Sunday, 25 September 2011

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

After reviewing the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, I thought I'd review the novel's other big screen adaptation, which came out in 1940. Some may be interested to know that the film was co-written by Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World. The film got quite a positive reception at the time of its release but it isn't very well-known these days and doesn't tend to be very well-regarded by Austen fans. In fact many Austen fans hate this film and the common criticisms of it are perfectly valid. This is a film that could have been so, so good since Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson are in it but it's not an accurate adaptation and they change lots of stuff in it throughout. It isn't Austen's Pride and Prejudice at all.

My review of this film isn't going to be in much depth because I last saw it about 4 or 5 years ago. I do remember that the costumes are terrible in this film though and not at all accurate to the time period! The film was made on quite a tight budget so rather than getting in expensive and historically accurate costumes they simply loaned some costumes off the set of Gone with the Wind instead. At least that's what the rumour is. I don't know if the rumour is true but I do know that they weren't nice costumes! And why did they make Darcy so nice at the start of the film?! It misses the whole point of his character! About two seconds after insulting Elizabeth at the Meryton ball Darcy changes his mind and asks Elizabeth to dance with him! The film also leaves out the Pemberley scenes and we don't get to see Georgiana Darcy. Also, the final scenes bear very little resemblance to the book as the events have been re-written so that everyone is happy at the end. Lady Catherine actually APPROVES of Darcy's decision to marry Elizabeth and is a very affectionate aunt!

I'm too much of an Austen purist to love this film. However - and I know I'm putting my credibility on the line here - I still enjoyed this film a lot more than I thought I would. Yes it would have been a much better film had they got better costumes and attempted to be more faithful to the book. Nevertheless it has a quirky charm and the carriage race and archery scenes are genuinely quite funny. The acting is good and I liked Olivier and Garson too, especially Garson. I just don't think this film is Austen's Pride and Prejudice and I don't see it as a proper adaptation. This film won't be to everyone's tastes and if you're looking for a faithful adaptation of the book then you'll be disappointed. However if you're looking for a funny comedy that has a resemblance to Pride and Prejudice then you may well enjoy this film. 

Rating: 3/5

Thursday, 15 September 2011

'Much Ado About Nothing' (2011 stage review)

I'd only recently read Shakespeare's Much Ado when I found out that David Tennant and Catherine Tate were going to be starring in a production of it on the West End. I instantly decided that I must see this play at all costs! I'd been dying to see David Tennant in a play since I'd never got the chance to see him play Hamlet live. I managed to find some cheap tickets from, I asked Extremely Flammable to come with me, and it was all set.

We ended up seeing this play on the matinee performance on its very last day and we had a great time. We ended up catching the train down with loads of time to spare considering that I left my youth railcard at my house and had to go back for it! We picked the tickets up at the Wyndam Theatre which, handily enough, is right next to Leicester Square tube station. I have to be honest, I let out a bit of a squee when they were handed over to me! We then spent an enjoyable few hours wandering around a very random shop dedicated to M&Ms and had lunch at a surprisingly cheap pub called The Bear and Staff. So for all those people who moan about Central London being expensive I'd like to point out that you can still find affordable places! OK, there were some irritating American tourists by us but that's not the fault of the pub I suppose. After we ate we went to see the play.

It was extremely enjoyable : ) The setting of the play was updated from 16th century Sicily to 1980s Gibraltar and there were quite a few inventive touches in the play. As an example, the lyrics from Shakespeare's songs were set to a variety of 80s style pop tunes. I've had the "Hey, nonny, nonny!" song stuck in my head for weeks! I had two favourite scenes: the first is when Benedick (Tennant) overhears his friends discussing Beatrice's supposed love for him and ends up getting covered in white paint and looking ridiculous. It was hilariously slapstick and everyone seemed to love it. The fact that Benedick is covered in white paint makes his line"They seem to pity the lady" funnier than it is on the page. Benedick's attempt at songwriting on a tiny child's keyboard was another one of my favourite scenes.

I was extremely impressed by the actors playing Hero and Claudio in this play, Sarah Macrae and Tom Bateman. I was shocked to find out that this was Macrae's West End debut and Bateman's professional debut! What a start to your career! Of the two I thought Bateman was better and I hope he goes on to do other great things. I really didn't like Claudio when I read the play but Bateman actually managed to make me feel some sympathy for the character.

