The most unfilmable novel

What is the most unfilmable novel of all time? For me there is but one answer: JD Salinger’s classic, controversial The Catcher in the Rye.

Catcher in the Rye

Salinger himself never wanted the novel to be made into a film, and I can understand why. The entire book is the inner monologue of protagonist Holden Caulfield, an American teenage schoolboy who has just been expelled from a private prep school. The novel then follows a weekend of misadventures in New York, as themes of alienation, angst, rebellion and sexuality are touched upon.

The book remains something of a definitive text on the contradictory and overwhelming feelings encountered during teenage years, but it would not make a good film as it is simply too dependent on the inner thoughts and feelings of Caulfield. Besides, Caulfield himself dislikes movies, calling them “phony” along with many other things he also dislikes. It would be ironic, to say the least, to adapt his story in film.

Caulfield is clearly more disturbed than many teenagers, and as such the book has attracted more than a little controversy. It has the unusual distinction of being one of the most taught books in US schools, as well as one of the most banned. It has also been dubiously linked to various shootings, including the murder of John Lennon, and the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

My view is that The Catcher in the Rye is a masterpiece. It is amongst the greatest American novels on a par with To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. I’m fairly sure reading it won’t turn you into a psychopath, but don’t hold your breath for a film version any time soon.

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Film Review – Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

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Those who enjoyed 2005’s Sin City are in for more of the same with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, only not quite as memorable.

The principle reason this belated sequel is a lesser beast is that the art-directed-to-within-an-inch-of-it’s-life schtick that seemed so fresh visually nine years ago has since become more commonplace. Moreover, this instalment lacks the emotional core of the previous film, namely the Bruce Willis/Jessica Alba relationship.

Both the Willis and Alba characters return to continue that relationship, albeit with one watching over the other from beyond the grave. However this time round their characters are more peripheral, less convincing and therefore less satisfying. Instead the bulk of the film focuses on femme fatale Ava (Eva Green, who is naked in at least half her scenes) and the various men she tries to lure to their doom, including private detective Dwight (Josh Brolin). Surrounding this main story is another one concerning corrupt senator Roark (Powers Boothe) and one of his illegitimate sons Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  Other characters known to fans of Frank Miller’s original comics – including Marv (Mickey Rourke) – also make an appearance, weaving in and out of the various plotlines.

Robert Rodriguez directs just as slickly as he did with the first Sin City, and visually the monochrome with splashes of colour is every bit as eye popping (as it is in the comics). Performances are completely over the top for the most part, but appropriate to the subject matter. Incidentally, the rest of the cast also includes the likes of Juno Temple, Christopher Lloyd, Rosario Dawson, Dennis Haysbert, Ray Liotta  and even Lady Gaga at one point.

Needless to say, morally and spiritually this is all but indefensible given it’s apparent celebration of bloody vengeance in pretty much all the plotlines. However, taking it too seriously would be a mistake. Like the comics, this film is deliberately exaggerated, often tongue in cheek and has a faintly satirical edge amid all the noir gloom.

The bottom line is that if you enjoyed the first film, you’ll probably like this one too, just not as much. If however you were bothered by the extreme violence of the first – not to mention the dubious female characterisation – you’d be best to give this a wide berth.

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Children of the Folded Valley – initial reviews

My latest novel Children of the Folded Valley has had a number of very positive reviews, including some raves, from those who have read it. Here’s a brief sample from those on Amazon:

“A dystopian treasure! I have lived in this valley for the last few days due to the author’s skill at world-building. I have watched the characters come alive, and have experienced a mind-boggling mystery come to light. This is storytelling! You will be left with wanting more…” – Kathy, Amazon.

“I don’t usually leave reviews but I felt so strongly about encouraging people to read this fantastic book. It had me captured from start to finish. At one stage in the book I actually thought it was a true story.” – Paul Taylor, Amazon.

“Creepy and unnerving… Kept me gripped the whole way through.” – Lucyboo, Amazon.

“Draws the reader from a seemingly normal world into the horrific.” – Olga, Amazon.

“Readers will be gripped by the anguish of a community coming to terms with what is going on behind closed doors…” – Al Gibson, Amazon.

“I can’t put it down.” – Andre Pena, Amazon.

Children of the Folded Valley is currently available FREE from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, Kobo and various other places in various downloadable formats (including Kindle).

Print copies are available from Lulu.com: http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/children-of-the-folded-valley/paperback/product-21732639.html

Here is the blurb from the back of the book:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

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Film Review – Joe

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A very strong central performance from Nicolas Cage anchors Joe, a slow burning drama from director David Gordon Lee, adapting Larry Brown’s novel.

