[NOTE: this post is available in Spanish at]

My brilliant student Pol Vinyeta has written an excellent BA dissertation on one of Roald Dahl’s most popular books with the title “Don’t Trust the Candy Man: A Reading of Willy Wonka’s Enjoyable Villainy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Its Film Adaptations”. Pol chose this topic because it seemed that Matilda (his initial choice) had been dealt with in plenty of academic bibliography but there was a better chance to say something new about Charlie. The idea was to take my own work on villainy, Masculinity and Patriarchal Villainy in the British Novel: From Hitler to Voldemort (2019), and see in which ways Willy Wonka is indeed a villain, or not. We didn’t realize when we started work on the dissertation that Wonka would be constant news because of the fiftieth anniversary of the first film adaptation and the announcement of a third screen version. Serendipity at work, then.

Whereas in my book I took it for granted that the male characters I focused on were downright villains, with no redeeming features whatsoever, Pol concluded in his analysis that Willy Wonka appears to be a case of partial villainy, defined by “certain villainous traits”. In case you are an alien just landed on Earth and never heard of Wonka, allow me to say that in this novel for children Dahl tells the story of how this man –the world’s most renowned and most seclusive chocolatier– chooses an heir for his business among the children selected to visit his fairy-tale, colourful factory. The golden admission ticket is found in one of the myriad chocolate bars for sale, which of course makes Wonka even richer when kids all over the planet start buying his products like crazy. Charlie, a little boy raised in an extremely poor family (location undisclosed), gets lucky and the novel narrates how one by one the other children suffer accidents that result in only Charlie properly finishing the visit. Only then does Wonka disclose his plans for the boy he names his new heir. Among the villainous traits that Pol described are Wonka’s nonchalant cruelty towards the other children, his exploitative treatment of his imported workers the Oompa Loompas, and his sense of entitlement towards Charlie, who is not really given the chance to consider how Wonka appropriates his future. Pol’s thesis is that we do not see Wonka as a downright villain because Dahl uses humour to disguise his worst failings (and I would add because we perceive his rescuing Charlie from poverty as a positive action). Pol has called this villainy that gets away with it ‘enjoyable villainy’ and this is a label that intrigues me.

When one thinks of children’s literature it is quite clear that Lord Voldemort is the most potent villain ever threatening a child. There is some humour in the Harry Potter series, usually connected with the members of the Weasley family, but there is nothing humorous at all about Voldemort. Actor Ralph Fiennes, who played him in the film series, once said that if you take away all the fantasy trappings, Voldemort is an adult man abusing a boy and this is how we need to see him. There is nothing ‘enjoyable’, then, in Rowling’s treatment of this human monster. Perhaps, however, this is exceptional, for villains in children’s fictions are often exaggerated characters and because of that they are sources of humour, even though they may be themselves humourless. Pol mentioned as a case of humourless enjoyable villain the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. In less fanciful circumstances, this perpetually cross authoritarian woman might be the stuff of Gothic nightmares but in the context of Lewis Carroll’s hyperexcited fabulation she is laughable. Likewise, in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (which I strongly recommend), Count Olaf is a source of amusement, even though his relentless persecution of the orphaned Baudelaire siblings is hardly fun for them. If we laugh at Olaf’s ridiculous antics this is only because we hope (and we know) he will lose and the Baudelaires prevail.

The question is that in comparison to either the Red Queen or Count Olaf, or any other villain in children’s fantasy you can think of, Willy Wonka is a very strange character. He is not at all like Olaf in wanting to deprive a child of their means of subsistence but he is not that far from Olaf in his cavalier approach to the safety of the children who visit the factory. Humour in Dahl’s novel is based on the idea that, with Charlie’s exception, the other kids (ages 9 to 10) are insufferable brats: Augustus Gloop is an obese boy who can’t stop eating; Violet Beauregarde is an appallingly rude, gum-chewing, vain girl; Veruca Salt (surely the ugliest name ever for a little girl) is a dreadful spoiled brat, and Mike Teavee is a coach potato who only thinks of watching television. Their unseemly ends (if they end at all, it must be said) are presented by the author as well-deserved punishments and gloated over by Wonka to the consternation of the parents. In fact, the whole point of the book seems to torment these children for a) there is no reason the golden tickets could not have found their way to better children, b) Wonka could have selected his heir in many other ways, c) nice Charlie’s presence among this bunch is that of an odd-man-out. Someone here is a sadist who hates a certain type of child, and I’ve never been sure whether this is Dahl or Wonka. Either way, the message sent is not very encouraging and seems to appeal to the lowest instincts of the young readers rather then attempt any re-education of the insufferable visitors.

Then, there is the matter of the Oompa Loompas. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964 when it was till acceptable, it seems, to present Wonka’s tireless workers as tiny exotic indigenes from an unnamed land. In the first pictorial representations the Oompa Loompas were represented as African pygmies. By 1971, when the first adaptation was filmed, this was problematic enough for them to be played by actors in orange make-up and green wigs, though said actors were dwarves. In the 2005 version by Tim Burton Indian-Kenyan actor Deep Roy, also a dwarf, was cast as all the Oompa Loompas, as if they were clones. Why Wonka’s enslaved worked are short, non-white persons has been never satisfactorily explained, though there seems to be a connection with (of course) Snow White’s seven companions and, more directly, with the Munchkins in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books. I cannot imagine, however, how this unmistakeably racist aspect of Dahl’s novel is going to be treated in Paul King’s forthcoming third adaptation. Ironically, Dahl wanted Charlie originally to be a black boy, but his editors told him nobody would buy a book for children with that type of protagonist.

Because of Pol’s dissertation, I have recently revisited the 1971 version with Gene Wilder as Wonka and found it a film few contemporary children might enjoy. Reviewing it recently in The Guardian, Guy Lodge calls it “a clunky film that Roald Dahl rightly hated”. Apparently, even though the author appears as sole author of the script, this went through many changes he was never informed about. Dahl wanted Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers to play Wonka and, siding with him, Lodge announces in his subtitle that “The years haven’t been kind to Gene Wilder and his underplayed performance as the sadistic chocolatier in a cheap and poorly made adaptation”. I must say that although Wilder’s creep factor is significant I found Johnny Depp’s 2005 Wonka even creepier with his silly page cut and his ultra-white teeth. Pol claims that Depp’s recent scandals have destroyed his performance to the eyes of adult spectators that would possibly not share this film with their children, and I would agree. Even without the scandals, though, I find very little to enjoy in Burton’s version which, besides, seems to be a forerunner of the current deplorable trend to justify villainy with melodramatic stories of abuse suffered by the villains in childhood (here Wonka’s father was a dentist who did not allow his son to eat sweets). The announced new film, with cute Timothée Chalamet as Wonka goes in that same direction.

For me, proof that Dahl was not sure about what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was about is the fact the failed sequel Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972) does not deal at all with Charlie Bucket’s assumption of his role as Wonka’s heir but with rather nonsensical space adventure on board the magical elevator. Apparently, the original novel was inspired by Dahl’s participation as a schoolboy in the testing of new products by Cadbury in the 1930s, and by its rivalry with the other great English chocolate maker, Rowntree. I think it makes perfect sense that the child Dahl’s fantasy of being able to visit and maybe own the place where the secretive chocolatiers of Cadbury made their product grew into the adult writer’s fantasy about Wonka’s factory. I also believe that this is what made the novel so popular: not Wonka himself, the Oompa Loompas or the brats’ fates, but the idea of the factory (just as Harry Potter appeals to kids mainly because of Hogwarts). Possibly, this is why so many outlets exploit that spirit (it seems that diverse coffee shop chains offer Willy Wonka brews for adults). In my view, though, Dahl did not make the most of his material, not knowing how to establish a relationship between Wonka and too-nice-to-be-true Charlie, and undermining the sense of wonder created by the factory with the ill-treatment the other kids get. I put myself in the shoes of Charlie’s parents and I would be far from charmed by Mr. Wonka’s attentions towards my child, which are pretty much proprietary, and not really clear at all (just consider why Wonka has no children of his own).

Does all this amount nonetheless to a good, solid case of ‘enjoyable villainy’? I think it does, and I thank Pol for teaching me that some villains are only partially so because humour makes their villainous traits acceptable. On the whole, I would have been happier with a less ambiguous characterization for Wonka –one in which, for instance, Charlie accepts the prize but calls him to task for his awful exploitation of the Oompa Loompas who are then given proper contracts. On the other hand, though children are good at enjoying black humour, often present in TV cartoon series, I wonder what exactly they ‘enjoy’ when reading Dahl’s Charlie. In Matilda this little girl’s parents are despicable persons who must be punished and the lesson learned is that whoever neglects a child only deserves disrespect. The girl protagonist is empowered, and so are the little readers. Willy Wonka embodies Dahl’s notion that bad parenting is to blame for badly-behaved children and so parents and brats are one way or another punished by him, but this is done with great cruelty and appears to have no bearing on passive Charlie’s empowerment (except, of course, that he is a naturally good boy and is rewarded for that). We might simply say that Wonka is too flamboyant and too free to bow down to anything, and this is why he is enjoyable despite his villainous traits. Still, I believe something is amiss. The humour, it seems to me, hides the shortcomings of the novel rather than be an integral part of the story of how Charlie met Wonka.

As for the new film, do we really need more villain origin stories? I should think that we don’t. We need new stories, and breaking out of this constant recycling of what talented writers (like Dahl) did in the past as we consider in more depth how their works survive in our day, and the enjoyability of certain villains. Thanks Pol!

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I start reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2009) by the recent Nobel Prize co-winner Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, and I am dismayed to realize that the first-person narrator I have visualized for about fifteen minutes as an old man is an old woman. Her name is mentioned at the very end of the first chapter when my neurons have already made the effort of seeing this person as a man, for I must ‘see’ who is speaking; for a few more pages ‘she’ is still ‘he’ in my mind until the wrong image is corrected, with an ugly jolt.

Tokarczuk, the author, has seemingly forgotten that she is writing a novel, not making a film, and has taken for granted that her readers will understand her first-person speaker is a woman. But, why should we? Because we have read the blurb on the back cover? Seen the trailer for the film adaptation by Agnieszka Holland? I grow quite annoyed and end up finding many other flaws that make me intensely dislike this totally overhyped novel by this totally overrated Nobel. [SPOILERS ALERT] If you want to narrate a crime story in which the first person speaker is the criminal you need to do it upfront in an American Psycho in-your-face confessional style, not trying to build up any kind of suspenseful mystery, for God’s sake! [END OF SPOILERS]

My other adventure is casting is more satisfying. My ex-student Laura Pallarés sends me a copy of her first novel Pájaros en la piel, the story of the very intriguing relationship between a young Catalan woman in her early twenties, Júlia, and her Swedish father, Joseph. He and Júlia’s late mother had met when both were seventeen but Joseph ignores that their brief summer romance had resulted in a daughter. When he seeks Júlia out the scant age difference makes it hard for them to bond as father and daughter, as they seem to be more comfortable being friends although of an uncomfortably close kind.

Júlia, the author says, looks like Lily Collins, though this English actress is about ten years older. I imagine Júlia, rather, as Catalan actress Laia Costa, currently thirty-five, in a more youthful version (both Costa and Collins are pretty brunettes with interesting eyebrows and lively eyes). If I see her as Collins, then I’ll need to think of Júlia as an English-speaking girl, which is confusing. Joseph, a cosmopolitan artist, is given a Spanish best friend which justifies why he speaks the language so well. Knowing that he is Swedish, blond and blue-eyed, he is easy to cast: he looks like Alexander Skarsgård who, aged forty-three, could really play Joseph in a possible Netflix adaptation (I wish there is one!). Here’s the funny thing: Laura tells me she was not thinking of any specific actor for Joseph but it seems other readers have told her about casting Skarsgård in the role. Well, it was either him or Eurovision Song Contest winner Måns Zelmerlöw (aged thirty-four) for I cannot think of other Swedish men…

‘Why cast actors in roles in fiction at all?’, you may be wondering. And my reply is, ‘why do you ask? Don’t you do it as well?’ I do not know when this habit of mine started but I assume it is widely shared, and made necessary by what I have often commented about here: the diminishing amount of description in contemporary fiction. Novels offer today less information about characters than screenplays with authors supposing, I insist, that readers have not a mental theatre in the sense of the stage theatre but a mental theatre in the American sense of the word, that is to say, a mental cinema. I don’t have one and so I find myself increasingly struggling with visualization.

If failing to see space is bad enough, imagine what it is like not to see characters, either… Hence the constant casting (or even checking the credits before I start reading a novel in case there is already an adaptation). Not that you need a long description to present a character, mind you. This is for instance Long John Silver’s presentation in R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island: “I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow—a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white”. That’s him, no need to go fishing about for the perfect cast. Why, I wonder, is this gone?

This week I have put myself through another kind of trouble regarding the visualization of characters consisting of completely changing an image in a second reading. I am currently working on Iain M. Banks’s non-Culture novel The Algebraist for an article on masculinity in SF and, so, I needed to look again at the human protagonist Fassin Taak. When I say look I really mean look. When I first read the novel a few years ago I did it with no pencil in hand, just for fun, and I let myself go. Fassin is a sort of cultural anthropologist with an alien species known as the Dwellers, who live in gas giants like Jupiter. You might think that visualizing the Dwellers, who look “like a pair of large, webbed, fringed cartwheels connected by a short, thick axle with particularly bulbous outer hubs onto each of which had been fastened a giant spider crab” might have driven me crazy but no, I think I get the idea. Fassin has driven me crazy precisely because he is human and supposedly easier to visualize.

