Wrapping up

Now that the course is pretty much over, I thought I’d wrap up, as I begin reading the essays, by saying how much I enjoyed teaching what was, for me as well as for most of you, a very new subject of study. I hope the course did at least this for you:

– raised awareness about Adaptation Studies and adaptation as a creative act in itself, not independent from literary or film studies, but not merely intermediate between them;

– brought home the importance of seeing adaptation as more than a problem of fidelity to an original source text;

– suggested new ways to read literary texts (thanks to the help of adaptations) and to view films (based on their adaptive choices);

– and, of course, introduced you to new novels, stories, writers and films.

Thanks for a great term, and good luck with your future pursuits. Please, if you haven’t yet, take a minute to fill out the course evaluations online; these will be available until December 5.

I continue to invite suggestions for alternative adaptations that you might have liked to see in the course. Some of my own thoughts include the novel Red Alert and Kubrick’s adaptation, the great Dr. Strangelove; An Education, based on a short nonfiction essay by Lynn Barber; What Maisie Knew by Henry James, adapted by Scott McGehee and David Siegel; and The Color Purple written by Alice Walker and adapted by Steven Spielberg. Thanks to Heather for proposing Fight Club, Romeo + Juliet, O Brother Where Art Thou (ad. of Homer’s Odyssey) and Life of Pi.

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How to do well on your essay

It’s a surprisingly little-known fact that professors and TAs like, even love, to give good grades. Think about it: who but a sadist would enjoy giving bad ones? I’m not saying that there aren’t some profs who are, but most aren’t. I’ll tell you now that I really like giving As. I really do. Reading a solid essay, in which the writer was at least somewhat interested, is satisfying, and much more pleasant, than reading one that has been whipped off in a few hours. I like giving As, but the students have to help me out with that: I can only give them if they’re deserved. I definitely think being interested in your topic, rather than simply trying to say what you’ve learned in class or what you think I might want to read, is a good start. If you’re not interested, you should write as if you were. But here are a few little things that can also help, though some are more major than others:

1. Read what the syllabus and the essay-topic handout say about what I expect, formatting, etc.

2. Make sure you clearly understand the topic. Also note that the topic is written in a purposefully general way, so make sure you take that topic and narrow it down. This seems self-evident, but in practice many unsuccessful essays are unsuccessful because this was not taken seriously.

3. If you find yourself mostly covering material and interpretations which I covered in lecture, you’re probably on the wrong track. You don’t have to use my lectures or my focus on narratology at all, and if you do, make sure you’re coming at the topic from a different angle. For example, if you’re writing on A Clockwork Orange and how it uses meta-filmic devices to achieve the defamiliarization that Anthony Burgess achieves through Nadsat, then you’re simply making the same argument I made in lecture–and that’s not going to pay off in terms of grades. This essay is supposed to be your own interpretation of a question, and if it’s a question that we’ve discussed, then you have to approach it differently.

4. You do NOT have to focus on narration, narratology, focalization or any of those aspects. If you want to, make sure you know what these terms mean specifically.

5. If you find yourself using the words “tone,” “mood,” “theme,” “discourse,” “focalize,” “narrative” and the like, stop and ask yourself if there isn’t a more straightforward way to say what you mean. These are among the most misused terms in this class, so if you’re going to use them, look them up in a glossary of literary terms.

6. This is a bit less easy to implement, but perhaps it’s really the general idea that counts: ideally, you should be able to explain precisely what every statement in your essay means. There is a tendency in English essays towards vague or profound-sounding statements, but literary criticism, like scientific, historical, political etc writing strives on precision and accuracy. This is why I prefer essays to be written in plain-speech style than in a style that seems “academic.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t use fancy words–only that you should use them when they are the exact word you need to make your precise statement. If I had to generalize, I’d say that verbs are the mostly likely kind of word to be used loosely.

7. When quoting from the fictions or the films, make sure to cite your sources–this sounds super basic, but not everyone has been doing it in their entries. Also, make sure that your quotations are serving your argument, not merely repeating it. Think of quotations as evidence to support a claim, or as raw material in which digging around produces something hidden. Avoid long quotations unless the entire passage you’re quoting is relevant.

