Research Matters!

Front Row this evening on BBC Radio 4, interviewed Peter Kosminsky about his new TV drama The State, a TV drama about the very serious and controversial subject of IS. Kosminsky said that he spent 18 months researching before he started writing, and that he had an “experienced research team” – amazing isn’t it, research matters!

(That’s it, I have nothing more to add, I just want this noted down where I can find it again easily.)

The Handmaid’s Tale

Spoiler alert!

I watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4, and saw the final episode last weekend.

While it is good TV, I find it interesting that The Handmaid’s Tale, a drama about an invented dystopia full of sexual violence, is seen as ‘important’ TV, while something like Three Girls, a dramatisation of real-world sexual violence that tells us how and why the sexual violence was able to happen and was allowed to happen, while critically acclaimed, has not received the ‘important’ label?

You can write about, or make a TV show about, any subject you like, as long as you do it well and treat it with respect. The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly well made in terms of production values, acting etc., and it does not treat it’s subject as trivial. But I cannot convince myself that it is ‘important’.

Watching TV is not, and never will be, ‘activism’, and when what you are watching is fiction, you are not ‘waking yourself up’ to anything.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale’s popularity due to the fact that we, the audience, can get a vicarious thrill when we know that it isn’t real? But that explanation suggests that it is only entertainment after all.

Or, to be cynical, The Handmaid’s Tale is a little too slick and glossy, the locations, the interiors, the colour palates, the aging down of the Commander and Serena Joy – real life Rochdale will never be as glamourous as this particular rendering of Gilead. Also, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, a middle-class professional woman ‘just like us’ is easier to empathise with than troubled working-class girls whose lives are so removed from our own.

So what did I think of it as an adaptation? I wrote my GCSE English Literature project on The Handmaid’s Tale, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, and John Wyndham’s short story ‘Consider Her Ways’, but that was over 20 years ago, and I’m not sure I have read it since then; at one point I knew the book inside out, but I can’t claim that now.

The show became more interesting from episode 6 onwards, with the arrival of the (female) Mexican Ambassador, when the story deviates from the original, and the world-building is expanded.

There are lots of good small details, like the second Ofglen saying how she is better off now than before the coup, when she was a homeless drug-addicted prostitute, and wasn’t going to mess it up.

We are also told about an Aunt defecting to Canada, and Martha’s plotting sabotage. In the book Offred is completely passive, and we only see the world from her point of view, so these changes are welcome. We see the human toll, not just on the Handmaids, but on the Wives forced into this situation as well. There are lots of these humanising moments, like Serena Joy saying “what did you think would happen” after the previous Offred hanged herself.

The environmental details are an interesting addition; the Gilead officials boast of their carbon-reduction and solar power. Do Gilead’s ‘green credentials’ make it a more ambiguous dystopia, or is this a commentary on ‘green washing’? There are, and have been, many conflicts between human rights and environmental justice in the real word, but there is no direct causal link between the human right’s abuses in Gilead and its environmental improvements – this isn’t the same as the toxic clean-up in the colonies (mentioned once or twice in the show but not shown).

I like that they showed some of the background of the coup, how vulnerable, purposeless young men could be drawn in, and also the self-serving hypocrisy of the Commanders, horse-trading over the status of the Handmaids in order to get their wives on board.

One of the most interesting details is, in my opinion, the characterisation of Aunt Lydia; she is shown genuinely caring about her ‘girls’, even when, on other occasions, she is cutting their eyes out. A ‘bad guy’ who genuinely believes in the righteousness of what they are doing is far more interesting (and informative) than one who is acting out of sadism or cynical self-interest.

Making Gilead multiracial is odd, as if there is no link between religious fundamentalism and white supremacism (which was there in the book) in the US in real life – is an ‘inclusive dystopia’ really something we need as viewers? As this article points out, making it multiracial is a way of bypassing racism without tackling it head-on.

There are changes that don’t really work; using industrial farm equipment to ‘tag’ the Handmaid’s ears is over the top; we microchip pets these days, it feels inserted for shock value only, as if the cattle-prods, amputations, and savage beatings aren’t socking enough.

There are small things like June saying she is allowed to shave her legs once a month. Why, except to give an explanation for the actress’ hairless less? Hairy legs would not fit in with the show’s aesthetics; neither would a scene of her moisturising herself with butter, so those were taken out, as were the ‘Econowives’ in their cheap stripy dresses, that wouldn’t have looked good either.