The name Fassin Taak gives no clues whatsoever: Fassin is a French surname, as far as Google tells me, and Taak appears to be a Dutch word for ‘talk’. I have found no men called ‘Fassin’ in real life as a first name so no help there. The only description Banks volunteers, and just in passing, is that Fassin has brown curly hair (no length or thickness noted) and light brown skin. He is two metres tall, looks a decade younger than his forty-five ‘body years’ and is handsome, though at the end of his rough adventure he looks older and somehow emaciated. For reasons unknown to me I saw Fassin as a colleague in another UAB Department initially, perhaps because this guy seems very keen on his scholarly pursuits and so does Fassin. This time, however, I decided to really focus and look at Fassin in the face.

A comment by the narrator suggests that the human civilization to which Fassin belongs is the result of alien abductions of Central American, Middle East and Chinese individuals (or just of their DNA) around the fourth millennium before Christ. Together with the light brown skin this indicates that Fassin is NOT white though the curly hair suggested to me that he must be of Middle East descend. This led me to Antonio Banderas because I had been re-reading Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead and Banderas played the Arab protagonist in the adaptation, The 13th Warrior. However, I was a bit scandalized to see Banderas rather than a proper Arab actor play that role and I Googled the words ‘handsome Arab man’ to check other possibilities for Fassin.

Here’s the joke: all men appearing under that heading were as light-skinned as Banderas, who looks totally white to me. Not Alexander Skarsgård white but white enough (a bit darker than me but Spanish white nonetheless). Anyway, I found a photo of a gorgeous Arab man with a nice beard and lovely green eyes and he has become my new Fassin Taak. I have no idea who this Arab man is and I totally avoided checking him up in case he is a celebrity but he has done me a great service of being the perfect Fassin Taak. When I saw a couple of illustrations by Banks’s readers I positively guffawed… MY Fassin Taak, with his love of hard partying and his ability to cry his green eyes out whenever he is struck by emotion is the real thing. At some points he looked a bit too much like green-eyed bullfighter Cayetano Rivera but I got rid of that and Fassin is now for good and for ever a Middle-East guy with shoulder length curly hair of soft locks, dark lips, bright green eyes and suitably light brown skin. Now the problem is that I have no idea what he is wearing, not what his cyborgian light gascraft looks like. Deep sigh…

Banks is no better and no worse than many other writers in describing characters. In fact, he is quite good if you consider how many alien species he describes in his books. The problem with him and any other writer coming after the Modernist revolution and the eruption of film is that they have stopped caring for physical description. In a world obsessed with racial issues like ours, this neglect of description is a real mess, for readers must be told which skin tone each character is but writers feel somehow embarrassed to go into that kind of detail. The result is that the first-person speaker may be a black woman but if we are not told we see by Pavlovian default a white man simply because we are used to that kind of character dominating fiction. I’ll be very happy to be contradicted in this by any of you (if anyone is reading me). Funnily, 19th century writers, who were on the whole very fond of description, did use illustrations to accompany their work but in our extremely visual time using illustration for fiction is a total taboo, except of course for children’s fiction.

I know I am repeating arguments already presented here, and I hope I am not boring my reader but it’s funny how in the middle of this tremendous crisis on identity politics and representation, character description occupies so little room. I don’t think at all that describing character better infringes on readers’ rights to imagine as they wish. I really think that writers are not fulfilling their part of the pact and helping us readers to share what they have imagined for their own sake as much as for ours. So, please, use more description!

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from Visit my website


I am going to avoid the temptation of checking but this must be a post that I have written several times already. This time the inspiration comes from screenwriter Marta González de Vega whose work I did not know and whom I saw presenting the most recent programme of Días de Cine (La 2). I recommend that you see the complete interview with her, which is really very juicy, informative and entertaining ( De le Vega specialises in stand-up comedy, is herself an actor, and this shows. What she said to inspire me is very simple but requires an immense change of mentality: films belong to screenwriters even more than they belong to directors for without a screenplay there is no film (with very few exceptions, I must add). Besides, she added, when you ask spectators what they like about films, they always refer to the story and secondarily to actors’ performance, hardly ever to the technical aspects of directing.

I wrote my master’s dissertation on this very same topic twenty-eight years ago, but that bee in my bonnet is still buzzing hard because I see no change whatsoever in how we understand and discuss films. In the case of the MA dissertation my thesis was that Harold Pinter’s adaptations had received scholarly attention because he was a prestige playwright (he became later a Nobel Prize winner) but there was really no reason to treat other screen playwrights differently. All his screenplays, mostly adaptations like the one that interested me (of John Fowles’s novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman for a film directed by Karel Reisz) had been published, by Faber & Faber no less!, and studied, so why shouldn’t we do the same for all screen writing? Since 1992 when I started worrying about this a few things have changed and many more screenplays are published than ever, but the core of the matter, which is reviewing, remains stagnant.

The arguments are well known but I’ll repeat (rehash?) them again. If you look at the Oscars, the ones acknowledged as the main authors are the producers: they are the ones that collect the Oscar for Best Picture, not the director. This comes from old Hollywood. The Oscars, first awarded in May 1929, a few months before the October Crash that made moviegoing a cure for collective D/depression , were organized on the assumption that the producer is the film’s originator. It is his or her job to hire the director and the screenwriter, much as a theatre producer hires a director and a playwright. Directors used to see themselves as, basically, craftsmen, at the service of the producer’s vision, though, of course, individuals like Orson Welles broke the rule book by acting as jacks-of-all-trades and beginning to put the director’s name before the producer’s.

This however, did not happen for good until François Truffaut and the Cahiers du Cinéma staff decreed in the early 1960s that the real author of the film was the director, and no wonder about it since Truffaut, by then also a critic, had become one the enfants terrible of the Nouvelle Vague. His first film was Les quatre cents coups (1959) but the funny thing is that whereas Truffaut has 28 credits as a director he has 38 as a writer… Most serious reviewers all over the world fell under the charmant spell of Cahiers and started eulogizing the work of the director at the expense of everyone else. Film Studies became consolidated around the same period on the false assumption of the equivalence in authorship between the literary author and the film director, which would certainly have surprised Shakespeare. He, the equivalent of the modern screenwriter in a commercial theatrical business not so unlike the studio system, would have been miffed. The popular movie magazines continued their adoration of film stars (this was the reason why most had been founded: star saleability) but nobody cared to interview the poor screen writers. The last one I saw interviewed all over the place was Scott Z. Burns, and that was because he wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderberg’s film Contagion (2011), the movie in which Gwyneth Paltrow plays patient zero in a plague similar but far more lethal than Covid-19.

When I was a little girl and finally grasped that movies were not real, I assumed that actors were the authors of films. Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston were God to me because they seemed to have the best ideas. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound for, surprise, surprise, stage directors did not exist until the 20th century: the habitual practice was for the main star to make all decisions eventually assumed by this figure. I must have been 12 when I finally realized that directors existed, still having no idea about what they did except for what I saw in films (like Truffaut’s La nuit américane, 1973). I owe my discovery to the great film critic Alfonso Sánchez Martínez (1911-1981), who from 1959 onward educated Spaniards on the art of reviewing. I must have seen him on Buenas Tardes (1970-1974), Revistero (1975) or, most likely, Revista de cine (1976-1979); incidentally, Días de Cine started in 1991. Later, I read the magazine Fotogramas and the movie reviews in El País and La Vanguardia, until I tired of the impenetrable language of the classic Spanish cinéfilo. At least, Carlos Boyero is transparent.

A constant in this training as an amateur film critic, what everyone is and no doubt about it, is that we have got used to the figure of he director by constant exposure but still know nothing about the screen writer. Meryl Streep would be nothing with no lines to say and the best director and producer in the world, but, still, nobody cares for the poor writer. If, happily, director and writer are the same person then matters are at least more or less justified, which possibly explain the, for me, inexplicable popularity of Woody Allen. I am, however, sick and tired of seeing guys like Ridley Scott or Clint Eastwood praised for ideas they never had. Scott has 140 credits as a producer, 52 as director and only 4 as writer, all for short films. When the screenplay is good his films work beautifully; when they are not, his films are unendurable. Gladiator (2000) from a storyline by David Franzoni was written by Franzoni himself, with additional work by John Logan and William Nicholson. Franzoni had written previously Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). Clint Eastwood has 50 credits as producer, 41 as director and none as a writer. Million Dollar Baby (2004) was written by Paul Haggis from stories by F.X. Toole and Gran Torino (2008) by Nick Schenk, from his own storyline with Dave Johannson.

Now let’s play a game. I’ll make a list of the Oscar-Award winners for Best Original Screenplay of the last 10 years and you try to guess what they wrote (sorry, there is no reward for guessing right). Here we go: 2010 David Seidler, 2011 Woody Allen, 2012 Quentin Tarantino, 2013 Spike Jonze, 2014 Armando Bo, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Nicolás Giacobone & Alejandro G. Iñárritu, 2015 Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer, 2016 Kenneth Lonergan, 2017 Jordan Peele, 2018 Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly & Nick Vallelonga and 2019 Bong Joon-ho & Han Jin-won… Ready yet? The answer: 2010, The King’s Speech; 2011, Midnight in Paris; 2012, Django Unchained; 2013 Her; 2014 Birdman; 2015 Spotlight; 2016 Manchester by the Sea; 2017 Get Out; 2018 Green Book and 2019 Parasites. No women on this list… In six cases the writer was also the director.

Now the other way round. Here are ten Oscar award winners for Best Picture– who wrote them? What! You’ve forgotten about Gladiator already? Shame on you… Here we go: 1990 Dances with Wolves, 1993 Schindler’s List, 1994 Forrest Gump, 1995 Braveheart, 1998 Shakespeare in Love, 2000 Gladiator, 2001 A Beautiful Mind, 2005 Crash, 2007 No Country for Old Men, 2009 The Hurt Locker. Of course, here I am trusting that you know the names of the directors and of the actors, because we do, right? It’s like when we read a book: we make sure to recall the title and the name of the author, correct? Anyway, the solution: 1990 Dances with Wolves: Michael Blake, from his own novel; 1993 Schindler’s List: Steve Zaillian, from the novel by Thomas Kenneally Schindler’s Ark; 1994 Forrest Gump: Eric Roth from the novel by Winston Groom; 1995 Braveheart: Randall Wallace; 1998 Shakespeare in Love: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard; 2000 Gladiator: David Franzoni; 2001 A Beautiful Mind: Akiva Goldsman from Sylvia Nasar’s book; 2005 Crash: Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco; 2007 No Country for Old Men: Joel and Ethan Cohen, from the novel by Cormac McCarthy; 2009 The Hurt Locker: Mark Boal.

Of course, I have cheated for I don’t know any of this by heart. I make a point of recalling that Steven Zaillian wrote Schindler’s List as a sort of party trick for the classroom. Everyone knows Steven Spielberg directed this stark black and white portrait of the Holocaust (beautifully photographed by Janusz Kaminski) and that Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes played major roles, but who remembers Zaillian? He is, by the way, the author of the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019) based on Charles Brandt book. Perhaps he would be better remembered if the three films he has directed, among them All the King’s Men (2006), which he scripted from Robert Penn Warren’s novel, had been the box-office hit Zaillian needed to be known as a writer-director but, alas!, that did not happen.

Not all screenwriters dream of becoming movie directors just as not all playwrights dream of becoming stage directors. Indeed, why should they? The problem is that stage playwrights need not dream of being someone else because their work is respected. A play by Tom Stoppard is a play by Tom Stoppard no matter who directs it, whereas a screenplay by Steve Zaillian is… nothing for him (except a fat playcheck, since he has big credits to his name) and the world for the director in question, whether this is Spielberg or Scorsese. This is simple to explain: a play by a playwright will be hopefully staged many times in different productions along the years, even in different languages, whereas a screenplay is a prop consumed by one single production. Nobody will come along and make ten different films of the same screenplay (only two at the most) and in different languages. The ‘To Be or not to Be’ monologue has been recited thousands of times; the screenplay written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer for Ernst Lubitsch’s anti-Nazi comedy To Be or not to Be has been recited once for the film (if there is a play based on it, that’s another matter). The screenplay, I insist, is devoured by the film, whereas no production can wholly eat up a stage play. Look at Shakespeare…

Now, tell me… Your favourite screen playwright is…

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Last week I skipped my weekly appointment because I was extremely busy finishing the edition of my latest e-book project with students. Here it is, finally!: Frankenstein’s Film Legacy ( Since 2013-14, when I taught a monographic course on Harry Potter, I have been developing a series of projects with undergrad and postgrad students, consisting of publishing e-books based on their course work. The new e-book is my seventh project (you can see the complete list at and I’m already at work on the eighth, which will be an e-book about how the United States are represented in 21st century American documentary. In fact, I have started to think of my elective courses as a space for new teaching projects. Thus, I’m already thinking of next year’s MA course on Gender Studies as a chance to explore gender issues in recent fantasy films, after producing already an e-book on science fiction ( By the way, I was immensely pleased to present this e-book both at Llibreria Gigamesh (in June) and in our recent national conference of English Studies AEDEAN at Alicante (in November).

