West Virginia Book Festival

What makes “The Great Gatsby” great?

I’m of two minds about the film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” coming out this weekend. On the one hand, I can’t imagine that one of the most notoriously difficult novels of the past century to film is going to be solved by the bombastic Baz Luhrmann. But any excuse to bring one of the few books with a legitimate claim on the title of The Great American Novel is an opportunity worth taking.

What makes “The Great Gatsby” so great? Part of it is how Fitzgerald evokes the setting: the glamorous Jazz Age, in the midst of the post-World War I boom. Even though there aren’t a lot of parties in the book — really, there’s just one completely successful blowout, which Gatsby throws in the middle of the novel — that’s what a lot of readers remember (and that certainly seems to be what Luhrmann is concentrating on, if the previews are any indication).

Which is somewhat strange, because Fitzgerald is no wide-eyed innocent about the era. True, he and his wife Zelda enjoyed the 1920s as much as anybody — but he knew there were plenty of people, like Myrtle and George Wilson in the book, who weren’t having those good times. And even for the fortunate ones, he knew, the good times couldn’t last. At the same time he’s writing about what a great time everyone is having, he’s showing how pointless, if not downright destructive, the whole thing is. Self-made millionaire and bon vivant Jay Gatsby, in many ways, is the living embodiment of the American dream. In the end, it’s not enough.

(And of course, Fitzgerald was right. Four years after “The Great Gatsby” was published, the United States and much of the rest of the world would spiral into the Great Depression.)

Leonardo DiCaprio (Jay Gatsby), Carey Mulligan (Daisy Buchanan) and Tobey Maguire (Nick Carraway).

None of Fitzgerald’s perception and scene-setting would matter, though, if he couldn’t write. And that’s where “The Great Gatsby” stakes its claim to greatness. I’ve not read many books that are more beautifully written.

In Francine Prose’s book “Reading Like A Writer,” Gatsby is one of the first books she cites for its language — specifically, the “word-by-word gorgeousness” in the scene where Nick Carraway first sees Daisy Buchanan and her friend Jordan Baker in Daisy’s West Egg home:

The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding cake of the ceiling — and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.

The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.

There’s so much description packed in the story that it’s startling to realize how short the book really is (that copy that I remember, with the deep blue cover with the disembodied eyes and lips, is only 192 pages long). Every word is so precise, and it’s hard to imagine how too much of that could be conveyed by any filmmaker. (Although I’m sure the novel’s famous last line, which is engraved on the Fitzgeralds’ tombstone in Rockville, Md., will make an appearance: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.)

So maybe that’s the way to approach this latest attempt to film “The Great Gatsby.” Enjoy it for what it is (say what you want about Luhrmann, his films usually aren’t boring). Then read the novel, or read about it; there’s been enough written about it over the past couple of weeks to fill Gatsby’s swimming pool, but I enjoyed this piece in The Guardian by Sarah Churchwell, who has a book about Fitzgerald’s writing of the novel coming out next month.

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher: Can it work?

Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Photo from Paramount Pictures.

When Lee Child came to last year’s West Virginia Book Festival, the news was still pretty fresh that Tom Cruise had signed up to play Jack Reacher, the protagonist in Child’s long-running series, in a movie based on the novel “One Shot.” Since then, the film’s title has been changed to just “Jack Reacher.” Filmed in Pittsburgh, it premieres in that city on Dec. 15, then goes into wide release on Dec. 21.

Reacher is a former military policeman who, after leaving the Army, has lived as a drifter, moving around with not much more than the clothes on his back. He’s also a physical specimen: six foot five, as much as 250 pounds, with blond hair and blue eyes. None of these physical characteristics applies to Cruise; he’s five foot seven, with brown hair and green eyes (at least, that’s what the Internet tells me, so it must be true).

For those reasons, many of Child’s readers were less than thrilled with the choice of Cruise to portray Reacher. A couple of people managed to bring this up, tactfully, to Child at the Book Festival. He didn’t seem bothered about it; he spoke glowingly about Cruise, and said he was confident that Cruise could play the part.

Lee Child, who just happens to be six foot five with blue eyes.

