Short Reviews: “Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film” by Dominic Lennard

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I opened my review of The Bad Seed with the following words: “So if further evidence was needed that all children everywhere are evil, enter Rhoda Penmark and The Bad Seed”. I’d intended the quip as a pithy little one, relying more on my curmudgeonly ways than any reflection of actual children, but it was still an easy one to make – do we in fact find children a bit creepy and evil?

It’s a subject that’s considered, addressed, refuted, supported, reinterpreted and discussed all throughout Dominic Lennard’s Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors: The Child Villains of Horror Film. Charting the depictions of delinquent all the way through to monstrous children in film from (roughly) the post-war era to the modern day, Lennard’s work doesn’t so much say “yes” or “no” to the question, but considers all ways of considering it.

He puts forward multiple readings and interpretations of a wide array of iconic child-focussed horror films (The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Village of the Damned to name but a few) but also asks the reader to put them in their broader context. Do we actually find children creepy, or is it a reflection of our own assumptions of childhood and societal discourses of innocence that are so easily corrupted and turned against us? Is innocence even a realistic concept, or do we rely on it to channel our own suppositions about childhood into something more meaningful? What is it about a child villain that’s so uniquely unsettling?

Over 9 separate chapters, each with its own focus, Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors presents a multitude of cogent arguments and theories on how we can read child villainy in film, and what our continued fascination with these films might say about us. Lennard takes into account the social context of each film’s creation and release and manages to chart a journey through the last near-century of cinema that not only provides a fascinating insight into the discussed films, but (for me at least) suggests that the social paranoias society has had around its children repeat and take the same form over time.

Of particular note is that this is a piece of academic writing that is incredibly accessible. Although familiarity with the films helps, Lennard is kind enough to provide enough context and synopsis of the films he discusses for the unfamiliar reader. Most importantly though, is that there’s not a wasted word and no needless adjectives to impress. This is not a piece of film writing to prove a point of how good the author is at writing about film – it’s instead a particularly well-written piece about a topic that is normally left to assumptions – either children are creepy or completely innocent. It’s well worth a read for anyone who has even a mild interest in horror cinema, and having waded through impenetrable academia for years, its light touch while still providing a wealth of insight and engaging material is very much welcomed.

 

Bad Seeds and Holy Terrors is available through Amazon and published by SUNY PRESS

 

Now for some full disclosure: Dominic Lennard is a friend of mine and former lecturer at UTAS. He generously provided me with a copy of his book knowing my interest in the subject matter, but didn’t request a review and certainly hasn’t commissioned anything from me (and I don’t have a wide enough readership for that to be worth anything). If my bias is up for question, know that I simply wouldn’t have written anything at all if I wasn’t genuinely impressed with it. Also, it’s really weird referring to someone you know by their surname to indicate authorship. That is all.

50 Shades of Grey Part Three: If It Looks and Sounds Like a Duck, It Might be a Rapist

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There are three main issues I have with 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m offering nothing new in the world of criticisms of this book – these are the same issues a lot of people have. But I’ll be damned if I put myself through the torment of reading that book without offering my own two cents.

50 Shades of Grey is the story of Anastasia Steele, a quiet girl who ends up in a relationship with young billionaire Christian Grey. She’s unnerved by his attention to her but immensely attracted to him. But she’s also unprepared for his predilection for kinky sex in which she is the subordinate to his controlling master. Cue a story entirely about her concerns over surrendering herself to him, with her mind telling her no, but her body, her body is telling her yes.

IF IT LOOKS AND SOUNDS LIKE A DUCK, IT MIGHT BE A RAPIST:

Christian Grey rapes Anastasia Steele in this book. He breaks into her house and exerts his control over her in a scene that’s non-consensual and an act of sexual violence and aggression.

During this scene, EL James takes the time to remind us how “yummy” he is.

And this in a nutshell is perhaps the biggest fault in EL James’ writing (which I’ve included at the bottom of the review for clatrity). She’s so 100% in love with her re-crafted Edward Cullen that she’s completely blinded to what it is he’s actually doing. Sure, she probably gets all of the context and emotions and ideas she was thinking of while writing, but because she’s forgotten to actually contextualise her context, we end up with accidental rape scenes.

It comes at a point where Anastasia is overwhelmed by the intensity of their relationship and needs some space. They’ve been exchanging emails and she sends him one that completely sounds like she’s breaking up with him, telling him “it was nice knowing you”. She thinks it’s a joke, but she’s an idiot on that front because there’s no other way to interpret it except as a send-off. From his point of view, he thinks she’s 100% broken up with him.

So he breaks into her house to “remind you of how nice it was knowing me.”

Anastasia does, at several points in this scene, narrate her desire for him, the “electricity” between them, how “yummy” he is in his pants and so on, but she never does this aloud. From an observer in the room, or more importantly, from Christian’s perspective, this is rape.

The only moment that can be construed as “consent” between them is after he’s pinned her down on her bed, and they’ve been kissing heavily. He stops and asks her if she “trusts him” and she “nods, wide-eyed” – this is it. In the physical context of the scene, she could be gasping for air. What’s more, given the dynamic of their relationship, it can be easily argued that she’s not so much consenting as being actively coerced, and it’s not up for debate that coercion and consent don’t mix.

More to the point, as he starts taking off her clothes (she’s just been for a run and has commented earlier that she feels gross), she gets embarrassed at her sweaty state and says “no”. The reader knows it’s her embarrassment at being post-run – Christian doesn’t, but keeps going, threatening to tie her down and gag her if she doesn’t stop resisting him.

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What’s worse is that, aside from James’ clumsy depictions of the erotic pull in Anastasia, the scene is framed entirely as one of danger and threat. She talks about her panic at him being in the room, about looking for an escape route, at her fear of how he’s going to react to her “joke”.

It would be unsurprising to have a moment of tawdry-ravishing in this style of book, but it’s downright disturbing to frame the scene with tension and physical danger and have it devolve into an act of violent sexual aggression before allowing the main character to consent – but well after the point where consent should have been given.

This is perhaps the most unsettling moment of Christian Grey’s behaviour, because the scene is plotted as a tense scene wherein Anastasia is held captive in her bedroom. But it highlights my biggest and most significant problem with 50 Shades of Grey:

PROBLEM

Christian Grey is not a dominant. He is an abuser. The novel normalises and idealises his abuse and misrepresents it as kinky sex and romance. He is allowed to get away with his behaviour. EL James as an author chose to allow this behaviour and to frame it the way it has been.

This is an element that we might be able to blame on Twilight, as it really cemented the creepy-stalker-boyfriend archetype as being OK, just as long as he’s gorgeous. Twilight suffers a huge blow to any potential credibility by framing Edward and Bella’s relationship up as romantic and passionate, when if anything, it’s unnervingly co-dependent. It’s actually failed on 15 different points to assess whether you may be in an abusive relationship (where failing against one point is a sign that you might be, so 15 is all sorts of trouble).

