Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Feminist's Guide to Watching "The Lord of the Rings"

For years, I resisted watching The Lord of the Rings because I could barely drag myself through the books, though I victoriously made it to the final page, nearly crying with happiness that it was over. My quibbles with the books actually have nothing to do with feminism (though a few more female characters would have been a vast improvement); rather, I completely lost patience with Tolkien's apparently desperate need to describe everything, from innocuous fields and mountains to clothes and sword hilts and seemingly endless meals. I really do think (fully aware that for many Tolkien fans this is rank blasphemy) that the books could be vastly improved by simply excising unnecessary descriptive passages. This would very likely result in one gloriously succinct volume, which the less obsessive of us could enjoy without sacrificing months of our reading lives. As a result of what was truly a miserable reading experience, I flatly refused to watch the movies.

Over the past few years, I've been making a concerted effort to be more open-minded about movies, in part because I've discovered great movies this way. This month, I finally watched The Lord of the Rings, all three films, and now I'm hooked. So much so that I might conceivably reread the books. But as head-over-heels as I am about these films, as a feminist, I must say they're a bit... lacking. For one thing, the films basically have three female characters. I know there are all those dancing hobbit ladies in the Shire, a handful of elven women, and the poor cowering peasant women needing protection and so on, but in the end, there are three: Arwen (Liv Tyler), Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and Eowyn (Miranda Otto). These women do not at any point in the films talk to each other, nor do they appear to have any relationships with other female characters. The Lord of the Rings notoriously fails the Bechdel test, and more importantly in a film that emphasizes above all else the profound bonds of friendship, fails to portray any kind of emotional bond between women. Women are also depicted without moral complexity - good, but without having to try. It's particularly interesting to note that the orcs are solely male, thus denying the possibility of an inherent evil in a female being. 

Galadriel, the elven queen who advises Frodo (Elijah Wood) in his quest to destroy the ring, is the least defined of the three characters. Though she appears in all three films and is the narrator of the initial prologue, her scenes are few and short. It is clear that she is enormously powerful and wise, the peer of Gandalf (Ian McKellan), like him able to read portents and work magic. She is able to withstand the temptation of the ring when Frodo offers it to her freely, but her ordeal of combating that temptation is the sole glimpse we get of a female character engaged in a moral struggle.

Arwen, an elven woman in love with the mortal Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), should be, at first glance, the character that feminists will loathe. She chooses to give up her family, her people, and her immortality for the sake of her love for Aragorn and the acme of her dreams is to have Aragorn's son. She nearly dies when she is separated from the man she loves and the only other strong emotional bond she has is with her father Elrond (Hugo Weaving). This portrait of feminine subjugation is somewhat tempered, however, by the fact that Arwen makes a choice. Both Aragorn and Elrond attempt to convince her to leave Middle-earth with the rest of the elves and accept her place among them, retaining her immortality. She defies both of them, making a purposeful choice and refusing the paternalistic protection of both, even prepared to make the same choice in the event that Aragorn refuses to accept her sacrifice. Her deliberate election may be made for the sake of her love for a man, but in so making it, she determines her own destiny, rather than allowing the men in her life to determine it for her.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen saves Frodo's life, protecting him from the Nazgul and delivering him to a healer. In so doing, she proves herself an able horsewoman, a person of no little courage, and a capable sorceress, summoning a river to her aid. These scenes of daring rescue also mitigate the more patriarchal aspects of Arwen's character, though unfortunately these traits, particularly the horsemanship and magic, seem tied directly to her status as an elf, rather than her individual talents, and pale when compared with the feats of Legolas (Orlando Bloom).

Eowyn, of all the characters, is the closest to a feminist heroine that The Lord of the Rings offers. Her status as a swordswoman is the most obvious trait that differentiates her, but it must be said that physical prowess and fighting ability do not a feminist make. Aragorn consistently belittles her, insisting she stay out of the fighting she longs to join and treating her as a mere apprentice in swordsmanship, though she is more than capable, while her uncle and brother speak frequently about safeguarding her and chide her when she protests. All the men around her treat her like a child and when she does ride into battle in The Return of the King she keeps Merry (Dominic Monaghan) always at her side. In The Two Towers, she is subjected to the vile attentions of the traitor Grima and her defiance and disgust are only faintly expressed. It's clear that she is vulnerable at court as a woman, but it's really rather disappointing that a woman prepared to ride into battle proves unequal to firmly rejecting a lecher.

The one moment in the films that should prick the feminist ear is in The Return of the King. King Theoden (Bernard Hill) lies mortally wounded and the Witch King of Angmar, leader of the Nazgul, prepares to finish him off. Eowyn, seeing her beloved uncle in mortal peril, steps between them and fights the Witch King. He nearly kills her, laughing at her defiance because he can be killed by no man. At this point, Eowyn reveals herself to be a woman and she stabs the Witch King, destroying him and proving the prophecy true - no man has killed him. This victory is, however, very much mitigated by the fact that Eowyn does not act alone. The Witch King is weakened first by Merry, a hobbit (thus the prophecy holds true), who stabs him with an enchanted blade and gives Eowyn an opening.

The prophecy about the Witch King is dependent on a fundamental weakness of patriarchal ideas. The Witch King assumes himself invulnerable because it is inconceivable to him that any creature but a man could be a mighty enough warrior to challenge him. Hobbits are described as retiring, adventure-shy, and too small and weak to be fighters; the same view is held of women. In the end however, the hobbits earn the adulation and gratitude of an entire world, having proved themselves creatures of courage through their adventures. Eowyn is destined to be the bride of Faramir (David Wenham). Oh, yay.

While I was watching The Two Towers, I turned to my sister and pointed out that the Rohirrim could double their armed forces if they armed the women as well as the men. And then maybe they could not arm all those little kids that definitely did not survive the battle of Helm's Deep.The decidedly patriarchal attitudes of the Middle-earth world thus make the road to victory quite a bit harder. Luckily, Sauron seems intent on a world run by orcs and thus free of women, so he doesn't realize the potential of doubling armies by training both genders, but unluckily, the men of Rohan and Gondor are equally clueless and thus take greater risks than needed by fighting with vastly out-numbered forces. They are constantly frustrated by the small size of their armies, in every single battle fought; I say, arm the women.

The most unfortunate aspect of the treatment of female characters in The Lord of the Rings is that there are no female characters that are not, by the end, romantically attached. Galadriel is married and shares the rule of her realm with her husband. Arwen, as expected, becomes Aragorn's queen. And Eowyn, having first pined for Aragorn, falls in love with Faramir. Male characters are not treated in the same way. Frodo, Gandalf, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, Bilbo - none of them are romantically attached. The women's destinies are wrapped up in the men; the men's destinies are their own.

As a feminist, I'm quite used to seeing films that fail to reflect my own values as far as gender is concerned, but I find the exercise of a feminist analysis both instructive and, in a way, cathartic. I love The Lord of the Rings films; The Lord of the Rings films reflect values in opposition to my own. Through this process of analysis, it is possible to complicate the patriarchal values of these films, without losing an appreciation for them and without compromising my own politics.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

4 Fantasy Films that Surprisingly Pass the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel test - two women must talk to each other about something other than a man - illuminates several important gender issues in films. It's a vivid illustration of how few female characters there are compared to male, and also how often those female characters exist primarily in relationship with men and therefore never interact with each other. The fantasy film genre has been particularly prone to traditional patriarchal narratives that keep female characters marginalized and sexualized, and even when fantasy films aren't outright misogynistic, they rarely pass the Bechdel test. Given that half the world is female and we do, indeed, talk frequently about subjects other than men, it's really rather disturbing to realize that these films fail the Bechdel test completely: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the original Stars War trilogy, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings, to name only the most prominent. It's been said before, but it's well worth repeating: the Bechdel test determines nothing about the feminist politics of a film. Passing the Bechdel test doesn't mean that a film is feminist. It just means that the absolute minimum effort was made to have female characters that do not function purely in relation to men. What's worth noting here is that the key is, in every case, that there are multiple female characters - a stunning number of movies fail right off the bat. In the case of the following films, there are some interesting commonalities. All four of these films have female villains. And all four feature female characters that are related, either sisters or mothers and daughters.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Disney's Sleeping Beauty has been a favorite target of online feminist criticism since the inception of the internet, and although it is in no way a feminist film, it does pass the Bechdel test, unlike Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. Sleeping Beauty has an unusually high number of female characters, outnumbering the male characters six to three. The film passes the test several times over: the three good fairies have multiple conversations about their difficulties defeating Maleficent, protecting Aurora, and living like mortals, while they also talk with Aurora about chores and her duty as a princess. Ultimately, the three good fairies are the real protagonists of the story and they determine the outcome - Philip would have been utterly incapable of even escaping the Forbidden Mountain, let alone defeating Maleficent, without their help. It's easy to miss the significance of female power, both for good and for evil, in this film by focusing too much on Aurora, but Sleeping Beauty doesn't just pass the Bechdel test - it presents a range of female characters situated within the (admittedly simplistic) dualistic morality of the film.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1988)
C. S. Lewis was certainly not progressive in his gender politics ("battles are ugly when women fight" - so, when men do, they're pretty?), but this adaptation of the most famous of the Chronicles of Narnia does, only just, pass the Bechdel test: sisters Susan and Lucy argue together about whether Lucy is lying about having been in Narnia. Though the film has a number of prominent female characters, including the White Witch and Mrs. Beaver, the only female characters who ever get to interact without the presence of male characters are Susan and Lucy and most of their conversations are focused on their brothers or Aslan. Though the film, like the book, is shaped by some antiquated ideas about gender (and some that I wish were antiquated), the conversation that allows the film to pass is significant because it doesn't center on a stereotypically feminine subject; rather, it's a conversation about moral integrity and skepticism.