Catherine Tate (Beatrice) seemed to mess up her lines at one point and I do think that she was slightly too slapstick during the scene where she's dangling from the ceiling. However, she did handle her dialogue really well, she was very funny, and she does have great chemistry with Tennant. And as for Tennant, well he was just brilliant. He had great comic timing, he engaged with the audience, and was hilarious and charming. The Shakespearean dialogue sounds absolutely effortless when it's coming out of his mouth but I'm sure that only comes with years of practice. Disturbingly he even manages to look good in a denim mini-skirt and fishnet tights!

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

'The Five People You Meet in Heaven' by Mitch Albom (2003)

Synopsis: Eddie, a lonely war veteran, dies on his 83rd birthday when he tries to save a little girl from a falling cart. He then finds himself in the afterlife and learns that Heaven isn't actually a lush Garden of Eden at all - instead it's a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people who changed your life in some way. Eddie then has his own life explained to him by five people. Some of these people are loved ones and some are distant strangers. 

I read The Five People You Meet in Heaven when I was on holiday in Mexico. It's a good holiday book really as it's very easy to read and is short, sweet and simple. It shouldn't take you more than a few hours to get through. The premise is interesting and at times this book is genuinely touching. The ending is sweet and I definitely believe that there are things that are meant to be in this world so I liked that message of the book.

However, although I did find The Five People You Meet in Heaven to be moving in places, I also found it to be overly-sentimental and a bit cheesy in places as well. I didn't find any of the main characters to be particularly engaging or interesting. The book is a simple read, which I stress isn't a bad thing, but to be honest I was hoping for something a bit deeper and more haunting given the subject matter. It didn't leave much of an impact on me. Also I sincerely hope that there is more to Heaven than the one that Albom describes: that the sole purpose of it is merely to explain your life to you. All in all, The Five People You Meet in Heaven is a nice read and I think it's a nice book, certainly not a bad one,. It's just that certain things about it prevented it from being the truly great one it had the potential to be.

Rating: 3/5

Saturday, 10 September 2011

'Rebecca' by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Synopsis: the unnamed heroine is working as a lady's companion to a snobbish American woman in Monte Carlo. She then meets Maxim de Winter, a handsome and wealthy widower. The heroine is swept off her feet by him and, after a very brief two week courtship, Maxim proposes marriage. The heroine accepts. After their wedding and Italian honeymoon, Maxim then takes her back to his ancestral family mansion in the West Country which is called Manderley. The unnamed heroine lacks self-confidence and feels overwhelmed by her new life as the lady of the estate. It doesn't help that Maxim has become brooding and withdrawn and that the housekeeper Mrs Danvers keeps comparing her to Rebecca, Maxim's late wife. Rebecca was a charming, beautiful and talented woman and was apparently loved by all. The narrator is always aware of Rebecca's presence in the house and her inability to live up to her predecessor.

Rebecca is Daphne du Maurier's magnum opus and a masterpiece of gothic literature. It's an amazing book! It's just so beautifully-written and it has such an eerie and haunting gothic atmosphere. It really is a work of genius. I must admit though that I do find its first couple of chapters to be a bit boring and draggy but the book gets sooo much better after that! I love this book so much and I always use it as an example of why you should never give up on a book just because you don't like it straight away. 

Rebecca is dark and suspenseful and it's full of mystery and drama. The book is sometimes classed as a romance but I really don't think it should be. Oh, sure the book has got romance in it but Rebecca is really part brooding, psychological thriller and part gothic-mystery novel. That might make the book sound depressing but it's not. The book is dark but deliciously so.

Another great thing about the book that I haven't already mentioned would be du Maurier's characters. All of the characters are interesting and multi-dimensional but it's the anonymous heroine that I genuinely loved and felt the most compassion for. She's an incredibly easy character to empathise with despite the fact that you never learn her real name. Her anonymity is actually quite misleading because you do know exactly what she's thinking and why she feels the way she does. You can really feel her loneliness and her fear and her longing. Part of the reason that makes her so sympathetic is that we've all been her at some stage in our lives. The heroine is a shy, insecure, naive, clumsy and very innocent young girl. I think we've all been like that at some point in our lives and I felt really sorry for her. Whenever I read this book I just want to give her a mug of hot chocolate and a blanket! I love her character so much and I think she's very brave even in her cowardice. The character of Rebecca herself is also especially interesting because - despite the fact that she's actually dead - her presence and figurative ghost is always there. The book really does show how much power a dead person can have over the lives of the people left behind. Rebecca is a fantastic book and I'd recommend it to just about anyone. The Hitchcock film is brilliant as well.

