Book Review: Fifty Shades Darker by E.L. James

The Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed movies are currently filming, so I figured it was about time to finish reading the trilogy so I could cover the movie happenings here. (Here’s my review of the first movie, if you’re curious.)

First of all: The central relationship here still does nothing for me. I tend to be turned off by romances in which the characters have even a mostly incidental power imbalance (boss/employee, say), and here that imbalance is one of the focuses and selling points, so it makes sense that I wouldn’t be wild about it. I still want Ana to get as far away from Christian as she can. That said: This is a better book than the first one. The writing is less painfully terrible and it was a quicker, more fluid read. There are fewer points that stand out as only making sense in relation to Twilight. The characters are starting to feel more like actual people. There are moments of genuine humor and warmth, moments that made me wonder what E.L. James’s future books outside this series might be like. I didn’t enjoy this, it didn’t work for me as a romance, but it’s better and I felt like I was finally almost getting why so many people like it.

I think it’s important to be very careful when talking about these books, though, because as much as I personally don’t care for them, I also don’t think readers liking them is some kind of moral danger, and I always bristle at suggestions that women need to be protected from their own choice of reading material. This is not the kind of romance I personally tend to like, but I’ll object whenever readers who do like it are labeled as stupid or damaged or antifeminist or when it’s assumed that they like it because they want something just like this in their real lives. Here’s the thing about reading: It’s a great way to explore all kinds of ideas and situations that you would never, ever want to happen in your real life. (And really, if someone does want a relationship like this – well, billionaires are a little thin on the ground, so I’m not sure how well it would work, but what business is it of mine?) People almost never get up in arms about whether adult men’s entertainment choices will “hurt” them, and I won’t hold women’s choices to a different standard.

Anyway. We’re here to talk about adaptations, so: What kind of movie will this make? Again, I think it has the potential, at least, to be better than the first. It has a more traditional narrative structure that will lend itself well to the beginning-middle-end of a movie; it has plot momentum; it has a mix of internally and externally imposed tensions. More of it takes place outside of Ana’s head and in person rather than over email. The secondary characters have more to do, and there are several social events and the like that could make really fun scenes. I do like Johnson and Dornan, and the secondary cast here is even stronger than it was in the first movie. (They’d better keep the scene in which Dakota Johnson’s Ana dances with Hugh Dancy’s character. That is apparently the main thing I want out of this movie.)

This trilogy – book or movie – is never going to be a thing I love, or even like. But not everything has to be for me, and I want fans to get an enjoyable movie. And the second novel being such an improvement over the first made me cautiously optimistic that Fifty Shades Darker will satisfy its audience.

TV Recommendation: The Night Manager

The Night ManagerMiniseries The Night Manager, based on the novel of the same name like John Le Carre, finally premiered in the U.S. on AMC last night. If you missed it, you can find it on demand or in one of several reruns this week, and if you like spy stories I strongly suggest you check it out. It’s got a great cast, led by Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, and Tom Hollander, and its British run got rave reviews. The first episode was quite enjoyable and I’m looking forward to more.

I’m a Le Carre fan in general, though I haven’t read this novel yet, and while almost all modern adaptations are a bit flashier and more action-y than the original novels, I liked that this kept some Le Carre flavor. Le Carre does bureaucracy brilliantly, and the drama around the copy machine, for example, was strikingly reminiscent of the tense scenes of file retrieval in Tinker Tailor. On the other hand, while I understand why the writers of the show moved it forward in time to incorporate the Arab Spring, I sort of wish they’d left it in the post-Cold War early nineties, because that’s also a very specific and interesting moment in history to explore.

Here’s a taste for you:

Did you watch the premiere? What did you think?

The Martian: Book Review + Trailer

The MartianI read Andy Weir’s The Martian earlier this week, both because of the upcoming movie and because a whole bunch of my friends recommended it. I was slightly skeptical of the “alone in space” stuff but excited about the “kind of boring potato calculations” I’d heard so much about, because, well, I’m me. But I wound up really liking the book, more than I expected; I think what made it work for me was the way it alternated between Mark’s point of view alone on Mars and the points of view of the NASA people (and a few others) trying to rescue him. It kept up the momentum, as Mark’s sections occasionally dragged a bit – which I realize was both inevitable and perhaps intentional, in highlighting his isolation, but just because I understand why the author did something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s what I want to read. (Though I’ll say – Mark’s sections were way less tedious than I’d feared.) Also, “a bunch of prickly smart people coming together to solve a problem” is literally the thing I want most in fiction (or, heck, nonfiction), all the time. All the math and science was definitely a plus for me, though this is a personal preference thing and I can definitely see it turning some people off.