Willow (1988)
Willow passes the Bechdel test easily. At the very beginning of the film, a midwife and the woman who has just given birth to a prophesied child talk about how to save her from the evil queen. In the second instance, Queen Bavmorda instructs her daughter to intensify the search for the baby. In the third instance, the queen and the enchantress Fin Raziel battle for control of a magic wand in the final struggle to save the baby. All of these conversations, like many of those that take place between men in the film, center around this prophesied baby, a girl. Willow may not break certain rules (the beautiful female lead is going to choose the right side and the right man before the movie's over), but it has a lot of female characters, most of them magically powerful. Some of them, like Bavmorda, Finn Raziel, and Cherlindrea, are solely interested in the larger fate of their world and the power they hold within it.

Stardust (2007)
This film has a ton of female characters, but it would come close to failing the Bechdel test if not for the interactions of the female villains, all witches, and all engrossed in discussing the fallen star that could restore their youth and power. In fact, nearly every conversation that takes place between the primary witch foes (and it's worth noting that they're sisters) has no mention of a man, with one exception; they do talk about Prince Septimus, after it becomes clear that he is also seeking the fallen star. There is also a lengthy conversation in which the witch Lamia tricks the star Yvaine into believing herself safe and secure; Yvaine is rescued by the hero before Lamia has a chance to kill her. Once again, the film fails to abandon many of the patriarchal tropes common to the fantasy genre - the heroine is repeatedly rescued by the hero, there's no question of male succession to the throne, all of the good female characters are beautiful - but it has a refreshingly substantial cast of female characters.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Roald Dahl Adaptations, from Worst to Best

Pity the child who missed the scrumdiddlyumptious fiction of the brilliant, subversive, and deliciously wicked Roald Dahl. Unsurprisingly, his enormously popular and influential novels have long been inspiring filmmakers. That being said, one of the major challenges of making any cinematic adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel is their grotesque, horrifying, and at times raunchy content. How does one make a kids' movie with content like crocodiles that eat and mangle children (The Enormous Crocodile), giants who snatch human beans, crunch and munch them (The BFG), or even the literal starvation faced by Charlie Bucket's family (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)? The difference between reading comic descriptions of the horrific circumstances and seeing them portrayed onscreen is a crucial one. Nevertheless, filmmakers have made numerous essays into the fantastic worlds of Dahl's fiction, though some far more successfully than others. It was recently announced that Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance will be collaborating on an adaptation of The BFG; it will be very interesting to see where it rates on this list, from the very worst to the very best.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
One of Tim Burton's most abysmal outings and perhaps his least subtle exploration of his persistent daddy issues, which plague so many of his films, this film has a brashly pigmented candy coating, but its insides are less than appetizing. Johnny Depp, in a typically idiosyncratic but superficial performance, plays Willy Wonka as a sort of PTSD-afflicted, sadistic chocolate overlord, joining the other regulars of the Burton club, Helena Bonham Carter (woefully miscast as Mrs. Bucket) and Danny Elfman. Burton's attempts at whimsy are so heavy-handed that they could be better described as flat non-sequitors, even in the rare cases when they hollowly hit the mark. Essentially a rehashing of Burton's favorite themes and ideas, this film works neither as an adaptation nor as an original interpretation.

James and the Giant Peach (1996)
A mixture of stagey live action and beautifully executed stop motion animation, this rather febrile adaptation is directed by Henry Selick and produced by Tim Burton. It has none of the teeth of their earlier collaboration, The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it's likable and inoffensive. What crushes this otherwise charming film is the music. Randy Newman's songs are not merely nauseatingly saccharine and childishly simple - they are almost constant. It isn't possible to simply skip the songs because they form the backbone of the storytelling. The film boasts an impressive cast, including Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and David Thewlis as Earthworm, but it's depressingly safe for an adaptation of a book by such an unabashedly subversive writer.

Matilda (1996)
Though this film remains true to the events of the book, it somehow misses the mark. That being said, it's reliably entertaining, more for children than adults. By far the highlight of the film is the performances of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman as the prodigy's loathsome, self-involved parents; both of them triumph in roles that need to be brutally funny and genuinely frightening at the same time.Their presence onscreen automatically livens a story that, without the sharp wit of Dahl's prose, at times verges on the downright sentimental, particularly in the interactions between Matilda (an endearing Mara Wilson) and Miss Honey (Embeth Davidtz). At the same time, how marvelous that a book about the joy and empowerment of reading has been translated into a movie that celebrates those same things.

The Witches (1990)
The Witches was (and, I imagine, is) the cause of much childhood trauma, the result of the terrifying transformation of the Grand High Witch (a perfectly cast Anjelica Huston) into Jim Henson's monstrous hag puppet. The puppetry is splendid and deserving of the many nightmares it inspired, but, it's also a strong example of why Dahl's chilling children's stories can become strikingly adult when translated visually. The film is a terrific adaptation, up until the final scene, which changes Dahl's rather melancholy ending into a typically sprightly Hollywood ending; this rather spoils Dahl's point and defangs the terror that sustains the story. Had usually daring director Nicolas Roeg dared to keep the far more subversive, far more meaningful ending, The Witches would top this list.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2010)
I was deeply skeptical of this film before seeing it, and, undoubtedly, it is far from a faithful adaptation of the novel, one of my personal favorites. Wes Anderson's interpretation of the story of a crafty fox determined to steal tasty morsels from the vicious farmers nearby adds significantly to the plot, ultimately veering away into completely new territory, and he adds and embellishes characters, though making them complex enough that this works. While Dahl's book is an anarchic, morally complex fable, Anderson's film gently skewers (without dismissing) modern consumerist culture, drawing parallels between the film's animal population, facing starvation and oppression, and the human population, portrayed as either downright evil or uncomprehending, and modern paradigms of oppression. The stop motion animation is stunning. Though Anderson hasn't necessarily made a great adaptation, he has made a great film.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Although Dahl himself slammed the film and tried to dissociate himself from it, it's difficult to understand why. The screenplay, by Dahl and David Seltzer, is brilliantly witty and very much a cinematic retelling, using television news segments and satiric scenes of adult idiocy and greed as segues.  Gene Wilder outdoes himself as the eccentric candy maker and inventor, Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe is the quintessential good grownup, Peter Ostrum convinces as a genuinely selfless kid without once descending into sentimentality - there isn't a single weak link in the cast. The songs, by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, are classics, from "The Candy Man Can" to "Pure Imagination" (though "Cheer Up, Charlie" is definitely an interlude worthy of a cat nap). Both a fabulous adaptation of one of the greatest children's books of all time and a brilliant film in its own right, it's hard to believe that any Dahl adaptation will ever surpass Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Literary Schools Where I Wish I Could Study

From the time I was a small child, books have provided me with my expectations, sometimes quite fantastic, of what a great school should be, and throughout my childhood, I dreamed of attending the great schools of literature. Of course, some of these blissful bastions of literary learning lose their luster when compared with brutal reality. James Hilton's worshipful story of a beloved boys' public school professor, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, has been tarnished, at least for me, by the horrifying revelations of the miseries endured by students at such schools by writers, and veterans of British public schools, George Orwell and C. S. Lewis. And though Charlotte Bronte's protagonist in The Professor holds himself up as a model of educational reform and erudition, I'm not sure I'd care for such a stern and unforgiving taskmaster. There are the schools of nightmares too: the terrifying Miss Trunchbull's penitentiary-like school where children get hurled into neighboring fields by their offending pigtails, in Roald Dahl's Matilda, for example. And while Miss Minchin's tony London boarding school in Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess is quite pleasant if one has the wealth to pay for it, it quickly devolves into a sooty prison for Sara Crewe when her father dies leaving her penniless.

Spring Valley University, described in John O'Hara's Elizabeth Appleton, sounds like a fairly decent place to get a university degree, that is, if you are male, white, Protestant, and determined to chase the coeds (also called "suffragettes" and considered "undateable") off campus. Though hardly the stuff of nightmares at first glance, such a university experience is hardly what those of us who don't fit such narrow categories would call a positive educational experience. (For cinema and Broadway fans, Spring Valley is quite reminiscent in terms of its white-bread football culture and class snootiness of Tait College from Good News, though without its toe-tapping solutions to class struggle.) Like so many binge consumers of British literature and like Jude in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, I coveted a place at one of the great British universities, with their gorgeous Gothic chapels, centuries-old libraries, and chummy "rooms." Of course, the fantasy of such an education is again dependent on imagining oneself into the male, Protestant, and upper crusty shoes of your average Oxford don, at least until the surprisingly recent past - Cambridge went coed in 1948 and Oxford didn't begin to admit women on the same terms as men until the late 1970s.

But the dream of a really great college education is also a common trope in girls' literature, the signal of an emerging feminist consciousness. Jo March in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women desperately wants to join her best friend Laurie at Harvard (which, like Oxford, didn't admit women as full students until the late 1970s), but her quest for education culminates in the foundation of her own school, in Little Men. Though primarily a boys' school, Plumfield Estate School goes coed quite early, and one of its coeds, Nan, devotes herself to medical studies, eventually, in Jo's Boys, becoming a doctor. Plumfield is nothing like a traditional school - one of its primary aims is to foster independence and responsibility and thus the students are encouraged to start businesses, learn practical skills, keep pets and gardens, and found a natural history museum. In Charlotte Bronte's Villette, Lucy Snowe becomes a teacher at an exclusive girls' boarding school in a fictionalized Brussels and eventually becomes the headmistress of her own school. Much like Miss Minchin's exclusive school, this boarding school offers the best experiences to its richest students, but the curriculum, which includes languages, history, and less serious subjects, like theater, dance, and handicrafts, is varied and quite appealing.

Only a few decades later, authors were sending their female protagonists to college. In Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs, Judy narrates her years at college, offering a glimpse into the privileged world of a women's college in the early twentieth century. Aside from the downright luxurious dormitories, the college offers opportunities to make fast friendships (even, in this case, across classes), access to a wealth of reading material, and, most importantly, the kind of empowerment that allows Judy to become professionally ambitious. Similarly, L. M. Montgomery sent her beloved heroine Anne Shirley to college in Anne of the Island. In this book, the exceedingly ambitious Anne finally gets her chance to study literature in depth. She also sets up house in a romantic cottage with a girl friend (a fantasy indeed for anyone who has had a bad roommate experience) and reconciles her girlhood hopes with adult resolves.