Given 50 Shades of Grey’s origin as a Twilight fan-fic, it might make sense that James would keep the same dynamic, but in amidst her hackery she really ramps it up. Edward Cullen has a supernatural awareness of Bella that might slightly mitigate his behaviour, (he stalks her because he’s connected to her, blah blah), but Christian Grey is a human character who goes to incredible lengths to exert his control over Anastasia.

STALKING

After their first encounter, where Anastasia interviews Christian for her student paper, he starts showing up in some surprising places. Her work, her home, the bar she goes to with her friends. What’s initially a little unsettling crosses into “insane” when he reveals that he’s tracking her cell phone and just drops this into casual conversation.

There’s no way to make that romantic. It’s not him being protective or wanting to know more about her, it’s him exerting control and power over her, removing her privacy.

Later in the book, when Anastasia is completely overwhelmed by their relationship she goes to see her mother in Georgia (the majority of the book takes place in Seattle). She’s at the zenith of her uncertainty about Christian and on Kate’s behest, goes to see her mother to escape him for a bit, to consider the situation objectively. He shows up at the bar Anastasia and her mother are at – some 3000 odd miles away from where he’s meant to be – because he’s keeping tabs on her. Furthermore, your up-until-this-point rational and kind-of-awesome mother, who you sort of expect to kick his ass and tell him to take a hike, suddenly starts fawning over him because of how beautiful he is.

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In any realistic setting, this would be so hugely disturbing. The second someone tells you they’ve started tracing your mobile phone is when you call the police. But because this is set firmly in the heart of EL James’ wankland, it’s romantic and damn convenient for the plot – having your romantic lead appear 3000 miles away from where he’s makes it much easier for he and Anastasia to have a chat, now that she’s decided she wants to talk.

SEX

So as I mentioned in Part 2, their relationship is not built on equal trust and exchange of power, it’s entirely driven from Christian’s wants and needs, with Anastasia assimilating to his sexual desires. They do have slightly more conventional sex early in the book, which Anastasia prefers and is greatly turned on by, but Christian constantly asserts that it won’t keep happening, that he was so surprised by it because he isn’t used to it.

The first time he spanks Anastasia, he’s doing it to punish her. He bends her over her knee and goes to town with his hands, despite the fact that she’s in immense pain. Once he’s done, he then fucks her hard – as he said he would – but again without caring for what she wants out of it.

Now none of this is what Anastasia wants, and she certainly doesn’t enjoy it. Perhaps the most key thing to take away from the failure of James to present a BDSM relationship is that she doesn’t enjoy being submissive to him. You might be able to pass it off as this being Anastasia’s introduction to Christian Grey’s particularly questionable version of sex, and had Anastasia responded with any form of sexual awakening at this point, that might (might) have been fine. But how does she respond?

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She can’t bring herself to look at him, leaves as quickly as possible, goes home and finds she doesn’t feel safe or secure there, and breaks down in tears, needing consolation from a phone call to her mother and Kate’s arrival home. Adding another sweet layer to this victim-trauma dessert is that prior to doing this, Christian makes Anastasia sign a non-disclosure agreement, which – in this book’s universe and reality – legally restricts her from talking about why she’s upset. The icing on the cake is that Anastasia eventually overcomes this (understandable) grief because Christian comes and stays the night, and she can find peace in his arms. Not only is this co-dependent as fuck and hugely troubling given how rapidly EL James takes it from actual victimhood to cloying sentimentality at him being her big spoon for the night, he even manages to make her grief all about him – moaning that he can’t trust her if this is how she’s going to respond when she said she was fine earlier. Abuse isn’t forgivable just because your character is dense.

Later in the book, as Christian starts exerting his control in more oblique ways, he buys her a new car because he believes her old car might put her at risk – but he expresses this in the way that you talk about wanting inanimate cargo to arrive unbroken at a destination. Anastasia is very uncomfortable with him controlling her through using his money, and tells him she can’t accept it. He threatens to fuck her then and there if she refuses, because threatening rape is an appropriate response in the eyes of the author.

Later, when she and Christian go to his parents’ house for dinner, they take a quick stroll through the backyard, in as much as he strolls through the backyard with her slung over his shoulder. He tells her that they’re going to have sex there, and they do – but she’s never given a say in this. It’s either have sex she doesn’t want willingly, or refuse and get “punishment fucked” or as the real world views it, raped.

THE EL JAMES RESPONSE

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It’s easy to see when I separate these moments from the rest of the book how obvious his behaviour is, but in context, it’s much more insidious. These are moments that are hidden in amidst (terrible) prose about how amazing and handsome and sent-from-the-heavens beautiful Christian Grey is, and the end result is that 50 Shades of Grey is a book that features a stridently abusive relationship masked as an edgy romance.

There are other questionable elements of the book, such as EL James’ homophobia (in their initial interview, Kate has Anastasia ask Christian if he is gay, something that’s then discussed several times, either by Christian punishing Anastasia for asking it (because how dare she ask that) or by his mother being introduced as a plot device to confirm his heterosexuality before we meet her properly), her seeming hatred and distrust of other women (seriously, all women in the book except Anastasia, Kate, or the female members of Christian or Anastasia’s families are dehumanised to their basic function in the scene, either “blondes” or “stepford wives” with no personality traits whatsoever, and Anastasia/James still feels threatened by them), or even her basic misunderstandings of terminology or practices in BDSM.

But chief among them is the refusal she has to make Christian Grey accountable for his actions, because that might take away his status as perfection and the ultimate goal to be attained.

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I am certainly not the first person to point out this abuse. Both Mara Wilson and Jenny Trout have taken James to task on it, and there are countless examples of people from within the kink community detailing just how much and why the sex in 50 Shades of Grey is either categorically not BDSM, or why it’s abuse. (I seriously recommend reading The Pervocracy’s recaps)

And at this point, it’s important to remember that 50 Shades of Grey has been sold as and marketed as a sort of self-help guide for the bedrooms of bored housewives. There are constant editions printed with little “awake your inner goddess” stickers, and through countless interviews, EL James has advocated people to use this as a guide to introduce themselves to the world of BDSM or kink as though she’s some shining beacon of progressive sexuality.

But when several people, namely survivors of domestic abuse, contacted EL James on Twitter to highlight that what she’d written dangerously echoed their real-life experiences, she simply ignored them, or blocked them without comment. When others have caller her out on it, she’s lashed back at them (even labelling Mara Wilson a “sad fuck” when Wilson suggested she should start donating money to women’s shelters).

Other than this highlighting just what sort of repugnant character we’re dealing with in the form of EL James, this is where the heart of the problem lies. EL James has created an un-researched and misguided story and appropriated the practices and lifestyle of a particular subculture (the BDSM community) to spice up an otherwise inert narrative.

Mara Wilson, being awesome

 

When this story has become a huge success, she’s gladly ridden the highs of that rollercoaster without taking any accountability for what she’s created. When you then have her willingly taking part in the promotion of said story as something to be imitated in real life – so therefore actively advocating for the creation of immense imbalances of power in domestic couplings – but then have people tell her why this shouldn’t be done, and just what the greater implications of this are, she reacts by creating a wall of silence.

