I totally agree with Ben Shapiro and Andrew Klavan about movies that pervert the original author’s intent

winona_ryder_little_women_us_dvdThis is me, writing back in 2008 about Winona Ryder’s adaptation of Little Women:

Two of my favorite 19th Century books have very pronounced moral lessons indeed, and they remain enormously popular despite (or maybe because of — but more of that later) those lessons.  The first is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the second is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Both of them, no doubt, are familiar to you too, although the latter is likely more familiar to the girls than the boys reading this.

[snip]

In Little Women, Jo March is a wonderful, enthusiastic, energetic girl (and, eventually, woman) who gets into a lot of trouble because she runs off half-cocked all the time.  Indeed, her impetuosity results in her being denied her heart’s desire:  an all-expenses paid trip to Europe.  However, she learns that life has consolations and that they may be much better than merely getting what one wishes.  By subordinating her own uncontrolled desires to the demands of hearth and home, she enriches her own character, learns better to appreciate those around her and, of course, is entitled to her reward — marrying a good man.

The lessons in both books are pretty clear to anyone who bothers to read them.  You don’t need an advanced English degree, and hours spent analyzing symbolism and myth, or even more hours deconstructing whatever is written, to figure out the moral lessons Alcott and March were making.  Those lessons lie at the core of each book, with the stories around them intended both to entertain and to accentuate the moral the reader takes away.

If Elizabeth just had a frivolous romance with Wickham, and disliked Darcy to the end, the story would be morally stagnant, and would fall in the category of junk romance, rather than great literature.  Austen’s charming writing is made worthwhile only because of the moral steel that underlies it.  Likewise, if Jo simply frolicked from one misadventure to another, Little Women would probably remain an unknown, shallow work of 19th Century children’s fiction.  What makes it interesting are Jo’s epic struggles to subdue her immature self to realize a truly fulfilled adult life.

What irks me is that so many remakes of these two books work assiduously to hide from the reader or viewer these core moral lessons — lessons that have kept these books vital for centuries. I’ve grumbled for years about Winona Ryder’s adaption of Little Women, which is a visually beautiful movie but which completely reverses the story’s moral underpinnings.  Jo goes through the movie just trying to do what she wants, and the viewer is given to understand that it’s just so unfair when events stop her.  At one point, she explains to Professor Baehr that her father’s philosophy was something along the lines of “if it feels good do it” (and I’m quoting liberally here, because I can’t remember the actual line in the movie, just the sense of it).  At that moment in the movie, I simply shut down.  No beautiful costumes or charming scenes could make up for the fact that Winona Ryder had turned on its head the book’s actual message, which is that, if it feels dutiful, morally appropriate and mature, do it.

Yeah!  What I said way back when.  There are few things more offensive than a movie that, rather than exercising artistic license on a book to adapt it to a visual medium, turns the author’s core lesson on its head.

Noah-2014-Movie-Poster-650x962And this is Andrew Klavan, writing about Noah:

Ben Shapiro is a devout Jew, and I’ve heard him speak with real and revealing insight into Torah — something that’s not all that common. In a genuinely sharp essay at Truth Revolt, he took the film apart as a “perversely pagan mess” that replaced God with Gaia to deliver a muddled environmentalist message. You can read the whole excellent thing here, but one point struck me particularly:

It is one thing for a movie adaptation to stray from the source material. Adding characters or scenes, crafting details that vary from the strict text – all of it is in bounds when it comes to adaptations. Critics of Noah who have focused on the extra-Biblical magic of Methuselah or the lack of textual support for instantaneously-growing forests are off-base.

The far deeper problem is when an adaptation perverts the message of the source material. If the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird had turned Tom Robinson into a villain and Mr. Ewell into a hero, that would rightly have been seen as an undermining of the original work. The same is true of the Biblical story of Noah and the movie version of that same story. It isn’t merely that Aronofsky gets the story wrong. That would be forgiveable. It’s that Aronofsky deliberately destroys the foundational principles undergirding the Bible, and uses Biblically-inspired story to do it.