Perhaps no literary schools are nearly as enticing as those where magic is taught, the preeminent example of course being Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Who wouldn't want to learn how to perform magic spells, from making objects fly and turning animals into water goblets to flying broomsticks? And for a private tutor, who better than Merlin, Albus Dumbledore's venerable forebear, in T. H. White's brilliant The Sword in the Stone? In White's quirky and very erudite rendition, Merlin is a rather crabby old codger, but a possessed of a brilliant mind, if little patience. His method of teaching the lessons of statesmanship is to turn the boy Arthur into a series of animals, exploring the universe from the point of view of a falcon, a fish, and a badger, among others. However, barring quite unexpected developments, I don't expect such educational experiences to become typical for any students; I do wish that more students had wider access to literature, literature that just might give them greater expectations of what education can offer them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

5 Essential French Novels by Women

When one looks at lists of the great French novelists, certain names appear time and time again: Proust, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Hugo, Stendhal, Maupassant. They are all great writers. They are also all men. While some of the following writers are frequently represented on such lists, they are almost never among the first mentioned. They are acknowledged as significant within the French canon and all have had at least one work translated into English, but it behooves us, as readers, to seek out women writers, as they continue to be deprived of the most prestigious places in the canon.

The Mandarins (1954) - Simone de Beauvoir
Though widely considered an "autobiographical" novel, such an epithet rather minimizes the extraordinary richness of this novel of ideas, among them the notion that the novel, no matter how truthful in its details, is of its very nature a lie. Set in the aftermath of the American liberation of Paris, The Mandarins follows a set of French intellectuals struggling to channel their ties to the resistance into post-war political activity and grappling with survivors' guilt in the wake of so many of their compatriots' deaths. It is a nuanced distillation of feminism and existentialism through a fictional lens, essential for any students of those concepts.

Cheri (1920) - Colette
Though Gigi is by far Colette's best-known work in the English-speaking world, its brightness and hopefulness are decidedly anomalous in the author's oeuvre; Cheri, with its slight seediness and eventually disillusioning vision of dissipation, is much more representative of Colette's literary perspective. The novel recounts the affair between Cheri, a self-indulgent profligate, and Lea, a courtesan, who begin their amour when he is only nineteen and she is already forty three. The novel frankly addresses sex and love in the lives of women judged to be past their prime, and, though aesthetically it's quite delicious, it is a bitter and disenchanted story.

Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747) - Francoise de Graffigny
This novel broke ground both for its feminist politics and its compassionate portrayal of a woman of color. Zilia, a kidnapped Peruvian princess, is brought to Europe as a curiosity. In her diary, she records, with intelligence, wit, and acuity, the bizarre class, race, and gender politics of colonialist France; remarkably, Zilia develops into an independent woman who pursues both an intellectual career and rejects the slavery-like conditions of marriage. This novel remains unique in the European canon, a fearless, tenacious answer to repressive cultural hierarchies.

Suite Francaise (2008, written 1942) - Irene Nemirovsky
This unfinished masterwork, written during the early years of World War II, remained incomplete because Nemirovsky, though Catholic, was of Jewish descent, and was sent to Auschwitz where she died of typhus. Suite Francaise has a sickening immediacy, written as it was in the very midst of the German occupation of Paris and the profound uncertainty under which the French were living, and it survives as an undeniable record of the French experience of World War II. Part one recounts the distraught Parisians' flight as the Germans marched in, while part two describes the bizarre re-assumption of daily life under occupation. Tragically, part three, meant to portray the formation of the resistance, was never written.

Indiana (1831) - George Sand
In the English-speaking world today, Sand is better known for her sexually adventurous life (depicted in multiple films, including Impromptu and Children of the Century) than for her sublime feminist novels, of which she wrote more than forty, many of which have yet to receive a translation. Indiana is both a grandly romantic story of illicit love and adultery and a damning critique of the Napoleonic Code, under which married women could not own property, claim responsibility for their children, or sue for divorce. Married at an appallingly young age to the elder Colonel Delmare, the sheltered Indiana is easily swept off her feet by the womanizing Raymon de Ramiere, who has already seduced her maid and foster sister Noun, a mixed race woman whose sympathetic portrayal was controversial upon the novel's release.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Is Frances Burney a Feminist Writer?

Frances Burney (1752-1840), like Jane Austen, published her novels anonymously because a woman novelist was considered somewhat disreputable socially and such activities could have compromised her public standing. Such concessions to modesty were, above all, a means of self-preservation in a time in which any woman who wrote for publication risked her moral status. For as the guardian of Burney's heroine Evelina quite rightly says, "nothing is so delicate as the reputation of a woman: it is, at once, the most beautiful and the most brittle of all human things." Thus, any women writers, until well into the nineteenth century, were transgressive figures, and could be considered proto-feminists by virtue of having committed the simple act of lifting a pen. That being said, this transgressive behavior didn't necessarily translate to transgressive content within the novels produced. She was certainly the most significant female English novelist of her time, but can we consider her novels feminist?

In Evelina, her first novel, published in 1778, Burney acknowledged her debts to such popular authors of the day as Richardson, whose sentimental tomes Pamela and Clarissa inspired both mawkish tears and blistering satire, and Fielding, whose jaunty comic style is very much in tune with Burney's slightly more elegant sarcasm. By explicitly aligning herself with the half dozen or so most popular male novelists of the time, Burney made a bid to break into their ranks, an act the full implication of which remained obscure until the revelation that the author was an authoress.

The epistolary novel follows sheltered beauty Evelina as she journeys to London for the first time, enjoys its many diversions, encounters many breeds of the male variety, from the coarsest to the most genteel, and discovers the true history of her parentage. Evelina is a young innocent, ignorant of the finer niceties of London style and manners, but with a natural sensibility that allows her to distinguish higher culture and class from lower. Like Richardson's heroines, Evelina is beset by the dangers posed to her by the many potential seducers she meets in the popular social haunts of London. Her guardian, Mr. Villars, exhorts her to "learn not only to judge but to act for yourself: if any schemes are started, any engagements made, which your understanding represents to you as improper, exert yourself resolutely to avoid them, and do not, by a too passive facility, risk the censure of the world, or your own future regret." Mr. Villars neatly sums up the inherent contradiction in his exhortation on proper behavior for a woman, though he himself fails to see the contradiction. Though a woman's virtues - modesty, sweetness of temperament, malleability, docility, and so on - of the time demanded passivity, the protection of her "virtue," i.e. her virginity, required, more often than not in the relative freedom (for men) of 1774 London, an active resistance.

This conflict, between female virtuousness and the preservation of one's virginity in the face of constant harassment and assaults, was a major theme of novels of the time, most notably in Richardson's wildly successful novels. Burney's treatment of the subject, surprisingly given her generally bright style, considers this danger with the gravity it deserves, recognizing the genuine threats faced by her heroine. (It's worth remarking, however, that preying upon women of a lower class or those that are simply more vulgar than Evelina is not treated with quite the same seriousness.)

Though Evelina makes numerous social gaffes, she does understand intuitively that indebtedness leaves her vulnerable and thus insists on paying her own coach fare, rather than allow her vulgar and undesirable relations to pay, thereby accruing a more potent power of persuasion than mere familial duty. In general her instincts, the product of her much-remarked-upon natural sensibility, lead her to moral high ground; the majority of her faux pas are the result of lack of familiarity with strict social rules. For instance, she accepts a dance partner after refusing another at her first assembly, an easily made mistake that is interpreted as discourtesy due to an assumption that assembly rules (surprisingly stringent) were known to all attendees. Such minor mistakes cause Evelina profound mortification, especially since they often result in unwanted social obligations; in the case of the assembly debacle, Evelina bears the sarcastic insults of a particularly loathsome male specimen.

Class, beyond any other subject, is the driving force of both the plot and the satire of Evelina, but it is not dealt with in a way likely to appeal to modern readers, feminist or otherwise. Although aristocratic men, with all their genteel manners, are as potentially dangerous as lower class suitors, an implicit belief in breeding and social hierarchies pervades the novel. Burney, far from chafing under the constraints of her class, rather criticizes the mixing of classes. At assemblies and at Vauxhall (a popular social destination with gravel walks, gardens, and booths where one could order refreshments) where classes mingled fairly freely, Evelina is always bound for disaster, almost invariably as a result of an un-wished-for association with people of a lower class. Repeatedly, the bad manners of her sexually avaricious grandmother, Madame Duval, and her greedy, indelicate cousins are the root of Evelina's troubles, while Evelina's delicacy, forbearance, and sense of duty compel her to keep promises made by others and expose herself to ridicule. Burney's critique of class does nothing to overturn the then common understanding that those of the higher classes, being "well-bred," were born with an innate sense of propriety, while those of the lower classes were vulgar by nature.

More disappointing than Burney's treatment of class is her treatment of the character of Mrs. Selwyn, described thus by Evelina: "She is extremely clever; her understanding, indeed, may be called masculine; but, unfortunately, her manners deserve the same epithet; for, in studying to acquire the knowledge of the other sex, she has lost all the softness of her own." In the entire novel, no other phrase argues more forcefully against the feminism of the text. Evelina associates masculinity with grossness and therefore any woman who seeks to acquire masculine qualities is in her eyes gross. Disturbingly, knowledge and education are the masculine qualities in this instance and there is nothing so damaging to female emancipation as a rejection of knowledge and education.

