“Old-Fashioned” markets itself as antidote to 50 Shades.

Valentine’s Day sneaks up on me every year. I don’t usually think on it too seriously until about five minutes before it happens, then I run around in a panic to make a homemade card and figure out which eating establishment is passably romantic.

This year, however, I started thinking about Valentine’s Day early when I was inundated with social media promotions for a new Christian movie called “Old-Fashioned.” Watch the trailer here.

I’m curious. I’ve largely stepped out of the Christian art scene these days, because so much of it is overly-pointed and reliant on stereotypes rather than creativity, but I’d like to think Christian art can still surprise me sometimes.

My goal is to watch the movie when it comes out and give it an honest review. But right now, I’d like to start with an honest review of the movie’s first impressions.

An honest review means looking at both the good and the bad, so I chose a rotating “good/bad/good/bad” format so as not to align myself too strongly with either side before I’ve even seen the film.

Let’s start with something pleasant, yeah?

Good 1—Stylistic Consistency

I give the marketing team kudos; everything about this film screams “old-fashioned,” and not in a bad way. It maintains a feeling of bygone days, of sentimentality, of detachment from a lot of the modern hustle and bustle. That consistency is one thing I admire about the trailer and the marketing campaign.

It starts right away with the logo.

old-fashioned-movie

The classic symbol (in our culture, anyway) of male and female, participating in the timeless act of getting engaged, and designed to look like a sweet cartoon done in crayon. It’s simple, to the point, and keeps with the theme of old-fashioned.

The trailer features soothing guitar with gentle vocals. Yes, this style of music is actually pretty popular nowadays, but it’s one of our current musical obsessions that at least maintains a classic style.

The visuals keep it old-school, too. We see the young female protagonist living in a rustic apartment with a tea kettle, gas stove, and rotary phone. Our film’s protagonist does woodworking. Rather than watching TV, checking their phones, or e-mailing each other, this couple chops wood outside, makes homemade shoeboxes with surprises in them, roasts marshmallows, sits on swings at the park.

A+ for consistency in tone, marketers. You knocked this one out of the park.

Bad 1—Failure to Stand On Its Own Strength

The trailer’s fatal flaw—one that spills over into the Facebook marketing campaign—is its reliance on setting itself up against the “50 Shades of Grey” movie, also out on Valentine’s Day.

If the film is good enough to warrant the time, money, and effort to create it, not to mention the price of a movie ticket, it should attract audiences on its own. By selling itself as merely the counter-point to 50 Shades, the film is implying that it only exists to be an antidote for something the audience doesn’t like. I’d rather a film sell itself as a fun and entertaining flick in its own right.

The marketing campaign suffers from this the whole way through. Here’s what the Facebook branch of “Old-Fashioned” has to say about itself:

Fifty Shades of Grey was just rated R for ‘unusual behavior.’ We also have unusual behavior in Old Fashioned, you know, respecting women, the sanctity of marriage and God-honoring romance. On Valentine’s Day will you choose Clay or Grey?

It’s really dangerous to give me a choice like that, because I’m likely to say, “Neither. I choose Indiana Jones,” and spend Valentine’s Day watching that at home. It saves the price of a ticket.

The trailer tells us almost nothing about the story, but instead focuses all its energy on how it’s the opposite of 50 Shades.

Sexy Corporate Mogul

Sincere Small Businessman

Naïve Ingenue

Sweet Midwestern Girl With A Cat

Manipulation

Healing

Exploitation

Chivalry

The little indie movie that some people have heard of

Brings you a love story that most only dream of

Mr Grey

Mr Walsh Will See You Now

Love is anything but Grey.

Okay, so I get that I’m not seeing “50 Shades of Grey,” but what the crap am I seeing? It makes me concerned that the filmmakers may have cared more about being different from 50 Shades than they did about writing well.

Good 2—Good Fit For Target Audience

Most Christian movies market themselves to people who are already Christians, particularly Christians who worry that secular culture is eroding important values.

Based on what I see in this trailer, “Old-Fashioned” will indeed fill a niche with conservative Christian audiences. I’m thinking particularly middle-aged and older Christians who conducted their own dating relationships in the days before text messaging and Facebook invites. When those people see a couple talking over rotary phone, roasting marshmallows, shopping at an old country store, it likely calls up fond memories of their own young love. Who among us can resist a story that reminds us of the good parts of our lives?

