On Cormac McCarthy

 

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Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy, to put it simply, was absolutely, positively outstanding. I recently finished Cities of the Plain, after having read The Crossing and All The Pretty Horses before that, and I’m still in that state of awe when you depart from a great story, which I’m sure will carry for at least another month. If you’re looking for a new big adventure, I’d highly recommend the trilogy.

Anyone who’s familiar with McCarthy will know his style. He produces these long, epic sentences completely unaided by punctuation and instead weaves clever conjunctions throughout his lexis, and the lines often range to half a page long yet still manage to leave you with a breath. As well, he’s able to give depth and beauty to the simple day-to-day activities in short, punchy prose that flourishes more and more by the word. There was never a dull moment.

I’ve read The Road and No Country for Old Men before and whilst those both were unforgettable and very much emotional journeys, the weight of these three books hits you hard; relentless and devastating, like a speed-of-light locomotive.

Speaking of trains, here’s an extract from the final book. This isn’t an example of his long, signature sentences (‘polysyndeton’ if you want to be technical) but instead how well he is able to paint a picture and create an atmosphere –  something else he’s rather good at doing. There are far better examples of his near perfect writing but this really hit the spot for me. Don’t worry, no spoilers ahead.

I’ll add, for anyone else who has read The Crossing, the final page completely tore me to pieces.


Cities of the Plain – page 116

It was quiet in the house and it was quiet in the country about. He sat smoking. The cooling stove ticked. Far away in the hills behind the house a coyote called. When they had used to spend winters at the old house on the southeasternmost section of the ranch the last thing he would hear before he fell asleep at night was the bawl of the train eastbound out of El Paso. Sierra Blanca, Van Horn, Marfa, Alpine, Marathon. Rolling across the blue prairie through the night and on toward Langtry and Del Rio. The white bore of the headlamp lighting up the desert scrub and the eyes of trackside cattle floating in the dark like coals. The herders in the hills standing with their serapes about their shoulders watching the train pass below and the little desert foxes stepping into the darkened roadbed to sniff after it where the warm steel rails lay humming in the night.

Extreme Makeover: Frankenstein’s Monster Edition

Somewhere along the way, Frankenstein’s monster has changed drastically. From the challenged, complex character Shelley presented, he’s become a dumb, slow icon of fear and monstrosity. He has become subject to vigorous transformations in a number of mediums. Since the original publication in 1818, there have been (at least) 24 direct adaptations. Films, television and plays have retold his story with new visions, new words and new worlds.

Some have got it right, some have got it wrong and some have included him in a time travelling adventure. What happened?

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We’ll define the original characteristics first. In Shelley’s novel, the monster is nameless. Initially, upon his creation, he is like a baby: gentle, innocent and new to the world. Victor Frankenstein assembles the monster in a gruesome Ikea fashion of stitching body parts together from… other bodies. He’s eight feet tall, enormously strong and hideous, with yellow eyes and skin that barely conceal the muscle tissue and blood vessels beneath.

(I’d feature an image here but it’s perhaps not the most appetising thing to see!)

However, he’s abandoned by his disgusted creator and shunned by every person he comes across; he’s a feared, unknown entity, prompting strangers who cross his path to expel him. His self esteem – undoubtedly – is horrendously damaged, especially when he is called:

monster”, “creature”, “demon””, “fiend”, “wretch”, “vile insect”, “abhorred monster”, “wretched devil”

It’s important to note, as well, he’s not your typical grunting, slow moving ‘monster’. He’s a smart, thinking and articulate individual. He learns how to speak English and studies literature, in particular Milton’s Paradise Lost and, when confronting Victor, even quotes the book to converse his feelings:

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Did I request thee,
Maker, from my clay
To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
John Milton, Paradise Lost (X. 743–5)

He’s quite the complicated character but interesting and brilliantly sculpted nonetheless. Though he does seek (and triumph) in brutal revenge against his creator, it is because he is developed and made into a villain, he is not born one. Ultimately, it is a tragedy. The hate and expulsion from society and his father turn him into a killing machine.

So, how is Frankenstein portrayed by other artists? Let’s begin the makeover!

Frankenstein (1931) –  Boris Karloff’s depiction of the monster is perhaps the most iconic. The film spawned the image of the monster most of us know. Square, abnormally shaped head with a face riddled with scars and bolts garnishing his neck.

