Are Movies Better than Books? (The Dragon Tattoo Trilogy)

Are movies based on books ever better than the books themselves? Some people claim that books are always better than movies. Let’s look at a case from Swedish noir: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (aka, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy).

The books were a huge sensation. No debate there. However, the movies are far  better (the three versions shot in Sweden). They have depth and complexity. As critics like to say, they live and breathe. You see the inhumanity. You feel Lizbeth Salander’s anger and disgust. And when you read the books? You don’t. The English translations suffer from stilted prose. The plots seem plodding and mundane. Relatively speaking, the books are dead wood.

Perhaps I can blame the book translations from Swedish to English? Perhaps. Unfortunately, I can’t read Swedish, so I can’t say. However, I can say that I’d watch the movies again. I will never read the English translations again. Movies: Three. Books: Zero. A lopsided win. And a shutout, as we Canucks say.

(PS: In my opinion, the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy is an exception. Books usually win. Hey, I’m in the writers’ union.)

Voice Appropriation – Then and Now

Introductory Note: I wrote the following book review in 1995. Why am I republishing it (with a few edits)? What does it have to do with writing fiction? Two words: Voice Appropriation. If you’re not into book reviews, feel free to skip to the bottom of the post.

A Discovery of Strangers by Rudy Wiebe. Knopf Canada. 1994. {Review first published by A.M. Potter. ® 1995}

Rudy Wiebe won the 1973 Governor-General’s Award for Fiction (Canada) for The Temptations of Big Bear. Long before the advent of movies like Dances with Wolves, Wiebe’s indigenous characters took centre stage. He appropriated a multitude of historical voices, regardless of ethnicity or station in life, and allowed each to tell their own version of events.

Wiebe’s second G-G award-winning novel, A Discovery of Strangers, follows the same general format. The reader views the 1820-21 Franklin Expedition through the eyes of not only the English explorers, but also the Canadian voyagers and Yellowknife natives who made it possible. Much of the story is told from the point-of-view of a young indigenous woman called Greenstockings. Wiebe could be accused of double voice appropriation. He’s a white male who wrote as a female, not to mention an indigenous female.

A Discovery of Strangers is as much a love story as a retelling of history. The beautiful Greenstockings is a man-magnet. One of Franklin’s junior officers, Robert Hood, is besotted by her. Wiebe’s account of their deepening attraction – which finally erupts inside her father’s lodge – is as tender and tragic as a troubadour tale.

A reader cannot help noting the stylistic affinities of Wiebe’s two award-winning novels. Both use similar narrative devices – flashbacks, visionary dreams, multiple points-of-view – as well as similar prose styles. It’s almost as if the author said to himself, Hmm, that worked before. I’ll do it again.

Wiebe’s descriptive passages perfectly capture the sub-Arctic terrain, largely harsh and unforgiving in the eyes of the whites, no less harsh in the eyes of the Yellowknife, yet also pregnant with life and joy. We read of eerie ice caves, the fickle migrations of the caribou, and the endless threat of starvation. We enter the past. It may be long-lost but, in Wiebe’s hands, it is also eternally-present.

Postscript, 2019

When A Discovery of Strangers was published (1994), some people weren’t happy with Wiebe’s double voice appropriation, that is, writing from the point-of-view (POV) of both an indigenous person and a female. It’s no easy task for a male to write convincingly as a female, let alone for a white male to write as an indigenous female. However, Wiebe succeeded. Stylistically.

As to being politically correct, in 2019 many more people challenge Wiebe’s voice appropriation than twenty-five years ago. For the most part today, voice appropriation is frowned upon. A white male like me shouldn’t write from the POV of an indigenous person. I also shouldn’t write from the POV of a female. But I do. The protagonist and sole narrator of my North Noir detective series is a female, Eva Naslund, a Swedish-Scottish Canadian.

Why do I use a female narrator? The answer is not simple. I understand that, for some people, it’s not politically correct. I understand that I can’t think or feel exactly like a female. {Incidentally, it seems to be OK for females to use male POVs. For example, in the mystery genre, Louise Penny’s protagonist is Armand Gamache, and then there’s Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot.} Despite the recent voice appropriation furor, I persist. While I’m a supposedly honorable person (according to friends, and I don’t even pay them), I’m not always politically correct. I don’t think anyone is. I also persist because I write fiction. Works of imagination. Say no more.