Also, slightly younger Christians who are in the dating pool may find this movie encouraging, as it portrays a relationship that doesn’t have to include sex. I am appreciative when a film shows that it’s possible to wait for sex until marriage. Few venues of pop culture portray that as a life option, preferring either to ignore the topic or assume that no emotionally healthy adult would choose that. Although it’s true that many people don’t wait, other people do, and I welcome something that represents that choice as legitimate—so long as it doesn’t get preachy and judge-y about it.

Bad 2—What is “Old-Fashioned” Anyway?

The phrase “old-fashioned” has really thrown me off as I try to decipher what this movie is about.

On the one hand, the trailer seems to portray it mostly as the decision not to have sex. In two different scenes, it’s implied that the woman would like the man to come into her bedroom, and is surprised when he says no. Is waiting for marriage the thing that makes their relationship “old-fashioned”? If so, doesn’t that word defeat the aforementioned purpose of showing abstinence as a valid choice that people still engage in?

On the movie’s web site, the synopsis exclaims that the two protagonists “attempt the impossible: an ‘old-fashioned’ and God-honoring courtship in contemporary America.”

Give. Me. A. Break. It is not “impossible” to have a relationship that honors God just because you live in America. Perhaps it’s impossible to live within a pop culture that supports each and every one of your romantic values, but that doesn’t impede your ability to live by those values. That sentence rubbed me the wrong way, because it was a shameless buzzword plug to make Christians feel riled up, and I hate that kind of manipulation.

The thing that really concerns me about the “old-fashioned” concept is whether it will include an anti-feminist element. Maybe the film will simply portray an abstinent couple who don’t use Facebook and go to church. That’s fine with me. On the other hand, maybe it will portray a man “leading” and a woman deciding that kind of relationship is more romantic than “modern” feminist notions, in which case I’ll start paging through my Bible for a verse that specifically tells men to “lead” their wives (I’ll be paging for a long time, because it doesn’t exist).

I get that notions of male leadership and initiation are part and parcel of church culture in the evangelical world, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

A related question: who is our audience?

I have one more observation that’s neither a good nor a bad, but more a question to the Christian movie industry in general: Who is our audience?

As I described earlier, the audience that will likely be drawn to this film are Christians who already hold to conservative relationship values and worry that they’re being eroded by pop culture. To be honest, I don’t see anything wrong with art that is directed toward a specific religious audience—mine or anyone else’s—so long as it’s good quality and tells the truth about life. I think the Christian masses have settled for less in recent decades, but that’s for another post.

But it bothers me when Christian art seems only interested in professing Christians. Generally, things categorized as “Christian” don’t have an approach or message that would reach someone who didn’t already agree with them.

Take this film, for example. I’d guess that the people who line up to see it would say, if asked, that they believe the 50 Shades crowd need better messages about relationships. That is one of the implied purposes of the film in the marketing campaign. But by belittling and downplaying “50 Shades of Grey,” the marketing campaign alienates the very people it believes need better messages. So, at the end of the day, it really is about bringing in dollars from people who already agree with the scriptwriters, and has very little to do with actually impacting the wider culture outside church doors.

(Edited: I’m not trying to defend 50 Shades as some upstanding story that should be respected; I’m just asking us to consider whether the marketing campaign was really directed at its fans, or directed at people who already hate it).

Despite all this, I promise to give “Old-Fashioned” an honest review, with good old-fashioned sincerity, when I see it next week. I won’t skip the good, I won’t skip the bad. But I still may watch Indiana Jones on Valentine’s night.

Book To Movie: Fault In Our Stars


After two sets of rearranged plans and many adventures getting to the theater, I finally completed my summer goal and saw the movie version of A Fault In Our Stars,which was easily my favorite read of the past year.