I found some of the soundtrack choices jarring and inappropriate; it’s a lazy short-cut, to get the soundtrack to do the work of the narrative, to force an emotional reaction, or an association with another work of fiction.

It makes no sense to have fertile women in Jezebel’s, when they are a rare enough commodity to be tradeable on the world market – they could cut off both hands and feet to make them biddable first (I think this threat is in the book), and there would be plenty of young, infertile women to fill the ranks at Jezebel’s – which brings us to another problem (with the book as well) why not just lobotomise them all to begin with? It has historical precedence, but then there would be no story in the first place (there is no story without some contrivance)!

It’s good that they didn’t sanitise Jezebel’s (I was going to write ‘didn’t glamourize’ but I think it was as ‘aestheticised’ as the rest of the series), didn’t play into a ‘happy hooker’ narrative (which would have been easy to do – the Commander says the women prefer it there, but the women don’t actually look happy). The fetishisation of the stump of a woman’s severed hand, and June catching a glimpse of two women dressed up as a Handmaid and a Wife, showed the contempt the men really felt for all women, even the ‘good’ ones. Jezebel’s also has the one and only appearance of an obese character, a woman doubly objectified, first by being dressed in fetish gear, second by only being shown from behind.

Some things have been updated since the 1985 publication of the book. Luke is picked up by ex-army women on the run to Canada; this is another good addition, and another example of showing women not being passive victims. (But I found Luke’s ability to hike through winter forests after being shot in the stomach and surviving his ambulance plunging off a bridge to be ridiculously macho.)

Shutting down all the women’s bank accounts, in our globalised age, would, I imagine, be very difficult, but it is a vital plot component.

While it’s good that the TV show includes more acts of women’s rebellion, I think they overdo it with the Handmaids, with the ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ voice-over, and calling them an army in uniform, and showing them marching in formation. It doesn’t fit with the totalitarianism shown elsewhere.

The big act of rebellion in the final episode is moving; in the book, June is completely passive, and at the end of the series, she is still rescued by men, the same as in the book.

“All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense”

But in one respect, the world of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is just as traditionally fantastical as the worlds of Grandfather Tolkien, Pious Uncle C. S. Lewis, and Skeptical Cousins Philip Pullman and Ursula Le Guin. The books’ pleasures are not just narrative and political, but cosmological. All of these authors engage in world-making in a deep sense: they are interested in the organizing principles of their imagined universes, and the moral and historical meanings of their elements and landscapes. Magic works as more than a deus ex machina or literary CGI effect in their stories because it bodies forth these principles: it is part of the physical and moral laws of a somewhat different world. Fantasy is partly interested in other ways of imagining ice and fire — and earth and sea, rock and wood, summer and the coming of winter. Both the books and the show have, so far, put cosmology at the center while leaving it mysterious, with many open questions about what sort of world this is.

Jedediah Purdy

“The narrative is as readily graspable as an apple in a fruit bowl”

It’s no wonder that Christie’s plots are so beloved by readers and viewers alike, and so frequently adapted and reinvented for the big and small screens. Christie, like most writers who sell millions of books, is a “story first” writer. Her prose is crisp and elegant and her grasp of human frailties is second to none, but telling the best possible story in the most exciting, unpredictable and ingenious way was always her top priority. As a result, her work must be a dream to adapt. The narrative is as readily graspable as an apple in a fruit bowl. By contrast, some stories are like crab legs – prospective adapters-to-screen might attempt to crack them open but it’s a messy and difficult process, and sometimes it turns out that, after all that effort, there’s a disappointingly small amount of story-meat to be had.

From Will the latest Agatha Christie adaptation be a Boxing Day hit? by Sophie Hannah

Adaptations seem to be becoming something of a theme on this blog! I watched The Witness for the Prosecution in December, and And Then There Were None the year before.

Thrillers/mysteries aren’t my genre, I’ve watched the occasional film/TV adaptation, but I haven’t read any books by Christie or anyone else. I think this may make for more interesting viewing, I don’t know the story, I don’t know the genre conventions or cliches; what may be obvious to an aficionado, won’t be obvious to me. With The Witness for the Prosecution, I didn’t know if I should expect a happy ending or a final twist – the ending was brilliant and diabolical.

I may have to give Christie’s books a go at some point in the future.

