Thursday, 5 April 2012

Bella and Edward? Really?

At the moment I'm reading 'Bitten by Twilight: Culture, Media, and the Vampire Franchise'. I got it out of the library hoping it would be useful for my children's essay. It hasn't been, so far, but it's still an interesting read, although some of the chapters I violently disagree with.

Anyway, I've come across something so interesting that I've had to stop reading and write a blog post about it. The editors of the book did some extensive research into the fans of the Twilight books, and found that women who identify with the relationship of Bella-Edward over all the other couples in the Twilight books, are statistically more likely to be dissatisfied with their own relationship, do not see themselves as feminists, and would prefer a partner to be "protective, possessive, chivalrous, and intensely attracted to them" (page 151). In contrast, women who prefer the pairing of Alice-Jasper, or Carlisle-Esme, reported to be more satisfied with their own relationship, and "were more likely to express a preference for relationships that are supportive, mutually reliant, and less possessive".

What is scary is that 55% of adults and 49% of teens surveyed would prefer to have Edward and Bella's relationship, compared to 18.9% of adults and 28.3% of teens opting for Alice-Jasper, and 18% of adults and 8.7% of teens preferring Carlisle-Esme.

This makes it pretty clear cut on what makes the Twilight books so attractive, doesn't it? And it's not comfortable reading. Teenagers (and indeed adults) no longer see themselves as feminists? They would actively prefer to be in a relationship whereby possessiveness is a mark of how attracted their partner is to them? And a relationship with an equal is seen as undesirable? No wonder feminists despair over the success of Twilight, but they shouldn't worry about the adverse effect it's having on teenage girls. They're already there. Twilight simply taps into this worrying state of affairs.

I'm also concerned about all these women who are so obsessed with a fictional character that they compare it to their own relationship and find it lacking. One interviewee says, "My ex at Halloween time was like, 'What do you want to dress up as, do you want to be Edward and Bella? And I went, 'Honey, you're not Edward.'" It suggests that women have an ideal in their minds of a perfect, unattainable male, and when they do find a partner, he simply cannot live up to their ideals. Mind you, if they're looking for the possessive controlling type, it's no wonder that once they find this, it leads to a less than perfect relationship.

Ah well. I asked Marc which Twilight couple he most identifies with. Like most men, he's rather embarrassed to admit he likes Twilight, so he was somewhat evasive with his reply: "I like the cute girl with short spiky hair and the guy who was in the civil wars."

"Go on give me their names I know you know them."

"No I don't I've forgotten!"

Me? I've always loved Carlisle: the sweet, caring doctor. And I'm married to a sweet, caring teacher. Who doesn't complain too much when dragged to see the Twilight films!

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hunger Games

I'm a fan of a website called Sofabet. It's a site dedicated to unravelling the intricacies of reality TV shows, trying to second-guess what the producers of the show are thinking in order to garner votes, so Sofabet can make suggestions on who best to place money on. I particularly enjoy their deconstruction of the X Factor; how whoever opens the first live show is always in the bottom two the next night; second and third aren't much good either, as most of the TV audience are still watching Strictly Come Dancing on BBC. This year they carefully go over the entire thing to show how the producers originally favoured Janet and The Risk (certainly wanted a group to finally win, and certainly not another boy), but had to change their minds drastically as Janet turned out to not be the little sweet shy girl, and the numerous changes to The Risk began to look just a bit silly. A far-fetched, but brilliant, conspiracy theory suggests that Little Mix was in fact plan A all along, ever since a girl no bigger than a size eight was put in a group with size zeroes, in the hope that this would generate some online bullying leading to tears and a sympathetic VT just prior to their best performance of the season (ET)!

I'm also rather addicted to The Apprentice. There is something so delicious about watching people with huge egos suffer humiliations as they gradually realise that they're not as smart as they thought they were. When someone you love to hate finally has Lord Sugar's finger pointed at them, the sense of satisfaction is palpable. Of course, perhaps you wouldn't hate them quite so much if the producers of the show didn't give them quite so much screentime. Or pick moments of utter buffoonery, while cutting the circumstances which might make such comments or actions not quite so absurd.

