Sunday, March 7, 2010

Combination Plate 12

Brief commentary on various films and books:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film

This film is apparently based on a "graphic novel," or a comic book for those who don't read them. I don't read them. Friends who do read them, after hearing that I had seen the film, rushed to reassure me that all films based on "graphic novels" aren't this bad.

Having seen others which I did enjoy I assured them that I was aware that there were good films out there, even if they were based on comic books.

I thought the film was a waste of time and money: the motto of the powers-that-be must be something similar to "Millions for Special Effects: Not one cent for plot or story or character development."

It is a shame because the concept has considerable potential: take a group of extraordinary 19th century fictional characters and treat them as if they were superheroes gathered together to fight a monstrous threat to civilization. The cast of characters is fascinating:

Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and his evil alter ego, Mr Hyde;
Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, whose portrait aged while he remained young;
H. Rider Haggard's Allan Quartermain, adventurer and Great White Hunter;
Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, inventor and captain of the Nautilus, the world's first submarine;
H. G. Well's the Invisible Man, or actually a thief who stole the formula; and
Bram Stoker's Mina Harker (now a vampire).

Also included in the League is Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, who sort of barges in without an invitation, much as the young would-be samurai tags along with the hired samurai in Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Hmmm, there are eight in the League, if one counts Jekyll and Hyde separately

I wondered at times whether the creators had actually read of the literary works from which these characters were drawn, especially when viewing what the special effects types came up with for Mr. Hyde. Now, in the novel, he is described as ugly, but in the film he was bizarre-- resembling someone who didn't just use steroids, but had them for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Captain Nemo's submarine, Nautilus, is equally bizarre, distorted beyond any rational idea of what a submarine might resemble, even for a 19th century submersible. It is so distorted that it looks top-heavy and incredibly narrow, at least to me anyway.

And what is Tom Sawyer doing here? He supposedly is some sort of government agent, whose talent seems to be handling a six-gun. I wondered why they didn't select one of the heroes of the dime westerns that were popular around that time.

Early in the film, I was puzzled as to why one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, and one whose intellectual abilities would have been incredibly useful in dealing with a master criminal, was missing. I mean Sherlock Holmes, who definitely belongs in any League of Extraordinary Gentlemen from the 19th century. The answer was obvious once the identity of the master criminal is revealed--Professor Moriarty! Holmes would have identified him immediately, so Holmes couldn't be included, if Moriarty's identity is to be kept secret, for awhile anyway.

The plot is absurd and inane: Moriarty, in disguise as a government agent, gathers the superheroes together to fight a supposed threat to civilization. In reality, he just wanted to get them together so he could take samples from them and create a serum that would turn any group of ordinary people into an invincible army. However, once his plot is revealed, they then became a real League in order to fight him. This makes no sense because it would have been far simpler and safer for Moriarty to collect his samples individually, with no reason for getting them together in the same room.

Overall Rating: a waste of everybody's time and money-- that belonging to the cast and crew and backers of the film and the audience. There is no real attempt to develop the characters-- they were there to display their "talents" in the most simplistic and rudimentary manner. The real stars of the film are the makeup and special effects crews.


Michael Gregorio
A Critique of Criminal Reason
Historical Mystery, set in Konigsburg, Prussia, 1804
Hanno Stiffeniis: A judicial detective

Hanno Stiffeniis left Konigsburg to take a position as procurator, or an investigating magistrate, in a small town. However, he is called back when Konigsburg is terrorized by a series of inexplicable murders. No one can figure out how victims died. Some think the devil is involved while others blame French agents for the crimes, hoping to terrify the populace before Napoleon's army invades. Konigsburg's procurator is stumped, and Stiffeniis is called in to aid him. However, when the procurator becomes ill and incapacitated, Stiffeniis must take over.

The title is a play on a famous and real work by the city's most famous citizen, Immanuel Kant, whose Critique of Pure Reason was published a decade or so ago. The aging philosopher has his own ideas about how to solve the murders, and he begins to instruct Stiffeniis accordingly in his system--a combination of criminal psychology and the scientific method. Kant had met Stiffeniis years ago and was impressed by his mental flexibility and willingness to break away from tradition. In fact, it was Kant who persuaded the royal court to bring Stiffeniis back.