[snip]

Now all three of these guys are friends of mine, true men of faith, and big brains — and Nolte’ll let the air out of your tires if you even look at him sideways — but I have to admit, without having seen the film, without being able to judge of its quality, it’s Shapiro’s point that sticks with me. If, as I say, Aronofsky is a declared atheist, if he intended to deliver “the least biblical film ever made,” I can’t help but wonder: why make a biblical film at all? No? I mean, the Bible is the sacred book of gazillions of people. If you disagree with it, if you have a different message than, you know, God’s, well, fine, but then why not make up your own story, why twist and gut and dishonor this one?

It can’t be because Aronofsky is a radically courageous teller of truths. Attacking the Bible doesn’t require any courage in America and certainly no radicalism. Read those comments above. Is Shapiro going to hunt Aronofsky down and behead him? Sure, Nolte might (the man’s a savage), but he’ll probably think better of it in the end. And hell, Moeller’s practically inviting the guy to tea.

What do you think the reactions would have been if Aronofsky’s film had been called “Mohammed?” If Aronofsky had said, “This is going to be the least Koranic movie ever made?” Do you think the reactions would be so civilized, so thoughtful, so interested in “facilitating important conversations.” Now there’s a film that would take courage. There’s a film that would be radical. And there’s a film that Aronofsky is never going to make!

The idea of using the Bible to make a non-biblical film just seems wrong in and of itself — mean and small-hearted and bullying, and cowardly too when you consider he could’ve taken on the Koran. Regardless of the movie’s quality, it just seems like the wrong thing to do per se. Unneighborly you might call it. UnChristian.

But then, maybe that’s the whole problem.

Yeah. What he said!

Finding meaning in the dustpan — or how Little Women, housekeeping, socialism and capitalism are all related

Believe it or not, in an act of near heroic intellectual prestidigitation, I’m going to explain to you how Little Women, housekeeping, socialism and capitalism are all related.  Or at least I’m going to try.  Here goes:

One of my all time least favorite movies is the 1994 version of Little Women.  It is a beautiful movie, and lovingly done, but it totally fails to “get” the message in Louisa May Alcott’s classic book.  In fact, it gets the message topsy-turvey, and that kind of thing irks me.

The wrong moment in the movie, the one that spoiled it for me, is a moment about 2/3 of the way into the movie, when Jo tries to explain to Professor Baehr her father’s philosophy.  I can’t find the quotation, and I haven’t seen the movie since it came out, but what Jo said was essentially a fancy version of “follow your bliss.”

Putting aside the fact that “follow your bliss” is not the message behind transcendentalism (although Bronson Alcott did, in fact, use his philosophy as a justification for repeatedly trying to follow his bliss), anyone who has actually read Little Women know that “follow your bliss” is most decidedly not the message in the book.  The book’s message is that you must find meaning and purpose in life by serving others.

No, I’m not making this up.  In chapter after chapter, with increasing force as the book nears its end, Jo is taught to think beyond her own needs and to sacrifice her hopes and desires to others.  Only in that way can she find happiness.  Whether Jo struggles with her baser self after Amy destroys her writing (only to learn that Amy is more important than her nascent career), or allows herself to be rude to Aunt March (only to lose the chance for a trip to Europe), the lesson is always the same:  Don’t think of yourself.  Thank of others.

Only when Jo is forced by her intense love for her dead sister Beth to try to take the latter’s place as the family’s domestic Goddess does Jo find her “happily ever after” — and she does so in the arms of Professor Baehr, who pedantically uses every opportunity to lecture Jo about the beauties and joys of self-abnegation. For Jo, therefore, life’s quality is to be found in appreciating the service of broom and dustpan.  By looking to others’ needs, she profits herself.

Right about now, I can hear the good statist asking asking me “How can you be a capitalist if you believe in self-sacrifice?  Capitalism is all about greed.  It’s only liberals who are willing to give to the general good.”  That question is as wrong as the movie was.