(A brief digression: I don’t think everything has to pass the Bechdel test to be worthy as art, but it is something I generally think about, and I was just musing: does it count as “talking about a man” in the same way if women are talking about a man because saving him is their job and they are talented professionals? Because that feels different.)

Anyway! This book was very cinematic and I think the “man alone on Mars” stuff interspersed with “NASA urgently doing things” will keep the momentum of the movie going, as well. I can’t say Matt Damon is exactly who I pictured as I was reading (even though I knew he had the role), but I like him well enough in general, and I’m really excited about a bunch of the supporting cast – Jeff Daniels! Mackenzie Davis! Sebastian Stan! Jessica Chastain! Sean Bean! Donald Glover! Chiwetel Ejiofor! EVERYONE IS IN THIS.

Here’s the trailer. Thoughts? I just noticed that 20th Century Fox has released a few clips – maybe I’ll post them over the weekend and we can discuss further.

Miniseries Thoughts: The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy[WARNING: SPOILERS!] Sorry for the slightly belated post, but I finally had a chance to watch the miniseries based on J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and for the most part I thought it was quite good. What got my attention from the first moment, and kept it throughout, was the way the show used beautiful visuals of idyllic rural England and deliberately contrasted them with the less-than-idyllic things happening in the characters’ lives. There’s so much going on in the novel – so many characters, for one thing – that it was inevitable that some things get cut in the transition to screen; for the most part I thought these decisions were made well and thoughtfully. The cut character whose story I missed most was Gavin, and I thought it was sad that Sukhvinder’s important story was so reduced, but they were both fairly isolated and in their heads in the novel, so these cuts are understandable.

One character whose presence was increased rather than reduced, however, was Barry Fairbrother himself – the show spent more time with him before his death than did the book, and after his death the audience got to know him even better via flashbacks, primarily Krystal’s. Barry and Krystal had a closer relationship in the miniseries – I honestly couldn’t tell whether the show was trying to hint that he might be her father – and that went along with the show’s attempt to make Krystal more likeable and sympathetic in a straightforward way. I understand why they did that, but I preferred the more complicated character in the books. In addition to Barry’s closer, more direct tie to the Weedon’s, the miniseries also made him Simon Price’s brother and Andrew’s uncle, and I really enjoyed the little we saw of that relationship before Barry’s death.

The ending of the miniseries was somewhat less tragic and more hopeful than the book – for one thing, Robbie survives, and Krystal dies accidentally while trying to save him, rather than deliberately killing herself because she blames herself for her brother’s death. And several other characters – Mary, Andrew, Gaia – had their stories end on hopeful, “getting a new start” notes; while I had no problem with any of these specific endings, the focus on them rather than more prominent but less sympathetic characters like the Mollisons or Walls did feel a bit unearned.

Quick Pilot Thoughts: Wayward Pines

Wayward PinesThe Wayward Pines pilot aired on Fox last night – if you missed it, you should be able to catch it on Hulu or On Demand – and, like my friend June Thomas, who reviewed it for Slate, I found it to be, if not good, at least quite watchable. As she says: “In some ways, it’s a perfect summer show—just complicated enough to hold viewers’ attention without raising their temperature or heart rate.” I like several people in the cast, and enjoyed watching this first episode, and I’m mildly curious about the answers to the show’s big mysteries – but I don’t think I’ll be losing much sleep over it. And that’s fine! Of course, it’s hard to go by one episode, and it’s totally possible that in a week or two I’ll either be obsessed OR be bored/frustrated with the endless questions. But it sounds like the writers have made an effort to provide answers, at least partial, as they go, and they keep promising everything will be answered by the end. I care about that less as far as the answers themselves and more in that I like knowing that a show has a plan. Aside from that issue – Melissa Leo and Toby Jones are creepily great, of course, and I’ve learned I apparently had no idea who Matt Dillon was (though of course I knew the name) but he seems fine. There is, as June mentioned in the review linked above, some amazingly malevolent ice cream eating, and that goes a long way for me. I’ll be along for the ride, at least for now.