Gregorio's depiction of the times and place are among the many strengths of the novel. Since I know little about the real Kant's life, I can't comment on whether this is Kant or Gregorio's invention. In any case, the depiction of the Kant character is fascinating as he faces his own impending death. Hanno Stiffeniis is a complex character in his own right, as he struggles with his devotion to truth among the complexities of his time, especially with an invading army not far off.

If you like stories with a strong development of time and place, such as found in the mysteries with Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder and CJ Sansom's Matthew Shardlake, then this series is for you.

I'm eagerly waiting for the second, Days of Atonement, and the third, A Visible Darkness, in the series to become available.

Overall rating: highly recommended, 5/5 stars.


Robert Holdstock
Mythago Wood
An SF novel

Holdstock's Mythago Wood is a fantasy, and a rather unique fantasy. It doesn't fit in with the typical fantasies that crowd bookshelves today--those that are based on the Arthurian or the Tolkien modes. It is unique.

Mythago Wood is an ancient, mysterious, and mostly unexplored forest somewhere in England. One of its many unique characteristics is that it is larger, far larger, incredibly larger on the inside than it appears to be from the outside. One might almost think of Doctor Who's Tardis here.

Another of its stranger characteristics or powers is the generation of imagos. The name of the wood appears to be a combination of "myth" and "imago." One might think about "monsters from the id" here. Mental constructs come alive in the forest and eventually take on a life of their own. A thief who robs the rich (who else has money?) and occasionally shares it with the poor, becomes a legendary character over the centuries and comes alive in Mythago Wood.

Or one may create a dream lover, and if one lives close to the Wood, such as the Huxley family does, an imago of that dream lover comes alive. Mythago Wood is on their land, at least as far as official records show. But, the official records take no note of what can be found in that small primeval wood.

The story has some Freudian overtones to it. The father, George Huxley (George Orwell and Aldous Huxley?), has explored the Wood for decades. Over the years, he, consciously or unconsciously, creates several imagoes. One is a beautiful young woman. After his death, his sons, Christian and Steven, both become obsessed with the young woman (a combination of the Oedipal complex and sibling rivalry?). Along with Freud, one can see Biblical influences in the struggle between the brothers--Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, and Esau and Jacob--to gain the father's approval or at least control the father's heritage.

There are several stories set in Mythago Wood, but from what I gather, each story is unique, similar only in the location.

Overall Rating: 4/5 stars

Fred Vargas
The Chalk Circle Man
A mystery set in contemporary Paris, France
Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg--a police procedural

This is the first novel in a series that includes 8 novels, as of 2008. In this work, Commissaire Adamsberg has just arrived in Paris to take over as chief of police in the 7th Arrondissment. He has gained a reputation for solving insolvable crimes out in the provinces, so all are interested to see how well he does in Paris.

It's been quiet since he arrived, except for the chalk circles. Many mornings the citizens of Paris awaken to find that someone has drawn a chalk circle around a discarded object. It could be a dead pigeon, an empty wine bottle, a gum wrapper, or a crumpled-up piece of paper. There's no pattern that anyone can see. It is dismissed as the work of a harmless crackpot by everyone, except Commissaire Adamsberg, who sees something ominous here. And, eventually, he's vindicated, as, one morning, the body of a dead woman is found inside the chalk circle.

Did the drawer of the chalk circles kill her or did drawer just happen to find the body?

One of the most interesting elements in the novel is Vargas' depiction of Commissaire Adamsberg and some of the other characters encountered in the investigation. To be honest, I almost feel sorry for the police in this novel, for they end up playing "straight men" to the very quirky Adamsberg and numerous inhabitants of the 7th.

Overall Rating: highly recommended, 5/5 stars.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree with you about the Gregorio and Vargas novels. I read them when they first appeared on the market, and in each case I was impressed. Do not miss the other novels by Michael Gregorio (the husband and wife writing team).