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He’s slow to talk and initially is gentle and innocent; however, he never really adopts the vocabulary-filled persona we see in the novel. Only in the early hours of birth are there are some similarities and while it ranks as an iconic horror film, it’s not entirely translating the original character.

67867The story gets points for having the principles present in the film; the themes are explored and the values are challenged. But the groaning, grunting creature never grows into a complicated being. Transformation in progress.

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Frankenstein Unbound (1990) -Based on Brian Aldiss’ novel, which is loosely similar to Shelley’s novel, is a time-travelling adventure. This does feature a monster and it is Frankenstein’s monster but the resemblance isn’t really there. He acts solely as an angry antagonist. I’m not sure why it had to use the same characters, an original piece would have sufficed.

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Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) –  As a film, it’s not bad. It does feature some great performances and it does touch on some of the themes in Shelley’s novel. The Creation, played by Robert De Niro, does start out on similar tracks. He’s somewhat smart, articulate and cunning.

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However, the ‘villain’ in him is brought to the surface a lot faster, vowing revenge on his creator almost immediately after being shunned by the family he helped. His killing spree starts and the rest loosely follows the book. This is perhaps an example where you can’t make us completely understand and sympathise with the Monster in the average film length. De Niro does depict the being well but the story lacks the existing fire.

Van Helsing (2004) – Not an adaptation but the monster, now named Frankenstein, is part of the monster ensemble in the Hugh Jackman lead film. He’s more Karloff in appearance than Shelley in character: he’s a gentle but strong giant and that’s it. There isn’t really evidence of him being smart and we’re far from the original; he’s there because he is a familiar monster and provides a joke or two. Is there resemblance? Physically yes. In his character? Some, there’s some!

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Frankenstein vs. the Creature from Blood Cove (2005) – I can’t say I’ve seen this one so I’ll just leave a description of the film I found:

Frankenstein’s monster is resurrected to fight terrorists along with a half-fish, half-man creature. However, the plan soon goes awry.

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…I’m… I’m not sure I can bring myself to watch this one. I think it’s safe to say the transformation has continued.

I, Frankenstein (2014) – The nod to the original novel is only in the introduction to the film and the character. It’s based on a graphic novel and it’s… interesting. Fun, action-based but like Frankenstein Unbound, I don’t think it needed to use the character Shelley created. An enjoyable story that could have been built on entirely different canvas. The monster and name were perhaps used just because it was something people would recognise. It does win a point for monster attractiveness level, however.

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Frankenstein (play) 2011 – Now, this is adaptation done right. The National Theatre production, written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, is perhaps the best adaptation to date.

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It hit the nail right on the head with the themes Shelley original displayed. What it means to be human, how science can go too far, how to deal with the consequences. In the translation to the stage, the story remains intact and most importantly, we are given a raw depiction of Frankenstein’s monster in the truest of forms. It’s done so well and executed so precisely, it is worthy to wear the same title as Shelley’s piece. What this piece did better than any other is show that Victor Frankenstein is the monster – how it should be.

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller both won Best Actors in the 2012 Olivier awards for their portrayals of Frankenstein and his monster (they played both the creator and the creation!). Viewing this piece again, in the future, is hopefully likely. It was filmed and showcased in cinemas as part of National Theatre live and if it returns, make sure to see it.

As a final note, somewhere on his journey, the monster is named Frankenstein. It’s not uncommon for people to believe this and it’s fair to. The posters weren’t always clear with it and soon it was adopted.

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Is it wrong to name him? Absolutely! Although the monster does label himself after his father…

At length the thought of you crossed my mind. I learned from your papers that you were my father, my creator; and to whom could I apply with more fitness than to him who had given me life? (Chapter 16)

…it doesn’t exclude the fact that no one gives him a label. No one named him, no one claimed him. The essence of his struggle can’t be taken away!

This is only scratching the surface on the number of times the monster has been depicted. I’ll note, of course he’s not the only character to undergo a makeover. Dracula is another, so is Batman! Compare Adam Wests’ Batman to Christian Bale’s and it’s mad.

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Nonetheless, it’s evident the monster has been transformed. There are some other pieces that are very close to the book. At times, we’ve seen resemblance and other times, we’ve been a million miles from it…

…and that’s okay, I think. As mentioned before, it seems odd to include the monster and other characters when the story trying to be told would do fine with an original setting and cast. But the legacy that Shelley ignited will forever be retold. We’re still left with the source, and that’s what’s important. As long as we have the original, which we always will, fans can go crazy with their ideas. I’m sure Shelley would have been honoured to see so many people interpret her story and her characters in so many different ways. It’s fascinating how far this character has been taken.