Now, lest I seem too irrational here, I don’t mean to suggest that reading 50 Shades of Grey is going to turn anyone into a victim or abuser by its mere content. It would need to be a hell of a lot better written for starters, but it’s also just a ridiculous thing to suggest. No one is going to be greatly swayed by the power of 50 Shades of Grey into becoming a part of Domestic Violence more than anyone watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer is going to start trawling cemeteries at night and fighting shadows acrobatically.

tumblr_n9afcs87Wn1t6hfk8o1_1280Read more on this one here

But the problem is that when something like 50 Shades of Grey comes along and sets women’s rights back half a century, it then enters into a common lexicon. It spawns imitators that might suggest a similar theme, it creates conversations where maybe people think it’s acceptable to be dominated sexually when they’re not comfortable with that, because their frame of reference has now been altered to include a suggestion that it’s all worth it for love.

The abuse in the book is only bad because it’s not called out as such. I’m not saying that the story shouldn’t have had this element, but if it did, it should have mattered so much more than simply “will he stay the night now?” I am all in favour of confrontational material in fiction (my favourite novel is also the most disturbing book I’ve read) but the difference comes in knowing what you’re doing with that content. For anyone who has suffered abuse similar to what EL James thinks is “kink”, then this book must be a complete slap in the face to their experience, not because it’s representative of it, but because it’s unrecognisable and labelled as “love”.

Put it this way – if 50 Shades of Grey is teaching people about BDSM and relationships, would you teach your child about human reproduction by making them watch Anal Sluts 78?

It’s not worth it just so EL James can call herself a success. Nothing she’s created in 50 Shades of Grey is worth the success it’s received. That she’s so wilfully presented domestic violence as romance – which I genuinely believe she’s done unwittingly – but then so pig-headedly ignored when it’s been brought to her attention is further testament to the complete worthlessness of this book, and her as an author.

FURTHER READING:

Pretty much anything that Jenny Trout has to say on the subject

On Twitter, follow @50shadesisabuse

RAPE SCENE TEXT:

I don’t know why I glance up, maybe I catch a slight movement from the corner of my eye, I don’t know, but when I do, he’s standing in the doorway of my bedroom watching me intently. He’s wearing his grey flannel pants and a white linen shirt, gently twirling his car keys. I pull my ear buds out and freeze. Fuck! 

“Good evening, Anastasia.” His voice is cool, his expression completely guarded and unreadable. The capacity to speak deserts me. Damn Kate for letting him in here with no warning. Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, un-showered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing, and what’s more, he’s here in my bedroom.

“I felt that your email warranted a reply in person,” he explains dryly.

 I open my mouth and then close it again, twice. The joke is on me. Never in this or any alternative universe did I expect him to drop everything and turn up here. 

“May I sit?” he asks, his eyes now dancing with humor – thank heavens – maybe he’ll see the funny side?

I nod. The power of speech remains elusive. Christian Grey is sitting on my bed.

“I wondered what your bedroom would look like,” he says.

I glance around it, plotting an escape route, no – there’s still only the door or window.

My room is functional but cozy – sparse white wicker furniture and a white iron double bed with a patchwork quilt, made by my mother when she was in her folksy American quilting phase. It’s all pale blue and cream.

“It’s very serene and peaceful in here,” he murmurs. Not at the moment… not with you here. Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose, I breathe.

“How… ?”

He smiles at me. “I’m still at the Heathman.”

I know that.

“Would you like a drink?” Politeness wins out over everything else I’d like to say.

“No, thank you, Anastasia.” He smiles a dazzling, crooked smile, his head cocked slightly to one side.

Well, I might need one.

“So, it was nice knowing me?”

Holy cow, is he offended? I stare down at my fingers. How am I going to dig myself out of this? If I tell him it was a joke, I don’t think he’ll be impressed.

“I thought you’d reply by email.” My voice is small, pathetic.

“Are you biting your lower lip deliberately?” he asks darkly.

I blink up at him, gasping, freeing my lip.

“I wasn’t aware I was biting my lip,” I murmur softly.

My heart is pounding. I can feel that pull, that delicious electricity between us charging, filling the space between us with static. He’s sitting so close to me, his eyes dark smoky gray, his elbows resting on his knees, his legs apart. Leaning forward, he slowly undoes one of my pigtails, his fingers freeing my hair. My breathing is shallow, and I cannot move. I watch hypnotized as his hand moves to my second pigtail, and pulling the hair tie, he loosens the braid with his long, skilled fingers.

“So you decided on some exercise,” he breathes, his voice soft and melodious. His fingers gently tuck my hair behind my ear. “Why, Anastasia?” His fingers circle my ear, and very softly, he tugs my earlobe, rhythmically. It’s so sexual.

“I needed time to think,” I whisper. I’m all rabbit/headlights, moth/flame, bird/snake…and he knows exactly what he’s doing to me.

“Think about what, Anastasia?”

“You.”

“And you decided that it was nice knowing me. Do you mean knowing me in the biblical sense?”

Oh shit. I flush.

“I didn’t think you were familiar with the Bible.”

“I went to Sunday School, Anastasia. It taught me a great deal.”

“I don’t remember reading about nipple clamps in the Bible. Perhaps you were taught from a modern translation.”

His lips arch with a trace of a smile, and my eyes are drawn to his beautiful sculptured mouth.

“Well, I thought I should come and remind you how nice it was knowing me.”

Holy crap. I stare at him open mouthed, and his fingers move from my ear to my chin.

“What do you say to that, Miss Steele?”

His gray eyes blaze at me, his challenge intrinsic in his stare. His lips are parted – he’s waiting, coiled to strike. Desire – acute, liquid and smoldering, combusts deep in my belly.

I take pre-emptive action and launch myself at him. Somehow he moves, I have no idea how, and in the blink of an eye I’m on the bed pinned beneath him, my arms stretched out and held above my head, his free hand clutching my face, and his mouth finds mine.

His tongue is in my mouth, claiming and possessing me, and I revel in the force he uses. I feel him against the length of my body. He wants me, and this does strange, delicious things to my insides. Not Kate in her little bikinis, not one of the fifteen, not evil Mrs. Robinson. Me. This beautiful man wants me. My inner goddess glows so bright she could light up Portland. He stops kissing me, and opening my eyes, I find him gazing down at me.

“Trust me?” he breathes.

I nod, wide-eyed, my heart bouncing off my ribs, my blood thundering around my body. He reaches down, and from his pants pocket, he takes out his silver grey silk tie… that silver grey woven tie that leaves small impressions of its weave on my skin. He moves so quickly, sitting astride me as he fastens my wrists together, but this time, he ties the other end of the tie to one of the spokes of my white iron headboard. He pulls at my binding checking it’s secure. I’m not going anywhere. I’m tied, literally, to my bed, and I’m so aroused.

He slides off me and stands beside the bed, staring down at me, his eyes dark with want. His look is triumphant, mixed with relief.

