“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.


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





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:

In Defense of YA, and of Positivity in General

I thought I’d better say something about the infamous “Against YA” article in Slate, since, you know…I have a degree in this subject.
A few days ago, Slate contributor Ruth Graham wrote a piece in which she chided adults for reading young adult fiction. YA is alright for teens, she says, but grown-ups should be “embarrassed” if the bulk of their library consists more of YA than adult literature. She laments that about half of all YA books are purchased by readers who are above the target audience of 12- to 17-year-olds. To her, that’s a problem.

It would be hard to find any article with which I disagree more thoroughly—and not just because I happen to write the genre that she’s suggesting adults abandon. I find her argument flawed in nearly every paragraph, and feel the need to defend a genre that adults are finally beginning to wake up to.
The first thing I disagreed with was her ham-fisted usage of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars, which she simultaneously misinterprets and manipulates to suit her own argument:  

I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.

Absent, of course, is any mention of what Fault In Our Stars is actually about. Props to her for finding the one detail in the book that sounds stereotypically teenage-ish and wording it in the shallowest way possible. She conveniently omits that it’s a book about a teen with cancer who struggles with the knowledge of what her death will mean to her loved ones, and can’t seem to find any meaning in what’s happening to her.
But I guess no one wonders about life and death, or worries about hurting people, or gets cancer past age 13?
It’s actually quite ironic that she uses the age 13. That’s the age I was when I watched my grandmother die of cancer. And all those questions that are central to the book—about the meaning or not-meaning of death, the messiness of death, and our struggle to live with its reality—were not resolved in my mind when my grandmother died. They were only beginning. They never truly got resolved, and they never can be, which is why the book haunts me so at age 30. Why she thinks a preteen is the only one for whom this book is appropriate is beyond me. If she figured out the answers to death at age 14, I sure wish she’d come share it with me.
She also has this to say:

But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”

I’m not sure what she counts as a “myriad” since she doesn’t explain who she polled and/or interviewed, but I don’t know anyone who would self-identify as reading YA for instant gratification. Believe me; anyone who was into Harry Potter while the series was unfinished understands the utter futility of wishing for instant gratification.
But on a serious note, I’m baffled as to why she made this claim. General YA readers truly don’t, in my experience, say that the books allow them instant gratification or are primarily about nostalgia. Most readers of YA read a book because the protagonist is interesting and the story is captivating. Isn’t that why we read anybook? Also, how does the word “pleasurable” imply escapism or nostalgia? I find many adult books “pleasurable” that are far from escapist or nostalgic, and plenty of YA, too.

But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.

I’m not even sure what she means here. She seems to imply that viewing the world from a teen perspective becomes obsolete once you gain enough life experience.
But who says? Who says that teens see life in a fundamentally different way from adults? Yes, it’s true that we (hopefully) develop a more nuanced understanding of the world past age 18. We learn to take social slights with a grain of salt, we quit stressing about pimples, we start to see our parents as people rather than decrepit caretakers. But there are many things about life that we do see accurately as teenagers. By the time I went to college, I had done much observing of life and death and hope and spirituality and social dynamics and dreams. Whatever immaturity hang-ups teens have, it doesn’t disqualify them from also knowing good and true things. In fact, sometimes I think I was wiser about certain issues—such as my work-life balance—at 17 than I am at 30.
Ironically, there’s even a scene from Fault In Our Stars that makes this very argument! (The scene in the Ann Frank House, anyone?)
Furthermore, when I’m, say, 50, should I stop reading adult literature that has 30-year-old protagonists? After all, I will have outgrown the 30-year-old perspective on life, according to Graham’s theory. Should we divide adult literature into “middle-age” and “elderly” genres and get snooty about the age groups directly below ours?