And yes, it was awesome. Shailene Woodley is an amazing actress and really nailed the character of Hazel, right down to the haircut. Ansel Elgort did a better job as Gus than I pictured him doing after seeing his character in Divergent, so I was well pleased. Many of the best lines from the book were spoken verbatim, they hit the important plot points, and everything down to the personalities of Hazel’s parents was just about pitch perfect (I adored Laura Dern’s performance as Mom Lancaster!).
So what are my main thoughts about this book-to-movie translation? Taking into account that these are two different genres struggling to tell the same story, what were the differences, and how do they affect the audience—from a storyteller’s perspective?
The main difference I felt was that the movie emphasized hopeful themes more strongly—or rather, less ambiguously—than the novel did. Some may disagree with me on this, which is fine; FIOS is anything but a simplistic story, and I’m sure there are many ways to read it. But I felt a clearer focus on hope sitting in the theater than I did reading the book. That doesn’t mean one or the other is better; they’re just different.
It’s common for movies to have a slightly more positive ring than their book counterparts (for an example, read and then watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Partly it’s because movies must appeal to the popcorn munching masses. But in FIOS, it’s also due to the movie being told outside Hazel’s narration rather than inside it.
Hazel does get more voice-over time than most movie protagonists, but compare that to the book, where 100% of non-dialogue text is Hazel’s direct thought. Movies can’t maintain that kind of intense focus through a narrator’s personal “lens,” because we’re watching the events from outside the narrator’s head. Observing Hazel’s life, rather than listening to her tell it, allows for some actor, director, and audience interpretation, too.
For my part as an interpreting audience member, Hazel’s life felt happier in the movie and darker in the novel. Throughout the book, her narration keeps us focused on the frustration and meaninglessness of her situation. Even as funny and everyday things go on outside of her, we’re constantly pulled back to reminders that her illness is senseless and that people’s positivity is grating to her. In the movie, however, it’s easier to “see” the good fortune she has. Her home is populated by two loving parents. She has nice things and a nice bedroom. Her body is still mobile, she’s surrounded by people her age (albeit Support Group people), she smiles a lot. The sky is sunny and the trees in bloom. These things may feel like small details, but they cast a different light on her situation than her narration often does.
Plus, because the story must move fast to reach the main conflict, her circumstances seem to just “fall into place” for the first third of the film. A boy she likes finds the e-mail of her favorite author, arranges a meeting with said author, offers her a no-strings-attached European vacation to meet him. In fact, all of this happens so fast that I feared moviegoers who hadn’t read the book would think it was a sappy love story without enough conflict.
Another main contributor to the film’s lighter feel was the sanitized portrayal of hospital scenes—particularly the flashbacks to the night 13-year-old Hazel almost died. In the novel, that night is described as a scene of horror; Hazel’s lungs fill with fluid and her parents watch her start to drown. In the movie, the actress playing 13-year-old Hazel appears to be wearing makeup and lies calm in bed for the most part, without a bodily fluid in sight. In fact, the only time anything in the movie feels graphic or scary or gross is the scene at the gas station with Gus’ infected G-tube.
I know why they did it this way; bodies fighting cancer do some gnarly things, and that’s not what teens and parents want to see when they sit down at a romance movie. Still, it can’t help but affect the tone.
Aside from all that, there were also obvious choices on the part of script writers to make the buoyant lessons more prominent and minimize the negative slant. Take, for instance, the scene where Hazel chews Gus out for wanting to be famous before he dies. The novel shows it this way:

I was so frustrated with him. “I just want to be enough for you, but I never can be. This can never be enough for you. But this is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. This is your life. I’m sorry if it sucks. But you’re not going to be the first man on Mars, and you’re not going to be an NBA star, and you’re not going to hunt Nazis. I mean, look at yourself, Gus.”

The scene ends with both of them feeling sour.

He didn’t respond. “I don’t mean—” I started.
“Oh, you meant it,” he interrupted. I started to apologize and he said, “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. Let’s just play.”
So we just played.

You get the feeling Gus still doesn’t agree with Hazel. It’s ambiguous whether she’s telling him a truth he needs to hear, or is just angry at him for being less stoic and more idealistic than she is.
However, when this same conversation happens in the film, Gus immediately apologizes and affirms, “It’s a good life” to her. We’re given a more pleasant slant; not only does Gus feel better, but Hazel’s view is portrayed as a positive one, capable of giving a dying boy positive perspective.
The script writers also changed the story’s effect on the audience by what they left out. I remember being weighed down as a reader by the scene where Hazel is brushing her teeth after Gus’ funeral:

Appraising myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, I kept thinking there were two kinds of adults: There were Peter Van Houtens—miserable creatures who scoured the earth in search of something to hurt. And then there were people like my parents, who walked around zombically, doing whatever they had to do to keep walking around.
Neither of these futures struck me as particularly desirable. It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and good in the world, and I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.