And besides, there’s quite a lot of appeal to seeing how far people will take it.

How about Me, Myself and Frankenstein…

…Or Frankenstein and Snakes on a Plane!….

Or Frankenstein in Space!

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What Really Happened in The Tempest?

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The final scene in Shakespeare’s final play is one of the most personal across his canon. Prospero’s epilogue is Shakespeare speaking to us through his protagonist. He thanks the audience and bids them farewell. It’s an incredible way to say goodbye, to sign off as one of the greatest playwrights to have lived.

However, for me, that final scene contains a small detail that’s budding with potential for a great story.

In Act V, Scene 1, the cast are gathered and are on levels of reconcilement. All is restored and all soon to be explained before the curtains fall. We’re gifted with a little surprise, too – the Master and the boatswain are alive and well! They survived the shipwreck! Gonzalo asks what happened to them. The boatswain replies:

If I did think, sir, I were well awake,
I’ld strive to tell you. We were dead of sleep,
And– how we know not — all clapp’d under hatches;
Where but even now with strange and several noises
Of roaring, shrieking, howling, jingling chains,
And more diversity of sounds, all horrible,
We were awaked; straightway, at liberty;
Where we, in all her trim, freshly beheld
Our royal, good and gallant ship, our master
Capering to eye her: on a trice, so please you,
Even in a dream, were we divided from them
And were brought moping hither.

And the scene continues, of course, now onto the important matters and with it, our attention focuses back to the main cast and the story continues.

I can’t help but think something seems fishy in the isle of The Tempest. No one really seems to react to this story. I understand, there’s nothing to react to. It’s pretty basic: they were asleep, they woke up, everything is okay, everything has been restored. Simple.

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But that’s what’s odd. Their story – it’s too simple. It’s the equivalent of ‘I woke up and it was all a dream.’ Whilst the other members of the ship wandered the isle, fell in love, confessed their crimes, got hysterically drunk and had life changing, life altering experiences, they slept through it all?! 

What I find even more interesting is that the Master doesn’t speak. He’s nothing more than a silent participant. Now, he only has a total of 16 words in this piece, all which are said in the first 10 seconds of the play, so it’s not exactly out of place that he’s a quiet one.

What if – What if he doesn’t say anything because he can’t say anything?

What if there’s a whole other story we don’t know about? What if this whole time they were fighting to protect the rest of the ship, tackling hoards of ravenous cannibals that swarmed the beach they landed on with their blunt blades? And afterwards, they raided the mines with the natives to restore peace to the island once ruled by these rabid monsters? What if they got captured and the Master had his tongue removed? Or perhaps, he’s under a spell?

The play is packed with magic, fantasy, spells, illusions – would it be so hard to believe the Master is silenced? Spell locked? And why would the boatswain lie? What horrors did they see that they cannot bare to express to the group? There’s something there, there’s a story to be told.

Now, the Shakespeare ‘spin-off’ isn’t a new thing. Tom Stoppard did it brilliantly with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an existentialist insight of the two ‘friends’ of Hamlet.

Rosenkranz und Gueldenstern / Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead GB/ 1990 Regie: Tom Stoppard Darsteller: Tim Roth, Gary Oldman Rollen: Gueldenstern, Rosenkranz

Their fate was detailed in Hamlet only by the First Ambassador in a single line, which became the title of Stoppard’s masterpiece – perhaps he felt they deserved more of a voice. Nevertheless, he was inspired and told a story from a story.

To assume there’s an actual secret hidden in Shakespeare’s final scene that has yet to be discovered is highly unlikely. They’re widely researched, analysed and this idea that there’s something more to this silence is nothing more than an itch scratched to the core. But with enough thought, a ‘what if’ can breed a modern tale from a classic piece.

There’s always a story within a story. Par the copyright claim, writing produces more writing, writing that has won Nobel prizes in literature, writing that is studied at schools and Universities.

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre spawned Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargasso Sea.
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe  led to J. M. Coetzee’s Foe.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet provoked Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
William Shakespeare’s The Tempest could lead to…?

We’ll see. If a writer claims to be thirsty for ideas but has nothing to drink, shove a book in their face. There can be an original leaf on a tree already flourishing with life.

What really happened in The Tempest? It’s up to you.