Saturday, May 30, 2009

True Blood: Season 1, the last three episodes

The last three episodes were filled with great stuff. Strong character developments, changes to dramatic situations on all fronts, the introduction of interesting and despicable new characters. Funny (and moving) in parts, too.

And yet I'm having trouble getting enthused about it. As a TV series, I like True Blood, but I'm not sure I'm that interested in it. It's actually kind of a weird feeling - I think I'm starting to realise I like to get a little obsessed with TV shows. And the qualities that get me obsessed fascinated are intriguing questions and a sense that a series has a bigger picture (a mythology) that each episode is a part of.

True Blood is a really entertaining horror melodrama, that's well-written and performed, with a story that occasionally takes funny and surprising turns.

And I'm not sure that's enough for me. Guess I'll find out for sure when the next season rolls around (preview, here).

On a slight tangent, I do think I've consistently made the mistake of viewing this as a TV series and judging it on an episode by episode basis. While watching the finale, I realised it works better for me to think it as an TV adapation of a novel. I'm not sure I can articulate the difference between than that, yet. I'll think on it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why I'm Not Writing today - Existential Dread edition

I've been watching the History Channel doco, "Life After People", which follows the planet Earth forward about 10,000 years to see what would happen if every single human were to disappear* right now.

* The doco continuously uses the metaphor of 'disappearance', as if we're all taken up in some raptural-like experience. Implicitly, though, it's asking "What happens if we all die?" ... and to its credit, it delicately steers away from explaining that this would give dogs that have been trapped inside a house an extra week or two of unrefridgerated food supply.

Things I've learned from it:
  • Dogs with short legs are screwed; pity them more than you normally would
  • Nuclear power plants won't melt down
  • Radiation can have long-term benefits for the environment
  • Flying squirrels are cool
  • Radio and TV broadcasts from Earth probably turn to gibberish after travelling about 2 light years.
A bit lame and OTT in places, extremely moving in others. It's broken down into 10 minute segments on this site. I recommend it.

Graphic Design Practice #7

More Photoshop challenges (where you get a random picture, title and quote, and make a book cover):

That's my second draft. My first draft (where I wanted to play with the title a little) looked like this:

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Capturing the inner life of an adaptation

In the comments thread for the previous post, Sean said this:

I find an adaptation only tends to work for me if I get
swept away in the inner life of it, given that a big usual
question ('what will happen next') is already answered.

I'm interested in how an adaptation does achieve an inner
life. Breathing the life into an adaptation is kind of
magical as well as a technical accomplishment.

Hix, do you have any further thoughts on that aspect?

I am fascinated by this, too. I lament that many Stephen King books
that I find
riveting to read fall completely flat on screen as not only
do they fail to capture
the inner thoughts and completely reasonable
motivations of their characters,
but also fail to create an identity
outside of schlock-horror scares. Randall Flagg
in the TV adaptation
of The Stand, I am looking at you.

Last year, one of Bex's students was doing a speech on adapting
books into
films. While it's written for an 11-year old and contains
pretty basic stuff,
it'll give us a starting point:

Why do people turn books into films?

1. They love the story.
2. People have already bought the book, so studios reckon
they'll pay to see the movie. That's why best-sellers get made
into films.

3. Books have already worked out what the story is, so people
can see how it turns out.

That means, in general, you turn a book into a film because
books are safe - they'll probably make money and you know
what you're getting.

What's the problem?

The way most books are written, you get inside the
character's head and hear their thoughts and see the world
from their point of view. Movies are pretty terrible at
showing this - they film what's right in front of you, not what's
happening in your head.

Also, books are filled with lots of tiny details, and things that
aren't obvious. You have to be a pretty great scriptwriter or
director to put those tiny details up on screen, so most film
adaptations of books don't show the stuff that's really
interesting in the book.

What are good books to turn into films?

Action-adventure stories, crime novels, some horror and
science-fiction and comedy stories - if they're about people
doing and saying things to each other. That's important -
the book should show you what's happening, rather than
what people are feeling.

What are bad books to turn into films?

Books with lots of complicated thoughts about life, or history,
or that are set entirely in a character's head. Maybe
The DaVinci Code is an example. The movie version of The Lord
of the Rings removes a whole bunch of stuff that's about the
history of Middle Earth and mostly shows you the action
sequences and the moments where people are in lots of trouble.

--- --- ---

So, I open the floor to you all. What gives an adaptation an inner
life? How do
you make an adaptation fascinating in its own right?

Opinions, examples, links to relevant blog posts - all welcome.