Though Burney certainly did not produce a feminist heroine in Evelina, the novel retains certain transgressive qualities that are bound to pique feminist interest. Burney's sympathetic portrayal of the harassment suffered by women at the hands of more powerful men is chillingly as relevant today as in 1774. In one instance, Evelina and her cousins are surrounded by a group of men in the dark walks at Marylebone (a pleasure garden similar to Vauxhall); the men link hands and toss them against each other, taking the opportunity to paw at their bodies. I know women to whom the precise same thing has happened. At the very least, Evelina guides the modern reader through the Georgian world through the eyes of a young woman, and particularly since female historians were few and far between until fairly recently, it is an invaluable record of female experience.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

8 Great Period Dramas About Marriage

Most period films focus on the romance before marriage, the intrigues of courtship, ending with a wedding. This is a legacy of the historical difficulty of obtaining annulment or divorce (Henry VIII would have executed fewer people if he could have just gotten divorced). Marriage, for many centuries, was a permanent legal bond and in the nineteenth century the idea of a faithful romantic love culminating in marriage became increasingly influential and continues to exert influence today. Since proximity and lack of obstacles render most romantic plots mundane, and in period films, marriage is permanent and thus either a happy or tragic culmination of events, the aftermath of the wedding is much more rarely the subject of period drama. These ten period films all examine marriage, though from a diverse range of class and cultural perspectives.

The Dead (1987)
John Huston's final film, a meticulous adaptation of the story by James Joyce, stars Anjelica Huston as Gretta, who with her husband Gabriel (Donal McCann) attends an Epiphany party in Dublin at the home of two elderly sisters (Cathleen Delaney and Helena Carroll). The slim plot follows the minute happenings at the party, which ends with a young tenor singing a traditional Irish song. This song leads to the revelation that Gretta lost a lover, forever transforming her marriage. A rare film that focuses on the significant happenings of the psyche and their devastating effect on an outwardly unchanged reality.

Everlasting Moments (2008)
This Swedish film, directed by Jan Troell and based on a true story, is about Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), the put-upon wife of a boorish and frequently intoxicated husband (Mikael Persbrandt), who in learning photography expresses her inner life. Everlasting Moments is far too complex a film to be clearly aligned with any particular ideology, though the subject matter easily suggests a feminist interpretation. The cinematography, fittingly for a film about the power of image-making, is absolutely stunning.

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
This kaleidoscopic drama directed by auteur Max Ophuls stars Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer, and Vittorio De Sica, as three bored, over-sexed blue bloods, whose lives unravel as a set of diamond earrings pass from hand to hand. This is one of the superlatively great films of cinematic history, a piercing examination of class and gender set among the French noblesse, a profound and beautifully filmed analysis of the entanglements of men and women in an inequitable world.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)
Ingmar Bergman's final film, partially based upon his own unhappy childhood living under the strict command of his Lutheran pastor father, follows Alexander (Bertil Guve) and Fanny (Pernilla Alwin), brother and sister, whose fragile world is shattered by their widowed mother's (Ewa Froling) second marriage to an ascetic and paternalistic Lutheran minister (Jan Malsmjo). The cinematography by Sven Nykvist, Bergman's long-time collaborator, was never more beautiful, capturing nuances of color and movement, in this haunting, nostalgic and yet deeply disturbing masterpiece.

The Good Earth (1937)
Based on Pearl S. Buck's classic novel, The Good Earth, which tells the story of a Chinese farmer, his long-suffering and virtuous wife, and their brutal struggles to survive famine and civil unrest, was a risky project in 1937. Though today many may feel uncomfortable with the cross-racial casting (the vast majority of the characters are played by white actors), this sympathetic and, for its time, culturally sensitive portrayal of Chinese culture is a moving, if complex, cinematic classic.

Madame Bovary (1991)
There have been numerous adaptations of Flaubert's novel, but Claude Chabrol's coldly bitter film to my mind best captures the stringent realism of the book. Isabelle Huppert stars as Emma Bovary, profoundly bored in her marriage to Charles (Jean-Francois Balmer) and convinced that adulterous love such as she has read about in novels is the only escape to the world she fancies as the realm of "real" experience. Each shot is beautifully composed, reminiscent of the paintings of Manet.

Marie Antoinette (1938)
Norma Shearer, in one of her best performances, stars as the ill-starred French queen opposite Robert Morley as the clock-obsessed King Louis XVI. This lavish costume drama is surprisingly historically accurate and subtly tracks the development of the relationship between the two monarchs, from its inauspicious wedding night disaster to their ultimate support and affection for each other in the midst of the revolution. The supporting cast includes John Barrymore, Tyrone Power, and Joseph Schildkraut.

The Piano (1993)
Holly Hunter stars as a mute woman married by proxy to a rough New Zealand settler (Sam Neill). Bringing with her her illegitimate daughter (Anna Paquin) and her piano, she rebels almost immediately when her new husband refuses to transport the instrument to the house, instead selling it to a fellow settler (Harvey Keitel), who has adopted Maori customs. Writer-director Jane Campion's masterpiece, The Piano is one of the greatest feminist films of all time. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

It's a testament to just how enormous a fortune J. K. Rowling has accrued for her publishers that they were willing to allow her to publish The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym. Naturally, as soon as the true authorship of the debut novel of the new Cormoran Strike detective series was made public, the book catapulted onto best-seller lists and made the pots of money that any book by the author of the Harry Potter series is bound to make. For Rowling, it was an opportunity to be reviewed on her own merits, as a writer of detective fiction, and without any reference to her phenomenal popular success, her status as a billionaire, or the various forms of pettiness that seem to attach themselves to her work, either in anger that the new book is not related to the Wizarding world or in ill temper that she attained a form of unprecedented literary success that will most likely never be repeated.

The Cuckoo's Calling received very positive reviews indeed. As Robert Galbraith, Rowling was able to shed the mammoth critical bulk left by Harry Potter, a critical legacy that sabotaged the reputation of The Casual Vacancy (not that it wasn't a best-seller - but it's been widely and unfairly derided and dismissed). Both a fascinating experiment in critical reputation and an incredible concession to Rowling, the decision to back the pseudonymic ruse gave the first Cormoran Strike novel a fair chance to be judged on its own merits.

In order to be clear about my own point of view, I will say that my sole reason for seeking out The Cuckoo's Calling was my love of Rowling's writing. I'm an unabashed fan of Harry Potter, but I've been delighted by her forays into other genres and genuinely admired and liked The Casual Vacancy. I would never have picked up The Cuckoo's Calling otherwise, though I'm very glad I did. I rarely read detective fiction, crime fiction, or any other mystery subgenre, and when I do, I'm drawn to older incarnations, the Victorians, like Wilkie Collins, G. K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, or twentieth century novelists, like Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Aside from a general preference for older literature, I'm simply not terribly interested in criminality, one of the ugliest facets of humanity's selfishness. On a deeper level, I do not feel that plot is particularly important as long as characters are compelling, and the mystery genre tends to favor plot over character. All that being said, my review of The Cuckoo's Calling is inevitably tinged by a lack of larger literary context. I would find it difficult to name any contemporary mystery writers. Thus, I forgo any attempt to fit the novel into the current mystery landscape.

The detective of the series, Cormoran Strike, seems poised for a good run, though he's unlikely to prove very enticing to Hollywood. Strike is described as a big burly man, not handsome, with "pubey" hair. He's also missing a leg, a result of a tour in Afghanistan where he was with the military police.  He's hired by distraught lawyer John Bristow to investigate whether his glamorous model sister's alleged suicide wasn't a murder, a case he takes half out of pity and half out of necessity (business has not been booming). Though we're granted partial access to his thoughts, Strike remains rather enigmatic, though one imagines his character will develop with the series. Strike's assistant, Robin, is perhaps a simpler and more clearly imaginable character, a snappy Girl Friday, but she also needs development.

One of the most surprising strengths of the novel is the way in which Strike's disability is portrayed. As a person with a limb difference myself, I tend to be hyper-sensitive to the way disabled characters are portrayed in literature and it's rare to find such a realistic, un-condescending and un-pitying depiction. Strike's attitude towards his missing leg is free of the sort of histrionics most people without disabilities seem to imagine is typical of those with disabilities; rather he's irritated that his prosthesis needs to be refitted and is causing him pain and frustrated by the pity parties and unnecessary cheerings-up being thrown at him ("I couldn't even see you limping when you arrived. Isn't it amazing what they can do these days? I expect you can run faster now than you could before!") - in other words, his disability is portrayed as a mundane reality that is something of a pain in the neck (leg? no?), but requires no gushing sympathy. This aspect of the novel endeared it to me greatly.

Each section of the novel opens with a rather overly portentous quote from a classical Latin source, usually Virgil, not a device I particularly liked, though it's unobtrusive. Like the later Harry Potter novels, the first chapter has omniscient narration and lays out a fundamental scene, the catalyst for future events, while the protagonist is not present. In this case, the stage is set outside of a posh London apartment building where the body of model Lula Landry lies on the pavement in the snow. The rest of the novel stays with Strike and, less frequently, with Robin, as they interview witnesses, collect evidence, and solve the case. The pacing is fairly slow, much slower than in The Casual Vacancy, but Rowling is an adept at both pithy dialogue and subtly planting clues (and red herrings). In the Harry Potter novels, hints at what is to come, information that will prove decidedly handy later, revelatory hidden details, abound; one thinks of the appearance of Slytherin's locket in the fifth book or even Sirius Black's motorbike, which appears in the first few pages of book one. This technique allows Rowling to unfold the mystery (which can most likely be deciphered by the meticulously attentive reader) without giving us full access to Strike's reasoning and yet still write an ending that packs a punch. Rowling is a master of complex structure, peeling back the layers of the narrative for the reader, fitting the various puzzle pieces of the plot neatly but not too much so.

The Cuckoo's Calling isn't just about a suicide-or-murder investigation; it also examines, with an acidically tinged satire, celebrity, race, money, class, and how they all intersect. The extreme selfishness and self-absorption that fame and wealth can, and very frequently do, cultivate are evident in many of Lula's associates: her pill-addled and possessive mother, her heroin-addicted actor boyfriend, her nosy gossip of a make-up artist, the proprietorial fashion designer who calls her his muse. To Rowling's credit, few of these characters are really caricatures (though a criminally selfish movie producer is on the verge) and morality is not determined by class.Though not a masterwork, The Cuckoo's Calling is a highly entertaining, labyrinthine puzzle of a mystery, and promises to be only the first of many fine adventures with Cormoran Strike.