8. Generally, when writing about “textual” events (things that happen in stories, novels, films, plays, poems, criticism), you should use the present tense. Norman Bates spies on Marion before killing her (not spied), and Hitchcock uses music in complex ways (not used). However, if you were talking about a historical event, you’d probably use the past tense, say: Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann had many disagreements about how to use music in the film. Similarly, Laura Mulvey argues that cinematic language is largely put in the service of male fantasies; when she published her seminal essay on the male gaze, she kick-started the field of feminist film theory. There are exceptions to this practice, but the general rule is to use present for textual events, past for historical ones.

9. Many students use phrasing involving expressions like “is seen to”–for example, “In Away from Her, Grant is seen to drive to Meadowlake several times.” Now, I guess this is accurate in some ways, but it is ultimately distracting and unnecessary. Avoid “is seen to” unless that fact is actually relevant. Otherwise, “In Away from Her, Grant drives to Meadowlake several times” is preferable: it’s more concise, it’s more active/energetic, it keeps the focus on what happens in the film (rather than on the viewing of the film) and it sounds better.

10. Some of my critical pet peeves: (1) when a film or novel is said to fail because the characters don’t develop or change. This is a convention learned from reading reviews, and I suppose it’s useful for certain purposes. But character development is not universally necessary or even desirable: for example, character development is antithetical to satire and many other kinds of comedy (though it is necessary in romcoms). Imagine Arrested Development (good name for this discussion, actually) with character development: impossible, and certainly not funny. A good amount of humour in that show derives from the fact that though Michael, Gob, George Michael and Lucille try to change in every episode, they never succeed. In other words, though character development can be important, it is not always good. I’d say that lack of character development in Jindabyne would be a problem (if it were lacking), whereas its absence in “So Much Water So Close to Home” is part of the point. (2) When some aspect of a novel or film is said to be important because it “moves the plot forward.” This is in many ways a truism. Witness this: “The character of Marian in Away from Her is crucial because she helps propel the plot forward.” Well, yes. But that’s not an argument. It’s like saying fuel is important to a car because it helps propel the vehicle forward. (3) When a theme is said to affect the story of a novel or film. Themes don’t do anything in a plot; they are abstractions that we, the audience, recognize in or infer from films and novels. In effect, if it’s doing something, it’s something other than a theme.

11. Some of my grammatical and formatting pet peeves. You know some of these already: for example, the fact that I expect you to know the formatting conventions for the titles of novels, films, and short stories. A few others: the incorrect use of whom. If you don’t know for sure how to use this word, don’t use it (actually, that’s a good rule for any word)–I don’t mind when who is used where whom would be correct, but I do mind when whom is used where who would be correct. In short, whom is NOT just a fancy word for who. Other bugbears: the perennial confusion of its / it’s (as well as the use of non-existent variants like its’) and who’s / whose; the omission of necessary apostrophes (for example, “In Alfred Hitchcocks film…”); the tendency to use unusual or “technical” terms as if they were synonyms for more common, perfectly good words (e.g., “focalization” instead of “focus”; “domineer” instead of “dominate”; “utilize” instead of “use”); the incorrect use of semi-colons (again, if you don’t know the rules, don’t use ’em, or if you want to use them, go to HyperGrammar and learn the rules); and the epidemic use of sentence fragments; the use of hyphens (-) instead of dashes (–) (in brief, hyphens are used to connect two words into a compound word, like “reverse-shot”; dashes are used to bracket off an aside from the main part of a sentence, like “Anthony Burgess–who wrote several novels other than A Clockwork Orange–was also an accomplished musical composer”).

More to come…

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Camera movement as allusion: *Away from Her* and *Last Night*

In class I briefly alluded to Sarah Polley’s adaptation of the very last scene of Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” a poignant scene as touching, morally fraught and complicated as anything out there. I was tipped off by an article by Robert McGill* that the camera’s slow orbit around Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie) alluded to the final scene of an earlier Canadian film in which Sarah Polley appears as an actor, Last Night (1998, dir. Don McKellar).