Yuri on Ice

I really did want to shoehorn Yuri on Ice into my review of Barracuda, but I just couldn’t work out how to do it. There is a connection, in how they portray the intensity of the moment of competition, Barracuda the TV program with its slow-motion close-ups of bodies in the water, Barracuda the book with its descriptions of the interaction between swimmer and water, and Yuri on Ice with its internal monologues of the skaters’ hopes and fears.

But otherwise, there is nothing in common (I can’t, with any seriousness, suggest that their respective portrayals of homosexuality have anything significant in common).

Yuri on Ice is pure escapism, sweet, silly, gentle, harmless fun. I spent the break over Christmas and the New Year binge watching it, and, given what 2016 has been like, and what 2017 is turning out to be, I can’t be blamed for wanting a bit of harmless escapism. Without wishing to belittle the hard work and dedication of any professional athlete, how nice it would be to live in a world where the worse thing that can happen to you is messing up the landing on a jump! (By which I mean, it’s not brokering peace in the Middle East, is it?)

I’m not a fan of J pop, so I wasn’t impressed with any of the original songs used for the skaters, but I do love the show-tune-esque opening number, and I think the classical piece ‘Yuri on Ice’ is rather beautiful.

Barracuda (TV series and book)


For my previous review, I started with the original short story, and then watched the adaptation; with Barracuda, I first watched the adaptation, then decided to read the book it was based on.

Barracuda is available as a box set on the BBC iPlayer, and it seems odd to me that a program with such high production values has been ghettoised to an online audience only, under the banner of the BBC’s ‘youth’ channel. The book is certainly not ‘young adult’, and I can’t work out how much the series would actually appeal to that demographic.

I’ve seen the film Head On, and read Christos Tsiolkas’ short story collection Merciless Gods, I kept waiting for something terrible to happen in the TV series, and it does, but not the level of violence I was expecting.

As with the adaptation of ‘Story of Your Life’, it is interesting to see what is included, what is left out, what is simplified, what is added, what is changed, and how much or how little these alterations change the spirit of the story.

The TV series only covers Danny’s teenaged years and a few years after he leaves school, the book covers a lot longer; elements of the book are changed to simplify and compress; the disabled cousin becomes the disabled patient, the Glaswegian boyfriend Danny leaves Australia to follow becomes a physiotherapist he works with as part of his community service, Danny’s relationship with Luke is not fleshed out. The most obvious change is probably downgrading the prison sentence to community service (but try filming that for a general audience!).

The two most significant changes, to me, are in the portrayal of Danny’s relationship with his family, and in the portrayal of Danny’s sexuality. Danny’s family life is sanitised and idealised in the series, he loves his parents and siblings, and only argues with his father once, in the book he despises his father the whole time (except for one short section that goes back to his very early childhood), and his mother a lot of the time. In the series his parents are unequivocally supportive, in the book, only his mother is.

The class analysis is played down a lot in the TV series as well, the scene at Martin’s grandmother’s birthday meal is still there, but it is much much uglier in the book.

In the book, Danny’s homosexuality is almost incidental, there are no big ‘coming out’ scenes, it’s just a given fact of his adult life. Danny’s desire for Martin is a major plot thread of the series, but in the book, he doesn’t make a pass at him (or have sex with his sister), and his attraction is only acknowledged with hindsight – and then only subtly, Danny can remember exactly what Martin’s face looks like.

There is no explicit homophobia in the book; ‘f*ggot’ is thrown around as an insult as much as ‘w*g’, but there is never any sense of Danny hiding his sexuality from other people, instead his sexuality is sublimated entirely into his swimming, to the point where he avoids masturbation as a waste of energy. He only ‘comes out’ to himself when he starts having sex with another man in prison (given that, the complete lack of mention of HIV, or any other STIs in the book seems odd).

The changes make the TV series as much a story about (homo)sexuality as about sport, but in the book it is the sport, the macho competitiveness, and Danny’s shame at his failure, that is the main theme.

This is interesting, as the author of a certain garbage book (a garbage book that I hope very soon to have forgotten that I read at all), has claimed that men are incapable of expressing emotions such as fear, vulnerability and shame.

Barracuda the book is saturated with shame and fear and self-loathing; shame is the main emotion Danny feels after his swimming career is over, it is the driving force of the rest of his life (during one scene, in a restaurant, he is so afraid to leave his table and risk running into an old classmate that he pisses himself). It is being called a looser that causes him to smash a glass into Martin’s face, not thwarted desire. Toxic masculinity, the ideology of winners and losers, is examined in the TV series, but it is much more explicit in the book.