The emotional catharsis of letting Gus go has led Hazel back to her usual conclusion: oblivion is coming for all good things. We have to keep looking through that lens with Hazel except for a couple of moments, when she sees kids playing at the park and thinks, “Who am I to say that these things might not be forever? Who is Peter Van Houten to assert as fact the conjecture that our labor is temporary?” and at the end when she reads the eulogy Gus wrote her.
By contrast, in the film, Gus’ funeral is a tipping point after which things change. Aside from her obvious grief, we don’t see more moments of Hazel slipping back to her somewhat nihilistic lens; her emotional journey skips right to the shift, when she reads the eulogy Gus wrote her and affirms the goodness of what they shared.
Even the visuals at the end of the film add to the positive implications, by showing Hazel in a white dress looking at the stars, smiling. The pretty music helps, too.
I want to stress again that I’m not trying to promote one version of the story as being better than the other. Actually, I’m pretty split. The book had, as my sister-in-law said, “more soul.” I enjoyed it more, and there were so many more funny lines and rich moments of insight, even whole scenes and characters that gave the book depth. At the same time, I have always struggled with Hazel’s bend toward gloom (even though, yes, I have watched people die from cancer, and yes, Hazel is right that it’s no one’s Cancer Patient Fairytale). In that way, the movie was easier for me to take.
One thing remains consistent between the two, however, the most important messages of the story: You have a choice in how you react to death.
Whether you see life in a positive way, a negative way, a meaningful way, a nihilistic way, whatever, you must pick a response when someone you love slips out of your grasp.
You can forever focus on the loss. You can let that person become defined by the fact that you no longer have them.
Or, you can realize how lucky you were to experience them in your life.
Hazel puts it this way:

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1, and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinites are bigger than other infinities….There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

We’ve all lost a loved one—or many loved ones—about whom we could say this. All of us. You know who yours is. I’m thinking about mine right now. We wish their infinities had been bigger, but the point is not that this person went away; the point is that this person was there, and you were privileged to know them well enough for their absence to hurt.
I think that message is at the heart of both the book and the movie, and that’s why I can happily recommend each. But please, take tissues to the theater.
Take all the tissues.

I Need Therapy After Hannibal Season 2


I just finished season 2 of NBC’s hit psychological thriller Hannibal. Here’s an image from one episode that I think visually represents the essence of this season:


Yes, that’s right. Hannibal season 2 burst into flames and rolled uncontrollably downhill. Not in a good way.
In fact, I am fairly certain that if Hannibal season 2 was a person, Hannibal Lecter would kill and eat it. He eats the irritating.
Now, to be honest, not everything in S2 was bad. I’m not saying it had no redeeming qualities. But the mistakes they did make were very foundational mistakes of writing and storytelling. Hard to overlook.
Season 1 had so much going for it. The protagonist, Will Graham, is an emotionally disturbed but ingenious criminal profiler who works for the FBI. Little does he know his psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, is the cannibalistic serial killer responsible for the Chesapeake Ripper murders. Hannibal wants to turn Will into a serial killer, too, through manipulative therapy tactics. Will struggles to separate reality from delusion on Dr. Lecter’s couch, an unknowing victim of a sociopath’s experiment.
It was great! When S1 ended with Hannibal framing Will for murder, we thought S2 would be even better! But then…

So what were these basic mistakes in S2, and why did they ruin an otherwise awesome show?
Mistake One: I’d Like To Report A Homicide
Of all the murders committed in S2, the most unfortunate was the murder of any and all tensionin the first half of the season.
S1 held tension in several ways. First, Hannibal was a colleague of the FBI agents investigating the Chesapeake Ripper murders. He was a criminal genius hiding among law enforcement geniuses. You always wondered whose genius would win out; how would Hannibal keep one step ahead of amazing criminal profilers like Alana Bloom, Jack Crawford, and Will Graham? How will he fool the FBI’s best crime scene investigators? Who might be one puzzle piece away from discovering Dr. Lecter’s secrets?
In S2, however, Hannibal is not a genius hiding among geniuses. He’s a genius hiding among idiots.
Every character behaves in completely blind and dense ways in S2. They’re almost null and void to the story.
When Will is incarcerated for the murders and accuses Hannibal, all his friends at the FBI—agents who have been trained to profile criminals and dissect behavior—don’t even begin to consider Will’s claims, despite the fact that almost all of them have known Will longer than they’ve known Hannibal. They just accept this flimsy suggestion that Will, in his insanity, has forgotten committing the murders and convinced himself that Hannibal did it. It “technically” explains why they don’t believe him, but it’s a stretch—especially given that Alana deduces from Will’s draw-a-clock test that Dr. Lecter was wrong about Will having nothing physically wrong with his brain (for some reason, she does not consider that Dr. Lecter may have lied).
Everyone gets even dumber once Will is cleared of charges midway through the season. At that point, they know he’s not a crazy psychopath, but they continue to believe that he made a mistake about who framed him…just because the script needs them to.
The other thing I don’t understand is why none of them notice that Hannibal acts like a creeper. His emotions are a little too blank, he’s too poised and put-together, his eyes are always a bit dead. In S1 I could suspend my disbelief and accept that these FBI agents didn’t catch a whiff of Hannibal’s weirdness because they had no reason to look for it. But once suspicion has been cast on him, you’re telling me that they would believe a dead-eyed, eerily calm, overly-philosophical, verbally evasive new friend over their very best criminal profiler? A friend who tends to throw carnivorous dinner parties every time the Chesapeake Ripper kills and dissects human bodies?
See, the tension in S1 came from believing that the characters could, given the right circumstance, figure Hannibal out. You saw Hannibal working to keep himself safe. If, on the other hand, you know they can’t possibly figure him out because the script won’t let them, then you know how every episode will end: with Will’s plea falling on deaf ears, and Hannibal twirling his mustache as he disappears down a dark alley.