Of course he did. What else is he going to say? Tom Cruise is all wrong for Jack Reacher? He’d be sabotaging the movie (to some degree, anyway), and that holds no benefit for him. The only author I remember taking that tack — just savagely attacking the choice to play one of her characters in a movie — is Anne Rice, who went ballistic when it was announced that her “Interview with the Vampire” antihero Lestat was going to be played by — wait for it — Tom Cruise. (She changed her tune after the movie came out, for whatever reason.) So of course, the author isn’t going to bash the actor who’s playing the character, even if the actor is totally unsuitable.

These were some of my (unvoiced) thoughts during last year’s Book Festival. Since then, I’ve come around a little.

Child insists that there’s much more to Jack Reacher than just his size. This is true, of course. In fact, for a character whose physical presence is so overpowering, descriptions of Reacher are pretty rare in the books. As Child told The New York Times in advance of the movie’s premiere: “There’s also the menace, the intelligence, the silent, contemplative nature.” For his part, Cruise said, “The height, the size — those are characteristics, not a character.”

Tom Cruise, Lee Child and Rosamund Pike, in a scene from “Jack Reacher.” Photo from Paramount Pictures.

Cruise wouldn’t be the first actor to take a character and remake it in his image. Humphrey Bogart, as noted before on this blog, doesn’t look anything like how Dashiell Hammett described his private eye Sam Spade — but after seeing “The Maltese Falcon,” it’s very hard to read the book and not see Bogie in your mind’s eye. Also, Sean Connery was certainly more suave and debonair as James Bond than anything Ian Fleming ever put on the page.

And yet … I’m still not sure I’m buying it. If you ask Jack Reacher fans to describe him, words like “big” and “powerful” and “intimidating” are going to come up pretty quick. No matter how good an actor Cruise is, I’m having a hard time seeing how he pulls that off.

I do know one thing: Jack Reacher is a character whose fans have waited nearly two decades to see him on the big screen. I hope he gets the portrayal he deserves.

“A Princess of Mars”: The John Carter saga

When I was a kid, right around 10 or 11, I would have loved “A Princess of Mars,” the first book in the John Carter series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. But I didn’t know about the series; I didn’t even read any of Burroughs’ best-known series, the Tarzan books.

With the big film version, “John Carter,” coming out today, I thought I’d give the book a try. It’s the story of a man who, just after the Civil War, heads out west to prospect for gold and then is mysteriously transported to Mars. How? Who cares? (It actually reminded me of the plot catalyst in Stephen King’s latest, “11/22/63.” Big strange thing happens, and the protagonist just goes with it.) Because of the lighter gravity, Carter gains all sorts of powers, finds love and adventure, and transforms Martian society.

For a first novel that’s nearly 100 years old (Burroughs released it in novel form in 1917, but it was published as a serial a few years before), it’s a pretty good read, but it feels like Burroughs was trying out everything he could think of. Carter is, apparently, immortal. He also learns that all Martians are telepathic. Both of those could be, you know, significant factors in the story. But they’re mentioned in a matter-of-fact way and then hardly brought up again. It’s like the author decided he had enough going on with the whole super-powered alien story, and didn’t need any of the other stuff.

There are other issues with Burroughs, who possessed some pretty awful ideas about non-white, non-American peoples. In his review of the Burroughs biography from John Taliaferro, “Tarzan Forever,” Washington Post critic Michael Dirda writes of Burroughs’ “shoddy treatment” of Africans, Germans and Japanese, and his “enthusiasm for eugenics coupled with an undisguised horror of miscegenation.” There’s not a lot of that in “A Princess of Mars,” although Indians are called “red savages,” among other things. (It may not be chance that John Carter, Burroughs’ first hero, is a Confederate Army veteran.)

As for the “John Carter” movie, which hits theaters today, I’ve read a couple of reviews which essentially say, it’s a big dumb movie, but at least it’s fun, and the filmmakers seem to know that it’s a big dumb movie. The screenplay was written by, among others, author Michael Chabon, who’s no stranger to “genre” fiction. His works include the alternate history “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” and the Sherlock Holmes pastiche “The Final Solution,” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” chronicles the early days of the comic book industry. So it’s got that going for it, at least.

Back to the book: I’d be hard-pressed to recommend “A Princess of Mars” to anyone who wasn’t curious about its historic value — but that historic value is significant. As Dirda notes in his review, Edgar Rice Burroughs was the king of the storytellers for several decades in the early 20th century, and this is the book that started him on his way.

If you’d like to read “A Princess of Mars,” it will cost you exactly nothing; besides the usual option of your local library, the book is free (legally) all over the Internet.