Friday, October 17, 2014

7 Works of Nonfiction That Will Change the Way You Think About the World

As I've grown older, I've tried to expand my reading and include more non-fiction. Though this list isn't even a cursory attempt at an exhaustive "things everyone should read"-list, these seven books all provoked intense thought in me and in many cases changed my opinions. These aren't works of reporting; they're works of reflection and they cover a variety of subjects, from feminism and the body to animal rights and physics. With each of my suggestions, I've included a short quotation that gave me food for thought.

The Second Sex - Simone de Beauvoir
This, one of the most important books in human history, certainly had a hugely significant impact on my own life and it's crucial reading for any student of feminism or gender studies. The Second Sex encompasses a mind-boggling array of subjects, from biology and literary criticism to economics and behavior studies, and examines them through the lens of feminism and de Beauvoir's essential thesis that women were and are oppressed. Sex and gender are implicated in every facet of our lives, in every discipline, in every art - de Beauvoir's masterpiece shows us how. 

"Biological need - sexual desire and desire for posterity - which makes the male dependent on the female, has not liberated women socially. Master and slave are also linked by a reciprocal economic need that does not free the slave."

Better Never to Have Been - David Benatar
Benatar's groundbreaking philosophical treatise comes to the painful and radical conclusion that procreation is inherently unethical and, that in order to behave strictly morally, human beings should cease to have children. Better Never to Have Been cannot but provoke a powerful and ambivalent reaction. Without invoking religious beliefs, his argument is, thus far at least, unanswerable, his reasoning entirely sound. This emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and morally challenging book unsurprisingly influenced Nic Pizzolatto while he was writing True Detective

"First, what is so special about a world that contains moral agents and rational deliberators? That humans value a world that contains beings such as themselves says more about their inappropriate sense of self-importance than it does about the world."

Out of My Later Years - Albert Einstein
Einstein's reflections on science and religion, education, and social questions reveal the intellectual workings of the man who revolutionized our understanding of the physical world. Though the chapters on physics prove enormously challenging to those who have not studied mathematics and physics at the university level, they are well worth an essay, given the transformational effect these esoteric ideas, the theory of relativity and quantum theories particularly, have had on modern human life.

"Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be."

Zamba - Ralph Helfer 
In this memoir of his life-long relationship with a lion named Zamba, Ralph Helfer, an animal wrangler who worked tirelessly (and controversially) to ensure better treatment and training techniques for wild animals working in the entertainment industry, provides a passionately delivered plea for respectful treatment of animals, particularly those that we fear and that could harm us. Zamba's story is an extraordinary one - he is not so much a pet as a brother and friend. Though most of us who have owned and loved pets are already convinced of the complex emotional lives at least of fellow mammals, it is difficult to read Zamba and fail to feel new respect towards animals.

"Lying together in the sun were camels, a llama, a baby hippo, an eland, a few deer, a swarm of ducks and geese, a few tigers and cougars... It was a totally impossible scene, one out of a movie, or a children's story-book.... It was like the Garden of Eden must have been."

The Problem of Pain - C. S. Lewis
As regular readers of this blog know, Lewis is one of my absolute favorite writers and, although I often disagree with him, his writing never fails to provoke in me serious and studious reflection. In this volume, Lewis sets himself the task of reconciling the brutal fact of suffering with a belief in a God both loving and omnipotent, one of the thorniest difficulties of Christian theology. Though the focus is on human suffering, Lewis also addresses the suffering of our fellow animals. Lewis had an extraordinary gift for facing the difficulties of life, whether suffering or spiritual doubt or grief, with courage and compassion. The Problem of Pain is one of his finest works of apologetics.

"Indignation at others' sufferings, though a generous passion, needs to be well managed lest it steal away patience and humility from those who suffer and plant anger and cynicism in their stead."

And There Was Light - Jacques Lusseyran
Lusseyran's memoir of his childhood, his leadership of a French resistance group called the Volunteers of Liberty during the German occupation, and his internment in Buchenwald is a powerful document of the realities of resistance under the Third Reich. Aside from being a rather brilliant intellectual who learned German in order to be able to understand radio broadcasts, Lusseyran was also blind. And There Was Light is beautifully and movingly written - it's also free from self-pity. Through this book, those who do not have disabilities can access the reality of living with a difference, one that limits but also liberates.

"There is nothing I want more than not being an exception."

The Beauty Myth - Naomi Wolf
Naomi Wolf's groundbreaking work of feminism posits that, as women have gained greater political, social, and professional power, the standards of so-called beauty have become increasingly burdensome and stringent. A bold, uncompromising vision of modern patriarchal culture, Wolf's critique makes a compelling argument and in doing so offers a means for women of partially freeing ourselves from the bonds of the beauty myth.Whether or not one identifies as feminist, this book provokes a deep engagement with the ways in which we judge the body.

"A girl learns that stories happen to 'beautiful' women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not 'beautiful'."

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A 7 Step Recipe for a Great Movie Franchise

Certain elements are essential for any film, whether it's part of a franchise or not. Every film needs a good editor or it will be bad - editors do not get the credit they deserve. Every film needs a good cinematographer, lighting team, and sound team - if they don't do their job well, it won't matter how great a job anyone else does; the film simply won't work. But in today's film market, the franchise is king and every good movie franchise requires certain elements in order to be sustainable.

1. Source material that can be naturally sustained
A lot of the most popular franchises have been based on book series, meaning that the filmmakers automatically have enough material for multiple films, like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and, debatably, Twilight. These franchises can draw on hundreds, perhaps, thousands, of pages of content and thus legitimately make multiple films. Peter Jackson making three films out of the humbly short book The Hobbit is a clear example of the folly of choosing insufficient source material; the films have to be absurdly padded to make feature length running time and thus lack coherence, suspense, and interest. But literary sources are not necessarily the best sources. Though no one could accuse me of being a fan of superheroes in any context, superhero comics are perfectly designed for film franchises. Aside from that large and lucrative fan base, superhero comics have stories that are meant to be sustained episodically and some, I am told, have their characters in split story-lines or time warp situations that make reboots a natural step. Good source material should above all take place in fictional universes, literary or not, that invite reiteration, cultivate interesting characters, and most importantly, provide the basis for multiple story lines.

2. Lots and lots of character actors
My favorite film franchise by far is Pirates of the Caribbean and though I can't easily ascribe my enthusiasm to any one element, if I had to, I would pick the fabulous cast of character actors. Character actors were once a staple of Hollywood filming, appearing in every film regardless of genre, lending variety to the faces, bodies, and voices seen and heard on screen. Character roles tend to be far more entertaining than hero, damsel in distress, or even villain roles because their ultimate destiny isn't defined by their type, nor are their ambitions. Pintel and Ragetti, Murtogg and Mullroy, even Captain Jack Sparrow - these are all character parts and the actors playing them are exceptional character actors. (Johnny Depp is at heart a character actor, but his movie star looks have ironically gotten in the way.) The character actors provide the meat of any good franchise and they are sorely lacking in a film industry that emphasizes youth and misogynistic standards of attractiveness across the board.

3. A distinctive score (by a composer who is not Hans Zimmer)
Not that Hans Zimmer is necessarily a bad composer. His scores, however, exemplify the typical epic, beat-laden music that is usually identified with today's blockbusters; everything sounds like Inception. In just the last four years, Zimmer has provided scores for films from the Superman, Spiderman, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean, Sherlock, and Kung Fu Panda franchises. The best scores eschew this by now banal style and create a distinctive, unique atmosphere. This is extremely difficult to sustain over a long-running franchise. John Williams wrote evocative and quite beautiful scores for the first three Harry Potter films, each one unique, but linked by common tonalities, themes, and instrumentation. The remaining films were scored by three other composers, with greater or lesser success, but the score became increasingly generic and increasingly Zimmeresque. A distinctive score creates an individual atmosphere, immediately evoking the world of the franchise and sustaining its mystique over multiple films.

4. Quality over quantity of CGI
Though poor quality CGI is a problem throughout the industry, franchise films have a particularly bad track record when it comes to CGI. The emphasis on large-scale spectacle to the detriment of character, plot, and logic has resulted in a serious downturn in quality overall. The solution is simple and benefits everyone. Contrary to popular belief, CGI is neither cheaper nor easier to produce than most traditional effects and film techniques. Case in point - the company that did the effects for Noah bankrupted itself, produced poor work, and received grossly inadequate resources and compensation. Those massive shots of CGI ocean could have been easily achieved with actual footage of the ocean. It would have cost a mere fraction of what was spent on the CGI, could have been handled by a secondary unit, would have taken substantially less time and cost less money, and, most importantly, it would have looked a lot better. It is possible to produce top-notch CGI effects, but CGI should be reserved for things that really and truly cannot be done otherwise. A more sparing use of CGI, and the resources to do the best possible job, are key to producing worthwhile films. Not to mention, I'm pretty sick to death of going to films that look like video games with live actors superimposed onto the footage.

5. Witty, cinematically cultured screenwriter(s)
A well-written screenplay is essential to any good film, but successful film franchises call for a particular type of screenwriter, or more often for these films, screenwriting team. The screenwriters need to have the skill to juggle a large number of characters, keeping them consistent and complex, create logical plots unfolded over multiple films in a way that satisfies the structural demands within each film, and construct a convincing world that viewers will want to explore over the course of many hours. It's also essential that the screenwriters, whether they remain consistently involved in the franchise over time or not, adhere to their own logic. Though I admit I have not managed to sit through more than ten minutes of the Twilight films, I heard frequent complaints that the various supernatural beings had particular powers when the plot called for them and didn't at other logical points. This destroys the fabric of the narrative and it's a particularly difficult issue when plots are spread across multiple films. The best franchises will employ screenwriters that are cinematically cultured (any fan of swashbucklers will find endless homages in Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio's screenplays for Pirates of the Caribbean) and, most importantly, know how to write witty dialogue. Speaking of which...

