Monday, August 20, 2012

Why The Dark Knight Works


I have now seen all three of The Dark Knight movies. Of those three, I loved the first and the third, and I only watched the second one again because I wanted to refresh my memory before seeing The Dark Knight Rises.

A blog post by Larry Brooks of Storyfix, discussing heroes, inspired my post. There is a plethora of hero-movies now, either Marvel or DC Comics style, which shows that everyone loves a hero. Some heroes have superpowers, some are just super guys. Bruce Wayne, the Dark Knight is one of the latter.

In his post The Secret Weapon of Crafting Effective Heroes, Larry says:

“It’s a double-edged deal: empathy for the situation the hero is in… empathy for the person the hero IS in that situation.”

Why do we like Bruce Wayne so much?

Empathy, that’s why, even though he doesn’t seem very likeable. His persona to the outside world is a playboy billionaire (the kind we all love to hate) who buys hotels and fast cars, and always has adoring women on his arm. He even manages to burn down the family mansion in a bout of drunken birthday party madness. Aha, but that’s not true, is it? We have empathy with Bruce because we know the truth, and we remember that truth when he gets into dangerous situations. We remember why he is who he is, and why he does what he does.

The real Bruce Wayne is passionate about truth and justice, a passion ignited by his parents’ death at the hands of a mugger when Bruce was just a little boy. Bruce has always blamed himself for their deaths.

His morbid self-hatred and grief led him—after many travels—to join up with Ra's al Ghul, a man whose twisted sense of ‘cleansing’ society ultimately revolts Bruce. Ra's al Ghul uses various minions from Gotham’s underworld in a plot to destroy Gotham City by vaporizing the water supply into gas laced with the Scarecrow's fear-inducing toxin. He does not succeed, and Bruce saves the day, killing his previous mentor in the process. He emerges on Gotham’s social scene, while cementing his position as a caped crusader, with the help of Sgt. Jim Gordon (superbly played by actor Gary Oldman). All this time Bruce eschews love, even though it’s clear he should be with longtime friend, the assistant DA Rachel Dawes, who cannot bring herself to love both Bruce and Batman.

Larry advises in Booster Shots For Your Search For Story:

“Your bad guy needs a motive, too.”

The second film (The Dark Knight) somehow moved away from the threat of Ra's al Ghul’s organization (League of Shadows), supposedly obliterated with his death. A new menace pops up: The Joker played by Heath Ledger. Here my loyalty wavered. In Liam Neeson’s Ra's al Ghul, I found passion and a skewed commitment, but commitment nonetheless, to a cause, however misguided. In the Joker, there are no redeeming qualities. Violence and mayhem, with no discernible motive undermined the strong themes of the first movie. Harvey Dent, a good guy turned bad by circumstances, the DA who ends up dead, brings out another side to Bruce Wayne, showing him as a man who is prepared to shoulder the burdens of others to preserve their good reputation in memory. In the episode leading to Harvey’s death, Bruce injures himself badly. He becomes a recluse, mourning both Harvey and Rachel, also killed by the Joker.

The Dark Knight Rises winds up this excellent series in a brilliant way, for a number of reasons.

Bruce Wayne is not a superhero, and has never pretended to be one. He uses technology provided by Fox (the inimitable Morgan Freeman). He doesn't just bounce back into action. He has to get his strength back after a long period of inactivity; he has to endure what his enemy (Tom Hardy as the aptly named Bane) has endured. This tribulation makes him vulnerable, and more real and appealing to us.
Bane finally achieves what Ra's al Ghul failed to do. He secures Gotham City and holds its people to ransom using a nuclear device. Although Ra's al Ghul is dead, it seems that his legacy continues with his daughter and Bane. Surprisingly, details show a touching, tender and sympathetic side to the evil killing machine we call Bane. An unrequited love story that has its own back history and one which might be Bane’s saving grace. This element lifts the movie above the level of a kill-fest and gives viewers a deeper understanding of the powerful themes at play.

But back to Bruce… In a fascinating denouement, Bruce’s betrayers are revealed, and he fights back and wins … although seeming to die in the end.

Among other 'discoveries,' Alfred gives a vital clue, which reassures the viewer that the end might not be the end after all. The film also closes the door on the Dark Knight, but opens another one to his legacy, with Robin. (A relief when so many series never know when to call it a day.)