“That’s better,” he murmurs and smiles a wicked, knowing smile. He bends and starts undoing one of my sneakers. Oh no…no…my feet. No. I’ve just been running.

“No,” I protest, trying to kick him off.

He stops.

“If you struggle, I’ll tie your feet too. If you make a noise, Anastasia, I will gag you.

Keep quiet. Katherine is probably outside listening right now.”

Gag me! Kate! I shut up.

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50 Shades of Grey Part Two: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby!

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There are three main issues I have with 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m offering nothing new in the world of criticisms of this book – these are the same issues a lot of people have. But I’ll be damned if I put myself through the torment of reading that book without offering my own two cents.

50 Shades of Grey is the story of Anastasia Steele, a quiet girl who ends up in a relationship with young billionaire Christian Grey. She’s unnerved by his attention to her but immensely attracted to him. But she’s also unprepared for his predilection for kinky sex in which she is the subordinate to his controlling master. Cue a story entirely about her concerns over surrendering herself to him, with her mind telling her no, but her body, her body is telling her yes.

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX, BABY!

For a book that uses sex as its raison d’être, 50 Shades of Grey is remarkably bad at it. This comes in two different flavours of badness though: 1) how it’s written, 2) what it is.

For those who aren’t aware, the book contains a lot of sex, and it’s meant to be shocking the average reader that it’s kinky sex, or specifically an approximation of a submissive/dominant S&M relationship. Once Christian and Anastasia start having sex, they barely let up. Every scene is just an excuse to have more sex, or it’s a set-up on the way to have more sex, or it’s Anastasia thinking about sex, or fearing sex (more on this in part 3) or it’s them talking about sex, so on and so forth.

As such, the book has been dismissed as “mummy porn” (or “mommy porn” as your region may dictate) as it’s now seen as something for the bored housewives of the world to get their mitts on and be temporarily drawn out of their humdrum lives. On behalf of all the slighted mummies/mommies out there, I feel the need to defend most women in that they would still prefer their porn to be erotic, which this book is most certainly not.

BDSM_collar_backPROBLEM:

 50 Shades of Grey is an excuse for lots of sex scenes that EL James thinks are steamy and/or controversial. But without any editorial oversight, she runs the premise dry too soon and isn’t a talented enough writer to make the sheer quantity of sex in the book interesting or erotic to work.

There are a few components of any fictional sex scene that need to be considered. Given that sex scenes can be used as a narrative device for a great many different situations and effects, it’s worth making a distinction. For the purposes of this review, I’m specifically considering sex scenes that are designed to be erotic, or showcase the eroticism of the story’s character(s).

If characters in a novel are going to have sex, and the prose is designed to be erotic, then it’s pretty essential that we understand their desire for each other. That is the key part of eroticism. Awkward descriptions of what’s going on can be forgiven much easier if the reader understands why the characters want to connect at the genitals with such fervour. Of course, it also helps if the writing is good enough to also put the reader into the characters’ frame of mind, so that you want them to have sex as much as the characters do.

This is largely absent from 50 Shades of Grey, though in its (minor) defence, there are attempts made to at least convey these thoughts. Even if they still fail miserably.

In terms of attraction, there’s little explained except that Anastasia thinks Christian is really hot. From Christian’s side of things, he clearly identifies Anastasia as a potential submissive and sees in her the things that he wants to control as a dominant. That explains the initial impulse, but we also understand no reason as to why she is so different from any of the other women he’s been with and why she challenges him so.

What this means is that the reader has no reason to be invested in their attraction, and as the book devolves into a pattern of blandly-written sex scenes one after another, it becomes a tiresome exercise to read. The prose is not great, and as such there’s not even the sheer appeal that at least it might make you-the-reader a little hot under the collar yourself.

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Instead of gaining any understanding of Anastasia’s sensations or impulses, what’s driving her to her sexual awakening with such force or what she’s actually getting out of their relationship, we instead get rudimentary descriptions of what body part is being used in what manner and to what effect before Anastasia summarises it all with an “Oh my…” and a few mentions about the inner goddess.

And because EL James thinks that her characters are the most beautiful in the world and that clearly any interaction between them is sufficient in and of itself, we’re treated to a bizarre mix of melodramatic Mills & Boon-esque and anatomical textbook prose in the sex scenes, which robs them of any passion.

Their initial sexual attraction is stated as fact (again, the book suffering from tell-don’t-show syndrome) but that covers off the conventional boy-meets-girl romance. When it comes down to the sub/dom side of the novel it becomes glaringly obvious that EL James doesn’t understand what’s making her characters tick on that front.

When Anastasia discovers Christian’s predilections, she’s initially stunned and a little revolted, before becoming distantly curious about it. Because she’s a virginal character who is so reserved and sheltered, it makes sense that she’d be apprehensive about it. It also makes sense that her naïveté would make her assume Christian is a perverted monster because she’s never had the need to consider an S/M relationship before.

But as she and Christian have sex with each other at such an exponential rate, and as he starts introducing more and more elements of his preferred style of sex into their relationship, we never understand Anastasia’s appeal to it. There is no period of discovery for her, or realisation that she does enjoy it (except that once or twice she mentions something being “hot” but with no explanation why), and there’s absolutely no depiction of what she’s gaining out of her increased submission. EL James gets it, we assume, but she has completely and utterly failed to explain why Anastasia is continuing down this road.

The single smartest thing the movie has done so far is used Beyonce’s Haunted in the trailer, a song that effortlessly creates the heady sense of passion and lust that the book so wholly mishandles. It also manages through its use of some dubstep-influenced breaks to convey the sense of excitement and danger that their kinky relationship should entail. That song, in its three-and-a-quarter minutes manages to be entirely more erotic than the entirety of 50 Shades of Grey as its written.

In the music video particularly, we’re also treated to the dilemma that the book wishes it could analyse – there’s a liberation in being sexually free and expressing that in whatever form it may take, but that it runs the risk of crossing your own personal boundaries; significantly, Beyoncé allows herself to succumb to her more carnal impulses and is seemingly empowered by them, but retreats from the hotel at the end of the clip – this encapsulates the desire/danger dilemma that Anastasia should be able to go through, but is never given the opportunity to do because EL James didn’t bother to address that with as much focus as it needs. Haunted being able to so quickly trounce the novel’s sexiness brings me to the second problem for this review:

PROBLEM:

50 Shades of Grey does not accurately portray a submissive/dominant relationship, to the detriment of people who are actually into sub/dom sex/relationships.

What their relationship actually is, I’ll discuss in part 3. But for the moment, the record should be set straight here, and with a little context, although with some large generalisations to follow.

We live in a society that has been largely led to believe that aberrant sexuality is equal to perversion or varying degrees of psychopathy. Anything outside of a heterosexual pairing on a bed is often something to raise questions and eyebrows, regardless of the truth of the matter.

In the case of BDSM, because it can involve elements of pain or confinement, it’s often been associated as shorthand for depravity, that those who enjoy or seek out BDSM are damaged or deranged. This is categorically wrong, but EL James uses this conception to her advantage throughout all of 50 Shades of Grey, not only as the only source of tension in the novel, but also through its marketing and beyond.