Frankenstein’s Film Legacy is exceptional in my collaboration with students because it has been based on work by second-year students. So far, I had only worked on the e-books in third/fourth year BA electives and in MA electives. A little bit too rashly, I decided to include an e-book in our exercises for the BA course on ‘English Romantic Literature’, in which we read the ‘six males’ (as a co-teacher calls them), that is, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats, and the ‘two females’ as I should call them –Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. The reason why I used many entries in this blog last semester to discuss these authors, and the reason why I thought of the e-book is that I assumed mine would be a temporary incursion into Romanticism and I would soon return to teaching Victorian Literature. The e-book was meant to mark, then, a singularity in my teaching.

In fact, this is not what has happened and I’m teaching Romanticism again next Spring, but with no plans for a new e-book. The reason is that, although the students have followed quite well my guidelines (I wrote a model fact sheet /essay they were supposed to imitate), my intervention in their writing has been more intensive than usual. The main reason is that their essays were too focused on comparing specific aspects of each of the films with Mary Shelley’s novel (as I had asked them to do, indeed) and in this way, the larger picture was missing. In some cases, simply because they are young and little used to watching films released before 1999, when they were born. In other cases because only I had the complete picture of the e-book and could connect the dots (yes, The Island and Never Let Me Go share exactly the same Frankensteinian topic). The good news is that most of these students will be soon participating in the e-book about the US documentary, and now have a basic training to do so. Incidentally, if you’re thinking that I have used too much time for this project, the answer is ‘not really’: the time I did not use to prepare lectures (thirty students did class presentations based on the films), is the time I have used for the e-book. My own writing and my constant other deadlines have just delayed publication (though obviously the course marks were awarded punctually in June).

So, what’s this e-book about? I selected 75 films, beginning with Metropolis (1926) and ending with Mary Shelley (2017), which dealt with the topic of artificial life and connected, indirectly or directly, with Frankenstein. The final list is down to 57 because I got work from fewer students than I expected, and also because I finally discarded a few fact sheets that were incomplete. Here are the films, in the same order in which they appear in the e-book:

• 1920s to 1970s: Metropolis (1927), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Godzilla/Gojira (1954), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Young Frankenstein (1974), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
• 1980s: Blade Runner (1982), WarGames (1983), The Terminator (1984), The Bride (1985), Weird Science (1985), The Fly (1986), Robocop (1987), Akira (1987), Making Mr. Right (1987)
• 1990s: Bicentennial Man (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Jurassic Park (1993), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Mary Reilly (1996), The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), Alien Resurrection (1997), Gattaca (1997), Gods and Monsters (1998), Deep Blue Sea (1999), The Matrix (1999)
• 2000s: Hollow Man (2000), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), S1mOne (2002), Hulk (2003), Van Helsing (2004), I, Robot (2004), The Island (2005), WALL·E (2008), Splice (2009), Moon (2009)
• 2010s: Never Let Me Go (2010), EVA (2011), La Piel que Habito (2011), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Hotel Transylvania (2012), Frankenweenie (2012), Robot and Frank (2013), Her (2013), The Machine (2013), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), Lucy (2014), Victor Frankenstein (2015), Chappie (2015), Morgan (2016), Blade Runner 2049 (2017), The Shape of Water (2017), Logan (2017), Mary Shelley (2017) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019).

A mixed bag, yes, undeniably. By the way: the e-book ends now with Alita because a student suggested that we include this title. At first, I believed that it would diminish the coherence of the e-book, which I intended to finish with Mary Shelley’s biopic. But, then, I finally saw that Alita works as a sort of ‘to be continued…’. My aim, as I hope you can see, was to teach my students that the influence of Frankenstein is indeed colossal, even though in many cases the films depended on an intermediate source or made no direct allusion to Shelley. The moment, however, you see these 57 films from a perspective that takes Frankenstein into account, interesting things happen. Pedro Almodóvar can now be said to be a science-fiction film director. Both A.I. and the live action version of Pinocchio force us to consider what Mary Shelley’s novel would have been like had Victor made a young boy rather than an adult male. The presence of women, or females, in films such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Ex Machina (2014) also raises the question of how Mary’s dark tale would have differed had Victor made a woman originally, or finished making the female mate for his monster.

There are many films I like very much in the list and I think it is necessary to highlight once more the turning point marked by Blade Runner (1982), the first film to hint, albeit quite confusedly, that our future replacement at the top of the animal hierarchy might be flesh-and-blood artificial humans rather than mechanical constructions. I’ll clarify once again that the Nexus-6 replicants whom Detective Deckard must ‘retire’ are not robots but adult individuals made like Victor’s monster out of separate organs. The difference is that Victor scavenges the organs for his Adam from dead people (and animals) and the replicants are assembled using living organs tailor-made for them, using genetic engineering. This is the same method used to make the ‘robots’ of Karel Čapek Shelleyan play R.U.R. (1920). In its original Czech ‘robot’ means ‘slave worker’ and this is what caused the confusion. November 2019, when Blade Runner is set, has come and go and we are not closer to seeing replicants in our streets. Yet, what is already being discussed is whether the humanoids soon to be our companions will be fully mechanical or fully organic. In just two hundred years, then, since Mary Shelley published her Gothic novel, what was pure fantasy is now almost reality.

The films examined in the e-book tell the same story which Mary Shelley told but with variations on the main roles (the creator, the creature) and the background. What is frustrating is that none of the direct adaptations of Frankenstein is minimally good as a film. James Whale’s 1931 version is iconic because it did literally provide popular culture with a major icon in Boris Karloff’s performance and looks, but it cannot be said to be a great film. Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is not what its title promises, though it comes a bit closer. There are more embarrassing attempts at transferring the tale onto the screen: Victor Frankenstein (2015) is a mess, full stop. My first intention, in fact, was to focus the e-book exclusively on direct adaptations of Mary’s novel but I did not see what the students would learn by seeing tons of bad movies. This is why I opted for the indirect adaptation, the Frankenstein-themed film if you wish.

The other major disappointment is Haifaa Al-Mansour’s recent biopic, Mary Shelley (2017). I had included Ken Russell’s eccentric Gothic (1986) in the list for the e-book but this is one of the movies that was finally not covered. I thought, anyway, that Al-Mansour’s feminist credentials (she’s the first Saudi Arabian female film director ever) made her a very good choice to lead the team behind the film. Then I saw her biopic in the middle of teaching Frankenstein and I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Trying to compress the eight years (1814-1822) of Mary and Percy’s romance in just two hours did not work well at all. Biopics, as a matter of fact, work best when they focus on a single central episode for there is no good way you can summarize real life. I come to the conclusion that a documentary would have served the same purpose but much better; yet, the fictional representation of reality still dominates over the non-fictional.

I don’t know if I am here projecting my own fatigue but after seeing Alita, yet another disappointing film, I have the impression that the topic of artificial life needs an urgent renewal. To begin with, this is a strange case of knowing, yet not knowing Mary Shelley, which possibly explains the failure of Al-Mansour’s biopic (and Jeannette Winterson’s inclusion in Frankissstein of yet another retelling of Mary’s creation of her monster). The treatment of Mary’s person is too superficial for fans to be content and for non-fans to be recruited to the cause of vindicating her genius. Next, her novel still lacks a good audio-visual version, whether this is for cinema or for TV. I don’t mean by this one that is faithful down to the last detail but a version that gives a better impression of that peculiar thing called the ‘spirit’ of a novel. In the third place, the new tales need to get closer to actual science or to actual scientific speculation (in the vein of the first Jurassic Park) and not just be vehicles for shallow plots with skinny girls beating the hell out of bulky male villains. Or with artificial women playing femme fatale or unexpectedly having babies (doesn’t anyone know what a tubal ligation is?). The plotline “scientist makes creature that goes berserk” is, let’s recall it, two hundred years old already. We need to start thinking of a new angle –but just don’t mention the word ‘reboot’… Except for Planet of the Apes!

Enjoy, in any case, the collective effort that my students and I have made to show you the way into Frankenstein’s immense film legacy. And celebrate Mary’s powers of creation, always vastly superior to Victor’s.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


I came across the name Lola Salvador Maldonado in a recent episode of Días de Cine, the weekly report on cinema that TVE maintains since 1991 on La2 ( The occasion was her 81st birthday and the celebration of her extensive career in Spanish cinema, for which she was awarded the Premio Nacional de Cinematografía in 2014, and which she still continues. Surprised by Lola Salvador’s many activities in this art and, above all, by her immense achievement as a screenwriter, I sought bibliography about her. I soon came across Susana Díaz’s Modos de Mostrar: Encuentros con Lola Salvador (2012,, a delicious publication which sums up many hours of interviews with this exceptional woman. It is hard to say what is more singular about Lola Salvador: that she managed to build a solid career in cinema at a time when relatively few women worked in that area in Spain (excepting actresses), or that she did so leading besides a peculiar life as a separated mother in a long relationship with a married man (producer Alfredo Matas) while enjoying a friendship with his wife (actress Amparo Soler Leal) and collaborating with both professionally. Reading Díaz’s juicy text, it seems that Lola Salvador has lived not one but several lives simultaneously.

On the Días de Cine report, Lola Maldonado described the screenplay as a text quite similar to a play or, even better, to a musical score. She seems to prefer this second description, repeated in the interview with Díaz. Following that analogy, the film director works, Lola notes, like an orchestra director adding harmony to the performance of the diverse musicians. By the way: if my reader does not mind, I’d rather refer to Lola by her first name, since using the surname Salvador makes her appear to be a man. In fact, she has used the penname Salvador Maldonado to publish autobiographical novels (the trilogy El Olivar de Atocha adapted by TVE is based on her family) and others based on her scripts (see below).

That a screenwriter like Lola needs to highlight the similarities between screenplays and stage plays may be baffling, but it needs to be noted that the Spanish word ‘guión’ (or ‘guion’ as RAE prefers since 2010) has nothing to do with ‘obra’ (stage play). I have been unable to determine why ‘guión’ became the preferred word in Spanish, beyond the obvious fact that early producers must have regarded the ‘script’ as a ‘guide’, hence ‘guión’ (but why not ‘guía’?). At any rate the semantic confusion is also notable in English: the texts on which films are based are called ‘scripts’ and ‘screenplays’ and those who write them are ‘scriptwriters’, ‘screen playwrights’, ‘screenplay writers’, or ‘screenwriters’. At least in English, there is a clear suggestion that those who build the scripts are writers working on something rather similar to plays. Incidentally, American silent film produced Thomas Harper Ince (1880-1924), founder of the first studio that can be described as such, Inceville, is credited with being the inventor of the screenplay. If I interpret his many writing credits at IMDB correctly, the word scenario, imported from French, was used before script or screenplay appeared.

Back to Lola, you might be familiar with the enormous scandal caused by El Crimen de Cuenca (1979), the film directed by Pilar Miró, and based on a serious miscarriage of justice back in 1910. Two peasants in a village of the province of Cuenca were sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of a shepherd, who had gone missing. As the film explained in all its gory detail, the two accused had been tortured by the Guardia Civil and produced in this way false confessions. Even though the real-life events depicted in the film had happened 70 years before, the then Minister of Culture Ricardo de la Cierva left the film in the hands of military justice, which processed Miró for offenses to the Guardia Civil (a military body) and retained her film for 18 months until the Tribunal Supremo decreed it should be shown in cinemas. The case against Miró was dropped and her film, the only one censored in this away after the end of Franco’s regime in supposedly democratic times, was released to great critical acclaim and notable box-office success, just the opposite of what the authorities had tried to prevent.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because even though Miró bore the brunt of the scandal and endured much personal suffering, she also reaped merits that were not hers: producer Alfredo Matas had hired Miró to work on a script by Lola, also the author as Salvador Maldonado of the 1979 best-selling novel based on the Cuenca crime (Ramon J. Sender had published in 1939 on the same case El Lugar de un Hombre). Miró got a script credit as well for the film, to increase her earnings (a habitual practice, it seems), but the whole idea was from the beginning Lola’s (see Díaz 72-84). You might say that she and Matas, and not Miró, should have indicted by military justice, but this is not my point: everyone came to know Miró por her boldness in dealing with torture on the screen, but few connect Lola with El Crimen de Cuenca. This is like attributing the whole merit of, say, the film Hamlet (1996) to director Kenneth Branagh, without mentioning Shakespeare (he does appear in the credits as screenwriter…).

To put it plainly, neither films nor TV series can be made without a screenplay but both directors and producers tend to downplay as much as they can the role of the writer. I include myself among the film lovers who are totally unable to mention a favourite screen writer, even though I can certainly mention favourite authors in all other literary genres. Yes: literary genres. As theatre specialist Martin Esslin has explained, the script is a branch of the tree of drama, with the peculiarity that whereas plays are written to be staged as many times as possible the screenplay is used in just one production, for this is filmed. To those who object that screenplays can hardly be read as plays, I would reply that this is not true: the conventions may be different (there are all kinds of technical regulations about the look of screenplays on the page) but the essence is the same one –both are dramatic texts to be performed by actors. And if the screenplay is still struggling for literary recognition, this is because it is a type of writing open to constant interference by studio executives, producers, directors and actors for control of the final film. When a writer sells a screenplay, s/he does sell that right to interfere, which no other writer is forced to sell. Just imagine!

Logically, the best way to guarantee the control over your screenplays is to be also the film director but this is not a road all writers can take or care to take. In the theatre, few playwrights also work as directors, for there is a clear understanding of what each job consists of. Not so in movies, or in series (or in videogames and documentaries, which also use scripts). Check, as an example of the situation I am describing, Vulture’s list “The 100 Best Screenwriters of All Time, As Chosen by Working Screenwriters” (2017,, edited by Stacey Wilson Hunt, and you will see that most names correspond to film directors.

