Friday, 27 April 2012

'The Silmarillion' by J.R.R. Tolkien (1977)

The Silmarillion is an amazing work of fiction but it's most definitely not for everyone. Even though it's technically a prequel to The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings it really shouldn't be read by anyone who hasn't already read those books beforehand. Anyone who comes into this book as a Tolkien newcomer is likely to find it extremely dense and confusing. I wouldn't even recommend this book to casual Tolkien fans either. If you just couldn't get through the appendices in Return of the King, and if you actually prefer the Peter Jackson films to the LOTR book then The Silmarillion probably isn't for you. To fully appreciate this book you really do need to be a die-hard Tolkien fan. This is because The Silmarillion isn't really a novel in the traditional sense. Instead it's really more of a history book in the style of the Norse Sagas that Tolkien loved. The book informs the reader of various events that happened up to and around The Hobbit and LOTR. Things that are only briefly mentioned in those books are explained in much more depth here, and the reader is given far more background information on Middle-earth and Valinor. I think it's important to come into The Silmarillion with the right expectations. Tellingly Amazon and are absolutely full of reviews from people who said that they hated this book when they first read it, but when they came back to it the second time around they loved it. With this in mind I've summarised the different sections:

This first section of the book is a creation story. Tolkien's Christian beliefs are more obvious in The Silmarillion than they are in The Hobbit and LOTR. Basically, in this section Eru or Ilúvatar (God) creates the Ainur (angelic beings) in Heaven before the existence of time. Ilúvatar then has the Ainur sing a great symphony through which he creates the world (Arda). Now doesn't the concept of creating a world through music just sound so beautiful? However, the most powerful of the Ainur, Melkor (who later gets renamed Morgoth), knows some of Ilúvatar's thoughts and he wants to create worlds just like Ilúvatar. So feeling all envious and bitter inside Melkor starts to sing his own tune, and by doing so he pours himself and his evil desires into the music. Some of the Ainur then start copying him and the beautiful, harmonious music becomes a cacophony. Ilúvatar gives the Ainur a new piece of music to sing but Melkor and some of the Ainur start rebelling again. Finally Ilúvatar says - and I'm paraphrasing badly - "Enough! What you have just sung you will now see created". He shows the Ainur a vision of Arda in the future and the music - with all of its forces of good and evil - is then made manifest in the form of Arda. Again I think this is such an amazing and beautiful idea. Melkor's rebellion is also very similar to Satan's fall from Grace which I find very interesting.

This section is quite short. In this section some of the Ainur (who become known as the Valar) leave Heaven and go into the world. They arrive in Middle-earth to prepare it for the coming of the Elves (the Dwarves and Men won't show up for many years yet). The Valar use Ilúvatar's vision as their guide. The Valar and their realm of Valinor are defined and described in depth in this section, and we also get information about the Maiar. They came into the world with the Valar and are their slightly lesser servants and helpers. Melkor also arrives into the world, attempts to thwart the Valar's plans, and recruits some of the Maiar into assisting him.

Quenta Silmarillion
This is the largest section of the book by far and it concerns the War of the Silmarills. After the Elves appear on Middle-earth the Valar become extra-determined to defeat Melkor and manage to capture him and destroy his fortress. They then invite the Elves back to Valinor with them in order to protect them from the evil creatures that are still left over from Melkor's reign. Most of the Elves accept the invitation. Fëanor (the most skilled and powerful of the Elves) then creates sacred jewels (the Silmarills) but these are stolen by Melkor after he manages to weasel his way out of prison. After the theft Fëanor re-names Melkor "Morgoth" (which means "Black Enemy"), declares war on him, and pursues him back to Middle-earth. In the process he and his tribe (the Noldor Elves) anger the Valar by killing some of their kin (the Teleri Elves). The Valar are furious at the Elves' rebellion and they refuse to have anything more to do with Middle-earth and the Noldor Elves.

Subsequent chapters then deal with the coming of Men into Middle-earth thousands of years after the theft of the Silmarills. Beren (a man) falls in love with an elf called Luthien, who is the daughter of the Elf King Thingol. The Beren-Luthien story is briefly mentioned in LOTR but is given so much more depth in this book. Thingol doesn't want Beren to marry Luthien at all so he gives Beren a task which he thinks is impossible. He tells Beren that he will only agree to their marriage if Beren can retrieve a Silmarill from Morgoth. Beren's quest starts off badly as he gets captured by Sauron but Luthien rescues him and they escape. They then sneak into Morgoth's fortress and manage to steal a Silmarill from him. This is a really exciting story and was my favourite part of The Silmarillion. It's exciting and romantic and Luthien is a pretty badass heroine. She's the one who defeats Sauron and rescues Beren from the dungeons, she's the one who sends Morgoth to sleep with enchantments so Beren can cut the Silmarill from his crown, she's the one who has the strength to accept the fate of mortal men and die with Beren. Sure Beren helped her out but Luthien did most of the work and is the more interesting character of the two. After the Beren-Luthien tale we then get the tragic, melancholy story of Túrin Tarambar. Then after that we get a story about Túrin's cousin Tuor and the Fall of Gondolin, before finding out how the Elves managed to make peace with the Valar and finally defeat Morgoth once and for all. This then ends the First Age of Middle-earth.

