Tuesday, March 27, 2012

On Watching Hunger Games: Spoilers

So, Damon and I and our friend R all went to see the movie this week. Damon hasn't read the books; R and I have.

I cannot talk about a movie without giving spoilers, so if you have done neither, go away, do that, and you can come back afterward. It won't take you long. Reading this first book is like jumping out of an airplane - you don't stop till you land with a splat at the end.

Surprisingly, I have no major fault to find. I only had to explain a couple of things to Damon afterward (District 13 is referenced at the beginning, but its fate is not described; that kind of thing). When R and I went to the Harry Potter movies with him, we always tag-teamed filling in the blanks for him as the lights went up. The only big deviation from the original with which I have actual issues, as opposed to thinking I would have made a different creative choice had it been me, was also the only big place where they wimped out. I think they were quite right to reduce the gore as much as they could, but the impact of the chimerae at the end is nerfed by the removal of the ghastly detail that they were created out of the dead tributes. You think, when you're reading and when you're watching, that Rue's death has to be as bad as it gets for Katniss; and then, when you're reading, she has to fight off a Rue-faced dog! This is absolutely the worst thing the gamemasters did in this horrible event, and the movie chickened out of it.

Mind you, I was dreading it; but dread is an important part of the experience.

This is partly made up for by the increase in the discomfort factor that I got from watching the games as opposed to reading about them. There's a meta level of this story, which only increases as we get into the political theater of the later books, that implicates me, as audience, and which raises the level of the whole (for me, anyway) out of the gutter of the exploitative thriller and into the realm of literature. When you boil it down, after all, this is an exploitative thriller about the making of exploitative thrillers; the author, and the moviemaking team, openly and unapologetically use the exact same bag of tricks as the masters of the game to engage us emotionally and turn the agony of others into entertainment.

And we let them, which makes us active participants in the process.

Which made me feel even dirtier in the movie than it did in the book.

This is such a large feature of the experience of the story for me that, when I see Hunger Games merchandise, I feel physically ill and wonder how on earth the person who came up with that idea sleeps at night. Did this particular level of meaning fly right over his head? Did he set out to deliberately evoke it and increase the ick factor? Has he even read the books at all?

Answer C is of course the most likely.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: The House Divided

The left side of the brain has established a tyranny over the right. Even dream memories are brutally suppressed. Denied normal channels of communication, the right hemisphere takes its only remaining option and attacks the res tof the left-dominated body, confusing signals so that the individual, caught in the middle of this, has difficulty functioning physically.

When you start dividing the brain up like this, you get a staggering cast of characters without leaving the protagonist's head: left and right; conscious and subconscious; id, ego, superego; animus/anima. If the right side of the brain controls the left side of the body and vice versa, do we normally have two subconsciouses and two memory banks? Based on the experience of epileptics whose connection between the hemispheres is severed, probably. The simplistic popular conception of the right hemisphere as "creative" and the left as "logical" is not accurate - one can, after all, be creative without violating logical principles - but it is true that creativity without communication (the left brain's province) is pointless, so putting all this into the body of a driven overachiever who buys into that false dichotomy would be a logical way to go.

This is a scary idea, all that activity going on without the person we would recognize as the individual even knowing it. And how would it play out for the story? Hypnosis putting the left hemisphere to sleep and allowing the right to voice its grievances?

I came up with this idea years ago while fishing for a way to use my particular health problems (which have to do with my ears and sense of balance, not my brain, as it turns out - though I can be monumentally stupid when I'm having gravity problems, which is one reason I have long blog hiatuses during bad periods; nobody needs to see that) for a story, but the amount of research it would involve, into a fascinating field which is, let's face it, still in its alchemical phase of development is intimidating even to me. I would want to have a solid grounding in basic neuroscience before I even attempted it, and that takes me out of my comfort zone.

You could, of course, skip the research and do a Hollywood blockbuster using the simplistic popular conceptions. If you wanted to. I guess.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Persistent Cat is Persistent

We're having a battle of wills in our house right now.

One of the improvements made during the work on the back of the house last year was a railing on the back porch directly under a window. When the screens were taken away for repair and painting, the cats found this to be an ideal arrangement, and when the screens were returned, they quickly broke through the screen to continue using what they had come to regard as their personal portal. We had the screen repaired with a more flexible mesh anchored more deeply.

The result is that they will now spend hours on that railing, or sitting on the cabinet under the window in question on the inside, glaring from window to nearest available human. When we open the door, they often refuse to go through it. Thai has gone so far as to grab me by the arm and lean her head against the screen. You don't have to be as practiced at projecting words into a cat's mouth as I am to get the drift here: "Mommy! How can you be so dense? I don't want to go through the door, I want you to leave MY WINDOW OPEN."