Reality TV is utterly addictive. And the producers of such shows are very, very far from stupid. In fact they are geniuses. They can make the watchers think and feel exactly what they want them to think and feel. They are being manipulated, and they don't even realise it. Of course the X Factor is fixed. But not the votes themselves; they're dead accurate. It's fixed in a way which makes people vote a certain way, unknowingly being played with. And that is brilliant.

The decision made by the filmmakers of The Hunger Games to show the Game-Makers in action (yes, the point finally emerges - sorry) was very clever, but I don't think it went as far as it could have done. Yes, the fire which chases Katniss is used as a way to detour her away from the edge of the arena. The touchscreens allowing them to put in extra trees and monsters where and when they were needed was great, and uncomfortably reminiscent of the touch screens used by the X Factor judges when discussing contestants - casually moving their pictures around. But it could have gone further than that. I would have liked to see the Game-Makers actually reviewing footage, deciding which is best to show to the TV audience, clever editing, manipulation. Similarly, I would have liked to see the residence of the Capitol watching. The line from the book, "I was still in bed!" ranks somewhere in the top ten most despicable comments in children's literature, and it would have been good to see that; a family of spoilt Capitol citizens watching children killing each other over their TV dinners, discussing with their friends the 'best' bits, placing bets on the winner. It would have been a good contrast with the citizens of the districts, compulsorily and grimly watching as their children are killed in front of them. But more than that, it would hammer home how much the Capitol loves this show. It is, to them, reality TV, and is viewed in much the same way as our society views X Factor or The Apprentice. And that is what is so scary about The Hunger Games: it isn't that far away from our own society.

In a way, it's a shame that the filmmakers were limited by a 12A rating, because it means the violence is glossed over. In a way this is effective; we see glimpses of fists pounding and swords swinging, giving the impression that we're seeing everything, but no actual blood. What we do see is dead children lying on the ground after the initial bloodbath, and the pictures in the sky are genuinely moving. The boy with ginger hair particularly sticks out in my mind, quite an accomplishment for a character with no lines. But had they not been limited by the rating, we could have had blood flying and limbs being slashed off...only for it to be edited out by the Game-Makers to make it palatable for the Capitol audience. To keep them safely removed from the horrors they endorse every year.

I'm unsure of how I feel about the decision to show District Eleven revolting. In a way it made sense, and was beautifully done; the three-fingered salute to Katniss followed by a man I presume to be Rue's father leading a soon-squashed rebellion. But on the other hand I absolutely love the moment in the book when they send Katniss the bread; a quiet moment of grief-stricken support to another district. I'm also a little unsure of the likelihood of a district rebelling when they still have another tribute, Thresh, in the arena; surely they would have been scared that the Capitol would take revenge on him as a result of their actions. Actually, this exact scenario should have been included in the film, but I guess the filmmakers didn't think of it either! It would have been a better death scene than simply seeing his picture in the sky. Yes, I know that's all we get in the book, but film wise it lacked satisfaction. This is probably because they cut down his conversation with Katniss about Rue to a single line, so the image in the sky didn't have quite the same emotional impact.
While we're on the subject of Rue and Thresh, there was a brilliant second in the training sequence where she's climbed up to the ceiling, and he seeing this has a lovely expression - half exasperated, half smiling. Moments like that where there's no dialogue but the audience know exactly what's going on in the character's minds are very cleverly done.

I do think some of the nastier aspects of the book aren't quite as hard-hitting, probably because Collins describes them in a very flat, matter of fact way which actually makes it even sadder. For example, I never got the impression that people in the districts are actually starving; things are grim, certainly, but never to the extent where children are dying and young women are prostituting themselves. Likewise, Katniss' mother's depression is merely hinted at. I suppose again it comes down to - oh yeah, 12A.

I wouldn't want you to read this review and think that it's a bad film simply because I'm complaining about deviations from the book or pointing out where it could have been better. It was still a fantastic film, and far better than the much-mentioned Battle Royale. Jennifer Lawrence quite simply is Katniss. I was a little worried about Josh Hutcherson, as his previous movie roles hadn't left me particularly inspired, and Peeta is my favourite character. But actually he was really good too. The girl playing Rue only really needed to show up and look cute, which she managed with aplomb. Cato was just the right amount of arrogance; his realisation at the end that he had been lied to his entire life, that winning was not going to be the easy ride he thought it was, was a nice touch, but did it have to come at the expense of him sobbing over Clove's body and begging her not to leave him?