Rating: 5/5

'The Italian' by Ann Radcliffe (1797)

Synopsis: Vincentio di Vivaldi, a young Italian nobleman from Naples, sets eyes on a beautiful but poor young woman called Ellena di Rosalba. Vivaldi is immediately captivated by her beauty and hopes to court and marry her. However, when his controlling and manipulative mother finds out about this she becomes determined to put a stop to it - so she enlists the help of her confessor Father Schedoni. Schedoni took part in the Inquisition and is an evil, scheming monk. He kidnaps Ellena and Vivaldi must then search for her whereabouts. 

Ever since I'd read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey I'd been really wanting to read Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho. But in the end I read Radcliffe's The Italian instead because it was a set text on a course about gothic literature that I was taking. I wasn't very impressed. Although I did actually quite like the opening 100 pages or so, once all of the descriptions of the "sublime" kicked in I pretty much lost all interest. There is a lot - and I mean a LOT - of very long-winded and wordy descriptions in this book! Radcliffe will generally take about two to four pages to describe a single setting and quite often she'll go back to describe what that same setting will look like at night or at a different time of the day! All of this description adds absolutely nothing to the story and gets very frustrating! I ended up skim-reading most of this book. The Italian was just too boring for me to enjoy and I can see why Radcliffe's works have mostly fallen out of fashion. Unlike Austen and some of the later Victorian writers she doesn't have a particularly modern writing style or sense of pacing. Still, if you're a fan of Gothic Literature and would like to learn a little bit more about the roots of the genre then this book might be of an interest to you.

Rating: 2/5

Sunday, 4 September 2011

'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold (2002)

Synopsis: Susie Salmon is a teenage girl who is raped and murdered by her neighbour in the 1970s. She then watches her family and friends from her personal Heaven as they struggle to move on with their lives. Her father becomes obsessed with finding her murderer, her mother falls apart, and her siblings have to get used to life without her. 

The only reason why I read The Lovely Bones was because I'd planned to see Peter Jackson's film adaptation. I will usually try to read books before I look into their adaptations. However this book really disappointed me and I probably won't bother watching the film now. I will admit that the book has a fascinating premise and a genuinely powerful opening chapter but apart from that I couldn't stand this book. I still can't believe that it won as much critical acclaim as it did! The Lovely Bones is nowhere near as moving and poignant as it should be. It's sickly-sweet and downright boring! It isn't even very well-written and the characters are very hit-and-miss. Now I can't say that I cared all that much about the characters on Earth but they felt believable at least - whereas the characters in Heaven were very underdeveloped and were clearly existing just to serve the plot. Holly, Franny and even Susie herself are all very unmemorable characters.

What frustrated me most about the book though was definitely Chapter 22 and the possession scene that takes place in it. Up until this point I hadn't been enjoying the book but this chapter made me really angry! Bringing Susie back to Earth just so she can lose her virginity to her high-school sweetheart is completely ridiculous and unpleasant! So let me get this straight: if you die a virgin God is willing to let you go back to Earth for a few hours, take over someone else's body, and shag someone?! This was a HORRIBLE decision on Sebold's part! Why couldn't Susie's brief time on Earth have been spent trying to comfort her family?! Why couldn't Susie try and do something about the fact that Mr Harvey, her killer, is still out there and has been stalking her sister?! Surely she doesn't want him to rape and kill any more children?! And what about Ruth?! Even though she seemed to be OK with what had happened to her afterwards, her body was still used for sex without her permission! Surely I can't be the only one who finds that seriously creepy, disturbing and immoral?! And what about the consequences?! What if Ruth had got pregnant or picked up an STD?! The Lovely Bones does not live up to its rave reviews at all and is one of the most overrated books I've ever read.

Rating: 1/5

'The Princess Bride' by William Goldman (1973)

Synopsis:  Buttercup has fallen in love with her family's farm boy, Westley - and when he leaves to make his fortune she vows never to love another. When she hears that his ship was captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, and that no survivors were left, she's naturally heartbroken. But her beauty draws the attention of Prince Humperdinck and he'll stop at nothing when it comes to getting what he wants...

Several years ago now, I watched this book's film adaptation and absolutely LOVED it. It's seriously one of my favourite films ever. It's a truly fantastic spoof-fairytale that came out YEARS before the likes of Shrek and Enchanted. I was thrilled when I later found out that The Princess Bride was based on a book which I later bought and read. The book is brilliant too and has become one of my all-time favourites. It's just as good as the film! It's inventive and has incredibly witty and funny lines. It's extremely well-written and has very loveable characters, with Westley and Inigo Montoya being my personal favourites. In fact Inigo Montoya is one of my favourite fictional characters and my blogger name is partly named after him.