At this point whenever I write or lecture about this issue I like to run a little test: a) who wrote the script for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, adapted from Thomas Kenneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark?; b) who wrote the script for Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise? Answer a) Steve Zaillian (currently a film director) and answer b) Callie Khouri (with also some credits as director). In case a) Spielberg got all the merit, being who he is (well, Zaillian got an Oscar); and in case b) that was even worse, for Scott was credited with showing a fine understanding of the dynamics of female friendship and few recalled in the ensuing feminist debate about his film the name of Callie Khouri (at least she got and Oscar for her efforts, and is among the few women included in the Vulture list). Arguably, the cases of Callie Khouri and Lola Salvador Maldonado suggest that there is something even worse than being a screen playwright to be acknowledged as a talented writer: being a woman screen playwright (or a non-white male heterosexual screenwriter…).

Julia Sabina Gutiérrez argues in her article “El guión cinematográfico: su escritura y su estatuto artístico” (SIGNA, 27, 2018, 523-539) that “El estatuto artístico del guion todavía no ha sido bien definido ni por los teóricos ni por los propios profesionales del audiovisual” (524), hinting at a certain failure on the side of the writers themselves to defend their work. She also notes that the tasks contributing to the creation of the screenplay have been increasingly fragmented, a fact which is possibly most visible (I would add) in animated cinema. Thus, writing recently on Trolls (2016), I could not determine at all what aspects of the plot had been the invention of Erica Rivinoja, credited on IMDB for the story (the script is credited to Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger). Besides, as the beautiful volume about the artwork in this film notes, some interesting turns had been contributed by the animators. As Gutiérrez points out, even in the cases in which the screenplay has been published, there may be differences with what appears on the film which are impossible to account for.

It appears, then, that the question at stake is authorship, or, rather, the extremely questionable application of this literary concept to audiovisual work, which is by nature a collaborative effort. As the author of the novel called El Crimen de Cuenca Lola Salvador can be certainly called a writer, but as the author of the eponymous script, what is she? For all purposes, including censorship, the author of the film El Crimen de Cuenca is the late Pilar Miró, even though the idea for the film did not originate with her at all but with Lola, who developed it together with the producer. In fact, producers are acknowledged above anyone else when the awards to the main films are given, whether these are the Oscars or any other. That there is a separate category for the director should be sufficient evidence for audiences to understand that directing a film is, as Lola stresses, like directing an orchestra but by no means like composing the music. I very much doubt that Zubin Mehta or any other outstanding director feels that s/he is above the composers whose work the orchestra plays.

So, to sum up, and once again: do try to remember the writers behind the films that you love, and let’s change for good their status as unacknowledged authors.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


It is just impossible not to refer today to the controversial finale of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which surely has put 19 May 2019 in the history books about fiction for ever. While the internet rages, divided into lovers and haters of the ill-conceived eighth season (more than 1,100,000 people have already signed the petition to have it thoroughly re-written and re-shot), it is no doubt a good moment to consider whether chivalric romance has won the fight with mimetic fiction that Cervantes immortalised in Don Quijote (1605, 1615).

I must clarify that I am by no means a fan of Game of Thrones. I watched the first two seasons, and read the first two novels, and that was more than enough for me. I have been following, however, the plot summaries (I must recommend those by El Mundo Today), for I felt an inescapable obligation to know what was going on. Pared down to its bare bones, then, the series has narrated the extremely violent struggle for the possession of power in the context of pseudo-medieval, feudal fantasy–hardly a theme that appeals to me, for its overt patriarchal ideology. Women have participated in that struggle, as they did in the real Middle Ages (and later), only from positions left empty by dead men, and not as persons with the same rights. Since in the eight years which the series has lasted the debate about women’s feminist empowerment has grown spectacularly, this has created enormous confusion about the female characters in Game of Thrones. I’ll say it once more: the degree of respect and equality for women should NOT be measured by their representation in fiction written by MEN but by women’s participation in audio-visual media as creators. In Game of Thrones this has been awfully low.

[SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] I’ll add that I am very sorry for those who named their daughters Khaleesi or Daenerys–you should always wait for the end of a series before making that type of serious decision! Perhaps it is now time to think why so many women have endorsed a story that has ultimately justified the murder of its most powerful female character by a man who supposedly loves her, and who is then allowed (by other men) to walk free, despite this feminicide. And the other way around: we need to ponder why this brutal woman, a downright villain no matter how victimised she was once, has been celebrated as a positive hero. Just because she us young and pretty? All Daenerys ever wanted was power for herself, to sit on the throne and play crowned dictator, not to change the lives of others for good. This is the reason why she needs to be called a villain. In short: patriarchy has scored a victory with GoT: we are hungry for female heroes, and they have given us a villainess (or two, if we count Cersei, of course). Sansa and Arya (and Brienne) are just what they always have been: consolatory nonsense, as the late Angela Carter would say. Next time around, please all of you, women and men who hate patriarchy, reject its products.

Now, back to my topic: leaving gender issues aside (supposing we can), has chivalric romance won over mimetic fiction with GoT? Was the battle skewed since its inception? Did Cervantes really intend us to follow Alonso Quijano in his madness, induced by reading so much high fantasy? Or is the collective passion for GoT the kind of insanity Cervantes warned us against? I don’t have room here to explore this in much detail but since I have a class to teach tomorrow about Pride and Prejudice, I do want to trace here briefly the frontlines in the battlefield to see how they stand. Austen once wrote her own Cervantine anti-fantasy novel, Northanger Abbey, a frontal attack against gothic, published posthumously in 1818. If she were alive today, she would be possibly groaning and sharpening her computer keyword to pen an onslaught onto fantasy with dragons…

The thesis I am going to defend is that we are at a crossroads: mimetic fiction as practiced by Jane Austen and company cannot fight the primary impulse that favours fantasy; yet, fantasy seems unable to renew itself and satisfy the demands of its consumers (above all, of women seeking post-sexist stories). Both mimetic fiction and fantasy fiction, I maintain, are reaching an impasse. The popularity of television series is contributing to that impasse by eroding the novel in favour of the audio-visual and by maintaining an anachronistic writing system that, as we have seen, can no longer ignore the voice of the (angry) spectator.

Histories of literature usually present realistic/mimetic fiction as the centre of the Literature worth reading, leaving fantasy at the margins. Academia, however, has been partly colonized since the 1980s by scholars with very different values, quite capable, besides, of reading both mimetic and fantastic fiction (here I mean the three modes: fantasy, gothic, and sf). This has been changing the perception of how fiction works, with non-mimetic fiction gaining more ground but with the main line still attributed to realist fiction. My point is that, in fact, GoT certifies that we have been narrating a very biased version of literary history: mimetic fiction has not only been unable to stem the tide of fantasy but has also given fantasy some key elements–the melodrama of the 18th century novel of sensibility, the historical fiction of the Romantic period, and the verisimilitude that the old romances lacked with the mighty Victorian novel. When J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy for ever with The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), all those elements solidified.

So let me trace the genealogy, briefly. Chivalric romances, written in a variety of European languages, started as epic tales in verse to become prose narrative by the early 13th century. I don’t know enough Spanish Literature to understand why Cervantes focused in the early 17th century on the dangers of reading a genre that had been around for centuries. Amadís de Gaula by Garci Rodríguez de Montalbo is supposed to have been written in 1304, though it become really popular after the introduction of printing (c. 1440s). Le Morte d’Arthur (1485, Thomas Mallory) and Tirant lo Blanc (1490, Joanot Martorell, Martí Joan de Galba) are closer to Quijote but even so, he is driven mad by very old-fashioned texts, if I understand this correctly.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) came too early to have an immediate impact, for the novel, so to speak, was not yet ready to be born. Thomas Shelton was the first to translate the two volumes into English (this was the first translation ever) in 1612 and 1620 but it was not until the 18th century that Cervantes could truly impact the realist novel. Tobias Smollett, who translated El Quijote in 1755 is usually included in the list of British authors of the sentimental novel (or novel of sensibility) but he seems to have picked up from Cervantes a major distrust of any fiction aimed at eliciting excitement rather than intellectual pleasure. Henry Fielding, who mercilessly mocked Samuel Richardson’s quintessential sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) with Shamela (1741), took Cervantes’s mantle to propose a style of narrating full of authorial irony, which Jane Austen eventually inherited. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) remains Fielding’s masterpiece.

Jane Austen’s own mimetic fiction can be said to be a belated type of sentimental fiction and at the same time as example of double resistance to this sub-genre and to gothic. Austen cannot have enjoyed the excesses of Richardson’s tale of rape Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) nor the silliness of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) but I do see her having a good laugh at Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and, of course, admiring Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) or Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen, plainly, did not enjoy what most of her contemporary readers preferred: not only sentimental fiction but, mostly, gothic, from Horace Walpole’s pioneering The Castle of Otranto (1764) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), passing through Ann Radcliffe’s best-selling The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s frankly scandalous The Monk (1796). I’m 100% sure that George R.R. Martin has read, and heavily underlined, Lewis’s novel.

Gothic brought fiction back the Middle Ages as the backdrop for countless horrific thrillers about innocent heroines chased by appalling villains. At the time when the genre had been around already for about fifty years, Walter Scott (1771-1832) expunged the fantasy elements to turn the past into the stuff of the new historical novels. The Waverley Novels (1814-1832), with hits such as Ivanhoe (1820), prepared the ground for the grafting of the old chivalric romance, purged of the less palatable that so worried Cervantes onto the fictional model of the historical novel. William Morris laid the foundation for what was later known as high fantasy, heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery with his prose narratives A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1889), The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). Morris’s translations, in partnership with Eiríkr Magnússon, of the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (1870) and these novels were a direct inspiration for Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings is called a novel, not a romance, and this is what it is. H.G. Wells must have been among the last novelists to call his fantasy fiction ‘romance’ (a word we now use, confusingly, for romantic fiction similar to Austen’s). I might be completely wrong but, as I understand the matter, whereas in the old type of romance which Alonso Quijano enjoyed reading most elements were highly improbable, the new kind of romance (from Morris and Wells onwards) has learned the lesson of verisimilitude from the novel. Its plot is still impossible but, once we suspend our disbelief, each scene seems plausible, that is to say, the characters interact realistically, as they would do in a mimetic novel. This is how the battle against mimetic fiction is being won: if you can have similar complex characterisation, a naturalistic type of dialogue, and a thrilling setting, why not choose fantasy over fiction set in the too well-known realm of realistic representation?

The post-Tolkien realism of fantasy (call it the neo-romance), however, is also its bane. You may include as many dragons as you please, and give some of your characters magical powers, but it is simply impossible to write first-class fantasy (or gothic, or science fiction) which is not rooted in the real world. I do not mean by this that the best fantasy is necessarily allegorical: what I mean is that since characters in current fantasy must act realistically, they are shaped by expectations very similar to those shaping characters in mimetic fiction. If you had Harry Potter fight corporate villainy instead of a dark wizard, with no magical elements, the tale would be more boring but, basically, the same story (if would be closer to John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener). And the other way around: just because Daenerys has a special bond with her dragons, this does not mean that you may disregard the feminist expectations piled on her by so many female and male readers, based on their experience of real life (and not of handling dragons). Hence the impasse…

Ironically, then, we need to go back to Jane Austen for the fantasy of female empowerment, which allows the relatively poor Elizabeth Bennet to marry upper-class Darcy and climb in this way many rungs up the social ladder. Cinderella wins the game and gets to be, presumably, happy. In contrast, Game of Thrones has taken its ultra-realism so far that we are literally left with a colossal pile of ashes and the mounting anger of the many fans who thought that by endorsing fantasy they were supporting the alternative to the conservatism behind most mimetic fiction. It’s game over, not for fantasy but for fiction which does not listen to its readers and that can only tell tales of violence, with no sense of wonder or of hope – which is what we really need.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


After re-reading last week William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), simply because some classics need to be revisited now and then, I got curious about whether there was a re-telling of the story with girls, rather than the all-boy cast of characters. What I found out is that there have been two recent projects, with very different outcomes, which are very useful to comment on patriarchy.

On the one hand, American film-makers Scott McGehee and David Seigel seem to have abandoned their project, presented in August 2017, to make a new film adaptation only with girls, following a deal signed with Warner Brothers. There are, by the way, two film versions of Golding’s novel, one directed in 1963 by Peter Brook, the other in 1990 by Harry Hook. A Twitter storm-in-a-teacup made it clear to McGehee and Seigel that this was a bad, unwelcome idea. A typical tweet (by @froynextdoor) read ‘uhm lord of the flies is about the replication of systemic masculine toxicity, every 9th grader knows this, u can read about it on sparknotes’. Front-line feminist Roxane Gay tweeted ‘An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because… the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women’. The comments by readers following The Guardian article ( make for very interesting reading. The discussion, as it may be expected, focuses on whether Golding depicts specifically masculinity or generally humanity, and on whether girls would behave exactly like boys. Opinions lean towards the conclusion that the novel is indeed about masculinity but girls are also capable of the same cruel behaviour. A crucial, bewildering paradox to which I’ll return in a couple of paragraphs.