6. A sense of humor
The trend of making every movie epic, dark, and gritty, has sucked much of the humor out of many a franchise, but it's an essential element. The tediousness of the later Harry Potter films can be largely attributed to their deadly seriousness (in contrast to the novels, which even at the most dramatic moments retain an irreverent sense of humor), while many other franchises begin to seem like parodies of themselves (not to keep ragging on Twilight, but it's the prime example). Once again, Pirates of the Caribbean gets full marks - they're consistently witty and funny - as do the Scream films and the original Star Wars trilogy (though I may be laughing at the latter, rather than with it). Humorlessness gets old very quickly, and the more epic the story, the sooner it begins to seem utterly ridiculous. A judicious dose of humor is essential for the sustainability of any film franchise.

7. A committed cast and production team
And I mean committed in a variety of senses. Hopefully, the people making the film should be enthusiastic about it, but more importantly for a film franchise, they have to be willing to commit their time for the long-haul. Few things are as disruptive to a film franchise as a major player dropping out. Imagine if Johnny Depp left the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or if Daniel Radcliffe had bowed out of Harry Potter. Even worse, and far more common, than replaced cast members are replaced directors. Switching up directors hit the Harry Potter franchise hard, resulting in a series that is frequently incoherent, with each director's contribution tugging the series in a different direction. Such changes have less impact when the films are not meant to tell a continuous story (which is the case for many superhero franchises), but the strongest franchises hold onto their significant players.

And, bibbity bobbity boo, a great film franchise. Get these seven ducks in a row and you're set. It seems like I'm missing something though...

Oh, yes. A great deal of money.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On Reading Favorite Books from Childhood

I belong to a generation that often gets criticized for failing to put aside childish things (Disney films are the most frequently cited example), but in fact there is a perfectly legitimate reason that we are reluctant to do so. Most likely, more than one. By retaining the books (or films, or music, etc.) that fired our imaginations in childhood, we are able to retain, at least a little, the sense of endless possibility, illimitable transformation, and transcendent expansion that is only really possible before we become familiar with the horrific realities of the world in which we live. And, as technology advances and we become ever more connected, we see these atrocities occurring in real time and they feel closer and more threatening than they possibly could have when news arrived days, weeks, even months after the events. How can we counteract the existential crisis, the paranoid terror, the overwhelming despair that inevitably assail us as we watch beheadings, airstrikes, devastating floods and tsunamis, the fallout from nuclear disasters, terrorist attacks, the piles of bodies resulting from all these horrors and epidemics?

Perhaps, returning to the innocent pleasures of my childhood is nothing more than a selfish escapism. I don't discount that possibility. Perhaps, these books merely serve to nullify what I've been reading in the newspaper. Perhaps, I'm simply immature and not willing to let go of childish things. Without dismissing any of these possibilities, I do believe that these books, most free from violence, injustice that goes unpunished, and despair, can serve a more profound purpose.

It's not that there isn't terror and rage within these stories. They are there, but in the form in which we experience them as children. In L. M. Montgomery's Magic for Marigold, her young heroine experiences such unspeakable fear when she confronts a large, barking dog that she loses faith in God, while in Emily of New Moon, Emily nearly dies of terror when she mistakes a family of owls in a chimney for a malignant ghost. In Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox throws fits of rage whenever her will is challenged, smashing her mother's favorite keepsake and kicking her caregivers. In E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, Fern must be separated from her beloved pet pig, Wilbur, that she saved from slaughter. Terrible things are possible in the universes of these stories: loved ones die, homes burn down, people get hurt, promises are broken, friendships end. The difference is in degree. The horrors are bearable, endurable. Marigold can discover the dog is just enthusiastic to make friends, and Mary can lose her rage when her feeling of abandonment and neglect is conquered by friends and new interests. And even where hurt remains, healing is in the ascendant.

From an adult perspective, many of the fears and stings of childhood are laughable, but to shrug them off as mere nonsense is to forget that these horrors loom large in the child's miniature world, just as our horrors loom large in our expanded, complicated, and far less enticing world. (And I do realize that in talking of the child's world, I'm talking of the safe child's world; one of the most sickening of our adult horrors is that many children are forced to face the same atrocities.) In Magic for Marigold, a very wise adult says, "It is such a pity that she will lose [the wonderful gift of creation] as she grows older - that she will have to forgo its wonder and live, like us, in the light of the common day." The inevitable consequences of growing up, the narrowing of our imaginative realms (conjured so brilliantly in Michael Ende's The Neverending Story), and the loss of the almost supernatural power of making believe, are not simply the trade-off for adult pleasures, responsibilities, and control; these costs, these casualties to time, forever diminish our capacity for fantasy, and with it, our capacity to transform the self without mutilation or pain.

When I reread The Wind in the Willows, the first chapter book that my mother read to me as a child, I'm not pretending to be a child again, but rather accessing, in my limited adult way, that capacity for fantasy. The chapter in which Rat and Mole find Otter's missing son in the care of the god Pan, "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," is one of the most profound pieces of prose I have encountered in my years of reading and it only grows in stature with each perusal. What precisely Pan's music means remains somewhat mysterious to me, just as it does to Rat and Mole, but Pan's joyous, terrifying wildness, too savage for us civilized mortals to remember for long, is perhaps that wild, limitless song that we hear as children and that fades as we become integrated into the adult world, with its limits and injustices. Even if we hear only the faint echo, it can recall a state that may not be free from violence or fear but that is utterly boundless and thus ever-hopeful.

And that is precisely what these books provide: a reminder of hope. Wilbur may be headed for the farmer's axe, but with intelligence, friendship, and perseverance, he can hope to live a long and contented life. Though Rose Campbell of Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins has been orphaned, she can hope to find a new home and loving family with her uncle, aunts, and cousins. Even in the darkest of children's books, like Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, Shere Khan can be defeated and the objects of his predation saved, though at a price. It is easy, as adults, to become lost in hopelessness and cynicism because our adult problems are so complex, so overwhelming; on the other side of the coin, blank optimism is not so much hopefulness as a steadfast blindness to what cannot be easily or comfortably resolved. In the best children's literature, the darkness is as present as the light, but whether the dark or light wins the day, these stories exist in universes of possibility and creativity, that is, the base ingredients of any good solution.

As the Happy Lion observes, in Louise Fatio's brilliant picture book, "People are foolish, as I begin to see." We are too closed, too hemmed in by the petrification of our stultifying creative power. If we open our minds to the stories that fired our childish brains and charted the realms of our imaginations, we access some of that boundlessness, that fantasy, that transcendent imaginative power, that can offer us both the openness that can lead to clearer thinking and more compassionate feeling and the hope that in grappling with these problems we may find panaceas. I sincerely hope, in any case, that this is so. If not, I have at least spent many pleasant hours deep in the perusal of these lovely stories and whether or not it has done me good, it has certainly done me no harm.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Feminist Analysis of "Pirates of the Caribbean"

Pirates of the Caribbean is, by far, my favorite current franchise. Though the fourth installment was decidedly weaker than the original trilogy, all four films had witty, intelligent screenplays, fabulous swashbuckling set-pieces, oodles of character actors (which I sorely miss in most Hollywood fare), and everything of a piratey nature that one could wish. From a feminist point of view however, POTC is not nearly as satisfactory.

The first issue with the films is an issue for nearly every Hollywood blockbuster. The original trilogy has only four female speaking parts, two of which disappear after the first film and are given no character development, and the fourth film, meant as the first in a second trilogy, has two (plus Judi Dench's cameo and a singing mermaid). These films have enormous casts, with dozens of speaking roles. Women are severely underrepresented and this is, in and of itself, a major issue. One could argue that historically there were far fewer female pirates than male, but that argument is frankly moot given that in the POTC universe, there are cursed Aztec treasure that can turn you into the undead, damned sailors who become "fish people," a pagan goddess, mermaids, the Fountain of Youth, and various other forms of the supernatural and magical. History is not relevant here. The films could have been much improved by having greater gender diversity among the cast, but this is symptomatic of a larger trend across all Hollywood filmmaking, particularly films with bigger budgets.

In the original trilogy, the main female protagonist (and the primary romantic interest for the male characters) is Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). She is a supreme example of the bad-ass heroine, Hollywood's pandering and yet still misogynistic answer to complaints of sexism. Elizabeth objects to wearing a restrictive corset and becomes an equal political and military player in the complex power struggle among the various factions of pirates, English colonial authority, and the East India Trading Company. She also becomes adept at fighting both with swords and guns. However, she does all of this, despite the fancy speeches, in order to marry her true love Will, become a housewife on a Caribbean isle, and produce babies. Any strength, whether physical, tactical, or political, deployed with such a goal is disappointingly de-fanged. After three films in which she develops physical strength, leadership ability, and quite a bit of political cunning, would it have been too much to ask that Elizabeth actually make use of those skills? Elizabeth may not conform to the Georgian ideal of the perfect woman, but she certainly does conform to current standards.

Tia Dalma (Naomie Harris), the human incarnation of the goddess Calypso, is an even more problematic character. She has been bound in human form by her human lover Davy Jones as revenge for her failure to keep their scheduled tryst. As her justification, she says, "It's my nature." This implies that this powerful female being is bound by her nature, denying her agency and justifying Jones's actions, a virtual enslavement that prevents her from acting according to her own desires. Enormously powerful, capable of controlling the seas and storms, the goddess Calypso is represented as fickle, capricious, dangerous, and motivated by revenge and jealousy. As such, she incarnates male fears of female power.

The two remaining female characters of the original trilogy both disappear after The Curse of the Black Pearl. The first is Elizabeth's maidservant (Paula J. Newman), who according to the wiki is named Estrella, though she is never addressed by her name within the film. She is a largely undeveloped character who functions primarily as a female companion with whom Elizabeth can discuss her possible engagement. After the raid on Port Royal, she disappears and we never learn her fate. The second, Anamaria (Zoe Saldana), is the only female pirate in the trilogy apart from Elizabeth. Anamaria is an intriguing character, not in the least sexualized and ripe for further development, but she didn't appear in further installments, most likely because Saldana's career took off and she was no longer tertiary character material. That's a genuine pity, since the little that can be gleaned about her character is quite positive; she is a fine sailor, unafraid to stand up to Jack after he steals her boat, and integrated into the otherwise all-male crew.

