Sunday, 28 November 2010

I, Claudius: Augustus (radio adaptation)


BBC Radio 4 have just started a brand new radio adaptation of Robert Graves' I, Claudius, confusingly but brilliantly starring Derek Jacobi as Augustus. It co-stars Harriet Walter as Livia, who has just the right maliciously dripping tones for Graves' interpretation of Livia as poison-tongued serial muderess, and Tim McInnerny as Tiberius, a gruffer, more evil Captain Darling. Claudius is played by Tom Goodman-Hill, who is very good but sounds unnervingly like the young Derek Jacobi. Comparisons to the TV series are somewhat unfair, since this is a fresh adaptation of the novel and should be judged on its own merits, but I'm afraid they are also inevitable, and I'm going to proceed to compare them directly, repeatedly, for the next six weeks!

(My posts on the television series also cover the plot in detail, so I won't describe the plot too much here).

The television adaptation usually dispensed with Claudius' famous stammer for the narrative sections, since these are written, not spoken. Interestingly, the radio series chooses to include the stammer at all times, albeit in a milder form for the narration. There are advantages to this, since, without being able to see Claudius writing, hearing him speak as if in an interview or conversation is more effective and easier to follow. On the other hand, aside from slowing down the narration a bit, it does make it less clear when Claudius is writing and when he is speaking, which may become awkward later.

The Sibyl's prophecy which opens the book is well done. One of the conceits of the book is that her prophecy is genuine, and this interpretation walks a fine line between depicting her state of ecstasy through stilted delivery, but also giving it a strange, unearthly echo which could be an ancient special effect, or could be a sign of something genuinely spooky going on.

After the Sibyl's scene we get into the main flashback and the story proper. The series has chosen an interesting selection of incidents to highlight. It goes back much further than the television adaptation did, showing us Livia's divorce from her first husband and going into much more detail concerning her marital relationship with Augustus, even referring briefly to the civil war between Augustus and Antony which is already over by the time the television adaptation kicks in. Like the source novel, the radio adaptation embraces Suetonius' rather salacious, gossipy suggestion that the reason Augustus and Livia had no children together was because Augustus couldn't get it up for her, which is, of course, possible, but it seems to me there are other equally, even more likely, possibilities (they may have married for reasons not relating to wanting to sleep together, or they may have had perfecty healthy marital relations and just not been a good match, fertility-wise).

On the other hand, the series then skips ahead in leaps and bounds and covers two to three hours of TV material in 45 minutes (though this is, of course, necessary in a six-hour radio adaptation). Marcellus is introduced and killed in the same sentence and before half an hour has passed we've reached Drusus' death and Claudius' youth. Julia is missing a son, as well. None of the missing or skimmed over scenes are desperately missed, though there is a bit of an overall effect of temporal whiplash simply from moving through so many years so quickly. This adaptation does, however, include some really nice scenes from the novel which didn't make it onto the TV, especially Augustus' cautious questioning concerning Julia's fate after her banishment - though Livia's use of a powerful aphrodisiac to drive Julia to her bad behaviour in the first place is positively mythical.

We also hear a lot more scenes from the novel which describe Claudius' youth and his own private life, his education and childhood friends. This, I think, is the key to the differences in the adaptations. The TV series was a massive, epic production with a huge cast of theatrical big-hitters all doing their thing and taking thirteen hours to tell all their stories. The radio series has no less impressive a cast, but quite apart from having only six hours to tell its story, because radio is not a medium that lends itself to large, epic casts and sprawling stories, it needs to tell a more intimate tale. So the radio series focuses itself as much as possible on Claudius himself and on his personal story, telling as much of everyone else's story as is necessary but always bringing it back to the person of Claudius. This is an effective strategy, and its nice to hear so much of the detail of Claudius' childhood, especially his tragic betrothal to a girl called Camilla and the full horror of his later betrothal to his wife Urgulanilla.

As with almost all BBC adaptations, this is extremely faithful to its source material (BBC adaptations cut all sorts of things for time, but very rarely make substantial changes to the scenes they do include). It's a highly enjoyable adaptation and the actors are uniformly excellent. This first episode perhaps condenses a little too much into one short hour, and might have benefitted from following the TV adaptation's example and picking a slightly later starting point, but it isn't a huge problem, and future episodes will be able to cover Claudius' youth and adulthood in more detail.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Pangs


Today is Thanksgiving in the US, a festival I have celebrated several times over the last few years with American friends (we had a delicious dinner last year, my friend is an excellent cook!). I can't be with them this year, so I'm missing out on Thanksgiving, but I thought I'd at least do a celebratory post. As you can probably tell, I've been watching through a lot of old Buffy DVDs lately, so of course this, the only Thanksgiving episode of Buffy, seemed the natural choice.

'Pangs' is another classic comedy episode of Buffy, though it also features the first return of Angel since going over to his own show and a fascinating discussion about the problem of how we remember the past, something very close to my current research. Best of all, this is where Spike starts to become integrated into the main cast, albeit bound in a chair at this point (what on earth do Giles' neighbours think?!).

Early on in the episode, Anya calmly informs Buffy and Willow, who are aghast, that,

'To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It's a ritual sacrifice, with pie.'

She's more or less right. To really be a ritual scarifice, the animal ought to be killed on an altar and its bones dedicated to the gods, and ancient rituals varied in ther reasoning behind them, but Thanksgiving roughly fits the bill. Some ancient rituals did commemorate past events, but many were explained by myth and were more related to the natural cycle of the year than commemoration; the events they commemorated, being mythological, are closer to stories people chose to pass on and celebrate than to modern commemorations of much more recent events. At first glance, this might seem to separate them from Thanksgiving, but actually, Anya is not quite accurate in her summation. Although Thanksgiving does commemorate a past event, that's not its main purpose as a festival. Thanksgiving is a harvest festival, something we still celebrate in churches and schools over here in the UK (usually at the end of September or beginning of October) and this function, of marking the point in the year where the harvest is brought in and giving thanks for having food for the winter, is probably more significant for the development of the festival than the commemorative aspect, though the latter has become more significant in recent times.

Much of the episode is taken up by an argument between Willow and Giles over whether Buffy should slay the vengeful Native American spirit who is going around killing people and chopping off their ears. Leaving aside the specific argument about the vengeful spirit (I tend to take Xander's side there, who has been given syphilis by the spirit and is not happy about it) the question of how to remember controversial past events is always a delicate one. When the past event is still having an effect on the present, the cultural memory of it is much more than memory, and any attempt to remember the past will be completely dominated by present issues - Voyager's 'Living Witness' is an excellent fictional example of this.

The last word in Willow and Giles' argument, in the end, comes from Spike, whose argument has a number of advantages over Giles' attempt to, as he bitterly points out, make many of the same points. Spike is evil, so he can say potentially offensive or controversial things without causing offence, because we expect evil characters to say offensive things. Like Giles, he's British, which gives him a certain distance from the particular issue (not a lot of distance, granted, since many pilgrims came to America to escape persecution in Britain, but he still has slightly more distance than the American characters). But most importantly, Spike uses an analogy with ancient Rome to make his point, which allows him to highlight brutal truth without sounding too heartless.

Ancient Greece and Rome (along with Persia, Babylon and other Near Eastern places) hold an unusual position in our cultural memory, because we don't connect them particularly strongly with a modern political situation. We make a mental break at the end of the Roman Empire and you don't hear too many people in North Africa complaining about these pesky camels those Italians brought over, or people from the various Roman provinces complaining about how the Italians occupied our country - in fact, we tend to be rather proud of it. The Romans conquered and subjugated half the known world, but whereas more recent examples of this behaviour are condemned, we praise the Romans for it (probably because of all the roads and irrigation and stuff).

So when Spike needs to make a fairly brutal, but true, point about how history works, the Romans are the perfect example. Their conquering is usually considered in a fairly positive light, so by pointing out that more recent situations are no different (though I suspect the Romans were quite a bit more violent than the Pilgrim Fathers) he is able to demonstrate the problem without getting too wrapped up in past wrongs at the expense of the present. Also, they way he puts it is brilliant:

'You won, all right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. That's what Caesar did, and he isn't going around saying "I came, I conquered, I feel really bad about it". The history of the world isn't people making friends.'