Despite the sex scenes being dull as dishwater, James has capitalised wholeheartedly on the conception that BDSM is strange and different and dangerous, and that’s where the book’s bewildering success lies. It’s a safe avenue to explore a world of sex and sexuality that’s intrinsically different from mainstream heteronormativity, without having to put you-as-casual-sexual-curio at any personal risk, either by experience or association. Yes reader, you are no longer a filthy deviant because you like BDSM, because 50 Shades of Grey did it and that’s ok, because everyone’s read 50 Shades of Grey.

The problem here is that what’s presented in 50 Shades of Grey is not a healthy sexual relationship between two willing participants. It’s a list of demands from Christian that Anastasia has to comply with. Muddying the waters a little is the fact that he offers her the chance to negotiate on his list of demands – in and of itself a positive thing as such a relationship requires a mutual understanding of what is and isn’t acceptable – except that her needs are not explored anywhere near as much as his.

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Christian, by the book’s internal logic, is a sexually experienced man (quoth Anastasia: “He’s so good at sex – even I’ve figured this out.”) who knows what he wants and how to get it. Anastasia, in complete contrast with Christian, is a sheltered virgin with little understanding of the sexual world beyond the basics of it. Beyond the fact that his presentation of his contract is far too full-on for someone whose experience is so limited, he introduces her to his lifestyle then demands she accept and conform almost straight away.

As mentioned before, we never understand what Anastasia’s appeal to S/M is beyond the few instances where she mentions that something seems hot, but these few moments are incongruous to the vast amount of time devoted to her discomfort with the idea. Christian allows her a few concessions by removing some of the things from his list that she is uncomfortable with, but never explores what her needs and desires may be – it’s entirely framed up from what he wants and she’s willing to go along with, rather than what they both want together on an even footing. In and of itself, this is not an even footing in the relationship.

It’s not as though her desire is to be completely controlled by him (something that would be completely fine if she consented to it) and in fact much of the book that isn’t made up of endless sex scene is her agonising over how conflicted she feels about wanting him but not being able to reconcile that with her own discomfort at the idea of being a submissive.

And significantly, both parties do not enter into an agreement based on trust and control. She doesn’t trust Christian (and nor should she) but he still manipulates situations so that she’s submitting to him even when she doesn’t want to be. He makes her question herself endlessly and given that she voices this several times, it’s clear that if he respected her wishes he would discuss that with her more than just telling her “but soon you’ll want to feel like this” (or words to that effect).

Furthermore, there are some glaring logistical errors too. Aftercare is barely a thought beyond Christian offering a lotion or two to Anastasia’s recently-spanked skin; they don’t establish safe words; they don’t agree to what’s going to happen before they go at it (partially excused as being caught-up-in-the-moment except when they’re specifically in Christian’s playroom); Christian uses cable-ties as a restraint (which are painful as a restraint and can cut and damage the skin) – the list goes on.

But on top of all of this, despite the problems with how their relationship is discussed and portrayed, there’s one absolutely glaring flaw of their kinky sex – it’s not that kinky! Honestly, Anastasia gets tied up at one point, and blindfolded at another, but beyond that, it’s mainly just a shit-tonne of spanking. Sure, you won’t necessarily see a whole lot of that in soft-focus romantic movies, but as controversial sex goes, it’s pretty uncontroversial. For all that Christian and Anastasia make of their mind-blowing vanilla sex as their first time (vanilla being the term for run-of-the-mill genital smushery with little fanfare beyond it) it’s not hugely different by the time they get into the more esoteric practices they think are dark and dangerous.

EL James

The problem here is just research failure. Experience isn’t essential to offer this perspective – most of what I’ve discussed in this review can be found on easily accessible sources such as Wikipedia or Tumblr. Furthermore, James could’ve bothered to actually explain what her characters found appealing about it, or more of why the dom/sub relationship was so essential, beyond having Christian want things his own way. There’s no reason for the reader to invest in their relationship, in their sex or in their problems. It’s not an interesting relationship, it’s not an erotic experience reading about their endless banging, and it’s not an accurate representation of the relationship James thinks she’s portraying.

A FEW FURTHER NOTES

BDSM is a much more intricate lifestyle and practice than I’ve devoted attention to here.

It’s worth noting that despite its forays into the mainstream more and more, and despite changing social perceptions on sex and sexuality, it is still not something widely discussed. Those who partake in BDSM sex are often likely to keep the fact to themselves, as the stigma around it is still one that perceives an interest in BDSM as problematic in a person’s professional and personal lives.

It’s also true that the version of a sub/dom relationship I’ve presented here is not indicative of all those relationships. Many do find the appeal of surrendering all of their control to a person, or of having a person surrender their control to them as highly erotic, but this is still usually something that both parties want and agree to. There are also different mindsets around what is and isn’t acceptable in a sub/dom relationship, such as the usage of safewords and the materials that are introduced into the sexual act – some might like the idea of being hurt by cable ties, but the general mindset amongst the larger share of the BDSM community is “safe, sane and consensual” which is the benchmark 50 Shades of Grey fails to meet.

50 Shades of Grey also makes the mistake of continuing to conflate BDSM as a sign of a damaged personality. The few insights the reader is granted into Christian Grey’s personality and backstory are centred in abuse. He was abandoned by his mother as a toddler and the book assumes that he suffered for a period of time before being adopted by his filthy rich new parents, and his sexual awakening came in the form of an older woman molesting him for a prolonged period of time and introducing him to the BDSM world.

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Both of these things are treated as the key to explaining why Christian is the way he is. I wouldn’t object to this if James took the time to analyse Christian and explain why X means Y and why he might be an unusual example, but she simply uses it as another signifier that Christian is “dangerous” and tries to use that to amp up the appeal of their sordid lifestyle.

Over the last few decades, BDSM has been upgraded from “disorder” to “paraphilia” in the Diagnostics and Statistics Manual – for a long time, it’s been considered that it was a mental defect to enjoy kinky sex, whereas it’s now (correctly) being understood as simply a different way of enjoying sex. The stigma that’s already attached to BDSM doesn’t get diminished by one of the most popular books in the world continuing the same form of misinformation or stereotyping. Again, this comes down to EL James failing to put in enough context, and most likely enough research.

She probably heard the “sticks and stones may break my bones but whips and chains excite me” from Rihanna’s S&M and thought “Oh, I get excited by those too!” but failed to realise that there’s more to it than that. In both S&M and 50 Shades of Grey, it’s almost a form of cultural appropriation for the sake of a provocative gimmick. Rihanna at least adds a sense of lustful urgency to her singing that makes it seem as though she’s aware of what whips and chains feel like – but neither example is very good at portraying why people can get excited by BDSM, what they get out of it, or why it interests them in the first place. “I may be bad, but I’m perfectly good at it” croons Rihanna, assuming that “being bad” is impetus enough for appreciating kink, whereas EL James has decided that her character’s dark past explains his sexual present. This is in stark contrast to the increasing evidence that BDSM relationships are among the healthiest, and that it’s NOT still something practiced only by a select few questionable individuals.