Here is that scene, involving McKellar himself and a young and pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sandra Oh, as part of a montage showing what the other characters are up to as the world comes to an end. Sarah Polley appears briefly on the roof of a car as bits of paper float in the air like confetti. (Spoiler alert, in a way: this is, after all, the very end of a movie.) Choosing to wink at Last Night in the ending of Away from Her adds layers to Polley’s adaptation of Munro’s story–not least the implied equation of the definite end of something–not the end of the world, as in Last Night, but the imminent end of Fiona. It is an odd way to pack an emotional punch, being so intellectual and technical, and yet, for me anyway, it works.

Last Night, like almost everything else Don McKellar touches, is well worth seeing. While I’m on the topic I’ll name my favourites: Highway 61 (1991, dir. Bruce McDonald, written/perf. Don McKellar); Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1992, dir. Francois Girard, written by Girard and McKellar); the (Canadian) cult classic TV series Twitch City (featuring, alongside McKellar, a pre-Deadwood Molly Parker) and Slings & Arrows, the excellent three-season meta-adaptation of three Shakespeare plays and general satire of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival industry, a truly hilarious series starring, among others, McKellar, Paul Gross, Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney, Rachel McAdams, Colm Feore and Sarah Polley.

I also have the honour of once having been seriously trounced at the barroom trivial game NTN by Don McKellar, while he whispered encouragements to me from his table across the aisle.

*The Robert McGill paper alluded to above is “No Nation but Adaptation: ‘The Bear Came over the Mountain,’ Away from Her, and What It Means to Be Faithful.” Canadian Literature 197 (Summer 2008): 98-111.

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On *Psycho*

Here are some thoughts from Georgia:

It is interesting that Bloch and Hitchcock took different approaches to the depiction of mental illness in Psycho. Bloch is much more concerned with exploring issues of mental illness within one person and because of this we got a lot of Norman’s insights into mental illness and thus his self because he suffers from mental illness. We also gets Sam’s report back to Lila about what Dr. Steiner says and as Dan pointed out in class Sam is a character we  know and trust in the novel so we are more apt to believe what he says than a strange Doctor character. Steiner alludes to not grasping Norman’s full illness when Sam says Steiner suspects Norman has been a transvestite for some time, but because cannot say for how long because Norman will not speak to him about it. This ignorance on the doctor’s part  is briefly mentioned and quickly glanced over. Bloch is ultimately presenting a diagnosis for Norman’s issues and ties up the ends of the story.  

Hitchcock on the other hand is interested in exploring mental illness in relation to society as a whole. That’s part of the reason Norman is introduced so late in the film. Hitchcock also raises issues with Marion’s mental health on several occasions, in the office when her marriage obsessed co-worker offers the society sanctioned ‘nerve pills’ given to her by her mother. The scenes of Marion driving with a look of puzzled terror echo the faces we later see on Norman who we know is mentally unstable. Also we repeatedly see Sam and Lila say things like “this is not like her” “it is out of here character” emphasizing the idea that we really do not know the mental stability of anyone, even those closest to us, our family, friends, and lovers. Hitchcock again reinforces this societal exploration into mental illness by making Norman’s mental state more complex and problematic than Bloch’s character, and more importantly, more than the Doctor at the end of the film can explain.

Hitchcock in fact creates a fourth personality for Norman that Norman is not even aware of. This fourth personality is a silent stuffed bird. We hear of Norman’s interest in stuffing only birds, there is the repeated bird motive and Norman compares his mother to a stuffed bird. However, this personality of a stuffed bird is most evidenced in the scene where Norman is carrying his mother’s corpse down the stairs. We get a bird’s eye view which in fact is Norman’s fourth personality overseeing the events. One may argue Hitchcock does this to make it less obvious that Norman is carrying a corpse, but Hitchcock was able to create mystery in the shower without changing the eye-level perspective. A film maker like Hitchcock would not superfluously infuse such an awkward angle and positioning just to obscure the old lady when he could achieve that by shooting behind Norman’s shoulder or from a great distance or even the foot of the stairs. If Norman who has acquired his mother’s personality sees his mother as a stuffed bird he is also seeing himself as a stuffed bird since they are one and the same. Another incidence that supports this fourth personality interpretation is the end when Mother’s personality is talking about sitting so still, not moving while the fly is on her hand. This can be viewed as a mix of both mother who we have seen in the past is very active, killing, and evading Norman, and the stuffed bird who is immobile and just an observer. I believe the stuffed bird personality is where Norman hides Norman and Normal when Norma is out killing giving ‘them’ a bird’s eye view but making it obscure enough they can avoid culpability.