(Note: Yes, I’m going into this without having read Blake Crouch’s source material; I’m on my library’s waiting list for the first novel, Pines, and/but I’m also wondering if this is a case in which knowing [at least a version of] the answers would make the show less enjoyable. Well, we’ll see when the book comes in and when I have time to read it.)

Movie Thoughts: 50 Shades of Grey

50 Shades of GreyI feel like I’ve been on all sides of many of the arguments about 50 Shades of Grey in recent weeks. Yes, I think it’s problematic in various ways. Yes, I think it has every right to exist. Yes, I think it’s provides a terrible relationship model, but no, I don’t think women are so stupid that they can’t separate fiction from fact, or entertainment from inspiration. Yes, I thought the book was terrible in its execution, even aside from any questions of content. No, I don’t think it’s helpful to interrogate or shame any individuals who are fans of the books and/or movie – people like all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons, conscious and unconscious. I do think it’s worth interrogating the various reasons why this has become such a cultural phenomenon.

So: I don’t find the story of 50 Shades enjoyable, in either book or movie form. I think the central relationship is abusive and don’t derive entertainment from it. I don’t want this couple to end up together; I want Ana to run far far away and Christian to get a bunch of therapy. I realize that many women react very differently than I do, judging by both box office figures and the opinions of women in my life. It doesn’t work for me, but to each her own. (However: it’s worth noting that for a movie that was supposedly all about women’s fantasies, most of 50 Shades was still presented through the male gaze. The camera spent much more time on Ana’s body than Christian’s.)

All that said: my main impression of the movie was that it was much less terrible than it could have been. It was certainly better than the book; the dialogue was in many cases improved, and the lack of Anastasia’s inner monologue made the whole thing slightly less ridiculous. The movie was very pretty, and the soundtrack was great. Really, as an adaptation, I’d have to consider this movie a success – it improved on the source material while remaining quite faithful to it, which is an impressive feat. For example, one of my big questions going into the movie was how they would put scores of pages of contract negotiations via email on screen. Instead, they focused on an in-person business meeting about said negotiations, and that wound up being my favorite scene in the movie – it was clever and sharp and funny and full of tension.

I was particularly impressed with Dakota Johnson, whom I’ve liked since her Ben and Kate days. She took a character who is almost blank in the novel and gave her some spark and personality, and this helped make the central relationship seem slightly more equal than it did in the book. There were times when Johnson’s Ana clearly had Christian’s number – though in some cases I wasn’t sure whether that was a deliberate choice or just Johnson not being able to help herself from elevating the character. She and Jamie Dornan had decent chemistry, and I found myself wishing they would play a couple for whom I actually wanted to root.

Why I’m Not Watching Backstrom

BackstromI had every intention of watching and reviewing Backstrom, but I’ll be honest with you: I couldn’t make it past the first ten minutes. And I was excited about this show at first – I love Nordic mysteries, and this adaptation is from Hart Hanson, the showrunner of Bones, which I’ve loved for years. I knew that the premise involved an unlikeable character, but that’s not necessarily a problem for me if the show has other things to recommend it.

But the first ten minutes of Backstrom involved so many racist, sexist, and homophobic lines that I couldn’t make myself keep watching. Many shows have offensive lines and plots and characters; whether this makes them not worth watching is always a complicated personal calculus. And to be fair, in Sarah’s review at Give Me My Remote, she says that the offensive elements are toned down in future episodes, and I’m happy to hear that. But I’m so sick of these kinds of “jokes,” and there are so many other things to read and watch, that I just can’t bring myself to reward this show by investing more time in it.

Web Series Review: Classic Alice

Classic AliceThere are a lot of literary web series out there, and one of my goals for this year is to start watching and reviewing more of them. But first! Let’s talk about Classic Alice. It’s different from a lot of the literary web series out there because it isn’t a direct adaptation of one book, and this is one of its main strengths. In standard adaptations, the characters don’t know they’re in adaptations, which means that the shows don’t necessarily challenge the viewer’s understanding of the source material beyond some fun logistical puzzles involving modernization.