The reason I’ve harped on at this is because 50 Shades of Grey actually has a foundation for a decent story involving BDSM in it. It’s a shaky foundation that would need to have a completely new structure built on top of it, but it’s there. It’s clear that EL James has an understanding of BDSM that’s slightly above “those are the people who dress in leather and whip each other” but she’s failed to present that knowledge in her novel. It would be quite progressive of her to portray Christian as a man who suffered some adversity in his life and then grew into a man who still enjoyed BDSM – in fact it would provide some much needed complexity to his character – but the current form of “he was abused and now he likes BDSM” is a cop-out and shitty excuse for something so pivotal to the story.

50 Shades of Grey Part One: Prose Before Hoes

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There are three main issues I have with 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m offering nothing new in the world of criticisms of this book – these are the same issues a lot of people have. But I’ll be damned if I put myself through the torment of reading that book without offering my own two cents.

50 Shades of Grey is the story of Anastasia Steele, a quiet girl who ends up in a relationship with young billionaire Christian Grey. She’s unnerved by his attention to her but immensely attracted to him. But she’s also unprepared for his predilection for kinky sex in which she is the subordinate to his controlling master. Cue a story entirely about her concerns over surrendering herself to him, with her mind telling her no, but her body, her body telling her yes.

PROSE BEFORE HOES

50 Shades of Grey arrives marred by its origins, a Twilight fan-fiction with the serial numbers filed off that went the self-publishing route before being picked up by a publisher and bewilderingly becoming one of the best selling books in the world.

It’s worth noting that there’s nothing inherently wrong with fan fiction or self-published novels, save for the fact that they’re often let down by a lack of editorial insight by someone who isn’t the author. The enthusiasm of writing can often overtake the ability of reviewing flaws within the writing, which is definitely something that 50 Shades of Grey suffers from in spades.

Clearly it worked though. The book would not be as big a success as it is without appealing to an audience out there and for that alone I can’t deny that something about the book must appeal to others, though for the life of me I’m not sure what that is. Perhaps undiscerning readers buy in bulk.

I am not its target audience, neither a fan of Twilight nor a fan of romance novels. Automatically I need to declare myself a square peg to 50 Shades of Grey’s round hole (!). But the problems with the novel start in just the prose.

Quoth the raven, "Oh My"

PROBLEM:

50 Shades of Grey’s priority is the sexual content and revelling in the “naughtiness” of it all rather than anchoring it as one of many parts that make up a more cohesive whole.

50 Shades of Grey is a terribly juvenile piece of fiction.

This is evident in several ways: firstly, the prose of the novel is uneven, inconsistent and banal. Secondly, for a book that is 90% concerned with “steamy” and “kinky” sex, its approach to sex is surprisingly conservative. Thirdly, characters and setting seem to have been included as an afterthought.

EL James appears to be trying for a vivacious sort of style in her prose, and while this might work in conversation, it makes an arduous read.

Told from protagonist Anastasia’s first-person view, the book contains an overabundance of inner monologue and observation that’s completely unnecessary at best, and outright distracting at worse. James writes in a conversational tone, which has its place, but not when it’s as unevenly applied as in these pages.

It would work well if it was trying to capture the enthusiastic-yet-vapid spirit of a teenager, but from a character who’s meant to be shy and reserved and by her own admission relatively sheltered, it rings false. It also fails to actually convey much in the way of information – the majority of the book is spent examining Anastasia’s every passing thought, with very little given to establishing who she is or how she relates to the world around her, meaning that it’s a constant slug of just accepting everything that’s thrown at you without any work for you to do as a reader.

It’s also just very tedious to wade through – despite the adult themes of the book, the prose is incredibly immature in style and effect and it serves as an immediate and pervasive blocker to being able to take anything seriously.

There are two egregious examples of this.

Firstly is an appalling misuse of euphemism for the sexual content. Anastasia constantly remarks, “Oh my…” as a method of showing that she’s turned on by something. I suspect James was trying to make this her catchphrase, but it’s so overused (and used poorly) that it reads more like she meant to go back in later and expand those sections with more words but failed to do so.

If the multiple “Oh my”s were spoken in dialogue it could be excused as an attempt to be coy or discreet, but in the narration it just feels like James was too embarrassed to write in more detail, despite everything else that’s detailed. Imagine a child tittering at the word “sex” – that’s the accidental function of “Oh my.”. This also extends to the many descriptions Anastasia provides of being turned on, referred to as feeling things “down there” – where it just seems it would be more prudent to throw the word “moist” around with wanton abandon and actually give a sense of the setting of the multiple scenes, or to convey any of the atmosphere of these scenes.

For a book that deals with sex as its prime conflict, and for a book that literally falls into a pattern of its characters fucking then waking up then fucking again then wandering into a different room and fucking again, it needs a bit more confidence in its writing to pass muster, and a bit more sexiness to its sex to make it even passable as an erotic novel.

From the trailer for the film

And for this reason alone, I have to assume the movie will be better than the book

When you hold back from describing your character’s antics or feelings because you’re choosing to use words that make it seem like she’s embarrassed, then juxtapose that with clinical details of he sexual content in a seemingly endless cycle, it robs the book of any relevance; an uneven masturbatory fantasy that falls…well, limp.

Secondly is the personification of Anastasia’s subconscious and sexual desire. The latter infuriatingly referred to as her “inner goddess”, while her subconscious is just referred to as “my subconscious”. Anastasia imagines her subconscious to be a dowdy bore, constantly belittling her and questioning her judgement, while the inner goddess is a fairy-like woman who’s in a state of constant craving for Christian Grey and all of his sexual expertise. Other than the fact that recognising how your subconscious is affecting your thoughts just makes it part of your actual consciousness, this a device that is indistinguishable from the good/bad shoulder consciences.

50 Shades of Kronk

While I want to give James credit for trying to explore her character’s thoughts and feelings in a slightly different way, the biggest problem is that they don’t actually affect anything about Anastasia through the story. She quite often presents a situation, and what her subconscious’ reaction is, then her inner goddess’s, and then hers. If she’s a third entity between the two, it means they aren’t actually necessary at all. They’d be better titled “my horniness” and “my misgivings” because all they serve to do is comment on one possible consequence each of the choices Anastasia makes, without actually making any impact on what those choices are. If these two elements of her personality were meant to convey an ambivalence between being a “good girl” or embracing her sexuality, it fails entirely because they’re little more than observers on her actions.

James probably thought this a quirky aspect of her story, that her main character’s ability to personify these elements of her psyche (another word atrociously misused in the book) would make her endearing to the reader. It doesn’t. It makes her seem self-loathing or ardently reckless when either the subconscious or the inner-fucking-goddess has more attention.

Across all relevant aspects of the writing, the book also suffers a major blow of “show don’t tell”, from Anastasia’s narration and introspection, to the various settings the novel lurches between. Next to nothing is left up to the reader to establish for themselves. If that were the case, we might have been allowed to craft likeable characters.