This is a very interesting part of the book since it has parallels with the story of the Noah's Ark story from Genesis as well as the Atlantis myth. After Morgoth is overthrown, the Men who aided the Elves and the Valar in their war against Morgoth are rewarded for their loyalty. They are given long lives and get their very own island to live on called Númenor. The island isn't a part of Valinor or Middle-earth but is closer to Valinor. Elros - the brother of Elrond who has chosen to belong to the lineage of Men - becomes King of the Númenoreans and all is well for a while. The Númenoreans become a powerful nation and they remain on good terms with the Elves and the Valar. However, after thousands of years pass, the Númenoreans start to become resentful of the fact that they can't live forever and aren't allowed to come to Valinor - despite the Valar's insistence that even they don't have the power to make Men immortal and that living on Valinor would only make the Númenoreans feel more depressed. The Númenoreans become increasingly resentful of the Valar when they imprison Sauron - who had been Morgoth's most dangerous servant and ally - and bring him back to Númenor. They don't realise that Sauron has willingly allowed himself to be taken captive so he can turn them against the Elves and the Valar. Sauron starts to become influential in Númenor and corrupts their society. Most of the Númenoreans turn evil and they declare war on Valinor. The Valar then pray to Ilúvatar for help and he responds by destroying Númenor and most of the Númenoreans in a flood. Only a few Númenoreans survive. These are the ones who are still loyal to the Valar and the Elves, and have already escaped from Númenor and sailed to Middle-earth, including Elendil and his sons Isildur and Anárion. These men then become Kings of Gondor and are the ancestors of Aragorn, who appears in LOTR. The Second Age of Middle-earth ends.

Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age
This is the final section of the book which is called and it does what it says on the tin. It gives the reader more information about the rise of Sauron and how he comes into power after Morgoth's downfall. This section gives a brief overview of the battles between Sauron and the peoples of Middle-earth, which come to a temporary halt when Isildur cuts the One Ring from Sauron's hand. In addition to this we also find out where Gandalf came from and why he was sent to Middle-earth. Everything that happens after this section is then picked up in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I would say that that The Silmarillion is an essential read for die-hard fans of The Hobbit and LOTR. I'm not saying that it's as entertaining as those books though. This book is mostly very interesting but not all of it is easy to read and there are some hard-going, challenging sections. The sheer amount of information that Tolkien provides can get quite overwhelming at times. There are so many events and places in this book and there's an enormous amount of characters! Some characters have very similar names to each other too! And some characters have multiple names! At times I would be like "Wait, WHO is this person again?!" At times I could feel myself getting confused and frustrated with the book. But in the end the confusion and frustration that I occasionally felt was worth it. The book is beautifully written and Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien's son) did a superb job in editing it. The Silmarillion was published posthumously since J.R.R. Tolkien died before he had finished putting his notes into order. Also the information that you get - as confusing as it is at times - really adds to your appreciation and understanding of The Hobbit and LOTR. No-one and I repeat NO-ONE has created a fantasy world with as much richness and depth and complexity as Middle-earth/Valinor. You find out how Middle-earth/Valinor was created in this book. You find out how evil was brought into the world. You find out where Sauron and the Balrogs and the Dragons and the Orcs came from. You find out more about Valinor and other regions of Middle-earth. You get more information on the Elves, Dwarves and Men and their origins. You find out why the Elves have such a frosty relationship with the Dwarves. You get more information on what Gandalf was up to in The Hobbit when he mysteriously vanished. You find out the significance of Frodo crying out O, Elbereth! in LOTR. This book doesn't explain everything though and some things are still left vague. The book mostly gives the history of the Elves with bits of information about the Men and the Dwarves thrown in. No information is given about Tom Bombadil and the Ents and surprisingly the Hobbits are barely mentioned. I suppose this is a bit of a shame but then again I've always found the Elves the most fascinating of the various peoples of Middle-earth and I guess it's good to maintain some mystery.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton film and stage version)