Capitalism works only if you find a need and fill it.  You have to look outside of yourself to determine what product others will want or what service they will need.  You then have to work, and work hard, to provide that  product or service for others.  If you have correctly read others’ needs, you will be rewarded.  In a capitalist system, that reward is money.  And in a free nation, you are allowed to keep that money (which, presumably, you will plow back into the capitalist marketplace by buying products or services that some other outward looking person has labored to put in the market).

Capitalism, then, precisely reflects Louisa May Alcott’s philosophy:  look to others, serve their needs, and reap the reward.  That she was speaking of emotional, not financial, rewards, doesn’t change the underlying paradigm.

Socialism, on the other hand, by allowing people to pass on to the government the responsibility for serving others, is essentially navel gazing.  You never have to do anything beyond sitting back and letting the government siphon your pay check, all the while telling yourself “Woo-hoo!  This feels really good, because in a completely passive, unthinking, effortless way, I’m serving others.”   In reality, you’re doing nothing at all.  Your moral contribution is no greater than the cow who automatically produces that milk.  It is the farmer who, through his labor and initiative, brings the milk to market, so as to feed the child.

And that, my friends, is why Little Women is, or at least should be, one of the doorways to free market capitalism and individualism.

Cross-posted at Right Wing News

The moral of the story

‘Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.’ — Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

In times past, teachers, parents and moralists frowned upon fiction because it was not considered elevating writing.  It neither taught concrete skills nor high moral lessons.  By the 17th Century, writers started to find a way around that problem — they wrote books that had moral lessons.  Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders may have been a R-rated picaresque adventure story, but the book’s subtitle clued the reader in to the fact that, despite the various raunchy scenes he (or she) would read, there would nevertheless be some elevating lesson by book’s end:

Moll Flanders : Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and dies a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums . . .

By the 19th Century, it was a given that, in a fiction book, the protagonist’s experiences in the book would work a change on that character, leading her (or him) to a higher moral plane — and, moreover, a plane that the reader would do well to emulate.  (Although, off the top of my head, Alexander Dumas’ utterly delightful Three Musketeers is an exception to this rule, since D’Artagnan and his fellows remain perpetual, adventurous adolescents, with no moral growth whatsoever.  Maybe that’s a French thing….)

Two of my favorite 19th Century books have very pronounced moral lessons indeed, and they remain enormously popular despite (or maybe because of — but more of that later) those lessons.  The first is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the second is Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.  Both of them, no doubt, are familiar to you too, although the latter is likely more familiar to the girls than the boys reading this.

In Pride and Prejudice, as you recall, Elizabeth Bennett is so put off by Mr. Darcy’s haughty demeanor and the insults he hurls her way that she is incapable of seeing the moral virtues that underpin his character, no matter how often those virtues are called to her attention.  Likewise, she is so flattered by Mr. Wickham’s attentions that she turns a deaf ear to all warnings about the manifest moral failings in his character.  Only through some hard won life lessons is she able to view the men correctly and, once having achieved that lesson, she is entitled to her reward — marrying the good man.  (Darcy, too, learns his lesson, realizing that there is a difference between mindless pride and the ability to develop a clear-sighted opinion of someone’s true moral worth.)

In Little Women, Jo March is a wonderful, enthusiastic, energetic girl (and, eventually, woman) who gets into a lot of trouble because she runs off half-cocked all the time.  Indeed, her impetuosity results in her being denied her heart’s desire:  an all-expenses paid trip to Europe.  However, she learns that life has consolations and that they may be much better than merely getting what one wishes.  By subordinating her own uncontrolled desires to the demands of hearth and home, she enriches her own character, learns better to appreciate those around her and, of course, is entitled to her reward — marrying a good man.

The lessons in both books are pretty clear to anyone who bothers to read them.  You don’t need an advanced English degree, and hours spent analyzing symbolism and myth, or even more hours deconstructing whatever is written, to figure out the moral lessons Alcott and March were making.  Those lessons lie at the core of each book, with the stories around them intended both to entertain and to accentuate the moral the reader takes away.