In the last film, we are reassured our hero is not forgotten, and we are given hope that what he stood for—truth and justice—has another champion. There is also the expectation that Bruce finds peace and love, two things ripped from him in such an untimely fashion. This makes him into someone who can appreciate those powerful, although gentle qualities.

This makes him our hero.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Different Kind of Dystopia

Dystopian novels have become popular in the YA market. Although I’m not a huge fan of burned-out worlds, where people scrabble for food in hollow shells of cities, I found David Litwack’s There Comes a Prophet different and positive.

The urge to write first struck David when working on a newsletter at a youth encampment in the woods of northern Maine. Using two fingers and lots of white-out, he religiously typed five pages a day throughout college and well into his twenties. Then life intervened in the way life does, with creating businesses and raising a family becoming his first priorities. When he found time again to daydream, the urge to write returned. There Comes a Prophet is his first novel in this new stage of life. He no longer limits himself to five pages a day and is thankful every keystroke for the invention of the word processor.

In this blog post, David describes the inspiration for the book, and how he sees the dystopian world.

Q: How do you see a dystopian world?

A: I think there are three kinds of dystopia:

1) Power driven - the evil one has come to power and is doing bad things (1984, The Hunger Games, Voldemort in the Harry Potter series).

2) The world destroyed. Following some kind of holocaust, society has devolved into chaos (Mad Max, Cormac McCarthy's The Road).

3) Dystopia has been brought on by good intentions.

I find the first two to be too black and white and less interesting. They're also too bleak, leaving little room for hope. There Comes a Prophet is of the third variety. The founders of the Temple were trying to make the world better. The arch vicar really believed denying the quest for knowledge is not as bad as the consequences of too much knowledge. The book grapples with that premise, leaving open whether it may be true or not. But the innate need of the individual to evolve and grow triumphs over fear.

Q: What sparked your ideas in your novel?

A: As far as insight as to how I came up with the ideas, I've been fascinated by militant groups that condemn the modern world and its obsession with technology, to the point of refusing to allow science to be taught in their schools. Yet at the same time, their entire movement relies on modern medicine, transportation, and communications.

I read a wonderful non-fiction book called The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor by David S. Landes. It talks about how Portugal and Spain were economic peers to France and Britain in the 16th century. Then they chose to become rigid theocracies, freezing their cultures and worldviews so their societies stagnated. At the same time, France and England were going through the reformation and the enlightenment. Within a hundred years, their societies had totally eclipsed those of Portugal and Spain.

I tried to show this phenomenon through the eyes of three precocious young people who wanted more from life but lived in a world of limits. They were unwilling to challenge the status quo until they learned, partially by accident, how much was possible.

Q: What question has never been asked about your book?

A: No one has yet asked me where the title came from. The title, and its full quote from the book of light, are a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 13:1-6, which begins: “If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder… saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death.”

Thanks for those compelling insights into your novel. Here’s my review.

Nathaniel, Orah, and Thomas, best friends since childhood, live a peaceful, bucolic existence in Little Pond, a place as small as its name suggests. Their lives are simple, governed by the teachings from the Temple, and the ministrations of the Vicars and their squadron of Deacons. Hints of the past, the ‘darkness’, are resolutely squashed by the Vicars who explain that to doubt is to reject the ‘light’ of their teachings. Subsequently, the perceived ‘magical’ elements of the past are crushed in favor of so-called mystical teachings. For a thousand years, this peaceful existence continues. Nevertheless, secrets have a way of revealing themselves. Nathaniel doesn’t accept the Vicars’ teachings; he believes there is more to life. A legend exists of earlier magic, hidden away in a place called the Keep. The secret path to the Keep has been preserved by Keepers, who will pass on the clues to a group called Seekers. But of course no one dares question the Temple, until Thomas is taken away for a ‘teaching,’ and comes back broken in mind and spirit. Seeds of rebellion grow in Nathaniel, and come to fruition when his friend Orah is taken. Determined to save her, Nathaniel ends up in the prisons of Temple City, and finds out the truth from a long-time prisoner. Armed with knowledge, he sets forth with Thomas and Orah to find the Keep. Can they survive the journey, and can they inspire their people to realize the truth behind the Temple? Will the fulfilment of their mission destroy their world?