(James Marsters' delivery of 'I feel really bad about it' is hilarious).

It's a harsh point, but also a true one, and using the Romans allows him - or rather, the show, since Spike is evil and doesn't care - to make it without directly offending anyone still feeling the cultural pain of historical wrongdoing (the Romans invaded my country, but I think I'm OK with it). Most importantly, though, it's really, really funny.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Chelmsford 123: Peeled Grapes and Pedicures (and Nine Circles of Thesis Writing)


I had planned a Xena post for today, but that ran into technical difficulties, so, since the Christmas season is coming up, I decided to start getting in the mood with this Saturnalia-based episode of Chelmsford 123 instead. In this episode, Aulus and Functio plan to have an orgy to celebrate Saturnalia and to make the stupidest man around king for a day, but Badvok, as king, declares that he’s changed the rules and is now permanent King of Britain.

Considering this is a 1980s British sit-com (i.e. it’s about slobbish losers trying to get laid, Yes, Minister aside of course) set in ancient Rome, it’s something of a miracle that it took six episodes to get to the orgy. There is some concession to history, as Functio’s wife makes a comment about Romans and boys and Aulus points out she’s mixed them up with the Greeks (and people will continue to do so, Aulus). But really, this episode is playing with cultural stereotypes of Rome and it knows it. And, to be fair, the British are as much into complete sexual liberty in honour of Saturnalia as the Romans are.

I was entertained by a conversation between Functio and his young daughter, who asks what an orgy is, because my parents gave me the exact same answer when I was younger and watching I, Claudius (‘it’s a sort of party’). We also get to hear Badvok start a speech with ‘Friends, Britons, Countrymen!’ which is obvious but funny anyway. As a former inhabitant of Ipswich, I also found Badvok’s confusion when he was told to meet ambassadors from the East pretty amusing (Well, I once met a man from Ipswich...' Ipswich is a town in East Anglia, on the east coast of Britain). Badvok also tries to learn Latin and is given the traditional British Latin class drill ‘Amo, amas, amat…’ and, on being told there are two ‘yous’, declares that he’s abolishing all plurals. I think a lot of people probably wish he’d been successful there.

There’s something almost politically savvy and satirical about Badvok changing the rules of Saturnalia to make himself king forever – this is, after all, roughly analogous to what Caesar (started out with a relatively normal political career before, you know, taking over everything) and Hitler (democratically elected) did. However, I’m not entirely sure political satire is the main point of this story – though lawyers certainly come in for some stick when Aulus tries to consult a money-grabbing one (played by Angus Deayton!). And Badvok certainly comes to regret his decision when he realizes that not only does being King entail some work, it’s also extremely dangerous.

Aulus manages to scare Badvok out of being king and all ends well, except for Grasientus, who’s stuck in a cell with Badvok and a cow. And so ends Series 1 of Chelmsford 123, on a reasonably high note, since this episode had a decent few laughs and played on some nice ancient themes – politics, kingship and the ever-present Roman orgy.

All Chelmsford 123 reviews

On an entirely unrelated note, earlier today Nathan Bransford posted on the Nine Circles of Writing Hell. This was an hilarious account of writing a novel corresponding to Dante's Nine Circles of Hell, which could almost apply as well to writing a thesis as writing a novel. And so, with all due acknowledgement to Bransford and to Dante, whose work this really is, I present for your amusment the Nine Circles of Thesis-Writing Hell...
With apologies to Nathan Bransford and Dante Alighieri
First Circle - Limbo

I want to do a PhD and get to call myself Doctor and wear a fabulous floppy hat and look like Harry Potter for the third time. What’s that? I need an original research idea for a thesis? Ah…

Second Circle - Lust

Oh this is it! This is The Idea. This is going to completely change the face of scholarship! This will get every bit of funding going and become a book straight away and I will get invited to conferences to be keynote speaker because everyone will be totally in awe of my amazing insight!

Third Circle - Gluttony

(Sung, a la Finding Nemo) Must keep writing, must keep writing, writing, writing…

Fourth Circle - Greed

You know what, this is going so well, I think I’m going to submit it early and get it out as a book by next year.

Fifth Circle - Anger

I can no longer see anything except words upon words in Times New Roman, I dream about my thesis, when I eat I imagine I’m eating my thesis. I hate my thesis. I have never hated anything so much in my entire life. Not even a Pot Noodle.

Sixth Circle - Heresy

This eminent scholar has no idea what she’s talking about! She clearly doesn’t understand the evidence or the theory and I don’t know how she ever became so well known, she’s obviously an idiot! I’ve devoted two chapters to bringing her down, point by point… who did you say my external examiner was?

Seventh Circle - Violence

Dear IT department, there has been a slight accident with the printer…

Eighth Circle - Plagiarism

Who needs a million frikkin’ references anyway?!

Ninth Circle - Treachery

Oh examiners, I know, the whole thing is the biggest pile of rubbish you’ve ever read, never mind giving me a PhD, you should probably take away by BA right now and I promise I'll never show my face in academia again!

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One (dir. David Yates, 2010)


Last Harry Potter post for a few months, I promise! The new film was brilliant, I loved it. There are spoilers for both the film and the other half of the book below, so if you haven't read the book, stop reading now!

Like most of the later stories, direct Classical references are restricted mostly to the Latin spells, and to Xenophilius Lovegood not quite living up to his name (roughly, 'brotherly lover of foreigners/strangers'. Betraying your guests to Lord Voldemort definitely constitutes a breach of xenia, guest-friendship, the often unwritten rules surrounding visits and relationships with other families/rulers/warriors etc).

What is really interesting about Deathly Hallows for me, though, is its use of folktale. 'Folktale' is a really difficult thing to pin down and define. There are whole academic journals devoted to 'folklore', but it is also possible to argue that, at least in the ancient world, 'folklore' as a separate category did not exist. Where does 'myth' stop and 'folklore' begin? Often, the answers suggested have a slight air of snobbishness about them, with 'folklore' being stories told by 'ordinary people'. More satisfactory is the idea that myth is inextricably connected to religion, while folklore is not, but in the ancient world, even this doesn't entirely hold up. Various sections from the Odyssey are often identified as folklore (most convincingly, the instruction to Odysseus to carry his oar inland until he finds a place where no one knows what it is, and settle there - there's an excellent article on this by William Hansen in Lowell Edmunds' Approaches to Greek Myth). But most of us would happily place the Odyssey under 'myth'. And although some ancient myths are closely tied to religious practice, not all of them are, so where do we draw the line? This perhaps becomes easier once we move out of the ancient world and into the Christian era in the West, since the division between official religion and other supernatural stories suddenly becomes much stronger.

The invented folktales in Deathly Hallows, I think, bear the closest resemblence to the Franco-Germanic folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm (many of their stories came from middle to upper class French ladies, so how close they are to the oral tradition among German peasants is hard to say). The three brothers, in particular, is a common theme among European fairy tales. Classical mythology also lacks such a strong Death figure - Hades is the god of the underworld, and would come closest, but Persephone is also frequently referenced in her role as Queen of the underworld while Hercules or Mercury sometimes lead people down to the underworld, so there isn't so much of a single figure to focus on. (By the way, I realise I've been using 'fairy tale' and 'folktale' interchangeably, which is also a bit naughty - see JRR Tolkien's 'On Fairy Stories', which is a brilliant deconstruction of the term 'fairy tale').

I'm never quite sure how I feel about the fact that the folktales here are actually inventions by Rowling. Of course, I realise, they have to be, because there are no real stories about an Elder Wand, Resurrection Stone or Invisibility Cloak of Death. And the existence in the Potterverse of a whole community of wizards the rest of us know nothing about means that the appearance of invented fairy tales does not stand out as much as Joss Whedon's similar use of invented fairy tales in the Buffy episode 'Hush', which is an absolutely fantastic episode but did, on first viewing, leave me thinking 'Is this a fairy tale I don't know about?!' I find it a shame, in a way, that after seeing so many 'real' mythological beasts and tales from all over Europe, we end on 'fake' ones, but they have a very real feel to them which works rather nicely. The shadow puppet representation of the story in the film is really beautiful - it has an incredibly spooky feel to it, the look is perfect for a folkloric tale and the sequence also lifts the film at a point where, judging from the noise the kids behind us in the cinema were making, children might be starting to get restless.