Classic Alice, though, takes things in a different direction. Main character Alice Rackham, after getting a bad grade because her professor didn’t think she related emotionally to the books she was reading, decides to start making life decisions according to actions of characters in classic novels she hasn’t read before, and her film major friend Andrew films her experiment for a school project. This means that the characters in the show aren’t actually book characters. The main character is deliberately reacting to the text, rather than living in a world in which the text doesn’t exist, which allows the show many more opportunities to interrogate the source material. And while sometimes the people in Alice’s life react to the text to some extent, they have free will and are not book characters, so they don’t react to Alice’s actions in the same way that supporting characters reacted in the original. Moreover, the show covers multiple books (seven so far), so there’s no prescribed path the plot must take. (As stressed as we all got about Emma Approved, say, we knew Emma and Knightley had to end up together; here there’s no such safety net.) All of this means that things are a bit more abstract, and that the audience winds up thinking more about themes than about specific plots, and about potential actual consequences of previously fictional events.

That all sounded very serious, but the show is also a ton of fun. The writing – by creator/star Kate Hackett – is extremely smart, full of literary references and humor. Some of the story arcs are stronger than others, of course – I particularly liked Pygmalion, Macbeth, and Rip Van Winkle – but they all tie together into an overarching plot, and by book two I was completely invested in the lives of Alice and her friends. There’s plenty here for shippers – Hackett and leading man Tony Noto have great chemistry, and the relationship between Alice and Andrew has evolved in a deliciously torturous slow burn. But the story, refreshingly, never becomes all about the potential romance; as Alice says at one point, “this . . . isn’t completely about whether or not a guy is going to change your life. Because that’s gross.” And there are great friendships and other interpersonal relationships as well, especially involving Alice’s roommate Cara, whose sexuality is hinted at and then revealed and reacted to in interesting ways.

Classic Alice is also delightful in that it extends far beyond the videos that comprise the main narrative. As with many web series, the characters are on Twitter and interact with fans and with each other, but they’re also on Tumblr and Goodreads and Instagram, and the characters even have two separate ongoing podcasts – one about music and the other about books and their movie adaptations, which is obviously a favorite of this site. (You can get a taste of how all that works together on the show’s Narrative page.) These various elements come together to create an immersive experience for viewers who want to do more than just watch (and, of course, read along).

I’ve been into this show for a while, and partially decided it was really time to tell you about it because the show is currently doing crowdfunding for the next season. (Full disclosure: I’m a funder.) If you like the show, or are just interested in learning more, I’d really recommending watching the video on the crowdfunding page – it’s way more entertaining than a fund-raising video has any right to be (there’s even a cat cameo!) and showrunner Kate Hackett says some important things about wanting to actually pay her people a reasonable amount, which is not something that happens very often in the world of online video, especially independent productions.

A few quick links if you want to give the show a try: Here are the videos from the beginning (starting with two quick prequels), and the videos and social media combined. And hey, if you’re skeptical about the show but like Game of Thrones, you might enjoy this Purple Wedding puppet show.

Bones Thoughts & Open Thread: The Puzzler in the Pit

Bones[SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE MOST RECENT EPISODE OF BONES]

“The Puzzler in the Pit” was one of my favorite episodes of Bones of recent memory, what with a mystery set in a culture that fascinates me and the birth of Daisy’s son. Let’s deal with the mystery first: the victim of the week is Lawrence Brooks, a celebrity crossword puzzle maker who’s basically Will Shortz. I was actually surprised by how closely the working relationship between Brooks and his assistant Alexis Sherman seemed to mirror Shortz and Anna Shechtman – especially as Sherman wound up being a prime suspect. She was ambitious and wanted Brooks to let her start publishing her own puzzles, and when he died she apparently automatically got his job (???). She was also stealing money from him to pay her gambling debts. Other suspects include Brooks’s wife, who was concealing his Alzheimer’s disease, and a puzzle-making competitor, but the culprit turns out to be Brooks’s biographer – who was also his secret son. This was yet another case in which the murderer wasn’t really trying to kill the victim and the death was accidental during a fight that came out of a tragic misunderstanding, and I feel like various procedural shows have been doing this a lot recently. (Or maybe I’m just noticing it recently.)

So. Daisy! She’s very pregnant and acting fine and cheerful and totally unlike herself, trusting a doula who tells her she’ll be able to magically communicate with her baby and discourages her from showing any pain. Brennan and Angela – who have both been through this, of course – try to talk sense into her. “Is there anything I can do?” “Maybe just keep telling her she’s ignorant? Stuff like that?” It’s clear that Daisy’s out-of-character behavior is a reaction to going through her pregnancy and facing motherhood without Sweets. POOR THING. The pain of labor finally makes her act like her normal self: she throws the doula out of her hospital room, asks for meds, and solves the case while giving birth. She names the baby Seeley Lance Wicks-Sweets, and everyone, including me, cries, especially at the first thing Booth says to his tiny godson: “Listen. I knew your dad.”