Mistake Two: Lazy Writing
I’m really sensitive about lazy writing. Maybe it’s because I write, and know a lot of writers, and all of us work our butts off to make our stories as good as they can be. So when I see lazy clichés in a hit television show, it makes me wonder what the rest of us are working so hard for.

The lazy bits of writing in Hannibal season 2 were small details, but they made a huge difference. For instance, when agent Beverly Katz begins to suspect Hannibal after all, the script uses some “cheating” techniques to explain why she fails to catch him. First, it just so happens that her boss, Jack Crawford, isn’t in the office when she shows up to tell him she suspects Hannibal. I hate it when TV uses “oops, out of the office” coincidences to explain why people don’t communicate. In real life, you would write a note, leave a voicemail, or, I dunno, tell at least one other person that you were going to investigate the home of a possible serial killer who is a mad genius and haskilled other FBI agents.
Furthermore, if Beverly is a trained FBI agent, she wouldn’t go to investigate someone’s house without backup. She wouldn’t go deeper into the home, effectively cornering herself, after she has already found evidence. She wouldn’t fail to call 911 when she saw the human organs in the fridge.
If, in two paragraphs, I can list six different steps Beverly could easily have taken to catch Hannibal, that means the writers were being lazy. They wanted to postpone Hannibal’s discovery, but they wanted him to “almost” get caught for tension’s sake—so they cheated on the believability factor. Ironically, as we’ve just discussed, this actually deflated the tension, because it established that Hannibal can’t get caught.
Just as another example, remember the episode where Hannibal seduces and then drugs Alana? He goes out and commits another murder while she’s asleep. When Jack comes around the next day, Alana says Hannibal stayed in all night.
In real life, Alana might realize that she didn’t wake up during the night and that Hannibal thus has no alibi. In real life, someone like Jack Crawfod (the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Science unit) would think to ask an alibi witness if she woke up or not at any time during the hours in which the murder occurred. But the writers didn’t know how to get around those snags, so they simply pretended that those snags would not, in fact, happen.
Look, I know it’s a television show, and not everything has to be 100% realistic. But if the number-one point of tension in your show—Hannibal remaining at large—depends on the complete stupidity of law enforcement, it’s just too much of a stretch.
Mistake Three: Deus ex Hannibal
The script-writers’ biggest mistake in S2 was, ironically, making Hannibal appear too smart.
I know. Strange thing to say, right? Every version of the character Hannibal lecter—book version Hannibal, movie version Hannibal, and TV show version Hannibal—specializes in staying ahead of everyone else. That’s what makes him Hannibal Lecter.
But there can be too much of a good thing.
In S1, Hannibal demonstrated his genius by rolling with the punches through unpredictable events—for instance, Will developing encephalitis. We watched Hannibal figure out how to turn each event to his own benefit, and that’s how we came to understand his deadly intellect.
In S2, on the other hand, Hannibal is one step removed from being God, and that make us bored.
We saw hints of this in the Beverly debacle. It seemed a bit unbelievable that Hannibal could take down a trained FBI agent who was shooting at him and walk away without a scratch. Amazing, yes, but not impossible. So we figured that Hannibal is just a really good fighter who specializes in getting lucky.
Then, the Dr. Chilton thing happened.
It turns out that for a long time—years—Hannibal has been planning to frame psychiatrist Dr. Chilton for the Chesapeake Ripper murders should Hannibal ever come close to being discovered.
This is the point where the scriptwriter’s manipulation of Hannibal’s genius felt a little unfair. This was a plan that Hannibal started even before the show’s beginning. We went along for two seasons assuming we knew most of what the characters did, only to find that Hannibal can just whip out new information any time an episode puts him in too much danger?
It bordered dangerously close to the “no rules to your magic” phenomenon. This is a fantasy writer’s rule of thumb, but it applies here. When you write a story with magic, or other amazing abilities, the magic must have rules or the plot won’t feel meaningful. If anything can happen, nothing’s at stake. The audience can’t root for your character, because it hasn’t been established what can and can’t happen to them.
Hannibal isn’t magic, but his nearly supernatural genius should operate on the same principle: it needs rules. You can’t just pull out previous plans and events that the audience has never heard of mid-season. If we don’t know what Hannibal has to work with, we are not going to be tense during an episode, because we know the script writer will just invent a Get Out of Jail Free card every time Hannibal gets in a scrape.
You might as well say, “Oh yeah, remember that pardon from the President that Hannibal got fifteen years ago to cover all future offenses? Did we forget to mention that? Well he’s using it now.”
But the nail in the coffin came with the Miriam Lass episode.
Miriam Lass was mentioned in the first season. She was Jack Crawfod’s prize student, the woman who disappeared while investigating the Chesapeake Ripper. In S2, Hannibal allows her to be discovered, alive and well. Her discovery came at the end of an episode, but I couldn’t work up any interest. I knew it wouldn’t lead to Hannibal’s capture. It was evident the script wouldn’t allow that.
I was right. In the next episode, we learn that Hannibal brainwashed Miriam Lass using some sort of light-flash therapy, erasing her memories of the Chesapeake Ripper.
And, in a stunning moment of drama-killing buffoonery, we see that Hannibal has—womp womp!—programmed Miriam Lass to think Dr. Chilton is the Ripper!
At this point I threw my hands up and nearly screamed. It was official; Hannibal had no rules to his magic. If he could program anyone to believe anything—could capture and release anyone without detection—and could foresee any event—then he was in control of the entire world, and we might as well go ring his doorbell and ask him how he planned to make each episode run. Oh, after which we would have to kill ourselves, because he already knows that we know about him, and he already knows how to find us and kill us without detection, and probably our families too, and, well, probably everyone in the world, come to think of it…
Mistake 4: Cliffhangers, Overuse of