The other project is a stage adaptation of Golding’s novel, presented last October by director Emma Jordan at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, later transferred to Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. A small affair (with apologies to Jordan), then, in comparison to a Hollywood production. The Guardian reviewer, Mark Fisher, generally praises Jordan’s ‘muscular and brutal production’ of Nigel Williams’ 1996 adaptation of Golding’s novel ( Jordan presents two novelties: the play is set in the present, not the 1950s and the cast is all-female… but the names of the boys in the novel are kept–which is confusing. This production appears to be similar to recent Shakespearean productions with all-women casts rather than a retelling with girl characters. Another reviewer, Natasha Tripney reads, nonetheless, the characters as girls: this version ‘makes sense–there are few things crueller than a schoolgirl–but the production doesn’t capitalise on this premise’ ( She complains that the production ‘lacks tension’ but welcomes it anyway, for ‘Jordan’s female-led production makes it clear that violence, tribalism and a hunger for power are not–and have never been–the sole preserve of men’ (my italics).

First lesson: it is fine for women to experiment with texts written by men by altering the gender of the original characters BUT it is not acceptable for men to do the same, as, regardless of their intentions, it is automatically assumed that the result will be sexist. If I were McGehee, I would hire Jordan as script writer and in this way the problem of who has the right to retell Golding’s story would be solved. Now, let’s address the problem of whether the plot of Golding’s novel would or wouldn’t work with girls.

I haven’t read Golding’s most immediate referent, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne. This is a Robinsonade (as the stories inspired by Defoe’s classic are called) about three stranded English boys who cope very well with the tasks of survival and in several encounters with evil Polynesian tribesmen and British pirates. Golding, it appears, decided that in his own tale, his English boys would carry evil inside and this would emerge as they gradually detach themselves from civilization and from the hope of rescue. A sort of Heart of Darkness for boys, then, but without Kurtz’ excuse of having fallen under the allure of tribal adoration and of the dreamy jungle.

Is Golding’s novel a story about masculinity? Yes and no: it is a story about how patriarchal masculinity overwhelms the positive influence, or rather lead, of non-patriarchal masculinity over the community. This is NOT a story about how all men react, but a story about how some men (Jack and his hunters), who are already patriarchal, make the most of the circumstances to impose their rule over other men with a far more rational worldview (Ralph and Piggy).

I agree with reviewers who downplay the public school background of Golding’s tale but, since this will help, let me rephrase his plot with other well-known names. Suppose that only the boy students of Rowling’s Hogwarts got stranded on a desert island (where magic does not work…). Initially, all would follow Harry Potter’s Gryffindor-inspired, sensible leadership but the moment Draco Malfoy declared that Slytherin should rule, the same split that takes place in The Lord of the Flies would follow. Both Harry and Draco are men (well, boys) but this does not mean that they have a common understanding of what masculinity is, and this is what happens with Ralph and Jack in Golding’s novel. What the author is criticizing has been usually called evil but it is actually patriarchy, even though people are now stubbornly calling it ‘toxic masculinity’, a label which is confusing, distracts attention from patriarchy and is useless to discuss women’s own hunger for power.

As soon as cocky Jack appears leading his submissive choirboys we can already see that he is trouble. When, two thirds into the novel, most of the boys have joined Jack’s tribe of hunters, Ralph asks Piggy–whose real name Golding, very cruelly, does not reveal– ‘what makes things break up like they do?’. They do not have a clear answer but I do: it’s the sense of entitlement that patriarchal men act by. This is the key to everything we call evil, a befuddling pseudo-mystical concept I totally reject. The non-patriarchal, non-toxic men like Harry Potter or Ralph are not interested in power and lack that sense of entitlement but, since they are not as violent, they tend to fight a losing battle. If the providential officers had not appeared in the nick of time to rescue the boys, Ralph would have been hunted down and impaled, as Jack intends (remember the stick with two points that his lieutenant Roger makes?). Harry is almost destroyed by the mission Dumbledore gives him to cancel out Voldemort’s genocidal sense of patriarchal entitlement, but–and we must admire Rowling for that–he does so on his own terms, using intelligence rather than murderous violence.

So, can we have The Lord of the Flies with an all-female cast? Of course we can! Girls would be split in exactly the same way as the boys in the novel, BUT not because girls are essentially cruel or because they behave like boys. It’s because everyone, of any gender or genderless description, feels the pull of patriarchy and its promise to reward a personal sense of entitlement to power. So far, patriarchy has pushed women out of the rat race to accrue power, but the more conquests feminism makes, the more women we see acting out their own lust for power, and not at all to help other women.

I have recently heard Michael Dobbs, the author of the original House of Cards novels and Margaret Thatcher’s Chief of Staff (1975-1987) praise her thus: ‘But it was that drive and that anger, that determination, that obsessiveness that drove her on to achieve things which most of her people could not’. She stood out among other women and among other individuals of her low middle-class background but only to claim power for herself, not to do any good to others like her. I can easily see a girl named Maggie play the part of Jack in a female retelling of Lord of the Flies, and a girl called Katniss resisting her.

The confusion springs, then, from this idiotic, harmful, essentialist supposition that all men behave in one way and all women in another, which does not take into account the OBVIOUS intra-gender divisions. If anti-patriarchal men like Ralph were not constantly opposing patriarchal men like Jack, we would still be living in prehistoric times and women would be much, much, much worse off than they are now. It is, then, both silly and extremely dangerous to go on speaking in essentialist terms of men and women when, actually, human beings are divided along power lines.

Patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid), endorse the idea that society is a hierarchy determined by the degree of power each person enjoys (or lacks). Non-patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid) are not being motivated by a hunger for power, and so they (we!) prefer communal circles to hierarchical pyramids. This looks very much like the political division between right and left, but let’s not be naïve: many individuals in the left also seek power (remember Stalin?). I’m talking about something that transcends political divisions even though politics depends very much on it: the allure of power (for domination).

Golding published Lord of the Flies in 1954, at the end of the first decade in the Cold War. His boys are evacuees from some unnamed British colonial outpost, which they must leave following the explosion of a nuclear bomb in a war never mentioned, nor explained. The author had then a very good reason to abandon the optimistic Victorian view of Christian gentlemanliness in Coral Island and replace it with a Conradian pessimism. His novel is supposed to link tribal primitivism with modern barbarian so-called civilization and it is clear to me that the target of his attack were the patriarchal men like Jack or like the makers of the bomb, not the good guys like Ralph. What is very, very sad in Golding’s work is that it came out the same year as Tolkien’s final instalment in The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. Why is it sad? Because, though profoundly damaged, Frodo manages to defeat Sauron with the help of his loyal Samwise and other friends in the Fellowship of the Ring. Instead, Ralph loses Piggy and has no chance at all of becoming the hero that will stop the villain Jack. He is radically alone, as Frodo never is–this is what is sad.

The lesson to learn, then, from Golding’s Lord of the Flies is how to protect ourselves from patriarchal fascists like Jack (or his imaginary female counterpart Maggie) by listening to the voice of reason. Like Piggy, who embodies it in the novel, this is a voice constantly bullied and denied–even by the supposedly sensible persons. Piggy begs Ralph not to tell the others that he is known by that body-shaming, awful nickname but he non-chalantly lets it be known, thus paving with this act the way for Piggy’s final murder. I do not mean that Ralph wants Piggy dead but that failing to protect reason leads to appalling consequences for all.

A last word: dystopias like Lord of the Flies are born of despair but make us cynical, which is why their current proliferation is so dangerous. If you want to redraw Golding’s tale changing gender lines, make the community of children varied (including boys and girls, hetero and LGTBI+). Tell how Jack and Maggie try but fail to establish heteronormative racist tribal patriarchy, and then have Ralph and Katniss and Hermione (in Piggy’s role), choose their colour, organize the whole community to resist their rule. If this works, Jack and Maggie end up isolated in a corner of the island, where, with some luck, they kill each other in a fight to determine who is more powerful; the rest build a democratic community based on mutual respect and tolerance. This works so well that when their adult rescuers appear it, they join it.

See how easy it is to think of a utopia that works? What, you find it sentimental? Well, some feeling would be welcome in our age of narcissistic unfeeling and hypocritical dystopian pessimism. And fight patriarchy not masculinity!

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


I have just gone through the second season of the acclaimed series Netflix Stranger Things ( and I’m currently reading Ernest Cline’s SF novel Ready Player One (2011,, the object of a recent film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and scripted by Cline himself. This is the second time I try to read Cline’s novel and if I’m trying again it is not because I enjoyed the movie version. Rather, the negative comments on the film by the novel’s staunchest fans have inspired me with the patience I need to finish Ready Player One, if only for academic reasons.

My impatience with Ready Player One and also with Stranger Things is motivated by their second-handness, if that word exists, which is in its turn based on their (mis)use of the 1980s. Allow me to explain.

Cline’s novel takes place in 2044 (Wade Watts, the 17-year-old protagonist, is born in 2027) and narrates the obsessive hunt for an Easter egg in the virtual environment of the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a search which will grant the winner a formidable reward. Life on Earth is on the decline because an unsolvable energy crisis has pushed civilization to the brink of total collapse; instead of using their brains to try to redress this crisis, though, most people prefer to live a second life (if you get the allusion) in the MMOSG (massively multiplayer online simulation game) created presumably in the mid-2030s by James Halliday and Ogden Morrow, of Gregarious Simulation Systems. The late Halliday, obsessed with the pop-culture of his 1980s youth, has shaped the hunt for the treasure buried in OASIS with a string of obscure leads that only individuals with a vast knowledge of his preferred decade can follow. Wade is one among the many ‘gunters’ (egg hunters) that accumulate a vast erudition of 1980s pop-culture, supplemented by the videogame-playing skills which he needs to solve each of Halliday’s riddles.

Ernest Cline was born in 1972, thus, he was 8 in 1980 and 18 in 1990. Indeed, only an original 1980s teen could have the detailed knowledge that Cline displays in Ready Player One: no research starting from scratch could be as convincing. Yet, this is what Cline supposes for Wade. The way US society is organized, children can choose to be educated in the virtual schools of virtual planet Ludus in the OASIS to receive a basic, compulsory education in a more orderly environment that presential schools can offer. This education also includes electives on the OASIS, the equivalent of teaching school children about current social media as part of the school curriculum. Except for the mandatory school time (and sleep), however, Wade spends all his other waking hours also in the OASIS but learning about the 1980s and interacting with other similarly obsessed people. He claims to have consumed basically all of 1980s videogames, popular films and TV, commercials, novels and music.

I was frankly amused by Cline’s view of teen erudition for, although adolescents of the nerdish variety tend to be extremely well self-educated they usually apply their efforts to their own era. I have never ever met a nerd (and I consider myself one) interested in the culture of sixty years before, as is Wade’s case. I stand corrected: yes, I have met many–they’re called academics and can be found in the Humanities schools of our universities but not in secondary schools.

The Ready Player One Wikia claims that James Donovan Halliday was born in 1972, just as Cline, and died in 2039 so, again, it makes perfect sense that as a 1980s nerd he built all these references into the adventure that obsesses the ‘gunters’. Now, I was born in 1966 and was a teenager through the 1980s, and one thing I can tell you is that young people in that decade were characterized by an abhorrence of seeming old-fashioned. That’s how I recall it. There were ‘retro’ touches in the ubiquitous use of shoulder pads and in other matters but the idea of a 1980s teen obsessing with 1920s pop-culture (the sixty year gap in Ready Player One) is totally preposterous. The 1950s were often a reference (in re-makes like John Carpenter’s The Thing of 1982) but the general idea was increasing creativity and looking forward. You can see evidence of this trend in how spectacularly Carpenter’s movie outdoes Nyby’s The Thing from Another World (1951) in all fronts. This had nothing to do with the current obsession with recycling 1980s culture, too deferential to be truly innovative. I’m 100% sure that The Predator, a remake of John McTiernan’s 1987 Predator to be released next week, will soon be forgotten as the mere copy it is.

There is then a contradiction embedded in Ready Player One signified by the very different cultural positions occupied by Cline/Halliday and Wade (and friends): the former makes sense, the latter is an absurdity. So absurd, in fact, that when Spielberg made the film he eliminated the many references Cline makes to his own 1980s films (other references to the 1980s had to be abandoned because of the high cost of rights). If you think about it, Spielberg is the last director that should have tackled Cline’s novel for, evidently, even he realized that he could hardly pay homage to himself! When I saw the movie with my husband, another 1980s teen, we went ‘oh!’ and ‘ah!’ every time we caught a clever allusion, yet at the same time I was bothered by a) how could the retro allusions make sense to the Millennials and to Generation Z?, b) I never played videogames in the 1980s (or now). Actually, many of the pop-culture achievements celebrated in Ready Player One as central to 1980s were products I absolutely hated; others, I simply missed. I saw Heathers (1988) only a few weeks ago, and Cocteau Twins rather than Thompson Twins (and I mean the Sheffield band, not Tintin’s characters) blew my mind as a teen. There was not only one version of the 1980s but many, yet I see a canon being formed which excludes the original variety. I know that this is the same for all decades but I am now living this process as part of my own personal biography, and I find it utterly reductive.