I think the thing that works best about the book, and the film, is that it leaves you with two vital questions. The first one is the same as any dystopia; it asks what you would do if you found yourself in the arena. But the second question should be considered in light of the fact that we are perfectly happy to watch candidates on The Apprentice wreck their professional lives, even if that was not their intention at the time. We're happy to watch X Factor contestants humiliate themselves on live TV, usually unwittingly. Clever producing, remember? So the question about The Hunger Games is; and be entirely honest, now: would you watch it?

Monday, 9 January 2012

CHERUB: People's Republic

After twelve books about James Adams and a further four covering the world war two founding of CHERUB, it would be easy to accuse this series of becoming stagnant.  It is to Muchamore's credit therefore that every book has shared the same high level of excitement, fast pace and intricate plotting.  At the same time, the reader has watched James Adams go from twelve-year-old recruit to adult secret agent; this journey from childhood is as satisfying to read as that of Artemis Fowl, say, or Valkyrie Cain. 

I know many readers didn't like Shadow Wave, and it's easy to see where they're coming from.  James meeting his father is a mere footnote.  The mission isn't exactly a fitting end to James' career.  It's Kyle's mission, with James as his backup.  This is the reason I actually liked it, as Kyle was always my favourite character.  I loved the flashback sequence, and the temper tantrum from a thirteen-year-old James over Arsenal's defeat was among Muchamore's more hilarious writing:

'He laughed even more as he heard James slamming his door, and crashing around in his room, slagging off Mo, Meryl and reserving his most special contempt for Cristiano Ronaldo.'

Of course, Muchamore is an obsessive Arsenal fan, so it's good to know he can basically laugh at himself!

It was also good to see retired, and almost-retired agents coming up with their own mission instead of something that's been meticulously examined by the CHERUB ethics committee.  It made a nice twist: using their training for their own ends...

Even so, were I being a sceptic, I could ask, what next?  How long can Muchamore continue with the franchise, and indeed, how?

 Well; by introducing a brand new recruit, naturally, and beginning all over again with his story.  People's Republic was released in summer 2011, and feels like a reboot of the series.  Ryan Sharma is quite different a character to James, possessing a touching uncertainty about his abilities and a sweet concern for other people which James often lacked. He still possesses the charisma needed to retain a reader's interest through (why not?) twelve books chartering his career.  I prefer him already.

There's appeal for Muchamore's young female readers too in Ning, whose escape from China to England is both exciting and tragic, with an ultimate feel-good happy ending.  I love that Muchamore never actually intended to write strong female characters, wanting instead something for the boys to bounce off, but he's ended up doing just that.  I'm not sure how many thirteen-year-olds could make this illegal, highly dangerous journey that Ning manages, especially when James was having tantrums over football at this age, and in making the character female, it shows that Muchamore seems to be writing for girls as well as boys now.

There's already the well-developed secondary characters he writes so well, who I look forward to learning more about.  Special mention goes to Doris, who is already favourite character to several people on a certain Internet forum:

'"Why have you still got the bloody yucca plant?" Ryan asked.
"I'll find a new pot for it when we get back to campus," Alfie explained. "I'm thinking of calling it Doris."'

One thing I'd like to mention: the front cover.  It shows an orange/red shirt jumping away from what looks like an explosion, which instantly asks many questions.  A red shirt, involved in a mission?  How is this happening?!  Then at the end of the book you realise that it is, in fact, a paint balling session, on campus.  Oh.

(I'm being snarky.  It was a lovely scene, showing Ning being accepted by her new friends in CHERUB, and by extension, her new life.  It reminded me of the end of Class A, where James realises that CHERUB is his home; where he belongs.  It also has the funniest moment of the book:

'"Are we playing or yapping?" Alfie asked. "Doris is expecting me back by ten."')

A more serious niggle is the sheer amount of typos, mistakes and inconsistencies.  There's at least two per chapter, which makes me wonder, in the rush for a speedy publication, was this book copy edited at all?  Or, y'know, proof read?  All of this points to the fact that Hodder clearly need to hire me for this role...

(At least they show that my copy is a first edition.  And it's signed.  And dedicated.  Snigger.)

People's Republic is the first in a trilogy.  I'm highly excited about Guardian Angel, which is due out this summer.  I also wonder if Muchamore has the ending for book three written out on scrap notepaper...