Starting at about episode 8 and onwards, it seems the show will get better. Will is on the offensive and plots with Jack Crawfod how to catch Hannibal, which implies Hannibal’s magic has some limits. Mason Verger catches Dr. Lecter and almost feeds him to pigs, proving Hannibal’s foreknowledge isn’t omnipotent. We know Will has a chance at stopping Hannibal, so there’s real tension again. Whew. The story pulled itself out of a nosedive. The ending will be epic!
And then

The writers were so close. So close. SO CLOSE to giving me a truly enjoyable ending to S2. But they just couldn’t resist one more writing cliché, and unfortunately, it killed the good vibe and left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.
I’m speaking, of course, about the cliffhanger ending.
It has become almost mandatory by law that television dramas end each season with a cliffhanger. This seems to be mandatory whether the cliffhanger actually makes sense with the story arc or not.
Now, many shows have successfully pulled off cliffhangers. Take, for instance, the following examples:
“Agent Mulder died last night of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head…”
“Sully’s alive…I know he’s alive…”

Hey all, we’re totally getting kidnapped by The Others!

In each of those instances, a cliffhanger made sense in the context of the story. In X-Files, Scully and Mulder were in the midst of an investigation that might reveal aliens to be a hoax. In Dr. Quinn, Sully’s disappearance and possible death were part of a two-part episode that resolved in the next season. In LOST, we’d been waiting all season to meet The Others, and realized we wouldn’t get to until S3.
In Hannibal, though, they had completed a story arc by the end of S2—the story arc of Hannibal’s life as a fox in the henhouse. At the end of S2 Hannibal’s stint as a killer on the east coast has come to an end, Will has been cleared, and we’re gearing up for a whole new world of manhunts and international travel in S3.
The problem is, they wanted to force it into feeling like a cliffhanger even though the arc was closed. They somehow decided the best way to do this was LEAVE THE ENTIRE CAST BLEEDING AND ALMOST DEAD IN HANNIBAL’S WAKE, SO YOU HAVE TO WAIT TO NEXT SEASON TO SEE WHO LIVES!
 