Hermione selects a number of really uncomfortable looking campsites in this film, and this one has to be the worst - the muddy estuary underneath the second Severn Bridge!

There is one important difference between these and genuine, orally transmitted folk tales though. 'Real' folk tales, which are traditional and have no one identified creator, do not tend to carry a moral message. This is not to say we can't draw moral messages from them, often extremely dubious ones ('Beauty and the Beast' has some particularly dodgey implications about male/female relationships). But that's not usually their primary objective, probably because the telling and re-telling of them tends to dilute any such object. There are, on the other hand, related tales which are like folk tales and are sometimes called fairy tales, but which have a specific message to impart to the reader or listener and which tend to be the inventions of specific authors - Aesop's fables, Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales or Oscar Wilde's short tales, for example. The Tales of Beedle the Bard are of this type. Ron's reference to his mother saying 'midnight' instead of 'twilight' suggests that these stories have a strong oral tradition, but Hermione's copy has a clear author, Beedle (plus a real life author, Rowling), and the story has a clear message - you cannot cheat Death. (Of course, these are actually about 'real' Potterverse things and are presumably 'true' in the story, which makes them a bit different, but I think going into that would just confuse the issue!).

As for other stuff... well, I loved it. I think the decision to split it into two films was genuinely the right artistic decision, as this film was so much better paced, since it could take its time over everything. I think the split point was well chosen, though I would have added a final scene with Lupin, Tonks and the baby to lighten it up a bit and give the film a slightly stronger sense of closure - as some critics have pointed out, it does stop rather abruptly, but all it needed was an extra conversation with a more rounded-up feeling to it. And who would have thought, when he turned up as an unbelievingly irritating character on a par with Jar-Jar Binks in Chamber of Secrets, that Dobby would end up having a death on roughly the same trauma level as Simba's dad in The Lion King or Bambi's mother?! (What that an animatronic Harry was holding by the way? Whatever it was, it was very good). I bawled like a baby at that bit.

I was rather surprised to see Bill and Fleur's wedding, as I had assumed that this would be altered to Lupin and Tonks' wedding, since we've seen basically nothing of their romance on screen and we're supposed to care about their family in Part Two, whereas Bill and Fleur don't do much of significance in the rest of the story. Still, it was nice to see Fleur and Madame Maxime again (shame there wasn't time for Krum). I loved seeing poor Hermione leave her parents and Harry and Hermione's little dance was very sweet (though my friend pointed out that Harry dances a bit like a Dad at a wedding). It was wonderful to see John Hurt back as well - Chris Columbus should be saluted for casting fabulous actors in tiny cameos in the first film, when we had no idea where they were going to end up (I think we're all particularly looking forward to Mrs Weasley's finest hour in Part Two).

The film has a muted, depressed tone - obviously - and the numerous references to Nazi Germany were blindingly obvious, though no less effective for that (though I did think that the woman under interrogation being dressed as if she was from the 1940s was going a bit far. And why did our heroes' tent look like a bunker - couldn't Hermione have brought some cushions? And a better radio?). The locket, thankfully, did not resemble the One Ring too much, though the one good thing about that particular blatent steal is that at least, unlike certain hobbits, our heroes go for the very sensible option of sharing the wearing of it. I really never, never wanted to see that much of Harry and Hermione in the evil vision though.

It's partly because of the very well presented depressed tone that it might have been nice to see the baby at the end - ending on a tragic death makes dramatic sense, but does result in everyone leaving the cinema feeling kind of downcast, which isn't really what I look for in Harry Potter! These are minor niggles though - this is a brilliant adaptation, one of the best yet, and to be fair there is plenty of (genuinely funny) humour scattered throughout. Not quite as good as Goblet of Fire, but highly recommended.

I love Hermione's dress for the wedding, it's such a beautiful colour. And I want her lovely beaded bag, gigantic magic expansion room or not!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (dir. David Yates, 2007)


I realise I have gone a little bit Harry Potter mad lately, caught up in the excitement about the upcoming release of Deathly Hallows Part 1. I promise, after I've seen and reported on the new film next week, no more Harry Potter for a good few months!

This is the movie where David Yates took over the Potter series and stayed. I like Yates’ direction, though for me, it’s never quite matched the sweeping style of Newell’s or the innovation of Cuarón’s. My biggest problem with Yates as director is that he got rid of Patrick Doyle and hired his TV colleague, Nicholas Hooper, to write the music. Hooper’s music for the films is – well, it’s not awful, that’s would be unfair and untrue, but it does not work for the movies. His style screams ‘television’!, all abrupt changes in mood with every scene telegraphed by a horribly obvious theme that falls under a clear heading of ‘comedic’, ‘scary’, ‘creepy’ and so on. It’s horrible and it grates on me like fingernails on a blackboard. Where is the cheerful creepiness of parts of Williams’ score for Prisoner of Azkaban, or the sorrowful, romantic sweep of Doyle’s work on Goblet of Fire? After two movies in which music was used so beautifully and so effectively, being condemned to this bland, TV-style, soulless music for the rest of the series is utterly depressing.

Ahem. I may have got carried away in what I realise is not my area (though my brother is a musician, so it’s something we tend to discuss a lot!). As you can tell, this is just one of those things that really bothers me (I also get very cross about the yellow door at the very end of Return of the King. Sam should be living in Bag End and the door should be green!). And the music for Half-Blood Prince is a bit better. Generally speaking, this movie does a good job of condensing the longest book in the series, though I think perhaps parts of it have been too condensed – it sometimes feels like the film is rushing from plot point to plot point with no time for any actual emotion and no time to really feel for the characters. The highlight of the film has to be the final sequence in the Ministry of Magic. We see another excellent, intense performance from Daniel Radcliffe as he writhes on the floor, half possessed by Voldemort and moving like a snake, and the use of flashbacks to pull him back to himself was inspired (they look so little in the early films!).

There are plenty of interesting little touches that I notice on multiple viewings as well. I paused on the photo of Harry’s parents to see if Lupin was there and caught Dumbledore and Pettigrew giving each other distinctly suspicious looks – a lovely beat that it would take I don’t know how many viewings to see. Imelda Staunton and Maggie Smith arguing on a flight of stairs, each taking increasing steps up to try to stand above the other, is genius and Filch quietly torturing the scientists in the painting he’s removing is another tiny and creepy moment. Umbridge’s robe is shaped like a regular academic robe, not a wizard’s robe, and so is Snape’s; clearly, academia is evil! I also love the giant pendulum in the exam hall. Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix is fantastic casting, though I find her delivery just a bit too stilted – I had imagined Bellatrix’s madness to be less shouty and more contained with bursts of violence (more like Drusilla from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, probably). Neville using Petrificus totalus on someone else is strangely satisfying, after his experience in Philosopher's Stone. I’m not sure why Sirius is suddenly half naked when he switches forms though, as McGonangall always manages to keep her clothes on.

Order of the Phoenix has one particularly important Classical reference; the centaurs. I’ve talked before about how Narnian centaurs bear little resemblance to wild Classical centaurs (both on the blog and in my paper here). Harry Potter’s centaurs are much closer to their ancient counterparts; wild, uncontrollable, dangerous. I have to confess, I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with Umbridge’s fate in this story, awful as she is. Hermione didn’t really have much choice, but still, the unspecified horrible things the centaurs apparently did to her always left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

These centaurs are not entirely like the ancient versions, however. Like the ancient exception, Chiron, and like Narnian centaurs, they’re astrologers (though we don’t see that in the film). More importantly, Umbridge’s biggest mistake is her intolerance and the bigotry she shows towards them. Like the vampires in True Blood, this is a bit of a mixed message, as the centaurs really are wild and dangerous, but Umbridge’s biggest mistake is still her unforgiveable rudeness in saying some really nasty things about fellow sentient beings.