I've been able to start reading Garden of Last Days again, and
last night there
was a chapter from the point of view of the wife
of AJ, a major character.
Previously, we've only seen her from AJ's
point of view - and she's seemed
cold, sexually disinterested,
and difficult.

During this chapter, which is 11 pages long, I got a real sense
of her childhood,
failed relationships in college, why she fell in love
with AJ, and the
difficulties they've experienced since.

11 pages. An entire life.

So, that's difficult to do in films. But it makes me think this:


Hypothesis: If you just dramatise the plot, you will fail. While you
capture the
events of the book, you won't capture what makes the
characters tick.

However, you can't really just transfer the characters' inner
monologues onto
screen via voice-over either. Doing that will not
make us care about them or
understand why they are what they

So, I propose this: successful adaptations always create entirely
new scenes
to illustrate essential points about characters from
the source material. This is
WAY more than just transforming
prose into dialogue. It requires showing us
character decisions
and conflicts between characters demonstrate these essential


(Despite the phrasing, this is just a proposal. Challenge it!
With examples,
preferably. I'd be particularly interested in
people's thoughts on Atonement, Fight Club and
Shawshank Redemption)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

True Blood 1.9

And just like that, the show's awesome again.

This time, not because it changed up the situation; instead, the episode took its time exploring the subplots, and had some great character development.
  • Tara tries to confront her demon
  • Amy and Jason's relationship deepens and grows more touching, while gaining a whole crapload more karmic debt to pay back
  • Vampire Bill gets a subplot.
If I'm being entirely honest, this episode completely won me back inside of 10 seconds. A streaming jet of blood completely covering Anna Paquin has that effect on me.

I even like the cliffhanger - which was a situational cliff, rather than a jeopardy one.

Nice work all around. Probably my second favourite episode of the season, and a timely lesson in not being too judgmental.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Chris asked me what I thought of Watchmen. That reminded me that I judge films where I'm familiar with the source material VERY differently to other films. My ranking system for adaptations goes kinda like this:

1. Incompetent: The film completely misses the point of the source material; quite possibly it's narratively incoherence or lacks an inner life.
... Examples: The Punisher (Dolph Lundren version)*

* Yes, I think there's probably a good version of The Punisher waiting to be made.

2. Mishmash: Cobbling together moments from the source material, this film creates a narrative that makes sense but doesn't really capture the spirit of the original
... Examples: Aeon Flux (in places), Constantine, The Return of the King (pre-Shelob), Fantastic Four 2, From Hell

3. Photography: This is simply and literally translating the book on screen. While it looks and moves like the source material, there is no excitement or engagement. It's a dead but accurate adaptation.
... Examples: the first half of Harry Potter 1, all of Harry Potter 2, Smilla's Feeling for Snow*

* Which is the film that started me on the path of developing this system.

4. Competence: A translation that basically hits the mark, recreating some of the moments of the original or standing on its own as a movie.
... Examples: The Two Towers, Hellboy, Aeon Flux (sometimes), the second half of Harry Potter 1, Harry Potter 3, most of Harry Potter 4*

* I'm confused about exactly why I'm using Harry Potter as my go-to reference, but let's roll with it.

5. Dead On: An adaptation that nails exactly what I love about the original material. In some cases, it even improves on the original.
... Examples: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Return of the King (post-Shelob), Hellboy 2, The Dark Knight, Harry Potter 4 (the school dance sequence)

6. Masterpiece: The adaptation to film has given the story new meaning or resonance; it transcends the original
... Examples: The Shawshank Redemption, The Godfather

Given that, I can say that I felt Watchmen veered between competence and being a dead-on adaptation* (with sporadic moments of being a mishmash) ... which shakes out to a film that's slightly above average.

* Places where I felt it was dead-on: Rorschach / Nite Owl II scenes. Dr Manhattan revisiting his life, on Mars. Quite a bit of the Antarctic finale.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

True Blood 1.8

OK, I think I've got a problem with the cliffhangers now. It took me about 4 days to work up the enthusiasm to watch this episode - which I attribute solely to the false jeopardy of how the previous ep ended. I tend to feel betrayed when a cliffhanger promises to kill the lead character or threaten the series-defining central relationship.* On rare occasions, I'll keep watching if the cliffhanger makes me ask 'HOW the hell could she possibly get out of this?", but that is a difficult skill to regularly master.

* It's why I stopped watching Alias after 6 episodes and never went back.

Far more successful are the cliffhangers that change the situation utterly.* True Blood has only done this twice so far (1.6 and 1.7), and they were far and away the most intriguing, engaging ends of episodes for me.

* See most episodes of 24.