Stranger Things, created by twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, born in 1984, provokes another kind of impatience, that of the product that enjoys behind second-hand. The Duffer Brothers, as they call themselves (in allusion to the Blues Brothers?) were 1990s teens, and, so, I’ll argue that Stranger Things is a series created by Millennials (born 1984-1999), enjoyed by Generation Z (born in the 21st century) but actually inspired by the cultural experience of Generation X (born 1965-1983), mostly based on texts by Babyboomers (born 1945-1964). Stephen King, a major referent in Stranger Things, was born in 1947; his novel Firestarter, a main intertext for the Duffers’ series, was published in 1980 and filmed in 1984 (with a young Drew Barrymore). King was a favourite with my own generation, and we are responsible for taking him with us into (academic) respectability, of which we convinced the Millennials. They have enchanted Generation Z audiences with the tale of Eleven and her friends in the same way King enchanted us. But… the Duffers are not King, for, whereas they are King recyclers, King is as original as one can be.

I am bored stiff by Stranger Things precisely because I notice the recycling. One thing is the new version of It (2017), based on King’s novel of 1986, and quite another matter is presenting pseudo-King as a great novelty. Generation Z audiences logically love Stranger Things because the plot is new to them and because kids like them are central to it. This pleasure, however, is not easily shared – we, 1980s relics, notice, rather, how Winona Ryder has aged from her days as Lydia in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988). Also, the moment I read the name Paul Reiser in the second season credits I shouted ‘spoiler!’ for the Burke of Aliens (1986) was bound to play a shifty scientist. The multilayered approach aimed at offering a series enjoyable by all family members results, rather, in a cacophony and creates a conversation at cross purposes with Generation Z. Notice that Ready Player One’s message is that the 1980s were an awesome generator of texts worth knowing first hand, as Wade does. Stranger Things, in contrast, appropriates the culture of the 1980s as its temporal background, but hardly mentions any names and titles. Do the kids in the series ever say that Eleven is like someone straight out of any of the King novels they must be reading?

What truly irks me about Ready Player One and Stranger Things, in the end, is that they aim at producing the same effect 1980s pop-culture had but by re-issuing the original ideas, hence their second-handedness. The much more important matter is that they reflect, though it might seem the opposite, a lack of actual dialogue with the past. In Wade’s future the OASIS works as a kind of universal multi-media library and, so, he can directly access any 1980s texts first-hand, which is the only way to be conversant with the past. Of course, the hunting of the Easter egg provides a major enticement to acquire a solid education in 1980s pop-culture–Cline does not explain what happens to the rest of literally unrewarding culture. I am sure that many Generation Z kids will be curious to know what inspires Strangers Things and, thus, enter that dialogue with the past but if the Duffer Brothers can get away with their parasitical stance, this is because there are no longer massively shared media that keep the 1980s alive. Generation Z does not watch TV, where you can still catch The Goonies now and then, and for reasons that I will never ever understand the healthy habit of the cinema re-release (and double-feature sessions) was lost some time in the late 1980s (wasn’t it?).

My point is not that things were better in the 1980s – this is what texts like Ready Player One and Stranger Things claim! My point, rather, is that each generation needs their own culture and referents, and that this cult of the second-hand is counterproductive. I am not saying ‘don’t touch my Predator’ (well, maybe I am!); what I am saying is, if you’re interested in the 1980s, then see the McTiernan movie and read King’s novels (don’t forget Cocteau Twins!) but make sure you have a culture of your own that kids in sixty years’ time can marvel at.

If this is happening, then I am happy for you, Millennials Generation-Zers and but is it really happening…?

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


I’m re-reading again The Lord of the Rings these days, for the third time. J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) is not one of my great passions as a reader or researcher but I acknowledge the immense importance that he has as a major contributor to English Literature, and not just to fantasy. What he offers in his work is astonishing. Also, it makes me wonder what academic life was like back in the first half of the 20th century, since he managed to be a highly respected Oxford don and the writer of such massive texts. I do not refer here to the extension of his works but to the density of his mythological imagination, which reaches amazing heights in The Silmarillion.

There are actually several Tolkiens (without even mentioning the academic philologist and the fancy linguist): the charming children’s author of The Hobbit (1937), the epic writer of The Lord of the Rings (1954-55) and the mythmaker of The Silmarillion (1977, edited and published post-humously by his son Christopher Tolkien, but started in 1917). The latter book is far less known because few readers are willing to face the demands that Tolkien’s languid pseudo-Biblical prose imposes (even on his most ardent fans). I just wish Amazon would adapt that book instead of doing again The Lord of the Rings, not only because The Silmarillion has such an attractive plot (together with the other texts attached to it in the volume) but also because a new adaptation feels like a gratuitous insult to poor director Peter Jackson and his still recent film series (2001-3), undoubtedly a major feat in the history of cinema.

Here’s a personal anecdote: on Sunday I rushed to the Museu Nacional de les Arts de Catalunya to see the exhibition on William Morris and the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that ended yesterday. I find Morris (1834-1896) a fascinating figure in many ways but, above all, because he came up with the idea that beautiful objects need not be the prerogative of the rich. Disliking very much the habitual clutter of useless objects that you could find in most wealthy Victorian houses, he drew a “golden rule”: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” (this comes from “The Beauty of Life”, a lecture delivered at the Birmingham Society of Arts and School of Design, 1880). IKEA is the ultimate descendant of that philosophy but also all our current perspective on high quality design, for Morris had a gigantic international impact.

Anyway, I was contemplating one of the magnificent pseudo-Medieval tapestries made by Morris’s house and thinking ‘um, this looks like Rivendell’ (the perfect home of the lordly half-Elf Elrond in The Lord of the Rings) when I overheard a guide explain that Tolkien had drawn much inspiration for his work from Morris’ fiction and, specially, his translations of the Icelandic sagas. Please, recall that Rivendell is presented in Peter Jackson’s adaptation as a kind of pseudo-Gaudinian paradise, which closes the circle very nicely: Morris was a major influence on Catalan Modernism (approx. 1885-1920), in which Gaudí (1852-1926) is a key figure (see the article by Anna Calvera on Morris’ impact in Catalonia here:

Obviously, I have not paid enough attention either to Morris or to Tolkien for I didn’t know what, checking the internet, everyone appears to know: Tolkien was very fond not only of Morris’s poetic translations from Icelandic (which he actually produced with his friend Eirikr Magnusson, see one instance here: but also of his historical and fantasy novels. The House of the Wolfings (1889) tells the story of how a Germanic tribe (renamed Goths in Morris’s novel) resists the invasion of the Romans, unusually presented as the true barbarians. The Wood Beyond the World (1894) appears to be a sort of update of Thomas Mallory’s style (not of the Arthurian content), and a clear precursor of current epic fantasy. The Well at the World’s End (1896) continues in the same supernatural vein. It has a King Gandolf, a name everyone cites as proof that Tolkien knew his Morris (apparently he spent part of the money earned for winning the Skeat Prize in 1914 to buy several books by Morris, including his translated Völsunaga Saga and House of the Wolfings).

Tolkien was also familiar with Morris’ classic of socialist utopianism News from Nowhere (1890) in which he preached essentially that the future should be built on a pre-Industrial Revolution rural economy. Echoes of this are, indeed, found in “The Scouring of the Shire”, the penultimate chapter of The Lord of the Rings. After fulfilling the hazardous mission of returning the evil One Ring to the place where it was made by Sauron, the hobbits (Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin) go back home to the Shire only to discover that its lovely landscape has been destroyed by the wizard Saruman, posing as the capitalist Sharkey. Jackson didn’t film this segment, which he doesn’t like, even though it is essential to understand Tolkien: this author hated modern life (what Bauman called Modernity with a capital M–see my previous post), in which he was following Morris but also his experience in the trenches of WWI. Tolkien’s utopian Shire is, ultimately, much closer to socialism than the author’s dream of a restored Medieval feudalism might allow us to see. Gondor may enjoy the aristocratic rule of the returned King Aragorn, but in the Shire there is no equivalent ruler, just a Thain in charge of guaranteeing the safety of the tightly-knit community and the enjoyment of its simple pleasures.

In this third reading of The Lord of the Rings, and possibly because in the last stages I was thinking of Morris, I have noticed a few things that I had overlooked. One is that the references to the economy and the labour system of the lands of Middle-earth are very vague: actually, we know more about how the arch-villain Sauron runs Mordor than about the other kingdoms and territories run by Elves and Men. The class system is also a problem. Many others have noticed that Sam Gamgee appears to play the role of WWI ‘batman’, or officer’s servant, a position often assumed by private soldiers from rural backgrounds. Tolkien was himself a junior officer (1915-18) and acknowledged in some letters that the batmen he knew had been an inspiration for Sam. However, I find Gamgee’s status as a servant (batman or otherwise) problematic mainly because it has a clear impact on how Sam’s deep bond with Frodo functions: it’s one-sided. Sam declares again and again that he loves Frodo but I don’t see that he is requited in the same way. This is a lopsided friendship, which somehow mars the text. By the way: I had missed how often Tolkien uses the word ‘queer’, it’s amazing… But I’m not saying that Sam and Frodo are gay, that’s a topic for another post.

Something else I had overlooked: I had kept the impression from my previous readings that Tolkien uses plenty of description but I realize now that this is not correct. His topographic detail is extremely abundant but also overwhelming for someone who can barely distinguish north from south (like yours truly). I realize now that Peter Jackson’s production design team (headed by Grant Major) must have faced a gargantuan challenge despite the precedents set by the illustrators of Tolkien’s works, among them Alan Lee. Incidentally, Tolkien was a marvellous illustrator as it is plain from his drawings for The Hobbit–clearly inspired by the painters of the Arts and Crafts movement. At any rate, Major’s design team had to be necessarily specific to make up for Tolkien’s descriptive vagueness. I don’t mean that he offered no descriptions whatsoever but that they are limited to certain features rather than to complete portraits, both for characters and for landscapes. Tolkien suggests, in short, rather than draw a full picture, in which he is far less Dickensian than I thought.

The women… What can I say? The Lord of the Rings is a patriarchal text 100%: it’s male-centred, exalts male bonding, celebrates patriarchal aristocratic power and so on. Funnily, if you read The Silmarillion you will see that the Valar (the fourteen auxiliary gods that the god Ilúvatar employs in creating Arda, or Earth) are genderless until they decide, according to individual inclination, to take a gendered form. Some of the females, like Varda, are very powerful but it is soon obvious that this is a patriarchy and that the male Manwë is in charge. Likewise, although the female Elf Galadriel astonishes everyone with her beauty, intelligence and power, she’s just the exception that confirms the rule: power is gendered male, anyway. Frodo timidly suggests to Galadriel that, if she took the Ring, she might use power in a beneficial way but she denies this–there is no feminine or feminist alternative. Or Tolkien is too nervous to consider it.

All female characters are, of course, defined by their physical appearance. And as the cases of Lúthien and Arwen show, Tolkien had this fantasy about superior women abandoning their high status for the love of men: both Elves become mortals to marry Men. Tolkien, by the way, who claimed to love and admire his wife Edith very much (naming her as the inspiration for Lúthien) forced her totally against her will to become a Catholic like him and raise their children in that faith–do what you will of this factoid. Finally, Eówyn, whom many worship as a figure of empowerment because she is a successful warrior, ends up assuming her proper feminine role as wife and future mother. For me Eówyn is particularly annoying, poor thing, because her dissatisfaction with her housebound life shows that Tolkien understood very well the problems women faced as he wrote (1940s to 1950s). I don’t mean with this that The Lord of the Rings is a sexist or misogynistic text: it’s, rather, a text with a conspicuous lack of concern for women. Fathers mourn again and again lost sons but mothers are hardly ever seen, and daughters are just princesses to be married off.

So why read and re-read this? Well, we women have this long training in reading patriarchal stories as if they had been written for us and we can even forget how deeply gendered they are. I have complained that the bond between Sam and Frodo is unbalanced in Frodo’s favour but even so, this relationship is the main reason why I do love The Lord of the Rings. The scene when Frodo volunteers to carry the evil One Ring back to Mount Doom and try to destroy it is very moving, as is his realization that he will never heal from his psychological wounds once he has accomplished his mission–or not, since he actually fails (do read the book to know how and why). I have read plenty of WWI fiction and I recognize in the brave hobbit the veteran suffering from shellshock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress syndrome. This might be a misreading, but in my view this is Tolkien’s main contribution to fantasy and mythmaking: its grounding in the evil reality of the trenches, not as allegory but as background inspiration. Beowulf would not understand what kind of hero Frodo is–but Harry Potter does.

Now, if you’re minimally interested, go beyond Sauron, and check who Melkor/Morgoth was. For if Morris is all over The Lord of the Rings, Milton reigns in The Silmarillion. Or, perhaps, now that I think about it, William Blake.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


The students in my Gender Studies class could freely choose the subject of their paper and I have ended up marking five (out of twenty-five) on Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). In parallel, I have been asked to peer-review two articles submitted to journals on the same topic. Even a proposal for a TFM dissertation.

Curiously, although the renewed interest in Atwood’s dystopian classic is due to Bruce Miller’s series (first season, 2017) for the streaming service Hulu, none of these articles nor the dissertation proposal, refer to it as an relevant trigger for new academic work. First issue, then, that calls my attention: the way in which all these budding academics hesitate to connect novel and series (it seems that if you deal with one, then you don’t deal with the other).

Second issue, the total absence of any comments on the quite good 1990 film version of The Handmaid’s Tale directed by Volker Schlöndorf, with Natasha Richardson as Offred and Aidan Quinn as Nick, based on a screenplay by a Nobel prize winner, illustrious playwright Harold Pinter. This film did generate some academic attention because of Pinter’s contribution but it’s worrying me very much to see how cinema is being neglected these days in favour of TV, even within academic circles in the Humanities.