The name of the Order is also an example of the way phoenixes have come to represent resurrection and new life in modern culture. On one level, presumably, Dumbledore named the Order after his pet, but the name is also significant because of its connotations of something rising from the ashes. This was not an aspect particularly emphasised in ancient myth, though it existed, but of course in our Western, broadly Judaeo-Christian culture, the resurrection aspect has become the most important. Names are important in this story – the naming of Dumbledore’s Army not only allows Dumbledore to take the blame and keep Harry in school, but is also an indication of Harry’s innate goodness and the fact that he does what he does out a genuine desire to help people, not, as Fudge believes or as Umbridge or Voldemort do, out of a desire for personal power. I’m not sure what special power of phoenixes Fawkes uses to help Dumbledore escape – possibly it involves their ability to carry very heavy burdens, established in Chamber of Secrets – but it’s very cool.

I posted on Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when it came out, so I shall return at the weekend with some thoughts on the new movie, and then move one and leave Potter alone for a while!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Roman Mysteries: The Scribes from Alexandria


As with The Beggar of Volubilis, I’m going to avoid going into aspects of the plot in too much detail because each book runs into the next and the story is not yet complete, but beware the odd spoiler anyway.

This story takes place entirely in Egypt, a place to which I have never been, though it’s on my list. Ever since I first saw the 1978 film of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, I have wanted to go on a cruise up the Nile, and in this book Flavia, Jonathan and Lupus do exactly that. (You would have thought the ‘death’ part would have put me off, but no). Well, it's not exactly a cruise, it's a dangerous quest full of peril, but they go up the Nile on a boat, is the point! I’m glad I have seen Death on the Nile, as the film has some lovely footage of the Colossi of Memnon singing – incorrectly, in the film, at sunset, but whatever – and these are highlighted in the book – it’s nice to be able to put a picture and sound to the description.

The book is a great way to introduce children to some wider aspects of Egyptian history, beyond just pyramids and mummies. The pyramids and mummies are there, of course – I think child readers would feel cheated without them. Although I haven’t been there myself, the creepy atmosphere going into the Great Pyramid matches the way OldHousemate(theRomeone) described it and while there are no mummies of the traditional, jump-out-of-a-sarcophagus kind, we do get to visit the mummified corpse of Alexander the Great, which is even better, as it expands the reader’s horizons a bit while still including a mummy. And the story is based around the idea of a treasure map and a trail of clues in the form of riddles, which is nice nod to various Mummy movies, particularly the idea of the map.

But we see so much more than pyramids and mummies here. Alexandria, for a start, which enjoyed enormous fame in the ancient world but is not now depicted as often as Rome or Delphi. Movies that reference ancient Egypt tend to be science fiction and fantasy movies set in the twentieth century which head straight for the pyramids, or they’re Biblical epics, telling stories from much further back in Egypt’s past. The Roman period is not touched, as the movies like to focus on the moment just before Egypt became a Roman province, so that they can focus on Cleopatra. This story highlights Greco-Roman Egypt, post-Alexander and post-Cleopatra, a period with which children are much less likely to be familiar. From this, they can learn things like the fact that camels were brought to Egypt from Arabia by the Romans, about Alexandria and the afore-mentioned corpse of Alexander, about the tension and hostility towards the Romans among Greek and Egyptian-speaking Egyptians and about the difficulties of travelling in a desert country with only the crocodile-infested river as a highway. (There are lots of crocodiles. Poor Flavia is certainly forced to come to terms with her crocodile-related trauma in this one!).

We met this crocodile on holiday in France. It was found, as a baby, in a sewer in Paris, so they had painted its habitat like a sewer, which seemed rather a shame, as it was a bit dim and gloomy. Here, it is eyeing up my brother and myself, wondering which one of us is tastier.

The book also features a young guide boy named Abu – I don’t know if he’s supposed to be named after the monkey in Disney’s Aladdin, but it made me smile.

What I liked most about this one, though, was Nubia’s story, and for reasons that have nothing to do with Classics. Nubia learns a painful but important lesson here – that sometimes, you can’t go back to your original home. I moved house a lot as a child and felt surrounded by stories about people wanting to go home and usually getting there in the end (this is why I’m not too keen on Meet Me in St Louis. Voyager is an exception, though it annoyed me that Neelix, who really was looking for a new life, ended up abandoning the ship to live with a group of the people he’d left behind). This just makes you feel worse than you already feel. But sometimes, as Nubia discovers, you find that life has moved on and you can’t go back, but need to embrace a new life somewhere else.

There's another thing or two from this book that I want to talk about, but I'll wait until I review the last book, The Man from Pomegranate Street, since so many plotlines cross several books at this point! Only two more to go...

What, you thought you were getting away without a camel picture?! Thanks to OldHousemate (theTunisiaone) for this!

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (dir. Mike Newell, 2005)


Well, as I’ve said many times, this is my favourite Harry Potter movie. There’s so much good stuff here – Eric Sykes! Doctor Who! Ginny getting plenty of screentime even when she has few lines! The random new people from Prisoner of Azkaban disappearing! Robert Pattinson! (much more attractive here than in Twilight, though rather too young for me even back then). Viktor Krum! Evil mermaids! Ralph Fiennes! Magic tents! A Christmas Ball! And a beautiful, sweeping score from Patrick Doyle.

This is also, of course, the pivotal book and the point at which the series starts to grow up. I think the moment where Harry weeps over Cedric’s body is quite possibly the best bit of acting Daniel Radcliffe has done for the series and the scene is played out with a fantastic intensity. The whole final section with the maze has a much more intense feel to it than Potter has had so far; I’m particularly impressed by Harry and Cedric’s desperate race for the trophy. The decision to put that slightly off, far too cheerful fanfare over Harry’s return was a stroke of evil genius and George from Drop the Dead Donkey will break your heart. Then, of course, there’s the graveyard scene, the creepiest, most terrifying and best scene from all the books and so far, from the movies as well (though Harry’s possession by Voldemort at the end of Order of the Phoenix gives it a run for its money). 'I want to see the light leave your eyes' gives me the chills every time.

The decision to make Beauxbatons and Durmstrang single sex schools works brilliantly, as it gives each school a really strong identity and makes for a very impressive entrance. It is a bit unfortunate that, since this means that the only female Champion came from a school with no boys, it does rather imply that boys make better Champions (and it doesn’t help that Fleur is, let’s face it, kinda wet and a bit rubbish). The selection of the Champions itself, though, includes another wonderfully done moment where Snape notices something’s wrong with the Goblet before anyone else.

Unfortunately for me, with the removal of the sphinx from the book (a very wise decision, and it would have thoroughly ruined the pacing during that crucial maze section) there’s very little particularly ancient or Classical in this movie, beyond the usual Latin spells (periculum is from the Latin for danger). So, um, I shouldn’t really be blogging it. But I’m nothing if not a completist and I didn’t want to leave out my favourite of the movies!

There is one ancient element in the film – the mermaids. Mermaids are not particularly big in Classical mythology, though they do crop up. Modern representations of the Sirens from the Odyssey sometimes picture them as mermaids, but in ancient art the Sirens are usually half woman, half bird and in the Odyssey, there’s nothing to suggest they aren’t simply women. The Assyrian goddess Atargatis, for various reasons, ended up half woman and half fish and Lucian still knew of this story in the second century AD. Aelian describes some sea monsters in the Indian Ocean that sometimes have the faces of women, with spines for hair – these sound the most similar to the film's freaky-looking mermaids than most. The Nereids, sea nymphs led by Thetis, were also sometimes depicted in mermaid form, though oddly enough it is rarely suggested that Achilles’ mother herself was half fish! The word ‘mermaid’ is Anglo-Saxon (‘sea-woman’) and I suspect that the modern view of mermaids, as attractive half-naked young ladies given to singing to sailors, is a later development (I don’t know how far back the identification of the Sirens with mermaids goes, but that may have had an effect on the development of mermaid folklore).

Nereid nymph riding dolphin, Apulian red-figure pelike. C5th B.C., J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu. From www.theoi.com. This one has feet, but there's a mermaid-like look to the way she's sitting...