So, I wasn't predisposed to like this ep, and sure enough I found it a little choppy in its characterisations. Tara and Sookie seemed all over the place emotionally - for good reasons, as both their lives seem to have fundamentally changed, but not in ways that convinced me dramatically. Vampire Bill's characterisation seemed much more settled and relaxed, which I totally didn't buy after what he'd just been through. And there was what seemed like a 10 minute sequence at Merlotte's that just felt like a series of scenes in a dull soap opera.

Maybe it'll all play better if I rewatch the series. I'm prepared to admit that I might be judging it too harshly.

And it did do something neat with the central Bill-Sookie question that kicked off the episode: for a while I felt that were going to drag out the mystery for the entire episode, focusing on Sookie alone, seeing what she did and how she started to live her life. The way they actually revealed what had happened was shocking, dirty, and kinda sexy in a WTF sort-of way.

It also contained a number of nice developments in everyone else's subplots. I'm a particular fan of Jason's new girlfriend, who's drug addict hippie ways make me laugh at nearly everything she says. In a way that feels much cleverer than the equivalent in this movie.

But then the ep ended with another false jeopardy cliffhanger. So, yes: officially starting to get grumpy and worried about this show now.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lost - Season 5 - The Dharma Years (Part I)

This run of episodes has been the strongest Lost has been for me since the end of Season 2.





Introducing time travel is proven to be an extremely elegant way of getting a lot of backstory about people whose lives have been touched by the island. More importantly, by taking the pressure off people like Sawyer we've seen them blossom. From Sawyer's character arc lows in Season 2 (the long con with the guns) and Season 3 (he freakin' shot Tom in cold blood), he's now become a hero, a leader, a person to admire.

And all the people who stayed on the island now have a lot to lose. I'm totally invested in them.

Meanwhile, they've given Kate something interesting to do - seriously, giving her a mission that doesn't have anything to do with the boys and that goddamn love quadrangle will (I assume) make her way more fascinating to watch, and lead to further exploration of the island. I'm also in awe of the character transformation they're making Jack go through - his acceptance of the island is planned for him undercuts all the potential Jack-Locke conflict we've been expecting, and opens up many new areas of their personalities to explore.

Plus it's so nearly came close to unbelievable, top-moment-of-TV-everness with that cliffhanger between Sayid and Ben. I would probably have tried to have this show's babies if it had followed through on opening up an alternate timeline in which one of the lead characters never existed.

The show is totally recapturing the magic of Season 1 for me. It's ambitious, inventive, and driving towards the finish line. And I have to wait two more weeks for the next episode.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Learning how to play - Process

I've played an enormous amount of cellphone poker over the last 2 days. It's made me think about some broad phases of skill acquisition when I play games. For me, it breaks into:
  • Process (what do I do and when do I do it?)
  • Tactics (what are the best options for me?)
  • Understanding (the point at which the game becomes fun)
Process is simply getting comfortable with what happens when. When is it your turn? What are your options on your turn? What further decisions do taking those options open up for you?

There are a lot of games that I think I'd enjoy where I'm simply not comfortable with the process: poker, D&D4E, Capes, The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries.

The thing that makes me comfortable with process is repetition. And that's where having poker on my cellphone comes in handy. Normally I might play three games of Texas Hold 'em a year. In between times, all of those skills simply get lost. Any insights I've made, fade away. In the last 48 hours, I've played at least 3 games a day (probably more), and in the course of doing that I've become way more comfortable with checking, calculating outs and pot odds, and bluffing.

Games where the human element isn't so important (and I think I include D&D4E in that - despite loving the way it plays and its apparent tactical depth), are really amenable to these rapid cycles of practice and learning.

... huh. I just taught myself something. Taking that idea of process (which has also been talked about here, with the idea of how do you introduce someone to a game), I think I'm going to add an 'introductory' round to Bad Family - an opportunity for players to get used to narration and introducing complications, without introducing the rules.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

It's an amusing diversion filled with performances that range from satisfactory to excellent.

Most Satisfying: the rowdy, pulp action. Swordfights! Gun battles! Perilous Footchases!

Most Suprising: that the space battles didn't really engage me.

Biggest Regret: reading ANYTHING about the film before I saw it.

Biggest Failing (*) : that quite a bit of the storytelling felt functional rather than gripping; that the outcomes of conflicts seemed inevitable.

* I'm going to have to see it again (probably on DVD) before making final judgments about this, but there were moments and conflicts between core characters that just felt bland to me. I mean, there's basically a scene where a character says "This is what you need to do," followed by a scene of it happening. I haven't seen writing like that since the end of Bonfire of the Vanities.