I am ashamed to say that even though I was vaguely aware of Sweeney Todd I had never heard a note of the musical before I saw the Tim Burton film (but to defend myself this was a couple of years before I had really started to get into musicals). When I saw the Tim Burton film I liked it and later on, when I started to get more into musicals, I became more interested in seeing the Sweeney Todd stageshow. I started listening to the songs on YouTube, and when I heard them performed by professional singers I began to realise just how beautiful the songs really were. Then it was announced that Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton were going to be doing a revival of the musical for the Chichester Festival. I would have been interested in seeing it if Chichester wasn't so far away from where I live and if Michael Ball hadn't been starring as Sweeney. I thought "Michael Ball?! No! He's a great singer but there's no way that he'd be able to pull of playing Sweeney Todd!" But then I saw the photos of Ball and he looked completely unrecognisable as Sweeney. And then the reviews started to come in of the production which were full or praise for the show and of Ball's performance. And then I saw this awesome-looking trailer for the production (see below). When the production got transferred to the West End I decided to see it. I loved it! I've also recently re-watched the film. This post is going to be a review of both the Tim Burton film and the stage version since both are fresh in my mind.

Before I do that though I think it's best to give a quick history of the show. Sweeney Todd was a fictional character who first appeared in a Victorian penny dreadful story called The String of Pearls. This was serialised in 18 weekly parts from 1846-47. It's believed that the story was probably written by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. Some have even suggested that Sweeney Todd may have been based on an actual historical character but most historians dismiss this claim. In the original story Sweeney was a barber who killed people out of pure greed and then gave the corpses over to his friend and neighbour Mrs Lovett, who would then make meat pies out of the corpses.

However in 1973, the British playwright Christopher Bond decided to write his own version of Sweeney Todd by turning the story into a revenge tragedy. Sweeney was given a more sympathetic motive for his crimes. Bond's play was then seen by the composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim who many regard as the Shakespeare of musical theatre (so high is his reputation). He loved the story and decided to do a musical adaptation out of the play. The musical would be staged on Broadway five years later with its full title being Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The musical won 8 Tony Awards and was directed by Harold Prince (who would later go on to direct the stage version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera). The original production starred Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs Lovett. The stage version was then filmed in 1982, which had George Hearn starring as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury again playing Mrs Lovett.

Sweeney Todd is a story about a barber called Benjamin Barker who lived in Victorian London with his beautiful wife Lucy and their infant daughter Johanna. Unfortunetly for Barker a jealous, wicked and lust-filled Judge wanted Barker's wife for himself. The Judge had Barker framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to prison for life in Australia. Barker then spends the next 15 years in prison before he's finally able to escape and return to London. Barker changes his name to Sweeney Todd and arrives in London with a young sailor called Anthony Hope. Sweeney then learns from a woman called Mrs Lovett what happened to his family after he was sent to Australia. The Judge lured Lucy to his home and raped her. Lucy was so distraught over this that she poisoned herself. Sweeney's daughter Johanna was then adopted by the Judge and is still living with him as his ward. Sweeney then swears revenge on the Judge and the world that has wronged them and is helped by Mrs Lovett... and in the process Sweeney discovers that he loves using his razors for a bloodier task than shaving. Brutal and bloody deaths ensue. In addition to this there's a subplot about Anthony falling in love with Johanna and attempting to rescue her from the Judge. There's also a subplot about a boy called Toby, the abused apprentice of an Italian barber, who begins to assist Mrs Lovett and comes to love her as a surrogate mother.

A film adaptation of the stage musical wouldn't be made until 2007. Originally the film was going to be directed by Sam Mendes, who had Russell Crowe in mind for the role of Sweeney. Mendes then pulled out of the project to work on Jarhead and Tim Burton was brought in as his replacement. Burton - who openly admits to hating most stage musicals - saw Sweeney Todd three times when he was living in London back in the 70s. The music and the macabre, gothic, violent nature of the story really appealed to him. He then approached Sondheim about the possibility of making a movie adaptation of the musical in the 1980s but nothing came of it. When Mendes pulled out of the Sweeney Todd project two decades later Burton offered to direct. You can see why the studio allowed Burton to direct. Most of his films have a gothic look and several of his films have musical numbers (The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride). Burton then approached his long-time friend and collaborator Johnny Depp to play Sweeney. Burton also cast his partner Helena Bonham Carter to play the role of Mrs Lovett. The film got a mostly positive reception from film critics but the reception was more mixed from fans of the stageshow. Some loved the film and others hated it.

The main thing that die-hard fans of the stage version tend to find most frustrating about the film adaptation is the removal of the ballads. The stage version opens with a song called The Ballad of Sweeney Todd (see below). It's sung by a Greek Chorus and is reprised several times throughout the show.