Cage is riveting as the eponymous Joe, an ex-con who becomes an unlikely role model and father figure to fifteen year old Gary (Tye Sheridan). Desperate to support his drifter family and protect them from his violent, immoral, alcoholic father, Gary takes a job working on the deforestation and replanting project Joe oversees. The replacing of dead, useless trees with new saplings provides an interesting metaphorical background as Joe lurches between ruin and redemption; alternating cigarette and alcohol abuse, using prostitutes and antagonising/assaulting police officers with helping Gary gain a new sense of self-worth amid his path to manhood.

The pace is slow – possibly too slow for some tastes – but gripping, with a vivid, beautiful yet grimy, dirt-under-the-fingernails atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Tim Orr (recalling the look and feel of last summer’s Mudd). Lee handles the sudden and bursts of violence very well, and whilst said moments can be shocking, I wouldn’t say they were gratuitous in any way. At this point I may as well add the usual warning for swearing and sex, as well as violence, but again, everything seemed appropriate within the context of the film.

The story is familiar but the characters do some interesting and unusual things, playing a little with the conventions of the Southern noir genre, but not too much. The central moral conceit of reluctant redemption is well worn, but Cage’s understated and completely convincing performance makes this well worth a watch.

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Sexism in children’s book marketing

I generally stay out of debates about sexism, but I recently heard something that even I can’t let pass. Apparently Roald Dahl’s Matilda has been reissued with a pink cover that visually implies that this is not a book for boys.

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To say Roald Dahl’s novels are for all children is to state the bleeding obvious. In the specific case of Matilda, the book – and also Danny De Vito’s film – is just as enjoyable for both genders. Again, this is obvious. So why the pink cover marketing the book exclusively to girls?

As an aside, why indeed is pink so horribly ubiquitous in marketing to girls in any case? Many toy companies are guilty of doing things that never happened “in my young day”. For example, when I was a boy, Lego was always gender neutral. Why not today?

Leaving aside that bigger question, I do accept that some stories are more likely to appeal to one gender or another. But that is emphatically not the case with Matilda. Boys and girls throughout the decades have enjoyed it equally. Beyond the fact that the story has a female protagonist, I can see no reason whatsoever that it should be marketed in a gender specific way. By that logic, the Harry Potter books should only be marketed to boys and the Hunger Games books only to girls.

In short, this trend of reducing mass appeal children’s stories to “blue” or “pink” demographics is utterly dismaying.

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Do you have to suffer to be a good writer?

“What do you have to write about? You’re not oppressed. You’re not gay.”

  • Bud Brumder, Orange County.

It’s a long debated question: do you have to suffer in order to be a good writer (or any kind of artist for that matter)? I think the answer to that question is “not necessarily”. Certainly if you have suffered, you have something to write about. But obviously suffering is relative. Anything I have suffered in life is nothing compared with, say, what the Jews suffered under the Nazis in World War II – or what Christians are presently suffering in Iraq (I’m still reeling from an article I just read about Christian children supposedly being beheaded out there).

I think the important thing for a writer to have is experience, rather than suffering per se. I wrote about religious cults in my novel Children of the Folded Valley because I have experienced them. Some of that experience might be termed suffering, but not necessarily all of it.

Folded Valley cover

Furthermore, it is important to emphasise that what I experienced does not necessarily appear in the novel at all. Indeed, it should be obvious that most of what the novel contains is nothing more than science fiction. But writing a novel based on experience isn’t always about conveying the factual veracity of true events – at least, not for me. Writing Children of the Folded Valley was about conveying how religious oppression feels, but within a science fiction backdrop containing all manner of exaggerations and outrageous situations necessary for the needed dramatic impact.

In a similar way, the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings ring are informed by Tolkien’s experiences fighting in World War I. Obviously The Lord of the Rings is not a factual story, but the experience Tolkien brings to the writing makes an already masterful piece of work even more resonant.

Wars and religious cults may be negative things to have experience of, but plenty of authors write of good experiences they have had, and their work is enjoyed by millions. Sticking with Tolkien for a moment, the Aragorn/Arwen romance in The Lord of the Rings very much mirrors how he met his own wife Edith. Again it appears experience rather than suffering is the key thing here.

Having two children eventually led me to write Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge and Uncle Flynn. The latter was inspired in part by a news report I saw about mollycoddled children, but mostly by the endless walks I have taken on Dartmoor with my eldest son. That can hardly be described as suffering.

Then again, Harry Lime, as brilliantly depicted by Orson Welles in The Third Man, obviously disagrees with me.

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The Cuckoo Clock.”