If Elizabeth just had a frivolous romance with Wickham, and disliked Darcy to the end, the story would be morally stagnant, and would fall in the category of junk romance, rather than great literature.  Austen’s charming writing is made worthwhile only because of the moral steel that underlies it.  Likewise, if Jo simply frolicked from one misadventure to another, Little Women would probably remain an unknown, shallow work of 19th Century children’s fiction.  What makes it interesting are Jo’s epic struggles to subdue her immature self to realize a truly fulfilled adult life.

What irks me is that so many remakes of these two books work assiduously to hide from the reader or viewer these core moral lessons — lessons that have kept these books vital for centuries. I’ve grumbled for years about Winona Ryder’s adaption of Little Women, which is a visually beautiful movie but which completely reverses the story’s moral unpinnings.  Jo goes through the movie just trying to do what she wants, and the viewer is given to understand that it’s just so unfair when events stop her.  At one point, she explains to Professor Baehr that her father’s philosophy was something along the lines of “if it feels good do it” (and I’m quoting liberally here, because I can’t remember the actual line in the movie, just the sense of it).  At that moment in the movie, I simply shut down.  No beautiful costumes or charming scenes could make up for the fact that Winona Ryder had turned on its head the book’s actual message, which is that, if it feels dutiful, morally appropriate and mature, do it.

Pride and Prejudice has also been severely reduced.  There’s a whole new genre of books out there in which people try to write about Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy after their marriage, or in which they try to update the story.  Without exceptions, these books are dismal failures and they are failures because they are morally vacuous. The marriage genre tends to have sex, sex, sex, and doesn’t even deserve consideration here.  The “remakes,” which are allowed sex because they are updated, also fail, but for different reasons.

I just slogged through one the other day, something I normally wouldn’t have done but, between a $1.29 Goodwill price tag and a long wait at a swim meet, it seemed as good a thing to do as any.  It serves as a perfect example of the failings inherent in all of these remake books.  I’m not going to embarrass the author by giving away the name of the book.  Suffice to say that the plot revolves around a modern-day woman who adores Pride & Prejudice, but who unwittingly repeats all of Elizabeth’s mistakes:  being blind to the hero’s virtues and ignoring the cad’s vices.

Aside from the bad writing, what prevented the book from being even halfway decent was the absence of any personal growth or morality.  The book’s protagonist (I can’t make myself say the word “heroine”) had no value system driving her beliefs about the two men.  At the beginning of the book, one is nice and one is mean.  By the end of the book, she’s decided that the mean one is nice and the nice one is mean, but without coming to any greater understanding of her own failings. Elizabeth Bennett, as you may recall, realized that she was culplable in grossingly misunderstanding the two men.  Darcy may have been too proud, but her quick, witty persona made her guilty of easy leaps into dangerous prejudice.

Indeed, there’s only one P&P update that comes close to catching Austen’s spirit and that is Bridget Jones.  Unlike Elizabeth, who is a woman of discernment, intelligence and wit, Bridget is a pathetic, good-natured numbskill.  However, what distinguishes Bridget’s story from the sorry legion of P&P wannabes is the fact that the story marks her self-improvement.  When she hits the abyss with the Wickham character, rather than just castigating him, she works on improving herself.  In other words, the story has a moral.  Bridget never gains any insights into her own personality, but she does stop being pathetic, thereby making herself worthy of the better man.

The larger problem, of course, is that in a values-free society, where morality cannot exist without the accusation of being “judgmental,” it’s impossible to present to people the old-fashioned moral lessons.  There is no morality, there is only your own navel compass telling you what to do.

Think, for example, of the enormously popular Disney movie High School Musical.  On the one hand, it’s mercifully harmless, without swear words, violence or in-your-face sexuality.  On the other hand, the message is clear:  all you have to do to be a good (and, more importantly) popular person is to be yourself.  But we parents know that our children’s selves, unpolished by self-discipline, morality and compassion, can be pretty ugly.

It’s the ability to look outside of ourselves, to walk away from our prejudices and abandon our base passions, that makes us decent humans.  And that’s why the great books will always be great, and the modern adaptions will be flat, pathetic and uninspiring.