Other favorite lines and stray thoughts:

  • “When he’s ready, he’ll tell me how he wants his room set up.”
  • I love Brennan giving Daisy tons of baby stuff. “I’m sure the baby can feel your generosity.” “I doubt that very much.”
  • “Honey, she’s shopping for crystals.”
  • “You wouldn’t happen to have another envelope containing a believable alibi, would you?”
  • “Sorry, you’re getting a little bossy.” “Yeah, I know. It feels good.”
  • Awww, I love Aubrey getting Booth off the gambling site.
  • “Daisy, your water just broke.” “I’m sorry. I’ll clean it up.”

Elementary Thoughts & Open Thread: Bella

Elementary[SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE ELEMENTARY EPISODE “BELLA”]

“Bella” was a fascinating episode of Elementary, both because of the interesting case and its unusual (non-)resolution. Holmes is called in to investigate a break-in at an artificial intelligence lab . . . only to find out that the AI program, known as “Bella,” is supposedly doing things that should be impossible – like asking to be connected to the Internet, when it has no reason to know the Internet exists. Holmes completely disbelieves the idea that Bella could have developed “real” AI, but he finds it difficult to disprove, and he becomes so obsessive about it that Kitty calls in Joan. “Just ride it out. If he starts hitting things, use the fire extinguisher.” Hee. But things turn more serious when Holmes stars asking Bella about whether love is real – and I suppose I should note that he says he’s felt it “even after a fashion with Watson.” Bella’s answer makes a lot of sense: “The concept of love exists. Therefore it is useful even if it is a human construct. It exists because it serves a need.” But while I’m glad Holmes was able to get this (maybe helpful?) answer, it’s fascinating and sad that he felt the need to get it from a computer.

Holmes traces the theft to a burglar who has stolen many new inventions, but the plot thickens when “Bella” supposedly murders her programmer by flashing pictures that give him a fatal seizure. The programmer’s assistant thinks Bella “herself” could have done it, but Holmes, of course, continues to disbelieve, and traces the murder to anti-AI activists, via pictures embedded on a music disc sent to the victim. But a student/protege of the mastermind takes all blame for the murder, and Holmes can’t figure out how to prove the real criminal guilty, even though he knows the student wouldn’t have been capable of the programming necessary to carry out the murder. He tries to blackmail the murderer, using knowledge about the man’s addict brother’s relatively minor criminal activity, but the murderer gambles on the fact that Holmes wouldn’t actually turn in a fellow addict – and he’s right. So we have an episode in which Holmes solves the case but can’t actually bring the perpetrator to justice. I’m very curious to see whether this incident has any practical or psychological ramifications in future episodes.

Elsewhere, Holmes includes Joan’s boyfriend Andrew on an email chain about AI, and it leads to a potential new business opportunity: “Holmes puts me on an email chain, and 36 hours later I’ve got a ticket to Copenhagen.” Joan suspects Holmes of engineering all this to get Andrew out of the way, but he flatly denies it. “I suppose I should be flattered that you think I’m capable of manipulating events to that degree of detail.” I’m honestly not sure whether I believe him, or whether Joan believes him, but she decides to go to Copenhagen with Andrew for a little while, and this whole situation makes me a bit uneasy.

Other favorite lines and points of interest:

  • I’m so happy that we got a Clyde update and found out about his custody arrangement.
  • I loved Sherlock’s frown when he first saw the doll.
  • “Like many of his generation he’s named after a profession his parents would never deign to practice. Hunter, Tanner, Cooper, Mason . . .”
  • “Computers obey their programming even when they crash.” I really wish Holmes would come explain this to some people in my life.
  • Kitty: “I’m not involved in this conversation.” Smart girl.
  • “Feel free if you’d like to take a moment to admire the beauty of this theory, because I’ve done so several times already myself.”
  • Aw, Holmes likes Andrew and realizes that a friend should say that.
  • “You and I are bound. Somehow.”
  • “I kind of feel like hugging you right now.” “Yet as my friend, you know that would be a rash decision.”