I love the interpretation of mermaids here. The friendly Narnian mermaids were based, in their fishy part, on dolphins, but these rather more ambiguous mermaids are based on sharks. They are not exactly evil creatures as far as the story is concerned, but they are pretty nasty and the really ugly look they’ve been given, complete with quite the attitude, always makes me think of them as the Evil Mermaids. Best of all is the contrast between these ‘real’ mermaids with the stained-glass window mermaid in the Prefects’ Bathroom (another nice touch, giving the usual moving portraits a fresh visual spin). The stained glass mermaid, the film suggests, is pure folklore; beautiful, elegant, obsessed with arranging her hair despite living under water. If mermaids really exist, it is implied, they are dangerous wild animals, not naked seductresses.

Dragons are pretty ancient as well of course, though these dragons owe more to Norse and Anglo-Saxon tradition (I would have loved to have seen the Chinese Fireball realized, but we don’t even see the miniature – it doesn’t sound like it has the good nature of ancient Eastern dragons, but maybe it looked like them?). The word is Greco-Roman (Greek drakon, Latin draco) but back then it meant any very big snake, and Greco-Roman mythology is much more interested in snakes, which crop up in all sorts of contexts, than in the sort of giant lizard that is usually pictured in the West when you hear the word ‘dragon’.

I’d better stop there, as I could go on about why I love Goblet of Fire all day. Though I could live without the mental images that always spring to mind when Cedric tells Harry about the bathroom and looks like he’s propositioning him…

Alas, poor Cedric.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Caesar (by Alan Massie)


Today is Remembrance Day here in the UK. I haven't got a special Remembrance Day post this year, but I wanted to mark it in some way, so here are links to two of my older posts appropriate to the day: Joyeux Noel and A Matter of Life and Death (both brilliant films and highly recommended if you're looking for something appropriate to watch tonight).


Today's post, however, is on an historical novel, Alan Massie's Caesar. I was looking forward to reading this, as I’ve had Massie’s Tiberius hanging around for years and never quite finished it, but I enjoyed what I read of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Caesar quite so much, though it wasn’t without its moments, chiefly towards the end.

I had hoped to leave behind the question of what Caesar may or may not actually have said as he was dying after my post of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but it sparked a bit of debate in the comments, so I thought I’d better address it again here, briefly. I had made an offhand comment (probably in an ill-advised attempt to be amusing) wondering why Suetonius says Caesar’s last words were in Greek. Caesar, as an educated Roman, certainly spoke and read Greek. However, he was raised in Italy, spent much of his career in Gaul, worked with Italian soldiers and wrote exclusively in Latin, so I don’t think that Greek, for him, was like English for a Welsh speaker or something – personally, I don’t think it’s a language he would just have spontaneously come out with. I think that if Suetonius is telling the truth (I’m ignoring Dio Cassius for the moment, or we’d be here all day), then Caesar was quoting something, possibly a lost work of Greek literature. What that means, of course, is that we have no way of knowing what significance Suetonius expected us to attach to the phrase, because we don’t know if we were expected to recognize the quotation or not. The Greek phrase is just three words, ‘and you, child?’ and whether it should be interpreted as a reproach, as a reference to biological paternity, as a curse or warning as some have suggested, or some other meaning that would be revealed if only we knew the source, is pretty much impossible to say.

It is also worth mentioning that Suetonius has quite a thing for famous last words. This is the same biographer who gave us ‘Have I played my part well enough?’ (Augustus), ‘What an artist dies with me!’ (Nero), ‘Dear me! I seem to be turning into a god’ (Vespasian) and, indirectly, ‘I have only one regret’ (Titus). I think the chances of all these people having such memorable last words and Suetonius correctly recording all of them, decades later, are, let’s face it, fairly slim.

Anyway, that’s quite enough of that, this isn’t supposed to be a history seminar! The point of going over all this again is that one of the best aspects of this book is the way Massie deals with the murder itself. Although the sources are pretty clear that whatever the phrase was, it was addressed to Marcus Brutus, Massie, knowing his readers will be half-expecting the Shakespearian ‘et tu, Brute?’ transfers the phrase to the other Brutus involved in the conspiracy, his narrator, Decimus Brutus. He also adjusts the phrase to make its meaning clear, as his Caesar says ‘Not you, my son.’ I don’t think he means to suggest that Decimus is Caesar’s biological son (though he does relate an affair between Caesar and Decimus’ mother, but after Decimus’ birth) but the reproach and the idea that Caesar gives up when he realises that one of his closest friends, stipulated as Octavian’s guardian in his will, is involved in the plot to murder him, is pretty clear. This is a brilliant move on Massie’s part, as it combines the emotional sucker punch of the guilt and betrayal of the narrator with a different twist on a very well known scene.

The
Death of Caesar (1867), by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Unfortunately, not everything worked so well for me. Decimus Brutus is an interesting choice of narrator, and you can see the appeal in using him, as Caesar’s close ally and one of his murderers. We don’t actually see much of their friendship though, as the early part of the book races from the Rubicon to Pharsalus to Egypt and back to Rome as quickly as humanly possible. Having read some of Tiberius, I was expecting an I, Claudius-style imperial biography, but this is really just the story of the murder plot, not the story of Caesar’s life (which, to be fair, the back cover would have told me if I’d read it properly!). I also found it disconcerting that it was very unclear who the narrator was for several pages, and if you weren’t very familiar with Shakespeare or with the ancient sources, Decimus Brutus, not one of the more famous assassins, would mean nothing and you’d have to read the dramatis personae (not something I usually do before starting a novel) to find out who he was and why he’s narrating this. It seems to me that a novel should be equally enjoyable for people who lots about the subject and for people who know nothing about it, and I’m not sure that this is.

I wasn’t wild about the characterization of Decimus either, who came across as quite spectacularly whiny (he constantly complains that Caesar stole his thunder for the first half, and constantly complains that Cassius won’t take any of his advice for the second). He also has an improbable amount of sex with very famous people (in the first few chapters he gets through Clodia, Cleopatra and Octavius and refers to an old affair with Clodius) in between arguments about politics, so the novel becomes, essentially, a history lesson with intermittent bouts of sex. And we have the usual pop culture Roman stereotypes, with Casca (portrayed as early twentieth century camp, he keeps calling people ‘old fruit’) having his slave-boys give him a blow job while discussing politics with Decimus. Hardly anyone behaves like that now, though in our culture we are, if anything, more sexually liberated than the Romans, so why are we so collectively convinced that Romans had no social or personal boundaries?

Cassius’ characterization is largely taken from Shakespeare, and towards the end of the book, Massie starts lifting whole chunks from Shakespeare. Cassius hold a dinner party in which he persuades his fellow conspirators to murder Caesar, and gives Cassius’ speech from Julius Caesar. It’s been edited and rendered into modern English, but it is, essentially, the same speech with the same examples, and includes the line ‘the fault does not lie in the stars. It lies rather in ourselves.’ Brutus, on the other hand, is very different. Decimus-as-narrator refers to him derogatively as ‘Markie’ throughout, but since Massie does not actually show us why Brutus is so annoying and useless, but rather just tells us over and over again, all this did was increase my dislike for Decimus (who also refers to Calpurnia as a ‘bitch’ several times, which seems ridiculously over-harsh for someone who’s just a bit over-wrought and has an unpleasant air of sexism to it, which pretty much sealed my dislike of him. Calpurnia herself is more reminiscent of Joan Sims in Carry on Cleo than anything else). Brutus is made responsible for insisting on leaving Antony alive, and his mistakes in the conspiracy itself are explained, but why Decimus dislikes him so much in the first place is less clear.

The book was written in 1993 and seems to draw on certain themes from 1980s Britain, with arguments about the conflict between individualism and society, and when Decimus says he has heard Caesar ‘deny the very existence of society’ the novel seems to be drawing a deliberate parallel with Margaret Thatcher and Thatcherism in general. This is, however, somewhat underwritten by a later conversation in which Caesar expresses concern about the quality of milk in the city and Decimus complains that Caesar is busying himself with milk supplies for the poor while others debate philosophy. The choice of milk as an example can’t be a coincidence, and perhaps this conversation is intended to make the reader feel for Caesar and feel antagonistic towards Decimus, but in the context of a first-person narration, I’m not sure it works – it just makes it seem like the author hasn’t quite decided what his take on things is.