The ballads are one of my favourite things about the stage version. They're genuinely chilling and eerie and they really do add to the power of the show. I get chills when the ensemble sing "Swing your razor wide Sweeney, hold it to the skies, freely flows the blood of those who moralise!" Now that I've seen the stage version I can understand why fans of the stage version were so upset that they'd been removed from the film. Admittedly Burton couldn't have had the ensemble singing directly to the camera. It would have been too over-the-top theatrical and would have looked too silly and stagey for a screen adaptation. But I think the original idea for the ballads could have worked. Originally the ballads were going to be in the film and the ensemble would be playing ghosts. Anthony Stewart Head was going to play a ghost and Christopher Lee (who is a trained opera singer) was going to play another. Now I don't know about you but I think that sounds awesome! But in the end the ballads weren't filmed and Anthony Stewart Head was given a two-second cameo instead. Nooooo! Even if you did think that they would have still looked silly Burton, couldn't you have just filmed them anyway and stuck them on the DVD as a bonus feature?! It would have just been so satisfying to see them! And I see no reason at all why Burton couldn't have kept the ensemble parts in Pirelli's Miracle Elixir and God! That's Good; where the ensemble actors play crowd members who join in and start singing with Mrs Lovett, Sweeney and Toby.

Another common criticism of the film from fans of the stage version is that it's too serious and dark - and that's true. There's barely any humour in the film at all and any humour that is in it tends to be very subtle. The lack of humour in the film is really surprising to me actually since there are other films that Burton has done  - like Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow - that are full of dark humour. But the stage version of Sweeney Todd is much funnier than Burton's film and there's a different atmosphere. It's still a dark show but there's a lot more black humour going on. It's really quite funny in places. The most obvious example of the lack of humour in the film is the Little Priest scene. This song gets a lot of laughs from the audience when it's performed on stage. The actors perform the lyrics as punchlines, with their characters clearly competing with each other as to who can can come up with the best rhymes. However, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter deliver the lines very straight in the film and the funniest lyrics of the song are left out. A newcomer to the musical who was hearing this song for the first time wouldn't necessarily get that the song is supposed to be funny. 

Another example of the lack of humour in the film is the fact that Anthony and Johanna's duet Kiss Me is left out. Kiss Me is one of my favourite songs from the stage version and I think it's a real shame that it was cut from the film. It's a great song! It's cute and funny and it would have been tons of fun to hear in the film! Er, if Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener could actually sing it that is. Also, not having the song in the film makes Johanna and Anthony seem boring and two-dimensional. OK Bower's Anthony might have still come across as boring and two-dimensional even with this song but Johanna definitely loses out on characterisation - and no silly, added scene about how her nightmares are never going to go away is going to make up for it. In the stage version Johanna is a much more interesting character. In the film she just comes across as a sad, quiet and sweet young woman but in the stage version she's also mentally unstable and skittish. This really isn't surprising when you consider the mental state of her parents, that she's been locked up for virtually all of her life, and that her adopted "father" lusts after her. The Johanna-Anthony romance subplot brings some sweetness and light to the Sweeney Todd stage version, but in the film their characters and romance barely get a look-in.

Another thing that I find quite odd about Burton's film is not just the fact that it leaves out some of the humour of the stage version. The film also leaves out the creepiest and most disturbing song in the show, Mea Culpa. I saw a lot of people squirming when I saw it performed live! This song could have worked brilliantly for the film though even if the sight of a barechested Alan Rickman whipping himself and working himself up into a frenzy over his "daughter" may have given me nightmares! Presumably all of these cuts were made to focus the film more on Sweeney.

Overall I may not LOVE Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd film but I do like it. I can understand why some of the long-time, die-hard fans of the stage version weren't happy with it and the stage version IS a lot better than the film. The film is by no means perfect and is very flawed. It's lacking in humour and it narrows the scope by focusing too much on Sweeney's character. If I was already a massive fan of the stage version beforehand the changes that were made to the film might have bothered me a lot more. Having said that though I still think the Sweeney Todd film is one of the better stage-to-screen adaptations that's been made in recent years. The movie is mostly faithful to the stage version and is a good film in its own right.

Burton nails the gothic, Victorian look and the film certainly looks great. The film won an Oscar for Best Art Direction and it was very well deserved. I also love Johnny Depp's bathing costume in the By the Sea scene! :D The By the Sea scene is one of the best things about the film actually. Johnny Depp's costume and his looks of sullen despair throughout are just so funny. Burton definitely builds the tension up in the final scenes too.