Third issue, and this is my main issue today: the constant rediscovery of the academic wheel… Here we go.

One of the most beautiful feelings a reader can enjoy is the discovery of a text that becomes a significant landmark in one’s development. If you’re a student, or a professional academic, and you may choose what to focus on in your work, this joy of new discovery often becomes the foundation for papers, articles and even books. I have never ever believed in the phallacy that Literary Studies should be objective since all work within them begins with the process of falling in love with a text–and other sentimental variations, such as falling out of love with a text or hating it. Something mysterious happens and suddenly you do know that, sooner or later, you have to write about this or that text, and then proper research begins.

In Literary Studies ‘proper research’ means entering into a dialogue with your predecessors, those who also expressed their sentimental attachment in the sophisticated jargon of academia (for we’re not… irrational fans… or are we?). If you fall in love with a recent text, then the obvious problem is that there might not be any predecessors. In that case, you need to write a list of keywords and see who has contributed something indispensable in each area of interest. For instance, one of my TFG/BA dissertation tutorees has fallen in love with a new film adaptation, Call Me by Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, 2017, written by James Ivory, based on the 2007 eponymous novel by André Aciman). His dissertation will be among the first academic works devoted to this very well-received film and, so, he’ll have to compile a bibliography with sources that deal more generally with the representation of gay men in cinema, and the theory of film adaptation.

This student had also fallen in love with Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and although there is not that much published on this ambiguous character, we decided that mastering the huge bibliography on this ultra-famous play would be a too tall order at this level. Besides, my student quickly found out that what he had to say about Mercutio had been covered by other scholars and, so, he decided to embrace the chance to make an original contribution. This does not mean that you should not write about Shakespeare. I have indeed tutored a TFG on Romeo’s masculinity and written myself a long piece about Antonio’s love of Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice ( It simply means that if you feel an unstoppable love for a classic, you need to brace yourself for a long struggle to acquire an acceptably solid idea of all the relevant bibliography.

Here is, however, the problem: what is ‘relevant bibliography?’ I usually tell my students that their bibliographies should be properly updated and that, ideally, they should cover the period from 1990 to the present. That’s twenty-eight years!! Already a lot… Of course, I also tell them that they may quote from any source previous to 1990, provided this is absolutely relevant or an academic classic (Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, 1975). In practice, however, what happens is that most pre-1990s gets a blanket dismissal, and I won’t even mention how awfully neglected anything written before 1980 is, unless it is by a really big name like Michel Foucault or Raymond Williams. F.R. Leavis, anyone? Northrop Frye?

In the specific case of The Handmaid’s Tale this poses a singular problem, as I have seen in the work I have marked or assessed. The novel was published in 1985 and, as the MLA database shows, 24 authors wrote about this text before 1990, beginning with Michele Lacombe’s article “The Writing on the Wall: Amputated Speech in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale” (1986). The MLA database offers 199 registers for the period 1990-99, then 72 for 2000-9 and 41 since then; you can see the curve here: climbing up to 1999, then going down, then up again. Someone should look into these fluctuations and the reasons for them beyond my sketchy approach here.

Anyway, back to my point: what the 24 initial commentators said cannot be dismissed because they set the foundations for the critical approach to Atwood’s text, and covered all the main issues: feminism, dystopia, post-apocalyptic narrative, politics, speech manipulation, religion, puritanism, nature vs. nurture, even ironic autobiography and the epistolary nature of this novel. Naturally, this doesn’t exhaust The Handmaid’s Tale, as the many subsequent essays on it show. What I mean, rather, is that if you wish to write today about the dystopian nature of Gilead, the fundamentalist Republic that deprives women of all their rights in Atwood’s novel, you do need to take into account what the first authors to tackle the subject had to say. Even more so because this was criticism contemporary to the book’s publication and will give you a clear context for it.

What happens if you neglect the 1980s sources? Well, you may end up de-contextualizing the novel. It is certainly true that the 2017 television series indirectly comments on the dictatorial style of new President Donald Trump. However, the novel was published in a decade dominated by Ronald Reagan’s administration, when Christian fundamentalism, the dying but still vicious Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, and Iran’s radical Islamist revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini were very much in the author’s mind. As I’m sure the 1980s academic work stresses. This doesn’t mean that you cannot read The Handmaid’s Tale, novel, against the context of the early 21st century, as, say, Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation reads Romeo and Juliet for 1993, rather than 1593. Yet, just as no Shakespeare scholar would ever neglect the 1590s context, you cannot neglect the 1980s context.

Besides, you run the risk of reinventing the academic wheel… which consists of presenting as new arguments which others have already presented decades ago and that, are, in addition, obvious. If you’re lucky enough to be the first one to tackle academically a given text, then you can deal with the basics: The Handmaid’s Tale connects with the dystopian tradition. But if you approach a text thirty-two years after its publication, then the obvious is not an option. Again: of course you can write about dystopia in Atwood’s novel but not as if you were the first one to do so. Understood? So, yes, it is necessary to consider academic work published before 1990 in the particular case of Atwood’s novel to avoid reinventing the academic wheel.

Now I’m going to destroy my own argument…

What should we do with much older texts? I’m going back to Romeo and Juliet, with 1411 registers in the MLA database for work published between 1900 and 2017. And this is only because the registers begin with the 20th century… So, supposing I’m working on Shakespeare’s allusions to Queen Mab, should I take into account W.P. Reeves’s pioneering essay, published in Modern Language Notes (1902)? How about the 27 academic publications about this play from the 1940s? Is anyone quoting them? Should my student have started work with Leslie Hotson’s “In Defence of Mercutio” (Spectator, 8 August 1947: 168-169)? How long would his bibliography be in that case? Is this the reason why we tend to begin bibliographies in 1990? To limit our work?

Perhaps if we read early Shakespearian scholarship we might be dismayed to find that all has been said and that we reinvent the academic wheel every few years, as long as academic generations last. I was myself a second-year undergrad student when The Handmaid’s Tale was published, which means I am old enough to have a personal memory of all its academic trajectory; this is why I’m warning the current generation that they should be prepared to go beyond their own time. But, then, no teachers currently active were employed before 1975, right? And, anyway, the conceptual revolutions of the early 1990s, when apparently all current methodologies were invented, means that this is own our operative chronological barrier. 1990 is already beginning to seem too long ago to begin a bibliography on Romeo and Juliet, with 879 MLA registers since that year… Should we start in 2000? Is this good scholarship or bad?

To sum up, then, we’re constantly reinventing the academic wheel, perhaps not at all advancing but moving in circles. Yet, I still think that one should try to enter a dialogue with the inventors of each wheel if they are historically close to us… and the final bibliography is manageable… and we’re not offending any scholar still active by neglecting their work.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


A couple of months ago I came across a blog post on a book for children which apparently connects with Harry Potter, as a possible predecessor. This is John Masefield’s 1935 novel The Box of Delights (see I had heard, vaguely, of Masefield (1878-1967) as a distinguished poet (he was appointed Poet Laureate in 1930, a post he held until his death) but not in relation to children’s literature. It turns out that The Box of Delights and its prequel, The Midnight Folk (1927) are, if not downright classics, at least well-known among genre connoisseurs.

Masefield appears to have been a very accomplished author, unafraid of trying his hand at many different literary pursuits. He wrote poems (both short and very long), plays, and a string of novels of varied types, with 12 appearing in just 15 years (1924-39). These included social novels (The Square Peg, The Hawbucks), adventures in exploration (Sard Harker, Odtaa), sea yarns (Victorious Troy, The Bird of Dawning), and the above named children’s fantasy. I make a first stop here to consider how difficult it is to keep a clear impression of whole stretches of English Literature and of whole personal careers which were important in the past, less than one century ago. No matter how hard you study, so much escapes our attention that it is a wonder we know anything at all! I will sound terribly obvious if I say that the only way to fix our memory of authors whose names we encounter in introductions and panoramic overviews is reading their works. Masefield is now more vividly present in my mind though, as happens with author you only see in old photos, perhaps not vividly enough.

The claim that The Box of Delights must have inspired some elements in Harry Potter is only of relative interest. There is a boy hero (Kay Harker), who has a dim but cute friend (Peter Jones), but they do not form with Peter’s sister Maria–a pert little girl too fond of revolvers–a triangular friendship in the style of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Two other Jones sisters, Jemima and Susan, are present in the tale but in very minor roles. Masefield’s story has an appealing magician at its core, one Cole Hawlings who turns out to be Majorcan all-talented, wise man Ramon Llull (or Lully, 1232-1315), still alive in 1935 thanks to an elixir. You might see shades of Hawlings in Dumbledore in a scene that has to do with a phoenix, and in his avuncular behaviour towards Kay, but Tolkien’s Gandalf seems a much relevant predecessor. Likewise, villain Abner Brown is not really in the same league as Lord Voldemort, being just a jewel thief thirsting after bigger booty, namely the titular box of delights, a singular magic contraption.

Judging a book according to whether it measures up to another one with which it might not really be connected is not a good idea. Let’s then get rid of Harry Potter (but do watch the Italian fan film Voldemort: Origins of the Heir, and enjoy the ‘delights’ Masefield has to offer. These are not few but I must confess that I struggled a little bit to get into the spirit of his novel. I attributed this to the fact that The Box of Delights is actually a sequel but the information I came across regarding The Midnight Folk confirmed that this is not a story in two books but two stories sharing a set of characters. The difficulties had to do, rather, with how characters speak, using a kind of dialogue which I found odd, not only because of the peculiarities of each character (one is always using ‘what?’ at the end of his sentences) but also because Kay and the Jones children use a formal register very different from what, um, Harry Potter and colleagues use. Kay does use school slang in one sentence but his guardian quickly bans this jargon, which suggests that the children use separate idiolects, one for themselves and one for the adults. Yet, this was not exactly the case, either (as you will see).

I just needed to hear them speak to get the right delivery and tone–and luckily for me I could use for that the charming six-part BBC version (broadcast between 21 November and 24 December in 1984). YouTube and its illegal uploads have very useful applications, as you can see. As I expected, the series ironed out all my difficulties and contributed, besides, not only very good performances by young and not so young actors but also a delicious use of special effects to materialize the magic that Masefield describes in his lovely book. This includes the metamorphosis of some characters into animals (or even a tree), Kay’s multiple size changes, a talking statue, a picture that opens up for Cole to walk in, etc. Masefield was also interested in technological fantasy and so, anticipating Ian Fleming’s James Bond, he gives the villains a car that transform into a sort of helicopter (nothing to do with the Weasleys lumbering flying car, then).

The comments by other YouTube spectators led in two enticing but quite different directions. One the one hand, many celebrate their second contact with a beloved Christmas classic of their own 1980s childhood (actually a few have repeatedly seen the series in this context). Others speculate about whether a new version is (over)due because of how fast special effects age. For The Box of Delights the BBC used cutting-edge video technology which did a very good job of reproducing Masefield’s gorgeous fantasy; this is visually demanding even for the plain reader, much more so for TV before cgi (computer-generated images). I found the fx ‘delightful’ as corresponds to the ‘box of delights’ that television was in the early days of video (and that gave us masterpieces such as David Bowie’s marvellous music video for “Ashes to Ashes”, 1980,

The BBC, then, went as far as it was possible to go for TV in 1984 yet I understand those in favour of an update, for I found myself thinking as I enjoyed the enchanting 6 hours how many scenes would look today. Ironically, I might call this ‘the Harry Potter’ syndrome, as the whole movie series adapting Rowling is cutting-edge for the early 21st century–just as The Box of Delights was for 1984. There is a scene in the novel, excluded from the BBC version possibly because of how expensive it would have been, in which people seen in paintings start moving and, beyond whether Rowling did take inspiration from that or not, the Harry Potter films mirrored spot on what she meant in a way that simply could not be done for Masefield. Arguably, the same fx ageing process will eventually affect Harry Potter in thirty years time, when films will all come in virtual reality devices.

The ‘double nostalgia’ of my title, then, refers to the combined experience of reading a 1930s book and seeing its 1980s TV adaptation at the same time, taking also into account that the series approaches the book nostalgically and that we, 21st century spectators, also enjoy the special effects with nostalgia. I should think that a most spectacular case of this effect was the 1981 Granada/ITV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited, a story about the nostalgia which Charles Ryder feels for the 1920s, when, famously, he met spoilt child Sebastian Flyte and his contact with the very rich Flytes changed his life for ever. The Box of Delights is a sort of junior version of that compounded nostalgia (with appealing fx). That make-believe world of Masefield, Waugh and, later, Downtown Abbey (though with more servants) convinces us that the lifestyle of the rich is the rule, not the exception, and, oddly, despite having never enjoyed it, that we still feel it is somehow ours. Seeing the orphan Kay Harker do as he pleases with his friends under the very loose guardianship of the flexible Caroline Louisa, abused Harry Potter would surely have a fit. For the main delight of The Box of Delights is how Kay plunges into adventure without a worldly care. How refreshing.