That’s probably quite enough whining from me! (Though, one last thing – right at the end Decimus goes past a place he calls ‘Little St Bernard’ which took me right out of the story – I don’t know what it’s Roman name was, but it certainly didn’t have ‘St’ in it in 44 BC). The scenes surrounding the murder itself are very well done, as is the description of the night before the murder, which is nicely tense. And despite his odd slang, Casca is a likeable character, I felt sad when he died. Overall, unfortunately, I was disappointed, though judging from the enthusiastic quotes on the cover, others have enjoyed the book very much, so I guess it’s just not my cup of tea. I still have Tiberius hanging around so hopefully I’ll enjoy that one a bit more!

This seemed as good an excuse as any to throw in a picture of a cute St Bernard! Though I'm really more of a cat person myself.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)


I’m never quite sure whether Shakespeare qualifies as popular culture or not, but his Classical plays have such an overwhelming influence on later popular culture representations of the same stories, especially Julius Caesar, that it seems silly not to discuss him at least a little, though I’m no Shakespeare scholar. On top of that, a big movie adaptation designed for a wide release and starring a cast of big names of any work of Shakespeare’s is surely an example of popular culture, even if it’s Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet.

Although many of us may never have read the play or seen a performance of it, there are certain aspects of the story of the death of Julius Caesar that have become thoroughly ingrained in our collective imagination thanks to this play. The most famous, of course, are Caesar’s last words, ‘Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar!’ as Brutus stabs him. I wondered why these lines are in Latin – according to Wikipedia, it’s because the phrase was already commonly attributed to Caesar by the time Shakespeare wrote the play, from earlier Elizabethan works. Thanks to Shakespeare’s play, they are all the more firmly attributed to him now, though the these days the phrase is becoming known as one of those famous phrases that no one ever said, like ‘Play it again, Sam,’ or ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ (though considering I’m pretty sure Kirk said ‘Beam us up, Scotty’ and similar phrases, I always think that one is splitting hairs a little).

To be honest, I don’t feel a particular need to insist to all and sundry that Caesar never said that, partly because, well, he might have done for all we know. Suetonius (writing about a hundred and fifty years later) says he said ‘and you, my child?’, Dio Cassius (writing about 250 years later) says he said ‘you too, my son?’ and no one else attributes any last words to him at all, so why not? Putting it in Latin sounds a little strange, considering nothing else is in Latin, but on the other hand, according to Suetonius and for reasons passing understanding, he said it in Greek (Suetonius offers absolutely no explanation for why he would deliver his last words in Greek – perhaps the phrase is actually a quotation from a lost work of Greek literature). So, English represents Latin and Latin represents Greek? That sort of works! The change from 'my child' to 'Brutus' reduces the emphasis on the possibility that Caesar was Brutus' biological father, but I think the gist of the phrase is close enough to be a reasonable interpretation - this is, after all, drama, not a history lesson.

Shakespeare’s other major contribution to the mythology surrounding the death of Caesar is Mark Antony’s speech to the crowd outside. This is the famous ‘Friends! Romans! Countrymen!’ moment, followed by a speech delivered over Caesar’s bloody corpse, in which Antony produces Caesar’s will and demonstrates how generous Caesar was to the people, turning them against the assassins. This is not exactly invention by Shakespeare, rather it’s a compression of several events – the assassins speaking with the crowd and Brutus winning them over and then, some time later, the reading of the will and Antony speaking to the crowd as well (the accounts vary in the details and some even include the presence of Caesar’s body, a couple of days old, in a hot climate – lovely. Appian in particular gives Brutus and Antony extraordinarily long speeches, if I was in the crowd I’d have nodded off). Shakespeare hasn’t invented anything beyond the language, but he has severely compressed events so that everything happens immediately after the murder, and that is what leads audiences or readers of later interpretations to expect speeches, particularly from Mark Antony, right after the assassination.

The film itself is rather good. It must have been pared down quite considerably – I don’t know exactly how long the play is, but the film comes in at under two hours, and I haven’t been to too many plays that were that short. The editing focuses the script firmly on Brutus, and the closing shot of the film is the lamplight spluttering out over his corpse. Almost all material covering the relationship between Antony and Octavian (here Octavius) has been cut, except for one brief scene where we see the Second Triumverate of Antony, Octavius and Lepidus conferring together, and written narrative on screen fills in the gaps where, presumably, quite a large chunk of the play has got the chop. The film is essentially a three-handed story about Cassius, Brutus and Antony, with Brutus torn and placed in the middle between the rather melodramatic Cassius (the always brilliant John Gielgud, who began to appear more in films as a result of this role) and Antony, portrayed here as emotional but noble, motivated by love for Caesar.

Because the film is in black and white, the sets and matte paintings all look pretty convincing and there’s not too much wobbling or obvious cheapness (though Antony’s shield is quite clearly made of bendy cardboard). The crowd scenes are particularly impressive. I’ve got so used to TV scenes of people speaking to heard but entirely unseen crowds, or recent movies which show a mass of computer-generated crowd all waving and shouting like mad but with no discernable individuals among them and resembling ants more than people, that I was quite pleased to see actual crowd scenes with actual people in them. Thanks partly to Manciewicz’s edit of Shakespeare’s script, which gives lines to several otherwise anonymous members of the crowd, and partly to the 1950s willingness to actually hire a bunch of extras and film them, these feel much more like real crowd scenes.

Marlon Brando’s performance as Antony is a revelation to someone like me, who grew up on The Godfather and Apocalypse Now and has never seen A Streetcar Named Desire or On The Waterfront. There’s no mumbling here – Brando is brilliant, and the way he barks ‘Friends! Romans! Countrymen!’ in a desperate attempt to get the crowd’s attention, rather than declaiming these words in the grand manner of numerous quotations, is brilliant. He’s helped by some lovely direction, which forces him to walk down a long corridor, alone, towards the assassins, looking remarkably vulnerable, and later precedes the sight of him carrying Caesar’s corpse out with a woman’s scream, enhancing the horror of the moment so that the distinct lack of blood on someone who died of twenty-three stab wounds is less noticeable or important. He’s forgotten to get dressed in the first scene, and looks a bit like he’s auditioning for 300, but other than that, he’s great.

As are all the other actors of course (I defy anyone to find a bad John Gielgud or James Mason performance). The scenes featuring Brutus’ ‘evil spirit’ are very effective as well, complete with flickering lamp and ghostly image. I couldn’t quite make out whether it was the actor playing Caesar who played the ghostly image or not, though The Internet and Brutus’ later dialogue suggest that it was. The story of the ‘evil spirit’ is from Plutarch (‘bad daimon’ in the Greek; a daimon is a divine being that is lower than a god and had all sorts of different meanings in different contexts which there isn’t room to go into now – it is the word that eventually became the Christian ‘demon’ but it has absolutely nothing to do with evil and the concept of the Devil didn’t exist, so the Classical daimon is a completely different thing). However, the idea that the spirit in question relates to Caesar is Shakespeare’s, as Plutarch is very clear that whatever the apparition was, it was distinctly personal to Brutus himself, and not the ghost of Caesar.

I really enjoyed this film, though I confess, I seem to remember watching it some years ago and being rather bored and very confused (I was expecting the death of Caesar to be at the end!). As with most Shakespeare plays, especially the Roman ones, it probably helps to have some prior knowledge of what he’s talking about, and Shakespeare sometimes assumes knowledge of the Classical world that teens like I was don’t necessarily have (though having said that, nor would the groundlings in his day, so I guess you're meant to ignore anything you don't understand!). All in all, though, this is a short but satisfying adaptation of a play which is pretty historically accurate, by Shakespearian standards, featuring a lot of compression and drawing out of incidents only referred to in one or two sources, but very little outright invention.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Nemesis



'We're your nemeses-sis-ses!'
(The Trio, an inept gang of nerds attempting to be supervillains in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 6).