The main female character in the fourth installment, Angelica (Penelope Cruz) is perhaps the most misogynistically portrayed woman in the series. Angelica is meant to be a love interest for Jack Sparrow (sorry - Captain Jack Sparrow), but their amour was supposedly born when he seduced her right before she was to take vows as a nun; it's clear that this "seduction" was rape. She is both extremely manipulative and easy to manipulate, at one point even attempting to persuade Jack to do what she wants by pretending to be pregnant with his child, and her motivations are consistently driven by her affection for her father and her "love" for Jack, both men who treat her abusively. Like Elizabeth, Angelica is handy in a sword fight and capable of managing a crew, but unlike Elizabeth, she fails to develop her own goals and never emerges as a leader.

The mermaids in On Stranger Tides are deeply problematic. They are predatory and lure their human targets into the water with sexual posturing. Most disturbingly, in order to obtain immortality from drinking from the Fountain of Youth, the pirates need to obtain a mermaid's tear. Thus, the mermaids incarnate male fears of female sexuality and subjugating them allows their male conquerors to accrue extraordinary power through immortality. The ambiguous finish of Philip (Sam Claflin), the missionary who pities and eventually loves the mermaid Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), has even less heartening implications. As he dies, she kisses him and pulls him into the water; it is not clear whether this is a gesture of compassion and love or simply her predatory instincts kicking in, but once again we witness a supernatural female character being led by her dangerous instincts.

Beyond the characters discussed above, the series has a number of prostitutes, portrayed as lascivious, jealous, and quarrelsome, and a few Singaporean servant girls, both killed during a battle between the pirates and the East India Trading Company in At World's End. Interestingly, it is unclear what the relationship between these two girls is supposed to be; when the first is killed, the second becomes enraged and tries to avenge her. Are they sisters? Lovers? Friends? There was an opportunity to make something more of these characters, though given the extensive running time of At World's End, one could understand why that wasn't explored.

So what can be done to make the upcoming fifth installment, Dead Men Tell No Tales, less misogynistic? First, add a lot more female characters and integrate them into the POTC universe in an organic way, perhaps in one of the pirate crews. It would be preferable if those characters are not prostitutes or predatory supernatural beings. Second, give the female lead her own goals, untied to loving, protecting, or being subdued by the male characters. Third, give the female lead a conclusion that isn't tantamount to enforced domestication - both Elizabeth and Angelica end their respective story-lines stuck on a lonely beach awaiting their respective love interests. Fourth, have female characters that don't have any romantic story-lines, like the vast majority of the male characters.

As yet, little information has been released about the next film, though it is possible that it will be the last in the series. Realistically speaking, it's unlikely that any of the steps I've outlined above will be taken by the filmmakers. But I'm hopeful that, at the very least, a search for fresh material might lead the POTC team to explore different options for their female characters. Dead Men Tell No Tales will be released on July 7, 2017.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Writing as a Feminist Act in Novels for Girls

One of the first subgenres that fostered feminist writing was the girls' novel, or more generally the coming-of-age novel when it concerned girls. It was (and to a certain extent still is) dominated by women writers and was written almost exclusively for a female readership, particularly an intellectually malleable readership. By concentrating on girl protagonists, the genre, ipso facto, examined the questions young women face(d) upon entering the world as an adult, questions about romance, sexuality, work and career, moral agency and development, familial duty and duty to the self, friendship, and sisterhood. In cases where these questions were dealt with outside of novels for young girls, the writers and the books often faced intense ridicule from male critics. Elizabeth Gaskell was derided for her portrayal of labor unrest and reform in North and South (1855), male critics insisting that as a woman Gaskell was unfit to write politically. When the books were aimed at a young female readership, they often escaped similar critical ire because most of these books were (and in some cases still are) dismissed as lacking in true literary merit, mere works of moral instruction of no importance to "serious" literature. Of the most common threads that link the girls' novel with feminism, writing aspirations are quite prominent.

In one of the earliest feminist novels (not a girls' novel - it was written before the advent of the genre), Letters from a Peruvian Woman (1747) by Francoise de Graffigny, Zilia is a Native American princess brought to Europe as a curiosity. She finds her center of gravity in writing, first with a Native American form of documentation with knots and later with Western writing. Zilia is surely one of the most unusual characters in Western fiction. Her status as a woman of color already makes her rare, but, as depicted by de Graffigny as profoundly intelligent, justly proud, and critical of European social customs, Zilia is an utterly unique presence in European literature. The book is radical above all because it is not ultimately Zilia's fate to bend to the patriarchal custom of marriage - instead, she becomes a writer, self-supporting and no longer bound to any of her male benefactors.

In Mary Webb's Precious Bane (1924), Prue Sarn, born with a cleft palate, does not expect to be able to marry, although she is both physically strong and intelligent. Her difference is marked even further by her pursuit of education, an unusual ambition both because of her sex and her class (she belongs to a family of farmers). Though Prue does not seek out education for professional gain, it is nevertheless significant that she wants to learn to write above all else, that is, to exercise her own identity through language. This pursuit is an expression of self-worth, even with the crushing duress of being female in a patriarchal culture and being deemed valueless by that culture as a result of her cleft palate.

The theme of the girl writer is nowhere more prominent than in the work of L. M. Montgomery. In Anne of Green Gables (1908) and its sequels, Anne Shirley, though she works primarily as a teacher, writes romantic fiction, some of which is published (most memorably, by the Rollings' Reliable Baking Powder Company), while Emily of New Moon (1923) and its sequels are at their core the story of Emily's development as a writer as much as of her coming-of-age. While Anne does not achieve her adolescent dream of literary success, she never stops writing to please herself even as she navigates marriage and motherhood. Emily, on the other hand, achieves a great deal of success and her eventual relationship is based upon a partnership between two artists. She makes significant sacrifices for the sake of her career and doggedly pursues both financial and critical success even in the wake of personal tragedies.

In Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), Judy Abbott sets herself the task of writing and publishing her novel, a thinly veiled account of her brutal childhood in a foundling home, with the express purpose of both earning her living and paying back her college tuition, paid by the benefactor and correspondent whom she affectionately refers to as her Daddy-Long-Legs. This classic girls' novel has endured quite the firestorm, derided as sentimental, regressive, and maudlin, and while I will freely admit that it is indeed quite a sentimental book, it has surprisingly radical implications. Judy, far from being the fainting wallflower or the alluring Gibson girl, pursues literature and education for the express purpose of becoming self-reliant, of being independent from any form of charity, no matter how well-intentioned.

Though Grazia Deledda wrote more than thirty volumes of fiction and won the Nobel Prize in 1926, only a small number have as yet been translated into English. In her final novel Cosima (1936), an autobiographical rendering of a young woman's coming-of-age in Sardinia, the heroine desires above all else to tell stories and is inspired by the native legends of brigands and paganistic transformation that she has heard since childhood. Cosima starts her attempts at publication early, despite vicious local gossip, the morbid predictions of her scandalized family, and the demoralizing failure of her first novel. Another significant female Italian writer, Clotilde Marghieri, none of whose books have been translated into English, wrote structurally complex books, mixtures of novel, memoir, essay, and meta-text. Her development as a writer is a subject to which she returns frequently and with which are entwined her profound bond with Napoli and the countryside of Campania, her status as a married woman who nevertheless chose to live separately from her husband, and her determination to express female and feminine realities.

Surely the most famous novel about a girl writer is Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868). Jo March obsesses about becoming a writer and directly aligns this idea with male identity. She rejects any signs of femininity, from wearing her hair up and keeping her gloves clean to accepting gestures of chivalry from the men around her. Writing is one more means of rebellion, but more deeply it is what drives her to rebel in the first place. From her earliest plays and sensational fiction to the more reflective work of her adulthood, Jo defines herself by her writing. Her sister Amy's interest in painting forms a striking contrast with Jo's literary pursuits. While Amy pursues her artistic studies as a pleasant and engrossing occupation that will both make her more attractive as a potential wife and fill her time as a single woman, Jo's goals as a writer are both financially practical and creatively aspirational.

It should be stressed that for most of these heroines, writing is not in and of itself enough; most of them want to publish their work, that is, write as professionals rather than dilettantes. These girls do not want to simply express themselves imaginatively - they want recognition for it. The professional aspect of their aspirations is at the root of writing as a feminist act. These young women are not writing simply to "express themselves," to use a rather noxious and politically correct expression. A major epoch, for all of the above-mentioned heroines except for Prue Sarn, is the first successful attempt at publication, though it may be accompanied by disappointments, critical, financial, and familial.

In A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf identified the two essentials women need in order to pursue writing careers on a par with their male counterparts: the room of the title, or a private space from which others are barred, and a livable income. A number of critics have misunderstood Woolf's critique and understood these as requirements for good writing, rather than a good writing career, but Woolf is drawing a distinction. Many women throughout history have written great works - but without those two essentials few have have achieved the same professional success as their male counterparts. Private space and a livable wage enable independence, without which the pursuit of a career in the volatile literary world is untenable. Why do Jo March, Emily Byrd Starr, Judy Abbott, and Cosima focus on earning money, even above and beyond the pursuit of critical acclaim? Precisely because all of these heroines seek independence and autonomy.

The pursuit of privacy, both in the form of a physical space in which to write and of the right to develop one's thoughts without ridicule, is thus crucial to the adolescence of all these aspiring writers. Jo is given encouragement within her family, but does most of her writing in the garret, while Cosima and Emily both hide their activities from families that mock and disapprove of their writing and both rely on allies for access to the necessary materials, in Cosima's case her brother Andrea and in Emily's her cousin Jimmy. Many of these young women, including Emily, Jo, and Zilia, postpone or flat-out reject romantic entanglements that would have eliminated both their privacy and control of their financial earnings.

Writing is thus a significantly feminist act. It is both an appropriation of language, transforming it to reflect female experience and expression, and a means of accruing independence and professional success. 