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

I take it she’s never read Hunger Games, which ends with the PTSD-riddled protagonist becoming estranged from the former lover involved in her sister’s death, and struggling to make a relationship with a man who formed a trauma-induced attachment to her.
I guess The Hanged Man is not on her shelf. It’s about a girl who comes to terms with being molested and ends the novel plotting how to save her best friend from a self-destructive fate (we never see the outcome).
Let’s assume she skipped my friend Sara Farizan’s book If You Could Be Mine, which ends on an emotionally devastating note when a character realizes she married someone she can’t love, and can’t do anything about it.
Do these books count as the “nowhere” that the ambiguity of the real world is evidenced in YA fiction?
For that matter, has Graham read any adult fiction? If emotionally “satisfying” endings that look to the future are a sign of immaturity, then we must re-categorize popular adult works like To Kill A Mockingbird, Rosie, Lord of the Rings, and Gilead, as being overly-simplistic YA. All of these have very satisfying endings and thus don’t fit her vision of the supposedly adult, supposedly real, world.
To be honest, this article got my dander up so hard because I hate when satisfaction and hope are seen as childish fantasies that one outgrows. If one seriously believes this, why would one even get up in the morning, let alone stare at a glowing monitor and type a series of symbols in hopes to create meaning and communicate with fellow creatures about the genre of meaning-making symbols they read?
You may think I’m waxing philosophical, but really. We walk around and form attachments and contribute to society because we think there is some spark of hope in what we do, some meaning, and we follow that instinct in spite of ambiguity and hardship. It’s not that kids enjoy hopeful endings because they haven’t learned better; it’s that people enjoy hopeful endings because their hearts just won’t stop yearning that direction.
Let’s finish this train wreck. Graham proves that she hasn’t actually understood Fault In Our Stars when she claims that the protagonist Hazel “finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying,” (even though Hazel is the character who constantly reminds others that the prospect of death is pointless and messy and irresolvable through platitudes). Graham gives hollow lip service to politeness by claiming that she doesn’t wish to shame anyone’s reading list (this is the blogger’s equivalent of the “No offense, but…” routine, in which yes, one actually does mean offense). She encourages adults to read about protagonists they can’t empathize with (I guess Ann Lamott will now have to be considered a YA writer, because Lamott is famous for stating in her book Bird by Bird that “I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.”) And finally, she states that adults are “better” than all this satisfying YA crap.
If being an adult means going beyond hope, satisfaction, and empathy, then, my friend, I am not along for the ride. I will remain a young adult for the rest of my life, along with many of the most famous adult writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
And that’s really where the subject touches home for me. It’s not just about the lack of knowledge of the YA genre, nor the logical fallacies in her article, nor the frustration of a writer arguing about books she doesn’t understand, or even the hair-tearing at watching someone claim her insults aren’t insulting. This is also about whether adults are allowed to be hopeful—whether cynicism is the mandatory mantle of the high school graduate. She seems to think that with increased intellect and life experience comes decreased satisfaction and hope and pleasure.
Probably the best thing I can say in response to that, is this:
J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius. Really, the man was no dummy. He invented, in one lifetime, the kind of mythology that typically takes centuries to develop. He was fluent in several dead languages, and snored his way through school at Oxford, where he ended up teaching.
This extremely intelligent adult also had a very hard life. He grew up with no father and lost his mother at a young age, forever scarring him emotionally. As a teenage orphan, he was separated from the love of his life for many years due to the short-sighted decision of his legal guardian. When he later found his love and married her, they often had a difficult home life, strained even further when he went away to the horrors of World War I. He saw friends die. He lurched through middle age carrying the emotional battle scars and living what most would consider a drab and unremarkable life, lost his wife years before his own death, and finally passed away without fanfare or trumpets in the 1970s.
Yet this remarkable man, much smarter and more acquainted with the sorrows of the world than I or Ruth Graham will probably ever be, coined the term “eucatastrophe,” which means a sudden and unexpected reversal from bad circumstances into incredibly good ones. It is described as a sudden “turn” from sorrow to joy.
Tolkien once commented on how frequently we experience eucatastrophes in real life…and how infrequently in the modern novel.

I’ve Got A Bad Feeling About Hamill, Fisher, and Ford’s Return to Star Wars 7…

**The following is my own personal opinion. I understand and respect that many Star Wars fans disagree, as is their right.**

May the Fourth be with you!
I suppose it’s appropriate that the cast of Star Wars was revealed in time for May 4th. The timeless space adventure trilogy took the internet by storm this week when it was officially announced that Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford will reprise their roles as Luke, Leia and Han, respectively, for Star Wars: Episode 7.

Now, I assume “reprise their roles” means “appear in the first movie to hand off the torch to the next set of actors.” I mean, you can’t exactly ask these guys to carry the entire weight of three more action movies, now can you?

I would like to take this moment to point out that I was the one who said, back in the 90s, “Why are they going back and making Episode 1? They should go ahead and make Episodes 7, 8, and 9 now, while the original actors still look young enough to reprise those roles.” But no one listened to me. Instead we got this:

But enough of these PTSD flashbacks. The point is, what’s going on with the franchise today, and why am I not thrilled about it?