 Lastly as we discussed in class Hitchcock wants to discredit the diagnosis of the doctor, not as wrong, but as not complex enough to describe Norman’s situation, cookie cutter if you will. By creating a fourth personality the Doctor cannot perceive or diagnosis adds a layer of credence and credibility to the idea that society as a whole cannot know exactly what is going on in a person’s mind completely. 

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Quiz tomorrow

Quiz # 2 will take place tomorrow (Wednesday) during the last 6 – 10 minutes of class, after the lecture on Away from Her and “The Bear Came over the Mountain.” The quiz is worth 10% of the final grade.

Tomorrow is also the last chance to submit the revised journal entry (10%). Make sure to follow the checklist on the instructions sheet.

I’ll be holding extended office hours after lecture tomorrow, from 1:00 to 3:00. Bring your questions and ideas for your essays.

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On the strange unreliability of Munro’s narrator

On the strange unreliability of Munro’s narrator

This is a link to a post from my Narrative blog; I taught “The Bear Came over the Mountain” last summer, using it as an example of a very rare phenomenon: when a third-person narrator can be considered unreliable.

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An imperfect pattern is a Clockwork Orange?

Here’s a great observation from Anna:

The number given to Alex DeLarge when he enters the prison presented itself as frustratingly odd and imperfect; the number ‘655321’ is dangerously close to a neat, descending pattern: 654321. The inconsistency in the pattern could be seen as a representation of Alex’s character as either innately flawed or flawed upon entrance to the prison but potentially curable, in which case they would remove the number (which they ultimately do when he is finished treatment). Later in the film we see Dim, who has become a law enforcement officer, wearing a number on his sleeve: ‘665’. The connection between Alex’s flawed pattern and Dim’s similarly deficient one seems too suggestive to avoid. Initially, I read this as a conflation of the flaw in Alex and the one in Dim, suggesting that the two men are comparable in their sense of morality. This analysis is useful not only to highlight the unfairness of the treatment Alex is subjected to, since someone who is similarly flawed was rewarded with a position as a law enforcement official, but also as a suggestion that it is simply by a random series of events that Alex ended up in a disadvantaged position, while Dim gained a profitable one. However, we can also read the repetition of the flawed number as indicative of a legal system that is wholly flawed;  both Dim and Alex were prescribed numbers, one that condemns and another that legitimizes, yet both characters are seen as having defects prior to the assignment these numbers, thus, it is the system that allocates the numbers which is flawed since its coding prescribes a flawed pattern on both incarcerated and authority.

This simple fact, that Alex’s prisoner number resembles in some ways Dim’s badge number, opens up a remarkably rich array of interpretive possibilities. Anna’s interpretation in just one very good way to read it. Any other ideas out there?

One of my own ideas is that 655321 is a numerical version of the expression “a clockwork orange,” the regularity of the clockwork (654321) being made unpredictable, organic as it were, by the break in the sequence. Dim’s 665 might also make him out to be not quite Evil, Evil’s number being 666.

Karen C. adds this, about another odd detail that Kubrick adds in his adaptation:

On Alex’s shirt, there are two bloody eyeballs on his cuff. The eyeballs could be interpreted as a way Alex looks at the world. As eyeballs are associated with ‘seeing’, having the eyeballs on the cuffs, it could possibly show the way Alex sees the world. Together with the blood on the eyeballs, with blood usually signifying brutality and violence, it hints at the violent perspective that Alex is using to see the world with.