One gets the impression the James was so in love with her concept that she didn’t want there to be any variation on what a reader pictured, and so did away with anything that could possibly be interpreted differently to her own imagination. The result is a deathly dull book that leaves nothing up to the reader to interpret.

There’s also just some of the worst writing you’ll ever come across, ranging from ludicrous to banal, often in the same sentence. You don’t need to be told that Anastasia’s subconscious is figuratively doing something; you don’t need a thousand mixed metaphors distracting you from the flow of the story because you have to figure out what James actually meant.

You certainly don’t need the single token-minority character to begin nearly every sentence with “Dios Mio!” just to remind you that he’s Hispanic. And you certainly don’t need the countless offences of EL James perusing through a thesaurus to choose the snazziest word for her sentence without realising it actually changes her meaning.

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CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

There is none. Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey are two of the most boring characters I’ve ever read. We are told everything we need to know about them and there are no opportunities to garner this information for ourselves through their thoughts or actions. There’s no subtlety to them – everything we might need to infer about their characters is outright explained in the prose or discussed by the characters. Nothing is left for the reader to do when all necessary detail about the leads is spelled out clearly and there’s nothing left to invest in beyond endlessly repetitive sex scenes.

Given the general conceit of the story is Anastasia’s uncertainty about her relationship with Christian, as well as her resistance to engage in unconventional sexuality while at the same time being motivated by her increasing lust and desire, you would think this would at least make for ample opportunity to invoke those same feelings in the reader. Instead, we are told that she is confused, that she is turned on, that she is scared, that she is overwhelmed and every other conceivable thought or feeling she might go through is spelled out in simple “this is what Anastasia thinks” terms.

We’re also not given any subtlety with Christian as a character – Anastasias perceptions of him are gospel truth as far as the novel is concerned. When she finds out tiny tidbits of information about him, she makes an assumption that is then treated as fact without Christian ever confirming or denying. This would be ok if it ever became an issue, that maybe Christian would react differently or reveal that matters were different to what Anastasia was assuming, but it’s not. We have only Anastasia’s quick assessment to go with as establishment, and no exploration of that. And it’s not that Anastasia is arrogant or just that she’s quick to presume – it’s that EL James didn’t bother to go back and invest any further detail into these things.

For instance, Christian, deathly unwilling to reveal much about his personal life to Anastasia, reveals that his mother was “a crack whore” and that’s about all he says. Anastasia then extrapolates this information to imagine him suffering as a toddler from his mother’s abandonment and imagines him crying alone, and scared and hungry – which she then uses as the basis for why he must want to “feed the world”, something he uses his vast fortune to do by providing food to developing nations.

At no point is this ever questioned, or does Christian contradict her. She makes grand generalisations off small evidence, and the book doesn’t bother to throw us a credible bone with them. This is aggravating because it creates an entire novel where the reader is only given the basic information they need to make sense of the words – there’s no work for them to do, and nothing for them to gain themselves out of reading.

Imagine if Harry Potter was written and all you knew about Hogwarts was that it was Harry’s school – but none of the extra information like his attachment to it, the significance of it being the first place he feels at home, the memories he creates with his friends, the amount of growing as a person he does there. Imagine if all of that is left out, and then Voldemort shows up and destroys half the school – why would you care about it? By the same token, why do we care about anything in 50 Shades of Grey? The answer is that you don’t. It’s not about creating those connections – it’s about sex.

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CHARACTER AT ALL

Christian is an impossibly wealthy, impossibly handsome, well-hung, stunning billionaire and he’s even under 30 to boot. He had a dark childhood that he’s somehow overcome, and is supremely confident in everything he does.

He’s also the largest cop-out of a character in a long time. He has no conflict about him. He doesn’t have to work for anything. He doesn’t have to worry about anything. He has infinite resources available to him, because in the world of EL James literature, money just means you can do everything. He’s boring.

Anastasia is a quiet and bookish university graduate. She has a loving support network in her mother and step-father, as well as her roommate and another friend, as well as the endless kindness of her employers and even her employer’s family. She lives rent-free in her roommate’s apartment, and when the two of them move to Seattle, her roommates parents buy her another apartment. There is nothing she needs to work for or worry about except her own insecurities, which are relatively minor. She’s boring.

Clearly EL James didn’t want her story being bogged down with anything worth investing in as a reader, because that might distract from her sordid sexy-time-words and how much they envelop her characters. And who needs a well-rounded or fleshed out character when you can have your two leads become entirely obsessed and involved in each other? Because that’s all you need right? Two characters whose sole motivation is an orgasm from the other. There’s literally nothing else to the characters except their involvement with each other, and they’re constant, constant fucking. And the sex is so boring that giving it a title as mildly evocative as “fucking” seems misleading. “Prolific genital smushery” is more appropriate.

But more on that in part two.

“Merciless Gods” by Christos Tsiolkas (2014)

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In Merciless Gods, Christos Tsiolkas tackles his usual litany of themes across a range of short stories. What’s always been so captivating about his writing is his ability to take moments of mundaneness, depravity, danger, violence, love, lust, sex, frustration, anger, joy, and sorrow and lay them bare with a simple measure of precise words that make them all the more affecting.

So often described as a “confronting” author, the only confrontation is that these moments don’t always fall in line with conventional morality or reason.

Consider ‘Petals’, a rending story of an immigrant living out a prison sentence; the most sympathetic character in the story is a convicted paedophile. In ‘Sticks, Stones’ a mother’s disappointment in her son acting like a childish teenager blooms into complete disdain and rejection overnight. In ‘The Disco at the End of Communism’, a man travels to his brother’s funeral despite his complete disrespect for the dead man and everything he stood for and represented in their lives.

The stories are confronting, if only in their honesty. Tsiolkas creates characters and puts them in unusual, often abhorrent situations, and presents them to us to observe, with no judgement, no moralising, no grand statements about how these characters should react in an often-cruel world.

On the downside of this approach, it sometimes feels the misanthropy overwhelms the stories. This is probably only an effect of reading all the stories in quick succession.

Tsiolkas’ skill with his abrasive subject matter has always been to find the light in a situation where it’s possible. For all of Danny Kelly’s disagreeable qualities and actions in Barracuda, there’s the immense love of his family pulling the story back into a comfort zone. For all of the anger and bile in The Slap, the story still ends with young adults finding peace with themselves and enjoying their lives at that time.

In the zone of short stories, it’s harder to make that transition over time and explore the character’s growth throughout a longer narrative – as a result, the stories are often based around moments or small windows of time. The mother in ‘Sticks, Stones’ eventually loses her rage and grows fearful of her son’s safety when he doesn’t appear at a usual hour. Her hatred of him has been momentary, occupying a small window of time; there is still maternal love to consider.

The stories are not all misanthropic or cynical. The strongest of them is ‘Saturn Return’, detailing a man’s experience as he accompanies his partner on the journey to euthanize his partner’s dying father. Though the synopsis sounds grim, the story is a moving exploration of love, family, grief and sorrow told with a tenderness that imbues it with an almost hopeful edge.