  2. R. T.,

    No fear, both are on my search list. Sometimes writers and their works grow on me, but Vargas and Gregorio grabbed me with the first one I read.

  3. I have tried to watch The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen two or three times but I cannot take more than about 3 minutes of it-you are right it is a total waste of time and an insult to the intelligence of the public

  4. I don't read them.

    And why is that?

    even if they were based on comic books.

    This makes it seem that those films are like alchemists who can transform into gold the base material of the comic books. More often than not it's the exact opposite. In Alan Moore's case,the comics range from very good to absolute masterpiece, while the adaptations, are almost always below par to awful. From a PW article:
    "Moore is not a fan of movie adaptations and emphatically refuses to have his name attached to any of the films—they include From Hell, League of Extraordinary Gentleman and Constantine—based on his books. In fact, he arranges for all of the money from these films to be paid to the illustrators of the books."

    Also included in the League is Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, who

    doesn't appear in the original comic.

    I wondered at times whether the creators had actually read of the literary works from which these characters were drawn

    The creator of the comic obviously did. Those who adapted it for the screen probably couldn't care less.

    Early in the film, I was puzzled as to why one of the greatest fictional characters of all time, and one whose intellectual abilities would have been incredibly useful in dealing with a master criminal, was missing.

    Because in the comic, both Holmes and Moriarty are believed dead after The Final Problem - and according to Doyle's continuity, Holmes travels incognito for roughly three years before returning in The Adventure of the Empty House. In later comics his brother Mycroft will sometimes take his place.

    The plot is absurd and inane

    The plot has little or no resemblance with that of the comic.

    Here a bit of discussion on film and comic, hosted by our
    Peter Rozovsky

    What puzzles me most is the fact that someone who evidently likes and reads crime fiction, science fiction/fantasy and so-called "capital L" Literature will never read the work of someone who effortlessly masters all these genres, just because he happens to do so in comics. Believe me, if in a year you read/review five works of the quality of "From Hell" you can say you had a pretty good year.


  5. Marco,

    My comments were about the film, since I did not read the comic book. I don't comment about books or films I haven't read.

    I don't read comics because I don't find them interesting, which is NOT to say that I find them bad. They simply don't interest me.

    As for the case of the missing Holmes, since Moriarty is alive, he and Holmes obviously have not yet met at the Falls for Moriarty was killed there and Holmes went undercover for several years, until he returns, as you point out, in "The Adventure of the Empty House." That is why I thought that Holmes was not selected because he would have recognized Moriarty immediately, thus making the story as it was told in the film impossible.

  6. As for the case of the missing Holmes, since Moriarty is alive, he and Holmes obviously have not yet met at the Falls for Moriarty was killed there

    Both of them fell to their death, right? Then TAotEH corrects that "resurrecting" Holmes.
    In the comic it is implied, though never exactly explained , that also Moriarty survived, with just a few broken bones. While the storyline of the first few issues of the comic, which were the basis for the film, is different enough that the inclusion of Holmes wouldn't have been as much a problem, Moore felt that his presence would have shadowed the characters he wanted to focus on.

    I don't read comics because I don't find them interesting, which is NOT to say that I find them bad. They simply don't interest me.

    I'm sure you realize many say the same thing about Crime or Sci-fi.
    Their loss, your loss. I feel it's a pity, because you'll miss the work of an extremely creative and talented author who is considered a genius by many of the younger generation sci-fi/fantasy authors (among others, China Mieville) and deserves to be spoken in the same breath as the likes of MJH or Russell Hoban , as is proved at the very least by his lone novel, Voice of the Fire

  7. Anonymous,

    True--every time we decide to do something, we also decide not to do something. We choose to do that which interests us and choose not to do something that is either of lesser interest or of no interest. I may or may not lose something by choosing not to read comics just as no doubt you lose something by choosing to read comics and not read something else.

    As for Moriarty, well, I think he's a poor choice for several reasons, but he was selected which required a major change--resurrecting him after his creator had killed him off.