Cormac McCarthy novel gets filmed in W.Va.

Actor/director James Franco (right) was in Pocahontas County earlier this month, filming an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God." Photo by A. Jiordano, The Pocahontas Times.

A movie version of a book by one of America’s foremost novelists is being filmed in West Virginia, The Pocahontas Times reported last week.

James Franco (Oscar nominee for “127 Hours,” star of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Spider-Man”) is directing the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “Child of God.” The movie was filming in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County, last week, and apparently moved to Greenbrier County this week. Angelo Jiordano reports:

According to Franco, the old-time feel of Hillsboro’s architecture and roads are what attracted the crew.

“The story takes place in Sevier County, Tennessee, but when one of the producers went and scouted that area, she found that it had been too developed since the 50s, when this story takes place,” said Franco. “We wanted a place that had both rural and urban environments, that looked like they were from that period.”

“Child of God” is Cormac McCarthy’s third novel, published in 1973. The title refers to Lester Ballard, a Tennessee resident who is the kind of man your mother never warned you about, but only because she never dreamed such a debased individual could exist. He’s on the fringes of society at the beginning of the novel, and things don’t get any better. Necrophilia is just one of his charming attributes.

This is one of the McCarthy novels I haven’t read, but on the Cormac McCarthy Society’s website, Dianne C. Luce says “Child of God” is “McCarthy’s most extreme challenge to the limits of propriety, perhaps outdoing even ‘Blood Meridian’ in its chronicling of individual depravity.”

Which, I mean … wow. “Child of God” outdoes “Blood Meridian” (which is a great book, just not one to be undertaken lightly)? Then again, this is not unfamiliar territory for McCarthy readers; it can be seriously argued that “The Road” is one of his happier novels — and it’s about the end of the world.

As for the movie, it stars Scott Haze, Jim Parrack (Hoyt from “True Blood,” I’m told) and Tim Blake Nelson (the short convict in “O Brother Where Art Thou?”) The release date seems a little uncertain; The Pocahontas Times says next year, and various sources online put it at either 2013 or 2014. (If it is released next year, it’ll join another Franco vehicle based on a book; he’s starring as the man who becomes the wizard in “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” L. Frank Baum’s prequel to “The Wizard of Oz.”)

Want a little post-Book Festival entertainment?

So it’s 4 p.m. this coming Sunday. And the West Virginia Book Festival will be over, but the weekend won’t be over. And you know what they say: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.Park Place Stadium Cinemas, just a few blocks from the Civic Center, has been showing some classic films on the big screen lately. Up this Sunday at 4 p.m. (and Monday at 4 and 7 p.m.) is “The Shining,” from the Stephen King novel of the same name.

And Halloween’s just around the corner. So make a weekend of it. Jack wants you to.

“Moneyball,” the 2002 book by Michael Lewis about the small-market Oakland A’s and their attempt to compete with the big boys in major league baseball, comes to theaters across the country this weekend, starring Brad Pitt.

Pitt plays Billy Beane, an ex-ballplayer who is Oakland’s general manager. Beane needs to find players on the cheap, so he’s often left with players who nobody else wants. He’s also been exposed to some unorthodox statistical ideas that have been around for a couple of decades, but haven’t gained mainstream acceptance.

For example, Beane thinks hitters who get walks — those who get on base without hitting the ball — are undervalued. So he targets those players. He thinks players who don’t look like great athletes aren’t given enough attention by scouts, even if they hit well. So he targets those players.

By exploiting these “market inefficiencies,” Beane’s teams do pretty well. Although they didn’t win the World Series, the A’s had a great run in the early 2000s, producing good players and winning lots of games on a regular basis. They’ve been less successful recently, partly because many other teams have adopted some of Beane’s methods. He changed the way people view the game and its players.

Much of the book’s conflict comes from the clash of old baseball thought vs. new ideas (and Lewis can go a little far in building Beane up as a super-genius and describing his competitors as dolts). But the whole idea of a fight between traditional scouting and fancy new statistics implies that you have to take one or the other — when, like many arguments, the best thing to do is take ideas from both sides.

One such player, who appealed to both sides, was West Virginia’s own Nick Swisher, a former star at Parkersburg High School who plays a significant role in “Moneyball” — the book version, anyway.