Johnny Depp is one of my favourite actors and he gives a great performance as Sweeney Todd. He has a pretty good singing voice too. I was surprised by just how good his singing actually was. Depp is certainly no Michael Ball and his singing isn't Broadway/West End calibre. His voice is lacking in power. His singing is still very good for a movie musical though. I especially love the My Friends scene in the Sweeney Todd film (see below). For me that's when Depp's acting and singing is at its best. He sings so softly and lovingly to the razors and his acting leaves the audience in no doubt whatsoever that his character's mind is dangerously unhinged. Depp doesn't try to make his character likeable in the film. he audience can sympathise with him to a certain extent because of what was done to him by the Judge but there's still no getting around the fact that the character is a demented serial killer. Sweeney Todd isn't a Hamlet or Edmond Dantes figure. Erm, but surely I can't be the only one who finds Depp's facial expressions very sexy from 1:43 to about 2:05? No? I'll get my coat...

But before I do I'll finish my review. Some of the supporting cast in this film do better than others. The kid who plays Toby (Ed Sanders) has a very nice voice and his version of Not While I'm Around is one of the highlights of the film for me. Toby in the stage version is a mentally challenged young man who acts like a child. In the Tim Burton film though Toby is actually a child. I personally like both ideas equally. Interestingly in the stage production I saw it seems that they'd been influenced by the film in this respect. The actor who was playing Toby was a child, or at least he looked like a child from where I was. Sacha Baron Cohen gets the only comic song that is still left in the film (The Contest) and is very amusing as Adolfo Pirelli. Even though Baron Cohen's role is small he still makes a big impression. His singing is very good and he hits an impressively high note at the end of his song. He shows some genuine menace too when he drops the Pirelli act. I definitely approve of the decision to cast him as Thenardier in the Les Miserables movie musical adaptation. The singing from everyone else in this film is merely passable. No-one sings amazingly but no-one sounds awful either. Alan Rickman is brilliantly creepy and vicious as the Judge and Timothy Spall is very good as the slimy Beadle. Spall's just so good at playing slimy characters!

The actors who aren't so good in this film are Jamie Campbell Bower, Jayne Wisener and Helena Bonham Carter. Jayne Wisener uses about as many facial expressions as Emmy Rossum (so not many) and her singing isn't that great either. Anne Hathaway would have been a much better choice to play Johanna. As for Jamie Campbell Bower, well, I suppose his singing isn't bad but his voice sounds far too girly and effeminate for my liking. I find his long "e"s in Johanna quite grating (I feeeeel you Johanna!) Apparently Bower got very close to being cast as Enjolras in the Les Mis musical movie. Thank Heaven that didn't happen! Like Wisener his acting isn't great either - but maybe if his and Jayne Wisener's characters had been given more depth and maybe if they'd been given more to work with then their performances might have been better.

Surprisingly Helena Bonham Carter isn't that great in this film either. For the record I do actually really like Helena Bonham Carter. I think she's a talented actress and that she has much more versatility than she's usually given credit for. But she's underwhelming in this film. In the stage version Mrs Lovett is a really funny character and she's lively, flamboyant and energetic. But in this film Carter seems almost tentative in the role. She definitely looks the part and she is funny at times but she could have still really done with being more lively. Her Mrs Lovett is very different to the Mrs Lovett of the stage version. Carter's Mrs Lovett seems more sympathetic too which I don't really like. When Carter's Mrs Lovett locks Toby up in the cellar she looks guilt-ridden and as if she's about to cry. But in the stage version Mrs Lovett doesn't give a crap about Toby! She acts motherly towards him but she doesn't really care about him at all! She only wants to save her own skin. Mrs Lovett is every bit as evil as Sweeney. She's the one who comes up with the idea of using cannibalism to promote her business!

Sometimes I do wonder why the fact that the actors aren't especially strong singers in the Sweeney Todd film doesn't bother me more, especially since this is a major problem that I have with the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. And I would have been absolutely hopping mad if they'd cast the Les Mis musical movie with a bunch of untrained singers. I hope that doesn't make me a hypocrite! I think the reason why it doesn't bother me might be because the acting generally makes up for it in this film. Also, in the 2004 movie Emmy Rossum is supposed to be playing an opera singer and Gerard Butler is supposed to be playing a musical genius with the voice of an angel. The singing in Sweeney Todd isn't what it ought to be but the storyline allows them to get away with it more than with Phantom, where being a great singer is an integral part of the plot. And although I do really love Sweeney Todd I'm still not as emotionally attached to it as I am with Les Mis and Phantom.