Remember that scene at the end of Das Boot, when the soldiers finally get home from a grueling war, and the moment of triumph ends with a sudden air-raid slaughter? That ending was jarring. Uncomfortable. The sudden tragedy was wildly out of place. But it worked because Das Boot was about the absurd and random horrors of war.
It does not work in Hannibal. In Hannibal, it feels like a cheap trick, like they were determined to resist giving payoff or closure to the emotion they’d been building up, permanently delaying the audience’s gratification so we’ll watch again next season.
The problem is, now that I know this is how they operate, I don’t want to watch next season. Now that I know they will permanently delay gratification, what’s the point? It’s fine to drag out tension, but if you intend to never pay off what you build up, then what do we get out of it (other than blog posts that are currently six single-spaced Microsoft Word pages and counting)?
The point is, I think they tried to make a cliffhanger where there didn’t need to be one, and it made an otherwise weak-but-improving story arc finally go into the tank.
Do we need to review this again:

Four Reasons I Prefer the “Divergent” Movie to the Book


^^ See what I did there? FOUR? Get it? 😀
So, wait. What? Rachel liked a movie better than a book? Since when is that even a possibility in this universe?
It’s really rare to find a movie that exceeds the book in my eyes. Even my very favorite movies, like Lord of the Rings and To Kill A Mockingbird, don’t impress me as much as their novel counterparts. Then there are some movies, like the first Hunger Games film, that outright disappoint me when compared to the book. (Then there are things like Masterpiece Theater’s Dracula (2007), where I’m not sure the screenwriters even read the source material.)
Divergent is a big exception to this rule. After seeing the movie, I appreciated the intelligent concepts and creativity of the story much more. In fact, I’m grateful to the movie for helping me like this neat story better. It made the good parts of the story shine and buffed away some of the rough edges that put me off in the book.
Many readers may disagree with me on this (happily, I value divergence, so none of you will be getting a visit from the Erudite authorities). But here, in no particular order, are the basic reasons I found myself sitting straighter, laughing louder, and clutching the seat-arms harder than I thought I would as I viewed this film.
Every paragraph is infested with spoilers, bee tee dubs. 
Pivotal Moments Come Across With Strength
This is a big complaint I often have with book-to-movies; some of the most important moments in the novel get watered-down onscreen and lack the emotional punch they should have. I was so disappointed with Rue’s flower funeral scene in Hunger Games. I literally raged at the incompetent handling of the “I’m Not A Coward” scene between Harry and Snape in The Half-Blood Prince.
With Divergent, however, the effect is the opposite. Seeing it onscreen breathed life into some of the moments that felt listless to me while turning pages.
Take, for example, an early scene when Tris (Beatrice) is running with her new faction, the Dauntless, to catch the Dauntless trains for the first time. In the book, you got the idea that this was an unruly group of teens having fun, while the new initiates scrambled to keep up. In the movie, though, we got a heart-pounding drumbeat as Tris runs with them. They swarm the train platform and crawl upwards. Tris is the last to climb; will she make it before the train gets there? Then there’s that beautiful few seconds when Tris is the only one who doesn’t realize they have to run to catch the train. Everyone else starts off ahead of her, and for a breathless moment, the audience worries she won’t notice. Talk about effective cinema.

I also loved the flying-from-roof scene, when the Dauntless-born initiates hitch Tris to the sling and send her sailing from the top of a building. This was one of my favorite concepts from the book, and I was delighted with how the director handled it. We see Tris’ joy as she begins—her uncertainty as the cable leads through the middle of a dilapidated building—her terror as it looks like the cable leads to a dead-end on a roof—and finally her muster of last-minute wits as she pulls the break to keep from splattering against the wall at the end. It’s a breathtaking little microcosm of her inner journey from joyfully escaping Abnegation, to finding a world she doesn’t expect, and learning how to handle it.
Additionally, action scenes usually play out better onscreen than on the page, and this story is packed with action. The training fights, the simulations, and the ending battles seemed more real in the theater than they did when I read them.
Greater Focus on the Interesting Parts
One of my main gripes about the book was how much time we spent watching Tris and the other initiates get to know each other and struggle through endless training sessions. Author Veronica Roth threw an awful lot of characters at us—Eric, Peter, Al, Drew, Molly, Christina, Four, Tori, Will—and then spent the majority of the book bouncing those character from fights to capture-the-flag to dinner to drunken revelries to family visiting day. The string of semi-related events didn’t feel cohesive. All the while, more interesting concepts lurked in the background—like society’s attempt to isolate the different human characteristics that make us go bad; or the question of where bravery and selflessness intersect; or the mystery about why Erudite is stirring up things against Abnegation. I was fascinated by the final battle scenario, where Tris and Four are the only “awake” Dauntless members because they’re Divergent. But the book spent more than half its energy on the high school dynamics of Tris’ initiation group, and waited too long to begin the final battle sequence.
The movie tightened its focus and paced itself better. It gave us only the main characters to worry about. Al, Peter, Will, Molly and Drew were in the background, allowing us to focus on Tris, Christina, Four, and Eric. Training scenes moved quickly, and the point behind each exercise was better explained, helping to clarify the overall trajectory of the Dauntless program. Overall, the training stuff took up less space than in the novel.
Thanks to all these things, we were allowed to focus on what was most important: Tris’ growing Dauntless bravery; her quest to discover what Divergence means; the hint of government overthrow; and her growing feelings for Four. That’s it. No mini revenge plots with Peter’s gang. No worries about Al’s mental stability, or how to politely turn down his advances. No obsession with rankings at every single turn. Just boom, boom, boom, one plot point leading inevitably to the next. This allows for a greater percentage of screen time devoted to all the exciting stuff at the end.