In the 2002 baseball draft, Beane wanted to pick Swisher, then a player at Ohio State, more than anyone else. But Swisher was so good — in traditionally appreciated baseball ways, in addition to Beane’s statistically driven ways — that Beane was afraid Swisher will be gone before Oakland’s first pick. Lewis writes:

Nick Swisher is, at best, the Mets’ sixth choice: the Mets don’t even begin to appreciate what they are getting. The Mets are taking Swisher reluctantly. If Billy had the first pick in the entire draft he’d take Swisher with it. He appreciates Swisher more than any man on the planet and Swisher … should … have … been … his.

But the Mets take someone else, and Swisher falls to the A’s after all — at least, in real life.

According to the “Moneyball” page at The Internet Movie Database, Swisher isn’t in the movie — which is a little disappointing.

Still, Lewis is a great storyteller, and “Moneyball” is a cracking good yarn, and there’s much for baseball fans to learn in there — and as Janet Maslin of The New York Times noted, “You need know absolutely nothing about baseball to appreciate the wit, snap, economy and incisiveness” of the story.

Hark, budding Shakespeare filmmakers!

Want to be a Shakespearean filmmaker? You’ve got a few days left.

The Kanawha County Public Library and the Charleston Stage Company are sponsoring a “Shakespeare Apprentice” contest, inviting young filmmakers to give their interpretations of any of four Shakespeare scenes and send in the video.

Full information is here. The deadline is Sept. 26.

Winners will be shown on Friday, Oct. 21, after a reception at the West Virginia State University Capitol Centre, on Summers Street in downtown Charleston, after the CSC’s performance of “Othello” that night. The winning entries will also be on view at that weekend’s West Virginia Book Festival, in the KCPL Teen Zone booth.

Humphrey Bogart and “The Maltese Falcon”

Earlier this year, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, I went to an event focused on Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, “The Maltese Falcon.” Three Virginia writers (including one who’s an actual falconer) were supposed to talk about how the novel impacted their work.

Thing was, the writers (and the audience) talked as much about the classic Humphrey Bogart film as the novel, maybe more. And who could blame them? Even The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, the venue for the event, had a life-sized cutout of Bogart standing outside (that’s it over there).

With a few exceptions (like Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” or Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind”), I can’t think of many works of literature where the film version has so completely insinuated itself into the collective consciousness. Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade. Peter Lorre is Joel Cairo. Sydney Greenstreet is Kasper Gutman.

“The Maltese Falcon” probably isn’t Hammett’s best book; many purists go for “Red Harvest” (my choice) or “The Glass Key,” and “The Thin Man” is also a favorite for many. Some people prefer Hammett’s unnamed Continental Op or the suave drunkard Nick Charles to the blonde, satanic-looking Sam Spade.

(Yes, in the novel, he’s blonde. See what I mean? Can you picture Sam Spade as a blonde? No! He looks like Humphrey Bogart!)

That’s why it’s surprising every time I go back to the book and re-read it, or listen to it in the car, how much more there is in the book. Much of the dialogue is familiar; the film’s best lines were lifted straight from the novel, and it’s impossible to read the dialogue without hearing Bogie: “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” But there’s stuff in the book that you don’t get in the film. The relationship between Spade and Effie is fleshed out. The scene where Spade strip-searches Brigid O’Shaughnessy is really shocking, and the end — well, you couldn’t call the end of the film happy, but it’s still a better place than where Spade ends up in the novel.

If you want to remind yourself what the film looks like (or if you’ve never seen it), it’s on Turner Classic Movies at 8 p.m. Wednesday, as part of the channel’s day of Humphrey Bogart movies. It’s a great one. But don’t forget the book it came from.

Flinn added to festival lineup

Alex Flinn, author of nine books for teens, will speak at the West Virginia Book Festival on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 4 p.m.

Flinn’s novel, “Beastly,” is a No.1 New York Times bestseller which was made into a motion picture that came out in March. She has two other fairy-tale-based novels, “A Kiss in Time,” a modern Sleeping Beauty story, and “Cloaked,” a mélange of several fairy tales.

Her first book, “Breathing Underwater,” was named an American Library Association Top 10 Best Book for Young Adults and is the only novel included in Liz Claiborne’s “Love is Not Abuse” dating violence prevention curriculum for schools. Her books have received honors including Best Books for Young Adults, Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, International Reading Association Young Adult Choices and Junior Library Guild selection. Her upcoming novel, “Bewitching: The Kendra Chronicles,” is a companion to “Beastly” and will be released in February 2012.