With all this time I've spent going on about the film I really should move onto the stage version! Well, it was brilliant! Michael Ball was surprisingly excellent as Sweeney. In fact he was incredible! You really do have to admire the versatility of the man as well. He can go from dressing up in drag to play Edna in Hairspray (a very different sort of show!) to playing Sweeney in Sweeney Todd. In this he was moody, menacing, angry, funny... I couldn't believe that it was the exact same Michael Ball I saw playing Marius in the 10th anniversary concert of Les Mis! And his singing was awesome too. Ball was singing about an octave lower than he usually sings but he didn't sound like he was straining his voice at all. He was just... great! Ball's best moments of the show for me was when he did Epiphany and the Johanna Quartet. His voice shines especially in these songs. At the end of the Johanna Quartet he held a note that seemed to go on for about two minutes! And Imelda Staunton was just sensational as Mrs Lovett. She was hilarious! She brought the house down when she sang Worst Pies in London and By the Sea and everyone seemed to love her. She was just so lively and funny - and clearly evil! Mrs Lovett is supposed to be the Thenardier of the show. You like her against your better judgement. Ball and Staunton gave the best performances in the show but no-one was bad in this. OK, Lucy May Barker (who played Johanna) was a bit shreaky at times but she was by no means horrible. The ensemble were terrific as well, probably the best ensemble cast I've yet seen. I was looking at the programme and a lot of them have played leads in other musicals. There was a woman who'd played Belle in Beauty and the Beast and a guy who'd played Raoul in Phantom. I had a great time watching the show! My thoughts on the stage show are probably less interesting to read because there isn't all that much I can criticise! The only thing I wasn't so keen on was the 1950s(?) setting that they gave it. Sweeney Todd is just so Victorian and gothic that having it set in the 1950s felt a bit weird. But I'm only nitpicking really. If you can then go and see this show. Even at the far back the views are still really good and the ticket prices are quite affordable.

Now I'm pretty much done with my thoughts on Sweeney Todd. I'll just say that if you can you should definitely try to check out the current production in London before it runs out in September 2012. If not then I'd recommend listening to the cast album for that production that's been recently released. There's also the 1982 filmed production of the stage version (which is apparently very good) and the film, which although flawed, is still very enjoyable in my opinion and well worth a watch. I'd rate the film 3.5 stars and the stage version 5. I'll close my review with some songs from this excellent musical : )

Kiss Me

Green Finch and Linnet Bird


Johanna Quartet

Little Priest

Friday, 6 April 2012

If I could adapt 'Les Miserables'....

A while ago I was just doing some random Google searching when I discovered this article: This was the part that interested me:

Andrew Davies is working on a £10m adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables for drama co-production specialist Lookout Point, which is also planning to revive Lawrence of Arabia.
The veteran screenwriter - who was the creative powerhouse behind BBC adaptations of Bleak House and South Riding - has begun work on the ambitious 5 x 60-minute project that will aim to bring a modern twist on the French book.
It is in development with Lookout Point and BBC Worldwide, who are currently on the hunt for co-production partners to join the project.
Lookout Point’s chief executive Simon Vaughan admitted it is “early days”, but said they are hoping to secure a budget of around £2m for each episode and would ideally like to attach BBC1 to the drama.
The aim is apply a “modern visual pallet” to the original novel, Vaughan added, as well as capitalise on the anticipated popularity of Hollywood’s adaptation of the Les Misérables stage musical, starring Russell Crowe and Helena Bonham Carter.
“I think the film will be beneficial in raising awareness. They are very different propositions - ours is a wholehearted literary adaptation,” Vaughan said.
Hmm, interesting! It's still early days yet so I suppose it might not even happen but I am intrigued. I LOVE the musical of course but I would still be happy to see a non-musical adaptation that was closer to the book. This is what I'd like my own personal adaptation to be like:

- My ideal Les Mis miniseries would be made by the BBC on a big budget and with high production values. It would also be at least 12 hours long and most definitely not five! If Pride and Prejudice deserves a 6 hour adaptation than Les Mis definitely deserves 12!

- My Les Mis miniseries would include almost everything from the book and I would make very few cuts. The only major things that I would leave out entirely would be Valjean's time on the Orion and the Bishop's backstory. I loved reading the Bishop's backstory in the book but having all of his 60 pages worth of backstory in a screen adaptation would just take up too much time. I would also shorten the Waterloo section to just a quick two minute flashback of Thenardier's encounter with Marius's father and I would condense Valjean and Cosette's time at the convent, maybe using a montage. We're gonna need a montage! Montage! Ooh, it takes a montage! (now has the Team America song stuck in my head)Italic

- I would like some scenes to be filmed in Paris.