There are of course examples of feminist coming-of-age fiction in which the professional aspirations of the protagonist are not literary. In A Girl of the Limberlost (1909) by Gene Stratton Porter, Elnora's professional interests are in education and naturalism, while in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret pursues labor reform and altruistic business practice. In Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark (1915), Thea Kronberg studies classical singing and pursues a career as a Wagnerian soprano. In Louisa May Alcott's Work (1873), one of her finest novels and my favorite, the plot details Christie's endeavors to find not merely work that will render her independent and solvent, but a vocation, and in Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886), Jo's pupil Nan doggedly pursues medical studies.

Work remains a profoundly feminist issue - many professions are still male-dominated and even where women have overcome the gender gap, significant compensation inequities are still quite typical. Writing in and of itself is no longer the radical statement it once was for women and this is all to the good. Although sexism continues to exert an influence on, for example, the distribution of literary prizes and fellowships, critical attitudes, marketing strategies, and inclusion in the literary canon, a woman writer is not, simply by writing professionally, extending herself beyond what we consider her natural role. Since 1949 when Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex and forever changed public discourse on feminism and gender, enormous strides have been made and now we face subtler challenges. Women continue to face silencing - women who speak out about feminism and women's rights face death and rape threats, for example - and, even as progress is made, the right to be part of the public discourse is still continually contested. Jo, Cosima, Emily, Zilia - these characters are no longer obviously transgressive, but their development as professional writers continues to mirror the subtler professional struggles of women today.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The 10 Best Pirate Films of All Time

Pirates continue to capture the public imagination, particularly with the revival of the swashbuckler over the past decade with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. And no great wonder - pirates, both as cultural and historical figures, are absolutely fascinating. Historically, pirates often thrived in a truly democratic society, with all plunder divided equally, compensation for limbs lost, and captains elected by vote (and also removed by vote), in marked contrast to the near slavery and abhorrent conditions under which, for example, the crews of the English Navy lived. (For a fascinating read about historical pirates that gives a strong overview as well as biographies of the most notorious pirate leaders, I recommend Nigel Cawthorne's A History of Pirates: Blood and Thunder on the High Seas.) In the cultural imagination, fostered by Stevenson's Treasure Island and N. C. Wyeth's original illustrations, pirates are vivid, ribald, charismatic characters and it's no wonder that their adventurous lives have been the inspiration for many great films. Here are the ten greatest pirate films:

10. Peter Pan (1960)
Captain Hook is one of the most enduringly great pirate characters of fiction and one need look no further for a definitive interpretation of the crocodile-phobic pirate than Cyril Ritchard's delightfully witty performance. This version of Peter Pan (starring the marvelous Mary Martin in the title role) can be difficult to track down; it was originally produced as a live, color television broadcast and has happily been preserved. With splendidly clever songs by Mark "Moose" Charlap, Jule Styne, and Carolyn Leigh (with additional lyrics from Betty Comden and Adolph Green), including my favorite "Oh My Mysterious Lady," this version is essentially a filmed stage play, but oh what a wonderful one it is! Though the 1953 Disney version is probably the best known, nothing can top this marvelous telling of the classic J. M. Barrie story.

9. The Crimson Pirate (1952)
Burt Lancaster stars as Captain Vallo, a devious pirate captain who, along with his faithful sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat), forms an alliance with a rebellion against the evil Baron Gruda (Leslie Bradley). As thoroughly tongue in cheek as a film could be, The Crimson Pirate allows Lancaster and Cravat - Lancaster's long-time physical trainer - the chance to demonstrate their extraordinary athleticism, with many of the acrobatic stunts verging on the balletic. Originally written as a suspenseful serious drama, the first draft was thrown out because of the screenwriter Waldo Salt's communist affiliation; the final draft is the complete opposite, a feisty, wildly entertaining romp through pirate legends and a pure delight for any pirate film aficionado.

8. The Princess Bride (1987)
William Goldman provided the adaptation of his own brilliant satiric novel for this cult favorite directed by Rob Reiner. Cary Elwes stars as Westley, a farm boy, whose true love Buttercup, played by Robin Wright, is devastated when she hears the news of his supposed death at the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Years pass and Buttercup is chosen as the bride for the eely Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), who is accompanied at all times by the six-fingered Count Rugen (Christopher Guest). Conspiracy, death-defying adventure, nail-biting escapes, and most of all true love - these are the stuff from which this superb fantasy is woven. The film is also supremely funny, with terrific performances by Mandy Patinkin, as a revenge-obsessed Spaniard, Billy Crystal, as Miracle Max, Wallace Shawn, as the Sicilian self-described mastermind who finds everything inconceivable, and Andre the Giant, as the good-hearted and immense Fezzick.

7. The Sea Hawk (1940) 
Consummate swashbuckler Errol Flynn was never better in his star turn as English privateer Geoffrey Thorpe in the very best version of the oft-adapted novel by Rafael Sabatini. Thorpe is one of a group of English sailors who call themselves the Sea Hawks and plunder the ships of the Spanish monarchy to fill the coffers of the English queen, but his blithe pillaging is complicated when he ransacks the ship of the Spanish ambassador (the impeccable Claude Rains) and his lovely niece (Brenda Marshall). Special mention should be made of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's stunning, vivacious score, one of his best, and also of Flora Robson's performance as Elizabeth I. More famous names like Bette Davis and Cate Blanchett may come to mind when we think of the great English monarch, but Robson is downright thrilling, particularly in her final speech.

6. The Pirate (1948)
One certainly doesn't immediately associate Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, or Gene Kelly with swashbucklers, but they are the director and stars of this great unrecognized pirate film. Manuela (Garland) is a sheltered girl living in the Caribbean, her imagination inflamed by tales of the notorious pirate Macoco. Serafin (Kelly) is a womanizing traveling player who impersonates the infamous pirate, but finds that he gets a good deal more than he bargained for, as Manuela is no wilting wallflower. Manuela's intensely sexualized imagining of the pirate is sublimated in one of Judy Garland's best songs, "Mack the Black," and one of the most explosive dance sequences Kelly ever choreographed. Though more a fantasy musical than a traditional swashbuckler, The Pirate is a very under-appreciated masterpiece. This film also offers a rare opportunity to see the extraordinary Nicholas Brothers in Technicolor.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007, 2011) 
Though the latest entry in Disney's wildly successful franchise is decidedly weaker than the first three, the Pirates of the Caribbean films are a magnificent addition to the swashbuckler genre. This is first and foremost because the screenplays by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot are consistently and brilliantly witty, with an unusually well-structured plot given the complexity of the films, many homages to earlier pirate films, and a slew of running gags. The films are also among a very small number of contemporary films that employ a large cast of character actors, many almost as popular as the leads. The lead actors are also excellent, with Johnny Depp in his career-defining role of Captain Jack Sparrow and Geoffrey Rush as the ultimate blood-thirsty buccaneer. One wishes that other current franchises were as well-crafted and smart.

4. The Black Pirate (1926) 
One of the earliest pirate films, The Black Pirate defined many of the key elements of the genre. Starring the dazzlingly athletic Douglas Fairbanks, the film is about a swordsman who calls himself the Black Pirate, set on avenging his father's death, and who is given the chance to secure power and save his own life if he successfully captures a wealthy merchant ship single-handedly and ransoms the noble lady aboard her. One of the earliest experiments in color filmmaking, this silent film dazzles with its spectacular stunts (many of which would terrify even the most hardened contemporary stuntman and probably wouldn't be attempted today), its outstanding fencing choreography, and Fairbanks's charismatic performance, one of his best. 

3. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Widely considered the best adaptation of Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall's novel based on an actual mutiny that occurred in 1789, this suspenseful drama stars Charles Laughton in one of his best roles as the reprehensible, iron-fisted Captain Bligh and Clark Gable (rather disturbingly sans moustache) as Fletcher Christian, first mate, defender of the crew, and eventual leader of the mutiny. The film examines the miserable conditions aboard navy ships quite realistically and the screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, and Carey Wilson thrillingly depicts the complexities of life on a ship run by a tyrant. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture and garner nominations for Best Director, Best Actor (Laughton, Gable, and Franchot Tone all received nominations), Best Writing, Best Music, and Best Film Editing.

2. Treasure Island (1950) 
Stevenson's novel is the essential pirate novel and it is the source for dozens of now-common ideas about pirates, like the black spot, treasure maps marked with an X, and parrots as pets. This is my personal favorite version, both a strikingly well-written adaptation (the screenplay is by Lawrence Edward Watkin) and the first appearance of Robert Newton in what would become his signature role of Long John Silver. Newton invented pirate-speak for his performance and is still being imitated today; he would play the role again in two unauthorized sequels, Long John Silver and The Adventures of Long John Silver. He is joined by Bobby Driscoll (the voice of Peter Pan) as young master Hawkins and Finlay Currie as Billy Bones.

1. Captain Blood (1935) 
Captain Blood is perhaps the greatest swashbuckler of all time and stars Errol Flynn, the ultimate swasher and buckler, in his first major role, opposite Basil Rathbone, who gives another brilliant performance as a menacing villain, and Olivia de Havilland, the first lady of swashbucklers. The story follows a doctor whose good intentions lead him to an accusation of complicity of the Monmouth Rebellion. Sentenced to transportation and enslavement, he escapes and reinvents himself as Captain Blood, the honorable pirate, welcoming escaped slaves to his crew and preying on merchant ships in the Caribbean. Directed by Michael Curtiz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk) and with an exceptionally good score by the great composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Captain Blood is the greatest pirate film of all time.

Honorable mentions: Captain Kidd (1945) starring the incomparable Charles Laughton at his most sneering; Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) starring the freakishly brilliant Peter Ustinov in unfortunately less than brilliant surroundings; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) directed by Australian Peter Weir and starring Russell Crowe in one of his best roles; Stardust (2007), which features Robert De Niro in an extended cameo as a gay pirate captain enamored of his reputation as a bloodthirsty killer; The Swiss Family Robinson (1960), one of the finest of the Disney Studio's live action films.