My final spiel: I don’t care what narrative voice(s) you use. Write as a Purple Martian who’s in love with non-gender-specific star dust. If your POV is convincing, I’ll read it.

Post-Postscript:

See Rudy Wiebe on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rudy_Wiebe.

Cisco – Flannery O’Connor meets Elmore Leonard in San Fran

Cisco by Jim White. Dark Passages Publishing. 2019.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Cisco unfolds on the streets of San Fran. The protagonist, Cisco, is a cunning man, a kidnapper with a Biblical sense of wrath. His antagonist, Detective Helen McCurda, is a seasoned cop with no quit. The novella’s plotline is reminiscent of a Flannery O’Connor story. The reader gets religiosity and hard-scrabble life in equal measure. In addition to the O’Connor fictional MO, we are in Elmore Leonard land. White delivers Cisco with sharp, clear prose. There are no wasted words. We are immediately pulled into the story.

Cisco knows his Bible, but he doesn’t turn his cheek. He’s a lawless evangelical. He has no apparent remorse. A speech impediment humanizes him. However, it turns out to be fake. Some think he’s a mad man. Is he ‘criminally insane’? I’d say not. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s a killer/kidnapper of Biblical, as in monstrous, proportions, both physically and mentally. His strength appears to come from God, and yet he is a Fallen Man (echoes of Prospero and Caliban in ‘The Tempest’).

On the other side of the thin blue line, Detective McCurda is intelligent, tough, competent, and sympatico. She’s everything you want a cop to be. However, Cisco is the engine of the story. His actions and complex personality move the plot forward. As in Leonard’s novels, the criminals in Cisco are far more interesting than the cops. I like that. The cops can’t always be the stars. But I do have a minor complaint – which is really a compliment.I want more of Cisco. The story ended too soon.

The King of California Noir

Who’s the King of California Noir? Michael Connelly. Some might say Raymond Chandler (his protagonist was Philip Marlowe) or Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade). Others might make a case for Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t have to be a writer to be the King. However, in my eyes, Connelly is the reigning King of California Noir. His output surpasses that of Chandler or Hammett, but that’s not all. Harry (short for Hieronymus) Bosch, Connelly’s protagonist, is a more realistic and enduring lead than either Marlowe or Spade.

This post introduces Connelly’s Bosch series (it doesn’t review a particular novel). The Detective Harry Bosch novels are set in Los Angeles. Bosch is an LAPD detective. He’s a Vietnam vet, a former “tunnel rat” who operated in the vast underground mazes used by the Vietcong. He has no pretensions, and no patience for those who do. He’s tough and diligent, but he’s not a wooden macho man, not overly taciturn or snarky. Unlike Sam Spade, for example, Bosch is not hard-boiled to the core, which makes him an easier man to know. Hammett shows very little of Spade’s emotions and only the manly side. After all, Spade was a hard-edged dick. I’m not denigrating Hammett’s fictional MO. He wrote in the 1920s and 30s; hard-boiled was the schtick.

Connelly’s Bosch novels deliver plenty of explanatory details, making it easy to follow the story. Admittedly, that can slow the pace. He’s partial to what I call Hollywood plotting, such as extended car chases, but, hey, the books are set in LA. He’s more mainstream than Ian Rankin, for example. In some places, Connelly’s info-dumps are too long. Ditto for his police procedural details. At times, the prose is workman-like, which is not surprising given his prodigious output, almost a book a year. However, I’m OK with all of that. I get sharply plotted whodunits. I get a tough yet sympatico protagonist. I get LA. (I used to live there – shout-out to Irv and his family – and get a kick out of Bosch’s LA. Nostalgia Noir, eh.)

A few quotes from the Bosch opus ….

“Bosch knew every trick there was when it came to planting obfuscation and misdirection in a murder book. He could write a how-to manual on the art of turning the [pre-trial] discovery into a nightmare for a defense lawyer. It had been his routine practice back in the day to redact words in reports without rhyme or reason, to intermittently remove the toner cartridge from the squad room photocopier so that pages and pages he was turning over were printed so lightly they were impossible or at least headache-inducing to read.”

“Bosch never got used to viewing crime scenes. He had been to hundreds of them and seen the result of human inhumanity too many times to count. He always thought that if he got used to it, then he had lost something inside that was needed to do the job right. You had to have an emotional response. It was that response that lit the match that started the fire.”

Postscript: Standby for reviews of individual Bosch novels.