- I would want more backstory and exposition given to Fantine. We never get to see what her life was like before she moved to Montreuil-sur-Mer! It would be really nice to see her hanging out with her friends and her lover Felix Tholomyes in Paris, and to see her bringing up Cosette. Even if all of this was knocked out in a 10-15 minute flashback it would still be pretty cool.

- I would give Javert the dark, sarcastic sense of humour that he has in the book and it would be mentioned that he's the self-loathing son of a gypsy thief and a prostitute.

- Marius is probably my favourite character in the book and I would make sure that he's cute, adorable, quiet and a dreamer. However, I'd also make sure that he's a bit cooler and more badass than he's usually shown whilst still staying well away from Marjolras territory!

- Montparnasse would be in this version and I'd put in heavy suggestions that there's something going on between him and Eponine. I'd have Eponine and Montparnasse going off together and then have Eponine coming back looking suggestively dishevelled. I would also try not to make Eponine look too attractive and she wouldn't get that many scenes with Marius. I'd also make sure that it's clear to the audience that Marius and Eponine belong to two different social classes. Eponine would act like she knows her way around the streets. She would be gritty, edgy and mentally unstable but still sympathetic.

- Gavroche would be played by a kid aged from 12 to 14. In the musical I think the age range that they ask for for the character is usually 8-11 which I reckon is too young. Gavroche would be the son of the Thenardiers & Eponine and Azelma's brother in my miniseries too.

- Madame Thenardier would die in prison like she does in the book. Thenardier and Azelma would then leave France and go off on a ship to America.

- The characters would look like they're supposed to. Fantine and Enjolras would be blonde, Cosette would be a brunette, and Eponine would be a redhead. In the musical I'm not so fussed about the actors looking like the characters from the book but in a non-musical adaptation I would absolutely insist upon it.

- I would make sure that the different personalities of the students would come across. Enjolras is the only son of wealthy parents and is absolutely gorgeous. He's the leader of the students and is so passionate about justice and saving humanity in the abstract, but he can be rather cold and derisive towards the people that he actually knows and cares about. This makes for an interesting and quite tragic combination. Combeferre is Enjolras' right-hand man. He's the philosopher of the group and the one that Enjolras is closest to. He's widely read, a theatre-goer, attends public lectures, and is very interested in science and technology. Jean Prouvaire (or Jehan) writes poetry, plays the flute, speaks five languages, is widely read, loves flowers and gardens, and is quite shy and soft-hearted. Saying that he does have a steely will when necessary and is very brave. Feuilly is the only member of the ABC Society who isn't actually a student. He's a working-class orphan, he taught himself how to read and write, and he makes fans. He's obsessed with Greece, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Italy. He's passionate and brave. Courfeyrac comes from an aristocratic, royalist family. He's lively, warm-hearted and generous. He's a great friend and is the ladies' man of the group. He's a lot like Felix Tholomyes only he's a decent young man and not an arsehole. He's the one who is closest to Marius. Bahorel is the oldest of the group, a spendthrift, his family are farmers, he hates lawyers, loves cafes, and acts as a link between the ABC Society and other groups. Laigle (or Bossuet) is bald, cheerful, resourceful, notoriously unlucky, and is best friends with Joly. Joly is a medical student and a hypochondriac. He's the most eccentric and cheerful of the group and is a great friend. The students named him after the English word "jolly". Grantaire is a skilled boxer, gymnast and dancer. He's a heavy drinker, is quite ugly, knows all the best places to go out in Paris, is extremely cynical about everything, and practically idol-worships Enjolras. This irritates Enjolras no end. The students are all really cool, unique characters. I completely understand why the musical didn't have the time to develop them all in more depth but I'd really want an adaptation to do this at some point.

- I would end the miniseries properly with Valjean dying! I would not have it end like the 1998 film did. Valjean would not run away from dead Javert with a smile on his face like he hasn't got a care in the world! The final shot of my version would be of Marius and Cosette standing at Valjean's grave.

- I'd like the actors to have British accents. Yes, I know the characters are French but because of the musical I've always imagined them with British accents. I can't really think of many specific actors that I'd like for the parts. You'd think it would be easier to cast a non-musical adaptation of Les Mis since I'm not limited to actors who can sing but it's actu
ally harder! However, the actors that I would like are...

Romola Garai as Fantine. She's an excellent actress, she's been in loads of period dramas, and she's blonde.

Gemma Arterton as Cosette. She's a brunette and was excellent in Tess of the D'Ubervilles. She might be a bit too old to play Cosette now but she has a very young and innocent aura about her, and I reckon she'd be very good and would make Cosette sympathetic and likeable. If I could cast anyone as Cosette I think I'd like to jump in the TARDIS and get a young Audrey Hepburn to play her. But since I can't I'd go with Arterton!