Author David Litwack has created a believable dystopian world devoid of technology. Technology overtook humanity (perhaps a salutary lesson here?), and led to social collapse. Hints of the hideous effects of indoctrination in a totalitarian society remind us of the dangers of the suppression of knowledge. This is a coming-of-age story, a tale of friendship and loyalty, and of self-discovery and self-belief. Each of the friends discovers their own talents, and with that, their purpose in life. The author takes a philosophical approach and engages readers in ideas of freedom and choice, both personal and of thinking. This is such a well-written book, with so many thought-provoking ideas that I am sure readers will thoroughly enjoy it and appreciate the author’s message.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Creating a Legend: Sherlock Holmes

Imagine creating a character so popular that when you get bored with him, and try to kill him off, your readers rail against you. Finally, public opinion forces you to resurrect your creation. This is exactly what happened to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the world’s greatest detective (apart from Hercule Poirot who considers himself the world’s greatest detective).

Sherlock Holmes is an unforgettable character that has possibly changed the literary face of detectives. A London-based “consulting detective” whose abilities border on the phenomenal, Holmes is famous for his astute logical reasoning, his chameleon like ability to change his appearance, and his use of forensic science skills to solve difficult cases.

The Guinness World Records has consistently listed Sherlock Holmes as the “most portrayed movie character” with 75 actors playing the part in over 211 films.

Conan Doyle wrote the first set of stories over the course of a decade. Wanting to devote more time to his historical novels, he killed off Holmes in The Adventure of the Final Problem, which appeared in print in 1893. Conan Doyle considered the Holmes stories light reading, money spinners, but quickly forgotten, the literary equivalent of airport fiction.

“I couldn’t revive him if I would, at least not for years,” he wrote to a friend who urged Holmes' resurrection, “for I have had such an overdose of him that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day.”

The public reaction to Holmes's death was astonishing. People behaved as if Sherlock Holmes was a real person, so strongly had the great detective’s quirks and characteristics imprinted themselves on readers’ minds. They even wore black armbands and wrote Conan Doyle both pleading and threatening letters. No author likes being told what to write and it was a long nine years before he capitulated to public opinion and brought Holmes back. After Conan Doyle revived Holmes, he continued to write Holmes stories for another 24 years.

Sherlock Holmes aficionados refer to the period from 1891 to 1894--the time between Holmes's disappearance and presumed death in The Adventure of the Final Problem (at the hands of Moriarity at Reichenbach Falls) and his reappearance in The Adventure of the Empty House--as "the Great Hiatus."

So, what really happened during these lost years?

Holmes tells Dr. Watson in laconic fashion: "I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa and spending some days with the head Lama."

Two years is a long time. There must have been more to it than that, but without Dr. Watson as the faithful scribe, how could anyone know the truth?

Author Jamyang Norbu offers an explanation in The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, a non-canonical Sherlock Holmes pastiche novel.

Holmes and Moriarty struggle at the Reichenbach Falls
After surviving the incident at the Reichenbach Falls, Holmes travels east to escape Moriarty's henchmen. One wonders, if Holmes survived, what happened to Moriarty? His agents are still active, it seems. In India, Holmes meets a Bengali spy, Huree Chunder Mookherjee, assigned to accompany and protect Holmes during his mission to Tibet, for mission it was. Holmes has adopted the disguise of a Norwegian explorer called Sigerson so that he is able to protect the young 13th Dalai Lama from assassination by a Chinese-backed evil sorcerer, whose secret identity will come as no surprise when revealed. Holmes, ever pragmatic, finds himself at the mercy of mystical elements that almost (but not quite) overpower him as his expedition leads him into the fabled Shambala and events beyond common understanding. Mookherjee admirably takes on the role of narrator, with a quaint turn of phrase and shocked exclamations as things become considerably more dangerous with every passing day. A helpful glossary at the back of the book assists readers with unfamiliar words and phrases.

The author draws heavily on books and descriptions of the era, notably Kipling's Kim and Charles Allen’s Plain Tales from the Raj. I loved this book, although the plot veers into a kind of mysticism, which Conan Doyle is more famous for, than his creation. However, the Great Game is wonderfully evident. Holmesian aficionados will not be disappointed although some Baker Street purists might disapprove. The author has captured Holmes' dry wit and abrasive, often mercurial personality.

There are several extremely amusing references in this helter-skelter tale of darkness and derring-do. Note: readers who wondered about the Giant Red Leech, hinted at by Watson, will have their questions answered here. I thought the book admirably echoed the tradition of Conan Doyle and Holmes' many adventures.

A sad, one could say tragic element of the story is the author's concern with China's occupation of Tibet. He weaves in a pertinent political message, but in a subtle way that never interferes with the story.