hubermann’s door step, Rosa briefly proposes turning him in, in direct contrast to her reaction in the book. Gives how irascible and hard Rosa is as a character, her unwavering determination to save Max is one of the things that makes her character relatable despite this gruffness. I think it was a mistake to make this change, however believable it might seem, because it irrevocably changes how we understand Rosa’s character. Second, in the aftermath of the final air raid, when Liesel loses so many of the people she has come to love on Himmel Street, the film has Rudy survive just long enough for Rudy and Liesel to say good bye. In a story with an already heart-rending conclusion, this change felt like an unnecessary bid to pluck one more heartstring, and for me, it cheapened Rudy’s death.

There was one significant change which felt both compelling and right. In the air raid shelter, instead of reading aloud from her stolen books, Liesel makes up stories. I liked the way that this change emphasized her finding her own voice, instead of reading the words of others. In the book, this only begins with her decision to write down her story, but in the film we can see the beginnings of this change in her storytelling the in bomb shelter. The way the film brings her to write her story is also more fluid and powerful than its execution in the book. Instead of receiving a journal from the mayor’s wife, Max paints Mein Kampf into a blank journal, and gives it to Liesel with the Hebrew word לכתוב(write) inscribed inside. He tells Liesel about how, in the Jewish tradition, life is imparted by the word. This sequence gives Liesel a powerful incentive to tell her story. This part of the adaptation truly grasped the significance of the book’s message about taking back the words from Hitler, who used them so deftly as a weapon.


More Page to Screen Reviews:

City of Bones

The Great Gatsby 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Host