Actually, as much as I love the film I do think the book is even better. You get more backstory on the characters such as Fezzik and Buttercup's parents, and you learn more about the death of Inigo's father and Prince Humperdinck's hunting obsession. The book is hugely entertaining all the way through, it's full of HILARIOUS and quotable one-liners, and it has everything that you could possibly want in a book: action, adventure, fencing, fighting, revenge, romance, passion, destiny, magic, giants, Rodents of Unusual Sizes, heroes, villains, pirates, comedy, drama, chases, escapes, love, hate... even a Zoo of Death and a Fire Swamp!

Although the characters, dialogue and story of The Princess Bride are impressive enough there's also an inspired story-within-a-story element as well. William Goldman makes the claim that he's abridging The Princess Bride from S. Morgenstern's version; leaving out all of the boring bits about politics and history and only sticking to the "good parts". Occasionally Goldman will break into the story and include tales about his battles with his editors about what to cut and what to keep in, or give recollections about his father reading the story to him as a child. The latter was probably the basis for the interruptions in the film where the grandfather is reading The Princess Bride to his grandson. The interruptions in the film are very funny but they're even funnier in the book because they remind me of boring parts I've read in other novels. Who CARES about the Queen packing and unpacking all her hats?! Just get on with the story! The Princess Bride is one of the few books I've come across where interruptions and digressions such as these actually enhance the story rather than taking away from it.

I have to admit that I'm not really a fan of the short story Buttercup's Baby that was added to the book's 30th anniversary edition though. It's by no means terrible but it just wasn't necessary to put the story in there and left me with a sour taste in my mouth. It still doesn't take away from the brilliance of the original book and ending though and I love The Princess Bride to death. If you haven't already then I seriously recommend reading it and discovering its brilliance for yourself.

Rating: 5/5

Friday, 2 September 2011

'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella Gibbons (1932)

Synopsis: Flora Poste is a sophisticated, sensible, perky and intelligent young woman. She's also an orphan at the age of 19. Being a well-to-do middle class woman Flora finds the idea of work abhorrent and decides that her only choice is to live with her relatives, the Starkadders, in the depths of Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm she meets her long-lost relations. There's her remorseful cousin Judith, who darkly alludes to a great wrong that her husband did to Flora's father many years ago. There's Amos, the hell fire and brimstone preacher who gets a kick out of telling the Quivering Brethren that they're damned. There's Seth, who has slept with nearly every young woman in the county but whose real passion is "the talkies". There's Reuben, who is despairing over the farm and is afraid that Flora is trying to steal it. There's Elfine, who spends her time wandering around the moors and writing poetry. And finally there's Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the past 20 years and once saw "something nasty in the woodshed". Flora loves nothing more than organising other people so she decides to use her common sense and strong will to sort out these people's depressing lives out.

This book was an absolute joy to read. It's definitely one of the funniest books I've ever read and I'm certain that I'll be re-reading it again and again in the future. I loved it! When I found myself laughing out loud at the very first page I took that as a pretty good sign that I was going to find it funny. I did. Cold Comfort Farm is truly laugh-out-loud funny and a hilarious parody of the melodramatic, rural-set novels that were popular at the time (i.e. the works of D.H. Lawrence). Also, I'd say that this book is a must-read for Jane Austen fans. Gibbons' writing style is very Austen-esque. There are references to Persuasion and Mansfield Park in this book but the two Austen novels that it reminded me of the most were Emma and Northanger Abbey. Flora Poste bears a strong resemblance to Austen's Emma Woodhouse since they both like to have everything their own way and both share the same tendency to meddle; and like Northanger Abbey this book is a genre parody. If you're looking for a book that is true to the spirit of Austen's novels without shamelessly trying to rip them off then this book is for you.

I'd strongly disagree with some reviews I've read of this book which suggest that you'd have to have an extensive knowledge of the works that Gibbons is parodying in order to find it funny. Yes, I'm sure that a prior knowledge of those works would no doubt enhance the humour of Cold Comfort Farm but it's by no means essential. I'm not especially familiar with those works myself after all but I still found this book funny! The characters are very memorable too and end up being a lot more likeable and endearing than you might think. It's well-written, some of Gibbons' descriptions are lovely, and the ending is heartwarming and touching. I read the Penguin edition of this book and I'd recommend reading the introduction by Lynn Truss which is very interesting. Vintage Classics have also re-printed some of Gibbons' other works which have been out-of-print for decades and I'm sure I'll give those a read at some point.

Rating: 5/5