  • Harry Lime, The Third Man.
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Film Review – Guardians of the Galaxy

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Guardians of the Galaxy is something of a sideways leap in the Marvel Universe, with Iron Man, Thor, Captain America et al ignored entirely. Instead we are introduced to a group of intergalactic criminals who are forced to join forces to defeat the evil Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), who is on the verge of obtaining some kind of ultimate power whatsit that will help him destroy the galaxy.

Said whatsit is initially recovered by Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) – a character very much in the Han Solo/Avon from Blakes 7 mould, albeit with a tragic, pre-credits, mother-died-of-cancer-then-he-was-abducted-by-aliens backstory. The recovery of this whatsit is a highly entertaining set piece, and recalls the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but on another planet and scored by 70s pop songs rather than John Williams.

Quill is subsequently apprehended and sent to prison, along with genetically engineered racoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), talking tree Groot (Vin Diesel), an assassin who formerly worked for Ronan called Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and vengeful maniac Drax (Dave Bautista), who doesn’t understand metaphors. In prison this disparate group reluctantly agree to work together to escape, and in the process undergo the usual moral journey from scoundrels to reluctant heroes.

It goes without saying that the visual effects are terrific, but the raccoon renderings deserve particular praise. The opulent production design recalls everything from Total Recall to Flash Gordon and The Fifth Element, though the screenplay seems more interested in emulating B-movies such as Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars, rather than the more obvious choices of Star Wars or Star Trek. Director James Gunn avoids the trap of making this dark and instead leavens the surrealism and general ridiculousness with a winning sense of humour. The pop songs are well chosen and are actually an integral part of the plot, not just an attempt to add a self-consciously hip Tarantino-esque flavour to the piece.

It isn’t perfect. The mid-act feels a little flat for one thing, and it perhaps goes on a tad too long. But the characters are a likeable bunch, and there are enough laugh out loud moments to paper over any plot holes. Guardians of the Galaxy is no groundbreaking masterpiece, but it’s a silly, fun, entertaining ride that sits solidly enough within the Marvel pantheon.

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Children of the Folded Valley – Print copies now available

Print copies of my latest novel Children of the Folded Valley can now be ordered from Lulu.com:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/simon-dillon/children-of-the-folded-valley/paperback/product-21732639.html

Kindle download is also available from Amazon:

Finally, a variety of e-book formats are available FREE from Smashwords:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/459663

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, Children of the Folded Valley – my first novel for grown-ups – is something of a departure for me. I shall elaborate a little more on the inspiration and other matters at a later date. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the book. Here is the blurb from the back once more:

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

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Children of the Folded Valley OUT NOW

My new book, Children of the Folded Valley, is now available from Amazon. Check out the link below:

It is also available FREE – for a limited time – from Smashwords in various digital formats:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/459663

Print copies will be available from Lulu.com from the 27th of July.

Children of the Folded Valley is the first book I have released that is aimed at a more adult readership. It’s a drama with a few background science fiction elements, told in flashbacks like a memoir.

Here again is the blurb from the back, to whet your appetite:

From the author of Uncle Flynn and George goes to Mars

During a journey to visit his estranged sister, James Harper recalls his childhood in a mysterious valley cut off from the outside world, where he grew up as part of a cult called the Folded Valley Fellowship.

In this seemingly idyllic world, the charismatic Benjamin Smiley claimed to be protecting his followers from an impending nuclear apocalypse.

But the valley concealed a terrifying secret.

A secret that would change Smiley’s followers forever.

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Film Review – Earth to Echo

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Pitched as ET meets The Goonies verite style, Earth to Echo is actually a fair bit better than one might expect. Yes, the found footage format is somewhat tired now, but as a contemporary update of that particular brand of 80s film, it is faithful to the spirit of the movies it emulates.

Of course, inviting comparison with ET is potentially disastrous, as it is a cinematic sacred text. But Earth to Echo gets away with it for the most part because of the strength of the largely unknown leads – Teo Halm, Astra, Reese Hartwig and Ella Wahlestedt. Director Dave Green coaxes sympathetic performances from all, and draws inspiration not only from the obvious sources, to which this film owes a direct debt, but also lesser known films of the genre (such as Joe Dante’s Explorers), Stand by Me, the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans (Echo looks a bit like the robot owl), and even the Children Film Foundation’s The Glitterball (from as far back as 1977).

Inevitably, Earth to Echo falls far short of the masterpiece that is ET, but on its own terms it works reasonably well. Although they now have mobile phones and wear safety helmets when they ride their bicycles, it’s refreshing to see a modern film where a bunch of likeable children go out and about and find themselves involved in a thrilling adventure.

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