Apart from that, the eyeballs also foreshadow the treatment that Alex will be receiving at the institution, where his eyes will be clamped open, forcing him to watch violent scenes. The blood on the eyeballs suggests that the eyeball is being forcefully torn out and placed on the cuff, and together with the equally disturbing image of having his eyes clamped open, it conveys the message that Alex is being forced to see and participate.

The positions for the eyeballs also suggest self reflection. The eyeballs appear to look back to Alex, especially in the image
attached. It strikes a stronger impact in this scene as Alex puts away the money and watches he stole from other people, and the eyeballs on his sleeve seems to be looking back at him, possibly suggesting that there is an element of self consciousness or self reflection that is shown.

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Student entries now on website

Most of the revised journal entries have now been posted on this site. To find them, click on the “Assignments” page and choose entries on the menu, which is organized by film.

If your entry is not posted, this is because you have not yet sent me an e-copy of the entry (in the body of the email please).

If you haven’t yet submitted a hard copy along with a printout of the original entry, with my handwritten comments, bring that to tutorial on Tuesday or class on Wednesday. I will grade the submissions only once I have the hard copy and the original with comments.

Meanwhile, A Clockwork Orange seems to have struck a nerve in the class, and several of you have brought up some very interesting observations or analyses. Please post them here!

Here’s one from Mariam, which is intriguing but which I am totally unable to respond to, not knowing Peter Evans or American Horror Story in the least. Here is her post, along with her call for opinions, responses, etc.

While watching Kubrick’s film, I couldn’t help but notice that actor
Evan Peters (American Horror Story) looks a lot like Malcolm McDowell
in the 1970s. And while the film continued, I noticed a lot more  similarities that I couldn’t just shake off as coincidental.   I  listed some similarities I’ve noticed.

mcdowell evans

Both the film and the second season of the show seem to focus on the
idea of choice and free will. Characters:
Kit Walker (Evan Peters): Accused serial killer
Alex De Large (Malcolm McDowell): murder (unintentional)

For both Alex and Kit, psychiatric treatment is used as a means of reform.
Big influence of religion (Christianity for both)
In both cases religion does not provide any salvation.
The presence of some kind psychiatric facility
A form of brainwashing or manipulation is used in order revoke the right to choice.
Kit Walker is tricked in to believing he killed all those women. He
does not get the choice to object the accusation.  Similarly, Alex
does not get the choice to act unlawfully; if he tries to, he gets
physically ill.
The presence of happy songs that becomes perverted: Clockwork Orange; Beethoven’s 9th symphony and “Singing In The Rain”; American Horror Story:  Dominique ‘The singing Nun’ and “The Name Game.”

These are just a few similarities I’ve noticed. There may be more, as I am only drawing upon my memory of a show I watched about a year ago.    On further examination, I think American Horror Story: Asylum is borrowing from the film A Clockwork Orange. The TV show obviously falls in to the genre of horror but I?m not entirely sure the Kubrick’s film does.  I do however; strongly believe that Kubrick’s film has specific moments that classify as a thriller or horror.  The graphic moments that are presented in film seem way more
graphic than I imagined when reading the novella.  Even though, Anthony Burgess’s novella has moments that are difficult to read, an alternate visual medium makes these moments more difficult to swallow. The film creates inescapable images. I did not experience the same effect when reading the novella. I’m not sure why this is the case. It might be that I may not have as much of an imaginative mind as I’d like to think I have. Or more possibly, it is because I didn’t want to envision a lot of these scenes. These are just my ramblings but I do feel that Ryan Murphy borrowed from Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.  The  pictures that I have attached, might be the only proof needed.  I do not believe my observation is anything really substantial, but I found it interesting. What are your thoughts?

My own strange Clockwork Orange connection is this oldish Canadian add for Milk, which precedes the less cheesy but more obnoxious “Got Milk?” campaign. The combination of milk (Alex’s moloko) and Beethoven’s 9th is too suggestive to avoid.