Nemesis is a Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution. A daughter of Night, like a lot of Greek deities she's an abstract concept as well as a personified goddess. In addition to being in charge of retribution for wrongs done, she was also responsible for ensuring that human fortunes stayed in balance by punishing people who'd just had a bit too much good luck (balancing out any times Fortune/Tyche had got carried away). It's this last bit that gives the word it's modern meaning. Boiled down to just the concept, without the goddess, Nemesis now usually refers to a person or thing responsible for the downfall of another, and is usually used in a very personal way, with one person being another's personal nemesis.

For this reason, the word is most frequently used in science fiction, comic books and spy thrillers. Because these genres tend to focus on a particular hero gifted with unusal strength/cleverness/gadgets, who takes out normal, puny bad guys ten at a time, the big bad guy who must be defeated at the end of the film is sometimes referred to as, or refers to themselves as, the hero's nemesis. You can see where the word got this usage from clearly enough, from the abstract punishment of someone with too much good fortune to the downfall (except it never is, of course) of someone with excessive gifts or natural/supernatural ability. There's little left of the original Greek idea in the modern usage though, as the idea of the 'nemesis' has become something else, related to the Greek goddess, but not quite the same.

The tenth Star Trek movie, for example, is entitled Nemesis (dir. Stuart Baird, 2002). This is actually a movie I have all sorts of problems with, not least the fact that, brilliant as Tom Hardy is, he looks nothing whatsoever like Patrick Stewart and I'd have trouble believing that they were even related, never mind genetically identical. But the point of the title is that supposedly, in this movie, Picard meets his nemesis. The reason Shinzon is Picard's nemesis is not that he's the strongest or even the most personally affecting villain Picard's ever faced (I would say the Borg Queen in First Contact is both of those) but that he is, essentially, Picard. He is the person Picard might have been if he'd been raised by Remans (as in Romulus and Remus - I've posted on the origins of the Romulans in Star Trek, and I'm sure it's a subject I'll return to again at some point!). One of the most important themes in Nemesis is the question of nature over nurture, and how far someone's personality is due to their genetic (or, in Data's case, electronic) make-up, and Shinzon is the embodiment of this. He's not so much Picard's nemesis as his dark side, or alter ago, or Junigan Shadow, or one of the various multitudinous ways to refer to aspects of a person's personality that are usually hidden and that are often given physical form in science fiction and fantasy. The tragic consequences of his actions bring him more into Nemesis territory, as the general all-round cutsey happiness of Riker and Troi's wedding at the movie's beginning is slowly destroyed, but for the most part this is a more modern development of the nemesis theme, most closely connected with modern genre fiction than Greek myth.

The modern use of the word is not confined to genre fiction, however. Agatha Christie also used Nemesis as the title for one of her Miss Marple mysteries, which I am chiefly familiar with from the Joan Hickson-starrring TV adaptation (dir. David Tucker, 1987). Jason Rafiel, a millionaire, leaves Miss Marple a legacy in his will if she will solve a murder which his son has been accused of. The use of nemesis here is closer to the Greek idea. Rafiel does not know that his son is innocent (and may even have believed him to be guilty) and he calls Miss Marple his nemesis; if she proves his son's guilt, she will be the downfall of his descendants, so she is his nemesis in the modern sense. However, since Rafiel is a millionaire, the whole situtation is also his nemesis - the divine evening out of his good fortune by depriving him of his son, which Miss Marple will complete if she proves his guilt. The Greek sense of the word might also apply to the poor murder victim, who, as it turns out, has been the victim of too much love; love which eventually, in a twisted woman's mind, became fatal (the murderess is played by Margerat Tyzack, who played Antonia in I, Claudius, and who is absolutely brilliant here, cold and chilling and utterly creepy). The girl was too blessed with affection, and divine nemesis stepped in and killed her. I find the Miss Marple mysteries tend to be more emotionally affecting and less Cluedo-y that the Poirots anyway and this one is one of the best - terribly sad, affecting and an intriguing mystery, and the TV adaptation boasts some spectacular performances (as well as Tyzack, Liz Fraser will break your heart as the alcoholic mother of another murdered girl).

The word nemesis will, I'm sure, continue to be used for a number of villains who gain the title simply for being particularly difficult to kill, but I think it is the most powerful when some sense of its Greek meaning is retained - when the 'nemesis' in question avenges some past wrong or puts a serious dent in the hero's good fortune.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 2004)


Prisoner of Azkaban is commonly referred to as the best of the Potter movies. My personal favourite, which I genuinely think is the best movie, is Goblet of Fire. Although I'm glad that Cuarón took a less literal approach to adapting the books than Columbus, producing a more streamlined, movie-like plot with much better pacing, I think the movie really suffers from leaving out any explanation of who Mooney, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are and the significance of Harrry's patronus being a deer. It would hardly have taken very long to pop in a quick explanation during Harry and Lupin's final conversation in Lupin's office and surely this must be an obvious gap in the plot to those who haven't read the books. The movie is also a little bit too arty for my taste sometimes. There are lots of extra little touches that I love, including the Night Bus squeezing and jerking its way around, the man who can't be bothered to twirl his coffee spoon with his fingers but is using magic instead, the repeated motif of the clocks and timepieces that foreshadows the final act and the long-suffering cleaning lady at the Leaky Cauldron. But sometimes the camera does an especially swirly move, or there's a very obviously carefully staged moment, like the slow pull back from Uncle Vernon waving at Aunt Marge while Dudley appears to be watching Strictly Come Dancing on television (clever, since it hadn't started yet), that's just so obviously staged and designed to be terribly arty, it takes me out of the story. And why has Dean Thomas been virtually replaced by a completely new student, and CrabbeOrGoyle by a ganglier student? Every time I see one of these random new people it sets my teeth on edge (besides, I like Dean Thomas, he does normal things like supporting a football team).

Cuarón is also responsible for casting Micheal Gambon, a decision I am Not Happy With. Gambon is a fantastic actor (brilliant in Gosford Park, for example) but he just doesn't get Dumbledore. Richard Harris sometimes lacked a bit of sparkle, but you could always feel the repressed power of Dumbledore when he played him. Gambon has a bit more twinkle - though not much, really - but provides no feeling of hidden power or depth at all (it doesn't help that he's made it clear in interviews that he doesn't really care about the material. If you do an acting job for money, fine, but if you take on a role that means so much to hundreds of kids, you should at least make some effort to understand the character). And his accent is awful, veering all over the place and most often sounding like some bizarre combination of Irish and Canadian.

Still, Prisoner of Azkaban is a very, very good Potter film and features one of my favourite Potter-y things, the choir singing 'Double, double, toil and trouble' (with toads!) to John Williams' excellent soundtrack - Williams seems to have been much more inspired on this one, providing a wonderfully rich variety of styles in the soundtrack while maintaining an overall unity (I especially like the Tudor-like bits for the castle). David Thewlis is not how I pictured Lupin - I had quite the thing for Lupin in the books and pictured him as, well, no offence to Thewlis but a bit sexier. Still, his performance is excellent. Some of Cuarón's changes to the overall setting seem a bit random - the bridge thing has proved popular in subsequent movies but doesn't actually have much of a purpose beyond being pretty, and why he changed Professor Flitwick's look is anyone's guess - but it's wonderful to see Hogwarts looking like it's really in Scotland, complete with Scottish weather and beautiful Highland landscapes, and lovely steep slopes for the kids to run around on.

Anyway, on to Classics! Yet another element redesigned by Cuarón is the Fat Lady, who plays a bigger role in this story than any of the others. In Philosopher's Stone, she looked just the way I pictured her from the book, a large grey-haired lady in a pink dress, imagined as vaguely nineteenth century. Here, she has been re-cast, presumably because she needed a comic scene to re-establish her importance before she is attacked, so comic actress Dawn French was cast instead of Elizabeth Spriggs. However, since Cuarón can't leave anything alone, she's also been re-imagined and is now a neo-Classical figure. The style of painting fits the eighteenth or nineteenth century, a self-consciously Classicizing image which represents how eighteenth and nineteenth century artists viewed Greece and Rome (gorgeous landscape with vaguely Classical architecture in the background, figure in the foreground in white tunic and with her head covered in fruit - exactly who the Fat Lady is supposed to be, mortal or goddess, is not clear and presumably, since she's known as the Fat Lady, no one knows).