Flinn is a non-practicing lawyer who lives with her husband, daughters and way too many pets in Miami.

Best-selling thriller writer Lee Child, former Secret Service agents Gerald Blaine and Clint Hill and self-help author Dave Pelzer have already been announced as part of the line-up for the festival, which will be held Oct. 22 and 23 at the Charleston Civic Center. The annual, two-day event celebrates books and reading and offers something for all age groups. A variety of authors will attend, participating in book signings, readings, workshops and lectures. Activities for children include special programs and a section of the Marketplace filled with children’s activities. Admission to the festival is free.

The event is presented by The Library Foundation of Kanawha County, Inc., Kanawha County Public Library, the West Virginia Humanities Council, The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail and is sponsored by The Martha Gaines and Russell Wehrle Memorial Foundation, Segal-Davis Foundation, Pam Tarr and Gary Hart, Wal-Mart and Borders Express. For more information, visit www.wvbookfestival.org.

Harry Potter: Back to the beginning

We here at WVBF:TB are certainly not above talking about a film as a way to begin talking about a book. So it seems like we ought to make mention of the final installment in the Harry Potter film series, seeing as how the Harry Potter books are the biggest publishing phenomenon in decades.

And there’s been some pretty cool retrospective stuff out there in the past couple of weeks, and some suggestions for post-Potter reading, and if you didn’t see Kyle Slagle’s Daily Prophet-style front to the Gazz entertainment section on Thursday, you ought to, because it’s fantastic (it’s on this page).

But for the most part, what’s left to say? If there’s something about Harry Potter that hasn’t been written, I have no idea what it is.

So maybe the thing to do is go back to the beginning.

The following review by blog contributor Dawn Miller appeared in The Charleston Gazette on Feb. 28, 1999 — four months after “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was published in the United States, and before most Americans had ever heard of Harry, Ron and Hermione.

Every now and then, along comes an author capable of creating a whole other world, usually off-limits to unimaginative adults, where smart young people discover they have talents other than being too gawky, nearsighted, underfoot or just bored.

These authors have their devoted following – Tolkien, Juster, L’Engle, to name a few.

First-time novelist J.K. Rowling could be another.

Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” zips – often on broomstick – back and forth between our humdrum, recognizable “Muggle” world, to another, filled with invisibility cloaks, tailored wands and frog candy. Scoff not. Each package comes with a collectible card featuring a famous wizard.

Rowling, a single mom living in Edinburgh, Scotland, began the novel on scraps of paper in a cafe, according to the publisher. It was published in Great Britain in 1997, and in this country in October. It has reached the best-sellers list in Publishers Weekly and won the British Book Awards Children’s Book of the Year.

Little wonder.

Rowling’s hero – skinny, underfed Harry Potter – has known his share of trouble in just 11 years of life. His parents died when he was just a babe. Harry was left with his aunt and uncle, who force him to sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. They never give him any birthday presents, while lavishing all their attention on their own child, Dudley, a porcine, spoiled bully.

Harry combs his hair over his forehead to hide a scar shaped like a lightning bolt. He is not allowed to ask questions. He has no idea of his own gifts, or that his name is spoken with respect among the oldest wizards in the world, a world he does not see.

“Harry Potter” is a handful of hardback for any young reader, who will feel quite accomplished at finishing it. The dialogue and action are quick, though. Rowling understands suspense. She does not pull out any magic wands or flying brooms too soon, or too often.

Adults will also see much of their world in this author’s first novel, which makes it an ideal chapter book to read to children. When Harry goes off to Hogwarts, only the best school of witchcraft and wizardry in the world, he has all the excitement and worries, and shopping list, of a freshman on his way to college. The first-year reading list is a parody of any good first-year reading list, full of anthologies, beginning histories and survey classes. Of course, few college freshmen must pack a standard-size pewter cauldron.

Lest we and Harry yearn too much for the fanciful world, Harry learns that it has bullies and power-hungry tyrants, just like our own. The sparks are a little more interesting, however.

The end of the tale is thoughtful and fulfilling, with plenty of room for a sequel, welcomed no doubt by Rowling’s, and Potter’s, growing number of fans.

Room for a sequel? Yes, I think that might have been the case.