Kirk: Is hilarious. For the first half of the movie, Ed and I were sniggering in our seats every couple of minutes at how outrageous he was being. Top marks.

All in all, a reasonably fun way to reintroduce the franchise to a new generation of fans so that Paramount can suck money out of them for the next 20 years. It's a sexy, rowdy, funny Trek that's gotten better in my memory.

And here's the thing: the original actors played these roles into their 60s and 70s. Given that, and given a movie every two or three years, that means we could expect another 12 to 15 films from this iteration of Trek (**).

** Given that sort of timeframe, I'd prefer it if the Kirk-Spock relationship had been developed a little slower - across multiple movies.

I have no idea what that means for the future of the Trek franchise. No more stories in the original TV universe? A reboot of The Next Generation? Star Trek movies shot back to back, Pirates of the Caribbean styles?

Lost ads

More, here.

Movies to Look Forward to

Star Trek - Seen. Short review later today.

The Hurt Locker - a bomb disposal thriller by Katherine Bigelow

Solomon Kane - it sounds badass

Moon - indie SF film set on the moon, starring Sam Rockwell, and the voice of Keyser Soze as the possibly-crazy computer.

What about you?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why I'm Not Writing today - Portable Edition

I'm jazzed by my new cheap cellphone - I can shoot two hours of footage on it, store the names of all the books I want to read from the library, record voice messages to myself, listen to mp3s and play games.

Currently, I'm getting the hang of Texas Hold 'em Poker. (Di: if you're reading this, I'm gunning for you now.)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

True Blood 1.7

Less convinced by this episode. Ep 1.6 gripped me because it dealt with the ramifications of a single situation; this one started out looking like it was going to focus heavily on exploring the pros and cons of a vampire-human relationship but it kind of drifted away from that, into a reconnection with (and amping up of) everyone else's subplots.

It also looks like True Blood is moving into that dangerous territory: where it could be less about normal people in a setting with supernatural elements, and more about supernatural people in a supernatural setting.

I don't mind that - in fact there are parts of that (like the possible explanation for Tara's behaviour) that I think could be fun. It just means that the show is starting to remind me of a mature version of the soap opera elements of Buffy, minus the 'Monster of the Week' structure to give episodes a payoff and Joss Whedon's authorial voice.*

* I haven't really detected a distinctive 'voice' to this series yet.

The show's moving faster than I expected though - partly cos' it's meaner to its characters than I expected, and partly because Sookie's telepathy has allowed us to develop a lot of subtext about minor characters within very few episodes.** However, there's also a lack of a compelling over-riding question that's drawing me in to watching the show - the cliffhangers aren't enough for me yet.

** It's a great technique, and one that I'll consider to be extremely lazy if any other show picks up on it.

Great to finally recognise two of the actors though. The guy who plays Detective Andy Belfleur was Frank Sbotka in Season 2 of the Wire, and is almost unrecognisably due to his lighter, goofier body language. And the Iraqi War veteran is played by the same guy who was Zach in Gilmore Girls - again, a very different performance, and one that could assure him a solid career of supporting roles.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Changing my posting schedule

Writing is tough, but it should be also be fun. And if it's not fun, I tend to try and figure out why not and then make adjustments.

I've been running an experiment with the blog over the last month or so: writing posts whenever I've been inspired to, and then auto-scheduling their publication.

It's a system that fits with my writing style a lot better; I tend to write in bursts, which usually means multi-dimensional goes through periods of posting 5 or 6 times a day, followed by several months of silence.

So, I'm enjoying blogging again for the first time in ages ... but to take the pressure off myself even further, I'm going to slow down the rate at which I'm auto-publishing my posts. Expect something every couple of days for the next month or two.

We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Review: 279 Days to Overnight Success

JP and I have been having a little bit of a conversation about 279 Days to Overnight Success in the comments.

At a simplistic level, 279 Days describes a strategy for building your blog in such a way that you can make a living (or at least a side-income) from it.

Is it the sort of thing you'll be interested in? Well, that depends on what you want:
  • Do you want lots of people to read your blog?
  • Do you want to sell stuff that you've created?
  • Do you want to build a community of people interested in the same topic(s) as you?
I've recommended it to two people so far: Jenni (because she's interested in creating stuff people want to buy) and Morgue (whose ideas about small group action deserve a wider audience).

There's quite a lot I like about this manifesto. First off, it encourages you to think about why you're blogging - I've had to do a bit of that over the last year (and came to the conclusion that I just want to enjoy it - more fun, less profundity).