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More exemplary journal entries

Several students have asked me what an A or A+ journal entry looks like. I’ve already posted two A entries, but I now have had three A+ entries, so I post one here, with the author’s permission. Notice how specific this entry is, and how much material it finds in what appears to be a very simple difference between novel and film. I have silently made a few changes to terminology and formatting, but otherwise the piece is un-edited. Thanks to the student for this altruistic submission:

In looking at the very opening scenes from P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men and Alfonso Cuaron’s film Children of Men, I noticed that both mediums use Theo as the focalizer, but in very different, maybe even opposite, ways. Although both film and novel begin with the death of Baby Diego/Joseph Ricardo, he is only a symbol, and the focalization is meant to be on Theo, specifically Theo as a character who is disaffected by what society has become.

I would like to argue that the opening of the film and the novel are structured in fundamentally different ways, yet they achieve the same thing. In the film, the first shot is a blank screen where news reporters read daily headlines, rife with war and cultural disputes. The “lead story” that day is the death of Baby Diego and the scene opens on a coffee shop filled with people looking at the TV to see the news. It is then that Theo Faron, the film’s protagonist pushes his way into the shop to buy a coffee. Through these first opening shots I propose that the structure of the opening is seen as such:

Julianna entry novelIn the film, Theo must push his way into the foreground, and his perspective is not shared by the others around him; his gaze is focused forward on the counter where all of the others gaze fixedly upwards towards the TV monitor.

In the opening pages of the novel, we first hear of Joseph Ricardo’s death, then learn that it was “the last item mentioned”. It isn’t until after Joseph Ricardo’s death is mentioned that Theo reveals that he is sitting down to begin a diary. Once we realize that this is actually beginning in Theo’s first-person perspective, we must recalibrate our idea of what the story actually begins with. Because the opening is filtered directly through Theo’s perspective I would argue that Theo’s “entrance” in the scene is first and foremost in the scene’s structure, not Joseph Ricardo’s death. Thus, the structure of the novel’s opening would look like a mirror image to the opening of the film:

Julianna entry novelThe common point between the two structures is the placement of Baby Diego/Joseph Ricardo’s death between Theo’s perspective and other news stories. Because of this one might suggest that this is the central point of the opening scenes/pages but I think that in both cases the story of Baby Diego/Joseph Ricardo is only a symbol, used to highlight Theo and his remove from and disdain with society. In both film and novel Theo’s reception of the news is incidental; he is simply going to get coffee in the film when he is forced to acknowledge the news screen, in the novel he hears the news by chance and, further, he had already decided to begin his diary prior to hearing the news.

Even though the structures are opposite, they achieve the same effect, making Theo our focalizer and highlighting his disillusion with society. In the film, as Theo leaves the coffee shop the camera follows him out and pans around him as he pours alcohol into his coffee cup—here the film is mimicking the novel’s sneaky inclusion of Theo as the focalizer. In the novel, as I have mentioned, the structure appears to begin with Joseph Ricardo’s death but then we realize that Theo is writing a diary and, thus, it has been presented through his perspective the whole time. The film achieves a similar effect: beginning with Baby Diego, it appears that the focus is on his news story. However, as Theo leaves the coffee shop where Baby Diego was the focus, the camera not only follows him out but continues to circulate around him, literally showing that he is the center of our attention.

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A Clockwork Orange

This Tuesday, we’ll be watching the bulk of Stanley Kubrick’s extremely controversial 1971 film A Clockwork Orange, which Kubrick himself chose to pull from distribution in the UK after a series of copy-cat crimes. It wasn’t available there until 2000. The film is a bit longer than the time we have available on Tuesday (136 minutes), so we’ll end the film on Wednesday before moving on to a discussion of what the heck Anthony Burgess was up to with the Nadsat, the “ultraviolence” and the highly debated 21st chapter, which Kubrick omitted from his adaptation.

If I still have some or all your journal entries, please come to the tutorial on Tuesday to pick them up. You’ll need them in order to revise your entry for the next assignment (due Wednesday).

I’ll start posting entries on this site as soon as they start appearing in my inbox (please use my “mail.utoronto” address).

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