Intriguingly, the Fat Lady appears to consider herself actually to be Roman - judging by her criticism of the kids as 'plebs' when they fail to appreciate her singing (though, to be fair, a well educated person from the eighteenth or nineteenth century would probably use the same insult, so it's not a definitive conclusion!). I'm always a little confused about how far the various portraits in Harry Potter are supposed to think and feel as their subjects, or how connected they are with their status as paintings or photographs (I think it generally depends on the painting or photograph). The Fat Lady certainly seems to have chosen to identify with her Classical setting, even though it represents a later fantasy of the Classical world rather than any Classical reality.

Much more important to the plot, of course, is Buckbeak the Hippogriff. Hippogriffs are not really known from Classical Mythology, though name is half-Greek (hippo, from horse) and there is a line in Virgil's Eclogues that refers to mating a Gryphon and a mare. The Potterverse Hippogriff, however, is basically the same creature as the Classical Griffin, described by Aeschylus, Herodotus and Pausanias, among others. Werewolves (the name correctly identified by Snape as being from Anglo-Saxon, in which wer means man) are also talked about in ancient texts, most notably in the werewolf-story in Petronius' Satyricon. Potterverse werewolves are similar to Buffyverse werewolves in that they are completely normal outside the period of the full moon but uncontrollable monsters when wolves, though in the Potterverse, lycanthropy (werewolfism) is treated much more like a serious chronic illness than anything else (and there's a distinct metaphor about misunderstood and socially unacceptable illnesses going on there). Ancient texts tend not to present werewolves in such a friendly light. (I've also discussed Remus Lupin's name before).

Other bits and pieces of Classical Stuff get the odd mention. Hermione points out that the Egyptians used to worship cats. The current password for the Gryffindor common room, appropriately enough, is fortuna major (literally 'big luck', lots of luck, great luck or Great Luck, the personified goddess of luck - though Google suggests it may have more to do with a divinatory practice I'm not familiar with). Sybil Trelawny is, of course, named after the Sibyl, but the forms of divination she teaches are distinctly newish - crystal balls and tea leaves are slightly more modern obsessions, at least in the West (some say Druids used crystals, but somehow I doubt they were using lovely smooth spherical crystal balls). One of the many classes Hermione is taking is Ancient Runes - you'd think, considering the nature of most of their spells, that Latin would be more useful but, of course, Latin is a subject some children might learn in real schools. For her ancient language to sound sufficiently weird and magical, it had to be runes.

I can see why so many people list this as their favourite Harry Potter film. It's adopting one of the best books, which helps (I was genuinely shocked to discover that Ron had literally been sleeping with a bad guy for years). It is also truly magical and there are so many lovely touches - the giant giraffe wandering through the portraits is awesome and Hogsmeade in the snow is beautiful. Snape as Grandma is hilarious too (as is my favourite exchange 'Spiders! They want me to tap-dance! I don't wanna tap-dance!' 'You tell those spiders, Ron'). I love the way Snape throws himself in front of the kids he hates to protect them from the werewolf as well. Unfortunately, for me, there are just a few too many deeply irritating ticks (Gambon's accent, random extra students, unexplained plot points) for it to be my favourite, but it's a very, very good adaptation and certainly stands up best as a film by itself, outside of the series as a whole.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Guest Post: The Fall of Troy (by Peter Ackroyd)


Today's post is a guest post by Emma Wohlfart, an independent ancient historian with a degree in Classical Archaeology and a background working in Heritage Education. She currently runs her own freelance writing business. Her areas of special interest include ancient magic, warfare and Hellenistic dynasties. She also has a terrible obsession with cultures that are spelled with a hyphen.

The history of Classics, the science itself, has some larger than life characters. Of those none is larger than Heinrich Schliemann, so it’s not surprising to find that there is actually a novel based on his life.

Nowhere on the jacket of Peter Ackroyd’s The Fall of Troy does it actually say that this is a novel about Heinrich Schliemann, but it is hardly a well-kept secret that Ackroyd’s Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Obermann is based on the real life Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Schliemann.

For those who are unfamiliar with Schliemann, which might be just about anyone who is not a Classicist these days, he is famous for excavating Troy, Mycenae (home of Agamemnon) and Ithaca (home of Odysseus). He gave us the treasure of king Priam, the jewels of Helen, and the death mask of Agamemnon.

None of these amazing treasures had ever belonged to the people they were named after, of course, but it captured the imagination of the entire western world and helped launch the science of Classical Archaeology. It was an amazing legend that went largely unquestioned for a century: a young German boy hears Homer recited in Greek and swears to find Troy, and so he does and much more.

Now that we have considered why anyone would consider writing a book based on Schliemann in the first place, let us consider the premise of Ackroyd’s book:

It is the late 1800’s and Heinrich Obermann is an older German gentleman with a Russian business background and a passion for ancient Greek archaeology. Obermann wants nothing more than to excavate Troy and to be accompanied by a lovely and loyal Greek wife who reads Homer.

When the novel starts, he is just about to meet and marry Sophia Chrysanthis. She fits the bill and even if she happens to be in her late twenties, and is thus something of an old maid, that is all right because Obermann, of course, is a much older bachelor.

They barely have time to be married before they set off for the Dardanelles where Obermann is currently excavating Troy with a team of peculiar characters, including a blind Classics professor and a mysterious Russian with the nickname Telemachus.

As the novel progresses, Sophia learns more about her husband and what is means to be Frau Obermann. He is an archaeologist, but one that considers it an art and as such he is little interested in the science of it.

The scholarly community is sceptical, the Ottoman officials are distrusting, and Sophia is concerned about her husband’s health, his swinging moods, and the way little lies keep coming undone. And then little unfortunate accidents start to happen.

Heinrich Obermann is nothing short of a megalomaniac, bordering on psychopath.

The real-life Heinrich Schliemann has in recent years been accused of much the same. Without giving away too many important plot points, let’s compare Heinrich Obermann with Heinrich Schliemann:

Obermann and Schliemann were both born in Germany, where they had a not very privileged upbringing, and went on to make a fortune in tsarist Russia.

They both married a Russian woman, and they both married a Greek Sophia with a solid knowledge of Homer for whom they had great archaeological ambition.

Both men were seemingly compulsive liars, if not archaeologically then at least in their private accounts. Their claims were consistently refuted by contemporary scholars, and both hid important finds from the authorities.

Both men also held the Iliad to a religious standard and performed religious rituals reciting the ancient hexameter in the original Greek.

There are also some ways in which the stories of Obermann and Schliemann differ only slightly:

For example, Sophia was not an old maid when Schliemann married her. In fact, it was scandalous for completely different reasons: she was only 16 when he asked her father for her hand.

Ackroyd’s Obermann was already an established archaeologist at the beginning of the book and had excavated at the Ithaca of Odysseus, whereas Schliemann married his Sophia while not yet an archaeologist and only excavated at Ithaca after he had been banned from Troy for smuggling antiquities.

The real Schliemann eventually became less obsessed with the “truth” of Homer, and he presumably did not challenge his wife’s suitors to run around Troy in a quest to mimic the Iliad. He did, however, spend some time running around hills on the Trojan plain, like Achilles in the Iliad, and figured out which hill was, in fact, Troy all by himself.

And while Obermann also calls only those closest to him by mythical Greek names, Schliemann made his servants respond to Greek names.

All this said, The Fall of Troy is clearly a fictional account of what could have happened. Please don’t come away from Ackroyd’s novel thinking Heinrich Schliemann might have tried to murder anyone. It is a fantastical portrait, but one that I find surprisingly resonant. Ackroyd has captured Schliemann’s character, even if Obermann does things we can only hope Schliemann never did.

Thanks to Emma! More Harry Potter to follow later this week.
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