Andrew Garfield as Marius. I wanted Ben Barnes to play Marius in the musical movie adaptation of Les Mis until I heard Eddie Redmayne sing and realised just how good a singer he actually was. I do like Barnes as an actor but I'd want Andrew Garfield to play Marius in a non-musical adaptation. He does look the part. He's dark-haired, and even though he's close to 30 he really doesn't look it. I think he's a great actor too. Barnes could play Montparnasse.

John Hurt as Monsieur Gillenormand. I'd like Hurt to play Marius's grandfather.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Northanger Abbey (2007)

As Northanger Abbey is one of Jane Austen's lesser-known novels it's perhaps not all that surprising that it's also been one of the least adapted. The only other adaptation that I'm aware of for this book is one that was made by the BBC back in the 1980s. Now the BBC are usually fairly reliable when it comes to literary adaptations, but reviews for their version of Northanger Abbey all say that it's absolutely awful and that it completely misses the point and humour of the book. They turn Austen's story into exactly the sort of gothic romance that Austen was parodying! I haven't actually seen the BBC adaptation all the way through but the bits and pieces that I have seen all seem to confirm that the reviews are accurate. The actors all seem miscast and the tone is far too serious. The BBC version also features music and wigs that could have only come from the 1980s! On the other hand, this more recent version is a really well-done adaptation of Austen's book and I would definitely recommend it. It was made by ITV as part of their Jane Austen season in 2007 (they also filmed Mansfield Park and Persuasion that year). Northanger Abbey is by far the best of the three and this is mainly down to the acting.

Felicity Jones does an excellent job at playing Catherine Morland. She portrays the naivety, sweetness and wide-eyed innocence of the character perfectly and is completely believable. She's equally matched by JJ Feild. I've said it before but Henry Tilney is my favourite Austen hero. He's witty, sarcastic, charming, quirky, wise, adorable and he loves novels! Obviously I love Darcy and Knightley and Captain Wentworth as well of course but Henry strikes me as being the Austen hero with the best sense of humour and he gets awesome lines. He actually makes me laugh out loud. So I'm pleased to say that Feild did an excellent job and was everything that I could have hoped for. I don't think I can give a higher compliment than that. Oh, I forgot, he has a very sexy smirk. I can't criticise the leading actors in this version at all and they have great chemistry together. Carey Mulligan also deserves special mention. She plays Isabella Thorpe and is also excellent. She's a shallow, money-grabbing, scheming, detestable bitch... in a good way!

This version is also well-shot and the costumes are very nice. I wasn't all that keen on the very low-cut dresses that they gave to Carey Mulligan though.

I think they were trying to establish that Isabella isn't as innocent as Catherine but Carey Mulligan does such a good job at playing Isabella that they really didn't need to do that. There isn't really all that much I can criticise about this version though really. Well, apart from a few things. This version is 90 minutes long. Although I do think that a Northanger Abbey adaptation is more suited to a 90 minute running time than Austen's other novels, this version still feels a bit rushed in places and could still have done with being a bit longer. And I'm not sure how I feel about them making Northanger Abbey itself the exact embodiment of Catherine's fantasies. In the book Catherine is expecting the Tilney's home to be this eerie, dark and ancient gothic building... but when she actually sees Northanger Abbey she discovers that it's a modern and perfectly pleasant and comfortable family home. She feels let down. But in this version Northanger Abbey is everything that Catherine was expecting it to be. Hmm...

The script for this version was written by Andrew Davies who specialises in adapting classic novels. He also wrote the screenplay for the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Davies also has a reputation for sexing books up and he does so in this. He does go overboard when it comes to Catherine's fantasies and dreams. They're a lot more sexual than Austen would have had in mind. In one of Catherine's fantasies she's lying in a bath when Henry Tilney walks by and holds out his hand for her to join him. Then, in another one of Catherine's fantasies, Henry has a swordfight with John Thorpe while Catherine leans against a tree and pulls orgasmic facial expressions : S These fantasies make Catherine seem a bit mental but it's not Felicity Jones's fault and she still does a great job. I didn't like the fact that Davies left out this brilliant exchange between Catherine and Henry either:

Catherine: "I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible."
Henry: "Bravo!-an excellent satire on modern language."

Come on Davies! Those are two of the funniest lines in the whole book! I did approve of the expanded role that Davies gave to Eleanor in this version though and I do actually think that his script for Northanger Abbey is very good on the whole. The only real issue that I have with this version is Catherine's over-sexualised fantasies. I still really enjoyed this adaptation though despite its faults. It's really good fun and a little gem. And how cute is this scene?!

Rating: 4/5