A little history. I discovered the films when the Special Edition aroused a new wave of Star Wars interest in 1997, but I remained a die-hard long after that surge calmed down. Episodes 4, 5, and 6—the Original Trilogy—are some of my very favorite movies. No. You don’t understand. They are some of my very favorite movies, lagging only behind Lord of the Ringsand tied with To Kill a Mockingbird. I was that weird kid who always talked about Star Wars. I had computer passwords that referenced The Millenium Falcon. I wrote fan fiction about the universe. Han Solo was my strongest and longest-lived movie crush. I still refer to the films on a regular basis at the age of 30.

Understandably, friends wonder why I’m not doing back-flips about the new trilogy. Most recently, my parents (who watched my Original Trilogy obsession blossom back in ’97) asked me if I was planning to see Ep 7. They seemed surprised when I said I might not. My husband is going to prescreen it for me. If any of the original three main characters die in the film, I will likely never watch it. In fact, if anything about their story line seems even remotely disappointing, I’ll avoid it like the plague.

“But won’t your curiosity eventually get the better of you?” my parents said, extremely puzzled.

Off-and-on throughout that evening, I, too, puzzled over my own response to this topic. Why has my cautious determination to shield myself from this new trilogy been so strong?

I mean, I survived the prequels, right?

Make it stop……

Let me begin by answering a few objections that are sure to be raised. First off, no, I do not see the involvement of Disney or J.J. Abrams as any kind of guarantee that the movies will be good. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I love Disney. But this…

…just doesn’t equal this…

…in my mind, at least.

And as for J.J. Abrams—okay, I admit, I found Star Trek: Into Darkness to be the most fun I’ve had watching a summer blockbuster since Pirates of the Caribbean. Heck, I’ve even compared it (very loosely) to the fun of seeing the original Star Wars for the first time.

But let’s not forget that the same man who brought us this…

Also brought us this…


It’s no secret that I wasn’t a fan of the 2009 Star Trek movie, so Abrams’ space adventures only have a 50/50 success ratio with me so far. So, while Ep 7 might indeed be very good, it could also be disappointing, or maybe just not my personal cup of tea.

In either case, though, it won’t be as franchise-ruining as the prequels, and I survived those, so what could possibly be the harm in watching a new set?

To explain the answer to this, we have to get in the Way Back machine and take a trip to southern Illinois circa 1997.

No, not that Way Back machine! That doesn’t even have a roof! I meant this metaphorically!

Ahem. Anyway. This is me at age 13:

You may notice I don’t look particularly happy. Now, I admit, I chose this picture for dramatic effect. There are plenty of pics from that time where I’m smiling and having fun. But I chose this one because it represents  the other facet to my inner life at the time that not many people knew.

Moving from childhood to adulthood is an uncertain prospect in the best of circumstances. My entrance into puberty coincided, unfortunately, with a lot of other changes in my world, few of them good. I lost a relative, experienced a shift in dynamics in my extended family, felt the pain of a broken friendship, and moved from elementary school into the confusing and often cynical world of junior high—all within about a year’s time. I was also developing the very beginnings of what would later become an anxiety problem.

Although I had many happy and stable things in my life, I was confused by all the changes, and in danger of losing my naturally positive outlook on the world. It was a rather scary time.

It was at this shaky point in my life that I met this person, who lost his innocence and had to grow up, just like me.

And this person, who had problems but still kicked the world’s butt, and looked great doing it.

And this person, who I pretty much wanted to elope with for the next ten years.

And I watched, for the first time, the story of a hopeless little band of rebels, led by the last of a dying mystic religion, as they went up against the largest power in the universe…and won.

They won even though this happened.

And this.

And this.

And this, for crying out loud, THIS!

“Your fleet has lost. And your friends on the Endor moon will not survive.”

Heck, even the bad guy got to win.

“You were right about me…”

 The only person who lost in this story was the guy who looked like Satan with stomach flu, and I was okay with that.

You see, Star Wars was both a comforting escape and, in some weird nerd-kid, sci-fi way, a harbinger of hope. Whatever else was going on in my life—whatever disappointed me, whatever scared me, whatever just kind of sucked—I could turn to this story for triumph and hope. When I felt like things weren’t going to be okay, I could flip on the TV and know that this story, at least, turned out okay. Whenever I doubted my own strength, I had this wonderful little tale of the small besting the strong—not without cost, as though we can gloss over the hardness of life—but ultimately coming to a place of happiness and hope. My three main heroes got to live, and live well. That was what I wanted for myself.

William Wordsworth once said that happy memories can be “life and food/For future years,” shoring us up against a difficult future. I believe, for some people, this is also true of the stories we connect to. Certain stories function as a sort of buoy to get you through the tough stuff in life. You can say that it’s silly to feel that way about a sci-fi blockbuster from the 70’s, but if that’s true, I must plead silliness. I loved living the adventure for three movies, having a good ending, and being able to imagine those characters going on more-or-less happily after the end of Ep 6. The Original Trilogy was (and still is) a message of hope that also holds one last little gleam of my childhood wonder.