As an overall collection, it seems the world of the stories in Merciless Gods is one that’s jagged and often harmful, but that the keys to surviving it can be found in the places and people around us if we know where to look.

At times, Merciless Gods reads like a Michael Haneke film. Its stories and characters are not necessarily likeable, and sometimes not all that identifiable. Some of the stories are steeped in absolute despair – ‘Porn 1’ chronicles a woman’s torment over discovering her recently dead son was a gay porn star, and then the devastation she encounters while viewing one of his films.

But the crucial difference is that Tsiolkas knows how to craft a story so well. Even with unlikeable characters or harsh situations, a cruel world bearing down on them and everyone in it (make no mistake, contemporary Australia still gets vivisected under his scathing knife), he’s still able to create a story that compels and moves you, gives you pause for thought, or makes you consider things a little differently than you did before.

Sometimes the most comforting thing about reading the stories in Merciless Gods is that they’re not a story you’ve experienced yourself. At the same time, it often hits home how similar a situation can seem, or how what some of the characters go through might have been you if you’d made a different decision that one time.

Despite the title, the book is not merciless. In fact, the relative brevity of each story may be a great introduction to Tsiolkas’ unique and bracing style. As a collection, it doesn’t command the same attention as some of his other work, but it’s still a great testament to his position as one of the strongest authorial voices in Australia. And on its own merits, it’s a fantastic collection of short stories exploring the world we live in through a whole array of characters who live it in very different ways.

Under the Skin (Book vs Movie)

Under the Skin PosterI reviewed the film earlier in the year when it came out, but since then have read the source novel. Under the Skin is an incredible film – hypnotic and visual, nigh-incomprehensible but anchored with haunting imagery and atmosphere that resonate even if you don’t understand the film as a whole.

It tells the story of an unnamed woman perusing the streets of Scotland for male hitchhikers, who she then takes home, where they’re trapped in a strange prison, and we come to understand that she’s not exactly human. Eventually, the film shifts tone and explores this woman’s experiences of humanity and the world around her, as seen through her alien view of the world.

According to IMDb, the woman is named Laura, though this is never said anywhere in the film and the credits only list the names of the performers, not the characters.

In Michael Faber’s source novel, the very basics of the plot are similar – an alien woman cruises the streets of Scotland picking up men to entrap, only to have an awakening of sorts to humanity by the story’s end.

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But let’s expand here:

Isserley is a female alien who has been sent to Earth to capture Vodsel (humans) for their skin, which is a delicacy for the ruling elite on her home planet. She has been mutilated and surgically modified to look like a human being, and is mighty resentful of this fact. She works alone, returning the carcasses of the men she picks up on the road to a rag-tag group of men from her home planet who work underneath an isolated farm, processing the flesh before it’s sent back to their home planet.

She grows anxious at the impending arrival of Amliss Vess, son of the company’s owner, as she has come to loathe her employers for everything they’ve taken from her. We also learn about her methodical and meticulous approach to her work, the limitations of her rough-hewn body, the isolation she feels not only as an alien on Earth but also as an unrecognisable member of her race stranded so far from her home, and her curiosities in the world around her.

Isserley is a head-strong, arrogant and proud, flawed character who is struggling with her lot in life. She’s not entirely uncompassionate, and by the novel’s end she has come to understand more about the world she’s in as well as the world she’s from. This doesn’t even cover the details of the class struggle on her home planet, its ecological devastation or the will-they-won’t-they romantic subplot between her and Amliss Vess when they finally meet.

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Both versions of Under the Skin are great. The movie is an arthouse treat, the book is a compelling and unsettling read that covers a great swathe of themes in its 295 pages; but compare the two basic plot summaries, and they’re barely recognisable.

Which is completely fine.

In the litany of filmic adaptations of books, there’s no consensus on what makes an adaptation work. There are purists who won’t accept change, and the other end of the spectrum in viewers who complain of it being exactly the same. There are those who fall in between who accept and reject some changes or some repetitions of the material.

For what it’s worth, a direct adaptation of the book would probably have ended up a hokey mess, unable to reconcile the novel’s horrific elements with its existential wistfulness, or let down by the necessities of condensing the entire lore of a novel into a visual representation. It might not have – it could have been amazing, but in comparing a hypothetical direct adaptation of the book with what has been made in the current version, my imagination still comes up short.

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Because the film is so wholly different from the book, it becomes its own entity. It has the same shadow of plot as the novel, but is an entirely different experience to comprehend. It takes many elements of the story and crafts them into an entirely different beast, which is a better way of adapting a story. If it’s so far removed from the source that they border on incomparable, it removes the need to assess the film by how close or how far it hits the mark. Clearly it can’t be derided for being too similar, and those who bemoan the amount of change appear redundant by insisting that a wildly different work hew closer to its inspiration.

It removes the need to ask if the book is better than the movie or vice-versa; neither is better at being the other because they’re not the same thing in the end. You can ask what might be more enjoyable, or what’s more effective at utilising different themes in one or the other, or what approach walks best.

For instance: the men who are captured. In the novel, Isserley drives around in a modified car which has a hidden device that injects them with a paralysing agent; they’re then taken back to the farm, castrated and their tongues cut out. They’re then fattened and bloated, before taken to a modified bulldozer where their skin is eventually shed from their bodies.

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In the movie, the alien lures them into their home, where once over the threshold they seem to move into an entirely different dimension – they walk along a black reflective surface as the alien sheds her clothes and they follow suit. Eventually, they sink into and beneath the surface while she stays on top, and later we see that in their suspended state, their skin is loosened from their bodies the same way you might soak a label off a plastic bottle.

Both are different approaches to the unappealing thought of harvesting human flesh. One is protracted, visceral and gruesome, the other is (visually) poetic, haunting and elegant. Neither is pleasant, but depending on your ability to appreciate/stomach the concept, one may work better for you than the other – but the film doesn’t adapt what was in the book, so it’s not a measure of success of recreating what’s in the book. Another point of difference – the film doesn’t let you know exactly what’s happening – it’s haunting and beautifully terrifying, but you don’t understand it as a harvest, whereas in the book you’ve had all the finer points and minutiae of Isserley’s job detailed before we read how the skin is harvested. Is the thought of harvesting human flesh more or less appealing if you know exactly what’s going on, or would you prefer it as an alien act that’s not immediately apparent? Either way, the success of one over the other comes from which you prefer in what version, not as the success or failure of the movie to capture the book.

Having said all that, it’s true that you can prefer one overall version of the story over another. For me, I like the movie more – I love Jonathan Glazer’s completely unique approach to telling the story, I love the imagery, the sound design, the photography and the overall alien quality of the movie – it’s awesome. But does this diminish Michael Faber’s book? No. The novel is great, it’s complex and engaging, and full of a lot more actual plot than the film. I like its concepts, ideas, and its characters, and the whole world that Faber creates despite never taking the reader there. I prefer one version of the story over its counterpart, but in terms of successful adaptation, neither is better than the other.

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