This is a picture book set-up. Cute cats (standing in for obstinate toddlers trying to impose their will on the world), human (standing in for parents trying to instill a certain behavior - in a picture book the human would almost certainly be a child), simple situation that can be elaborated to suit. Either the cat would come up with more and more ingenious and funny ways to make the human see reason and meet with more and more deliberately absurd obliviousness, or the obstinancy would spread around the house, with the cat also trying to impose her will on eating, sleeping, and playing arrangements. I can almost see it.


Except for the ending.

In real life, sooner or later Thai goes through the door and there's no practical reason why this should not become one of our daily life rituals. In the story, there has to be some resolution which will satisfy the reader. Some compromise which allows the cat/toddler a degree of control over her own life at the same time that she learns she can't always have her own way.

Without the resolution, I only have a situation, not a plot. Nobody wants to read a picture book story without a resolution. That would be pointless.

So even if I could write picture books, it appears I wouldn't be able to write this one.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Hunting the Native Garden

I put together a picture book dummy once, to prove to myself I could do it.

In it, a kitten stalks the denizens of a Texas native plant garden. Each picture would show the kitten, the prey, and the garden feature; so, hummingbirds among Turk's cap and trumpet vine, cardinals and finches at the sunflowers, white-winged doves in the birdbath till the grackle chases them out to soak some dog food; barn swallows under the shed eaves; a cactus wren in the prickly pear; a blue jay in the woodpile; a woodpecker on the pecan tree; a mockingbird displaying in the top of the live oak; lizards in the rockpile; possums in the brush pile; a skunk in the compost heap.

Each creature escapes the kitten's attempt to hunt it, and the kitten finds some face saving reason why he didn't really want to catch that particular animal. The skunk encounter would be the ultimate one, with dusk coming down. The skunk is rummaging, the kitten is stalking, and the skunk says, as if to thin air: "Really? You're sure about this?"

And the kitten say: "I think I hear my human calling," and runs in to eat his Kitten Chow.

I couldn't possibly actually write this. I'd get sidetracked by the characters of the critters and everybody would have long conversations and then something would come up to throw a monkey wrench into everything and -

I just can't write short, or leave as much to the artist as a picture book requires.

A book like this would totally sell in State Park gift shops and through conservationist catalogs, though. I don't know how kids would feel about it, but there's a kind of grownup who'd love it.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Idea Garage Sale: Life in the Lab

A team of biologists/biogeneticists discover the secret of life by accident, creating a species of homunculi. Though kept in a "paradisial" aquarium/safe, they escape to live as Borrowers.

Of course, the scientists will be just fine with that!

There's a line to walk here. The appeal of Mary Norton's Borrowers, and all the other little people out there, is their juxtaposition with our everyday lives. We love pins used as rapiers, climbing the drapes by the bobbles, safety pins and flyswatters transformed into mouse-proof gates, shooting the rapids in silverware boxes and teakettles, the whole nine yards.

But if the story begins in a lab, with the origin of the species, the environment isn't our domestic sphere turned into a wilderness of giants, but the kinds of buildings labs are found in. Vast, intimidating structures in research office facilities. And bio labs in particular are far from cozy. Security has to be high enough to challenge everything from microbes to apes. Temperature and humidity are tightly controlled. Everything runs off computers. The challenge of creating an independent society inside such a building is fundamentally different.

Especially since they couldn't be secret. Pod, Homily, and Arrietty survive partly by flying under the radar of us human beans. Even if the author can contrive some sort of reasonable excuse for their creators not having published their results and gotten in peer reviewers as fast as they could (and come on - you create tiny humans in your lab you can't wait to tell the world!), their creators know all about them, and will not be sanguine about letting them stroll off into the sunset. Careers are on the line here. The research potential is staggering. You don't just shrug and kiss all that good-by.

The number of ways this story can go wrong (i.e. boring and stupid) are staggering. If you give it the standard blockbuster treatment you'd have either evil scientists or evil homunculi in a race against time, finally climaxing in some kind of nonsensical explosion. The family movie treatment, with happy endings all round, wouldn't be any better.

The setup involves real, serious issues that can't be solved in the course of a book and which therefore would be uncomfortable to explore. If the homunculi are fully intelligent, moral creatures with agency, then even if they form a sympathetic family unit they will have conflicts among themselves, with different ideas about what constitutes their best interests. Their skills and their society will have to evolve in the context of their situation. They will have relationships with their creators, both positive and negative. They will be computer savvy (how else to get around all that security?) and at least some of them will be ingenious. They will be capable of abstract thought and be interested in the same sorts of questions we are, but their situation necessarily requires a different set of answers.

And, oh yeah - they'll have, to start out with, an unviable population size and access to research notes about how they were created...

I get tired just thinking about this one. And yet, the premise is so simple!