The Clunky Writing and Dialogue Are Gone
Okay. I’m just going to say it. With all respect to the author, some of the writing felt clunky and stiff.
I know. I know. (Hiding behind my desk chair). Please stop throwing things. I’m sorry. Well, no, I’m not sorry, because I meant it. But can I come out from behind my desk chair without all of you killing me?
I hesitate to nitpick over writing style because, as a writer, I can’t imagine a more hurtful thing than for someone to say that my prose doesn’t flow. So I wouldn’t be saying this unless I was really sure I meant it. Although the concepts were great and this author obviously loves her story, the writing felt amateurish.
First, clichés abound, both in the narration and dialogue. Do people really gulp in the middle of uncomfortable sentences? Do girls really feel physical sensations every time they interact with their crush? Does everyone say over-used phrases like “How on earth” in conversation?
I also sensed an over-focus on active voice. Now, this is something I can sympathize with. In my early days of novel writing (okay, let’s be honest…up until two or three years ago) I had the importance of active voice drilled into me by writing groups. The problem is, if you get too zealous about this, it’s easy to see active voice as a rule rather than a tool. It can actually start to limit the flow of what you want to write, forcing each sentence into a little box that looks suspiciously like all the other sentence-boxes you’ve created for the last three chapters. I’m not sure if this is what happened to Veronica Roth, but it sure seems like it.
In the movie, however, all of this is gone, replaced by excellent directing and stronger written dialogue. Problem solved.
Tris and Four Are More Likeable
Fortunately, the disappearance of clunky narration also freed me up to understand the characters better.
Tris was easier to interpret on the screen. Her book narration, while in first person, ironically didn’t help me understand her. It seemed that her motivations and feelings were always going three directions at once, often contradicting themselves, leaving me confused about who she really was and what was at stake for her. Granted, she’s supposed to be complex (Divergent, after all) but it just came across as unfocused.

In the movie, however, we have three external things to help us interpret Tris: her dialogue, the events occurring around her, and Shailene Woodly’s portrayal of Tris’ actions. We’ve already covered how the dialogue improved. Woodly kept Tris consistent by maintaining some timid mannerisms alongside growing determination and confidence. Beyond that, we see clearly what’s at stake in every scene, but don’t have Tris’ inner thoughts constantly jumping to other things to confuse us. All in all, the movement of her character development feels clean and smooth.

Likewise, Four came off better. The movie let him be mysterious, which worked. Yet it didn’t play up the misleading appearance of him picking on Tris, or the ambiguity of whether he’s a jerk like Eric. I found these changes refreshing and much less condescending to the audience, since we’ve seen enough teen fantasy stories to know that mysterious guys are usually tender-hearted love interests in disguise. We got to enjoy simply discovering his character piece by piece.
Final Thoughts
Did the movie get everything perfect? No. It missed the mark on some important things. Tris’ mother was never revealed to be Divergent, and her death scene was not the intentional self-sacrifice we saw in the book. The exploration of what bravery really is was mentioned all of once. And the ending gag of sticking Jeannine with her own serum was strained at best.

But overall, this was a great movie. The writing was good. The visuals were nice. The music was right on track. And we got some great performances by actors Theo James and Shailene Woodly. On a side note, Woodly will also be playing the lead in another teen book-to-movie, Fault in Our Stars, due out in June.

Hazel Grace Lancaster

Hey, wait a second. It looks like there’s another main actor in both Divergent and Fault In Our Stars.
Ansel Elgort as Caleb Prior/Augustus Waters

Uh…hold on…
Tris and Caleb
Hazel and Gus
Siblings……
Lovers!
…I am so disturbed right now…