Now that we’re all weeping into our Kleenex, let’s come back to the original question: what could be lost to me by watching the new movies?

To be honest, I don’t like the thought of a modern screenwriter deciding “what happened” to these characters after the credits rolled in Ep 6 (understand that I’m saying this as someone who never read the books in the Extended Universe—those who did may feel totally different). I don’t like the thought that someone might get to finally decide (and canonize onscreen) how one of them dies. I’d rather be spared having to tack on tragic memories to characters that have been relief, escape, and hope for me, in their own small way, for the majority of my life. To put it shortly, I don’t want to lose the Original Trilogy’s role in my life as an uncomplicated, foundational, happy memory that helped usher in adulthood.

Interestingly, the prequels never bothered me this way; what happened before Luke, Han, and Leia could not change what happened to them in their story. It couldn’t change the happy ending of Ep 6. Tacking on afterwards, though…well, that could.

Now, of course, I’m not required to accept any new movie as part of my headcanon—not 40 years after the originals, anyway. But if I watch something happen to one of my beloved characters, can I really ever un-see it? Will some of the gleam and glimmer of my beautifully hopeful ending be buffed off by a modern screenwriter? Is the Original Trilogy valuable enough to warrant some amount of inconvenience to protect it in my brain? For me, the answer is yes.

In some ways, this brings up the larger question of reboots and sequels in general. Reboots and sequels are really popular these days, and I’ll be the first to admit that some are really fun. Heck, I want some films (like Gaslight, for instance) to be modernized and played out by today’s actors. But on the other hand, sometimes reboots begin to overshadow what came before them in the name of “modernization,” and I don’t want that to happen with this new pack of Star Wars flicks.

I don’t think this need to make a “modern version” is good 100% of the time. What would be the point of making, for instance, a new To Kill A Mockingbird? Wouldn’t it be a slap in the face to Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman if a couple of modern celeb heartthrobs tried to outdo them in a new rendition of Casablanca? Wouldn’t we be falling all over ourselves with rage if someone claimed that they could repaint the Mona Lisa, rewrite War and Peace, or play beloved songs on kazoos? (Oh snap!)

Now some might say that, objectively, Star Wars as a series is not a classic film on par with Casablanca or To Kill A Mockingbird. Fine. Objectively, I’ll give you that. But it’s hardly a flash-in-the-pan, either. I am not the only person whose young life was shaped by that story. At what point does something become valuable enough as art that it needs to be left alone? Does it have to reach Mona Lisa status? Does it have to actually be Casablanca? When does something become masterful enough, leave enough of an impact on the consciousness of a generation, that it deserves the respect of standing alone and speaking for itself?

I fear that in our haste to remake, add on, and modernize everything, what we’re essentially saying is that art (and yes, I do consider movies art) loses its value once it reaches a certain age. It needs reconstructive surgery to stay attractive, or at the very least a Botox injection. And in a time of technology and over-saturation in the movie market, the “age” after which movies lose their value is shrinking rapidly. Things are going to be obsolete before they’re invented if we keep going at this rate.

I honestly feel a bit uncomfortable thinking that the next generation of kids may see new Star Wars movies and have no interest in the old—as if the old was just a relic from another generation that is easily replaced with a hot new screenwriter and better special effects. To return to a previous analogy: I love much of the art that’s been produced since the Mona Lisa, but I’d be offended if some of it purported to be the “next” Mona Lisa, or the Mona Lisa’s twin sister, or some other silly thing like that. That would deliver a very bad message to humanity about why art, stories, and self-expression are valuable. These things don’t stop being valuable when we find flashier ways to do them. They are valuable in and of themselves, because they tell a specific story that someone wanted to give us at a specific time.

I would have been more comfortable with the new Star Wars even if, say, it had been set in the far future of the same universe, with no connection to the original characters. I think touching those old characters in any form runs the risk of cheapening why the Original Trilogy was valuable, and to someone who holds that dear in her heart, this feels threatening.

But maybe you feel differently. Maybe you love the Star Wars universe for itself rather than solely for the characters, and welcome a new installment. Honestly, I am glad for you, because that’s a fun feeling! I will be more than happy to listen to you talk about all the exciting details of how the universe is being further explored and loved on by the next generation.

I just hope you’ll understand if I’m not in the theater seat next to you on opening night.