Second, I absolutely agree with the philosophy that if you're going to try and make money off your blog, do it with your own creations, not Google ads. As part of that, 279 Days describes the process of listening to your audience and discovering what they want. I find the process of finetuning the balance between my writing needs and what people who comment here say they want to be really fun.*

* Actually, JP, based on an earlier comment of yours, look for quite a bit more TV reviewing to show up here in the near future.

279 Days also mentions some other principles I agree with:
  • Figure out your writing style
  • Commit to a publishing schedule
  • Know why people should read what you write
  • Ignore vampires (critics who try to vapourise your will to write)*
* I've had a couple of these over the years, and I've had to figure out a couple of ways to deal with them.

This is not for every writer. The desire to expand your community - whether or not you intend to make money from blogging - isn't for everyone. But there's enough good stuff here that I have to recommend it.

Questions, JP?

(BTW, JP's blog is one of my top five reads on the internet: literate, thoughtful, funny meditations on growing up and parenting. This is a perfect example.)

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

True Blood 1.6

This is the first episode of True Blood I've been eager to watch. Following on from the first riveting cliffhanger I feel the show's done, Episode 1.6 dealt with a whole mess of nasty emotions coming to the surface: grief, suspicion, resentment ... while still laying out the possibility for hope.

We've also seen enough of the characters in action so that subtext is starting to come effortlessly to the scenes. And Anna Paquin's scene with her grandmother's pie is the first classic moment of the series for me.

Andrei Tarkovsky wrote about how cinema was the art of 'sculpting in time', and I could see that here. This episode felt cohesive, in comparison to the way that previous episodes have been entertaining but a bit all-over-the-place. It probably has a lot to do with the single event that this episode is based around, and its ramifications for all the characters. (Yes, I'm being vague here. If you haven't seen it, I totally don't want to spoil it.)

And one hell of a cliffhanger to finish off with. This series is totally hitting its stride.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Dracula - updated in realtime

You may have seen this already: someone's blogging Dracula, publishing each diary entry on the day that it was written.


Jonathon Harker still hasn't reached Castle Dracula yet, so there's plenty of time to jump on board the experience.

(JP: My thoughts on 279 Days are coming I'm posting my thoughts on 279 Days tomorrow ...)

True Blood - The first half of Season One

I'm really enjoying this. The word on the street is true: it does take a little while to warm up. I'd say it doesn't really become a TV series until about 40 minutes into the pilot, when Sookie and Bill the vampire spend a long, long scene together, firmly establishing them as the relationship that's going to be our hook into the show.

Prior to that, all we have is a setting. A small town in the American South, in a world very much like our own except that vampires exist and have recently outed themselves to the world. The show plays that part fairly matter-of-factly; the existence of vampires is pretty much as novel and filled with unknown dangers as the internet was about 10 years ago. What show-runner Alan Ball (and presumably novelist Charlaine Harris) is interested in at a setting level is using vampires to explore ideas of bigotry and integration. Setting the show in the south allows them to create parallels between vampires and African-Americans; the fact that vampires have recently revealed themselves but looking just like everyone else gives the show an opportunity to play around with ideas of being gay.

The show feels very different to Ball's previous series: Six Feet Under. I imagine it's a relief to be able to write episodes that explore a different emotional pallette (which I'd describe as sultry pulp, with a bit of comedy of human weakness thrown in there).

Over the last four episodes, True Blood has gradually deepened the supporting cast - several of them now seem like interesting characters embedded in pretty fascinating situations - and that's helped it go from a fairly functional show to an entertaining one. Very much looking forward to the next episode.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Parker, now in comic form

As a long-time fan of Richard Stark's Parker novels, I'm glad to see this comic. Particularly like the sense of time and place that Darwyn Cooke's creating.

Click here for the preview, if you're interested in reading about a bad-ass heist planner looking for revenge.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Room is a great bad movie

The Room is the Plan 9 from Outer Space of '90s indie movies. I suspect that within 2 to 10 years, The Room will be as well known as Plan 9.

It is damn funny.
It is terrible.
These things are related.

And it is having an obsessive effect of many of my friends.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Sharp Teeth

A novel about werewolves, written in verse.
Spends the first two-thirds getting up to speed
And the last third delivering
On its promise.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Robert Sawyer's novel takes a starting situation I found pretty interesting (due to an experiment gone wrong, everyone in the world gets a two minute glimpse of their lives 21 years in the future), and uses that as a springboard to examine the conflict between free will and determinism.

And it's soon to be a TV series. The book provides an excellent tapestry for a show, and so far it seems to be making changes that make it (a) less cerebral, and (b) more likely to sustain a 3+ season TV series.

Flashforward's inspired me to seek out other sci-fi novels with strong 'What if' premises and good characterisations. Anybody got any suggestions?