It’s not, then, just plain nostalgia (or envy) but a yearning for the same carefree world that keeps us glued to the screen (or the book pages). In this, Masefield’s world could not be further from Rowling’s, where Kay would be a Slytherin, though he’s much nicer than Malfoy. And so, although I said that I would leave Harry Potter aside, it turns out that the heptalogy is indeed linked to Masefield’s fantasy world but not at all for the reasons suggested by other authors, the occasional borrowings. Kay and Harry would, I think, like each other instantaneously, as orphans keen on magic open to whatever it may bring. Also, because Kay is no snob (the series, however, conveniently eliminates the discomfort he feels in the novel before the hostile poor children in his rural community). The school which Kay attends, and that we don’t see since he is on holiday, is possibly similar to Hogwarts, or, rather, Hogwarts is similar to the establishments that 1930s upper-class kids would patronize. Rowling does operate her own kind of nostalgia but I wonder with what aim, as Harry battles Voldemort’s upper-class sycophantic Death Eaters but in the end Malfoy and his kind are still there, and nothing much changes in the Wizarding world, despite ‘mudbloods’ like Hermione.

I have finally realized, then, that my problem with The Box of Delights is not the challenge of visualizing the magic or my bad ear for dialogue but a class matter. Leaving aside the cultural distance between 1930s England and 2010s Catalonia, where I live, I had in the end fewer problems to accept the magic than the wonder of a household in which children are so comfortably well off. Harry’s broom cupboard under the stairs and his constant ill-treatment by the awful Dursleys have complicated very much the matter of class in children’s fiction. And, yes, I had to see the BBC version to make sense of what I know understand to be Kay’s upper-class (or upper-middle-class, I’m not sure) idiolect.

You can see that I’m a bit bitter here, and this is because my working-class childhood was full of BBC series like The Box of Delights and of their promise of a carefree world that was never fulfilled. Still, this is not Masefield’s fault but my own for having been born on the wrong side of the tracks, like the majority. He did what he had to do: tell a perfect tale of Christmas joy and makes us believe in magic for as long as it lasts. No mean feat.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


I have just read Marc Pastor’s novel L’any de la plaga (2010) and this post deals with two matters suggested by comments on this work in GoodReads. Pastor, who works as CSI for the Mossos, the Catalan police, has published so far five novels, of which I absolutely recommend La mala dona (2008). He narrates in this atmospheric book the gruesome real-life crimes of Enriqueta Martí, a dreadful woman who preyed on the children of the poor (mainly of prostitutes) to cater to the tastes of the Barcelona upper classes, both on the cosmetic and the sexual fronts. Read the novel to understand my cryptic sentence… I found Pastor’s novel Montecristo (2007) just average but I truly had a great time this summer reading his colonial thriller Bioko (2013), set, of all places, in the Spanish colony island of Fernando Poo (in the 1880s). This is what lead me to read L’any de la plaga; next, it’ll be Pastor’s last novel, Farishta (2017). Pastor, who is, no doubt, the most interesting Catalan writer together with Albert Sánchez Piñol in the field of popular fiction will be, by the way, a guest of honour at the oncoming CatCon, the first festival devoted to Catalan SF (November 24-25, Vilanova i la Geltrú).

L’any de la plaga is, plainly, an adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers (1955), and, in particular of the 1978 film version directed by Philip Kaufman, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (you might be familiar with the more popular 1956 adaptation directed by Don Siegel). Pastor’s novel contains direct allusions to the Kaufman film, which the protagonist, social worker Víctor Negro, does know very well, and what I would call indirect allusions, particularly the ugly scream that the transformed individuals utter. Marc Pastor never tries to hide his inspiration and, if I am correct, his project for this novel consists of proving that Barcelona works perfectly well as the setting for horror SF. I enjoyed very much the challenge of suspending my disbelief and the invitation to replace American locations with real streets and buildings in Barcelona. Pastor indeed makes the point of only using places he knows personally and of setting many key scenes not in downtown Barcelona but in working-class neighbourhoods, like Nou Barris. An excellent choice.

Reading the comments on L’any de la plaga in GoodReads, I came across a post by a trainee doctor, Arantxa. Apart from noting that some medical terms used by Pastor are incorrect, she made an interesting observation but also a much more questionable comment. Her observation raises a complicated issue: if, as Pastor acknowledges both in the book and in diverse interviews, his novel is basically a retelling of Kaufman’s film, shouldn’t we call it fan fiction? A few chapters into L’any de la plaga I started worrying whether this was, rather, a case of plagiarism until Pastor acknowledged his source. The word ‘homage’ suggested itself next but, to be honest, I never thought of Pastor’s novel as fan fiction for the very simple reason that its is a professional novel in print and not an amateur online text.

Arantxa’s comment, however, makes us wonder at which point allusion goes too far and, of course, this has to do with our worship of originality. Young readers who know nothing about Finney or Kaufman may feel cheated by Pastor on discovering Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as I felt when finding out that John Milius’ screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now! is an adaptation of Heart of Darkness. In this case, matters are much worse for Joseph Conrad is not even mentioned in the film credits. Perhaps with L’any de la plaga, Pastor is telling us that all stories worth narrating have been already told and the only thing we can do now is tell them again from a new angle. Thus, instead of the implicit homage that Bram Stoker pays in Dracula to Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, his inspirational text, we have explicit homage and direct allusion.

I should check whether Pastor borrows this from Stephen King, who loves to pepper his novels with all kinds of allusions to real, ordinary life, but I always wonder why characters in fiction never ever refer to other similar fictions as existing in their world. Perhaps I am completely wrong and the trend has changed but as far as I recall most alien invasion stories fail to allude to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. To complicate matters even futher, take the 2013 version of Carrie, based on King’s novel, published in 1974 and already the object of a very popular adaptation filmed in 1976. Shouldn’t the young Carrie of 2013 know about the 1970s film and novel? Why does everyone pretend in the new film that they don’t exist? What kind of background reality is built for the main character in that way?

Let me return to Arantxa’s comments on L’any de la plaga. Pastor chose to use Víctor Negro as a first person narrator, which means that he speaks as ordinary people do speak in the early 21st century: constantly alluding to popular texts. At one point when he is risking his life, Negro decides to ‘play a Jedi mind trick’ to persuade his opponent to let him go; at another, he complains of a headache which feels like being the bad guy in Hellraiser (that’s Pinhead…). For most readers in GoodReads, and for the author of this post, the very many allusions that pepper Negro’s speech are part of the charm of Pastor’s novel because they make it real. Besides, the shared allusions work very well in building complicity with the reader and ballasting our sympathy.

There is, however, a major snag: as another reader notes, the allusions may be lost on anyone under 30. And, well, Arantxa complains that the many references to films, series, music and books are just a constant obstacle in the reading. Funnily, she makes her point by using an allusion: “Every time something like that surfaced, I felt like Tawny in Sunny entre estrellas (Sonnie with a Chance) when she’s told something she doesn’t know and doesn’t care for”. I have used Wikipedia to learn that Sonnie with a Chance is a Disney Channel teen sitcom, broadcast 2009-11, which proves my point: allusions are essential to weave the web of culture. Now I know something I didn’t know five minutes ago, which is good. Arantxa feels annoyed because Pastor’s allusions are not for her but for his generation and upwards, those born in the 1970s and 1960s. I, however, felt curious about her allusion, for I don’t belong to her age group and I always feel anxious about the time when I might not understand any stories produced by Arantxa’s generation (born late 1980s, I guess).

Allusions, then, in all texts, from James Joyce to Marc Pastor, should never be taken as an obstacle but, rather, as an invitation to learn more. As Andrew Delahunty, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock, the authors of The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion (2001), explain, allusions “can be used as a kind of shorthand, evoking instantly a complex human experience embedded within a story or dramatic event”, or “to entertaining effect”; also, obviously, to show off (I suspect this was Joyce’s case…). The problem with the ‘entertaining effect’ is that it excludes audiences who are not into the joke, which can be very annoying to them. In Pixar’s Zootopia (2016) there is a delicious allusion to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) which only adults can catch. This is a great strategy to interest adults in taking kids to cinemas; yet, it frustrates children to spot jokes in films intended for them from which they are excluded. And this is the irritant: the sense of exclusion, which makes you feel ignorant and, at worse, mortified.

Age and the passage of time combine in strange ways regarding allusions. To begin with, it would have been absurd for Pastor to have his protagonist use allusions that only teens could get, for he is an adult man born in the 1970s (like the author). However, YA writers, obviously, need to make sure that their readers understand their allusions–if you don’t get the references to Greek mythology in Rick Riordan’s series Percy Jackson & the Olympians (2005-9), then much of the fun is lost, though I would agree that readers are also schooled as they read. Allusions, logically, always have an educational value and this is why the better educated persons enjoy them best. That is to say: the older you are, the more allusions you recognise (um, except those that come from younger age groups…).

Other kinds of allusions risk being lost in time. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusion surely is no help to read Bret Easton Ellis’ novel Glamorama (2000), an extremely violent, angry novel narrated by a male model, Victor Ward, and full of allusions to his celebrity-studded 1990s universe. On a first name basis… I recall in particular a reviewer wondering whether in ten years time anyone would recognise Victor’s allusions to Johnny and Kate, that is to say, actor Johnny Depp and top model Kate Moss, the hottest couple on Earth between 1994 and 1997. Glamorama plays, then, with the fine line dividing allusion to topical issues from plain gossip, and while fun to read at the time of publication (in this gossipy sense, not in others), this is a novel that must sound positively ancient today. Better stick to the Bible and the classics…

Returning to L’any de la plaga, I must thank Pastor for revealing how absurdly empty most characters are in fiction for, unlike his Víctor Negro, they never refer to the music, books, films, series that are an essential part of our lives. And when they do so, this is mainly restricted to, well, the Bible and the classics, not to the popular. Arantxa teaches us in her post that allusions can also be a powerful generational barrier but, believe me, the bafflement and the sense of exclusion are mutual. Inevitably, each generation has its main referents.

Fortunately, Wikipedia, that immense wealth of allusions, can help. Look at how beautiful the English idiom is: what are many allusions if not wealth?

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As consumers of cultural products we seem to take for granted that texts are, somehow, automatically saved for survival and that any new generation has access to all of them. This is, of course, naïve, misguided and plain wrong. In the case of popular texts (and I mean here generally of all kinds beyond the printed page), we seem to assume that transmission is practically automatic and immediately guaranteed, in some cases, by the big cults around some of these texts. Even so, there are specific practices, companies and persons involved in the process of keeping a text alive. Just think of the constant renewal of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Do you, my reader, know exactly how Tolkien’s classic has managed to survive since the day of its publication back in 1954-55? Could this rich trilogy ever disappear? Surely, this catastrophe is unthinkable for its many fans but it seems to me that at this odd jointure in the history of culture its future is impossible to predict.

As one of the children lucky to attend a cinema screening of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977, the one now known as Episode IV: A New Hope, I find myself often thinking about how exactly texts are passed on. (By the way, I’ll take the chance here to make the happy announcement of a forthcoming conference on Star Wars and Ideology at the Universidad Complutense for April 2018. Finally!!). You might think that something as gigantic as George Lucas’s brainchild, now a Disney brand, has a life of its own. Actually, this is not the case at all. To begin with, when the first film was released, the producers and the director were absolutely sceptical about its success. So was the manufacturer in charge of selling the corresponding toys, to the point that many children who loved the film received that Christmas 1977 not an actual doll (soon sold out) but a sort of i.o.u., promising their future delivery. Today it seems as if everyone knew about how the merchandising would keep the saga alive but this is just an illusion.

I visited a few months ago an exhibition of Star Wars toys at Barcelona’s Illa Diagonal (the shopping centre) and I paid close attention to the children. Some were very young, around six, and already familiar with most of the characters there represented. Their parents, clearly, had placed them before the TV screen as soon as possible to share the corresponding DVDs of the saga with them; most likely, they had also shared with them their own merchandising products and bought new items. This type of generational transmission, from parent to child, must be the most habitual one. The children I saw seemed eager, none was dragging their feet after an embarrassingly enthusiastic parent, all were smiling and wide-eyed, and so were the adults. I assume that many parents fail to transmit their love of Star Wars (or any other beloved text) to their children but, then, the failed cases were not attending the exhibition. I’m sure that the frustration must be terrible in those cases…

I wondered, however, what happens to children whose parents are not keen at all on Star Wars (or that do not have a special favourite text to enthuse about). I know very well that elder siblings, cousins (either older or not), and aunts and uncles (rather than grandparents) play major roles in this generational transmission, still totally under-researched. At least, my impression is that Reception Studies tends to focus on the interaction between consumer and text, not caring too much about how consumers actually access texts. Anyway: there are five children in my family (four girls, one boy) and we, my husband and I, have failed miserably to instil in them a love of Star Wars. They’re just not interested and find our own interest a bit peculiar (“the problem with being a nerd,” one of my nieces sentenced, “is that you feel under the obligation of being a nerd and doing nerdish things”–this was when she declined seeing Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens despite our insistence…). Intent on enticing at least our youngest niece, and seeing how useful the new girl hero in this film, Rey, could be, we launched a relentless campaign… To no avail. Then, suddenly, one day she announced that she was ready to see the saga and, so, we started with Episode IV. It has not worked (or not yet) because she herself has decided that she is too young (she’s 8) to make sense of the plot.

We still have hopes that she’ll turn to the light side of the Force but in the meantime I have decided to learn from her how little kids get acquainted with famous texts, such as, well, Star Wars, in the event of there being no adult pointing the way to them. I hear you groan: playground talk, it’s all it takes. Yes and no. Obviously, basing any conclusions on the experience of one single child is bad research but at least I have learned a few new things (to share with you). Here they are:

1) If my niece regards herself as too young to understand the saga, this means that many parents ‘force’ their children to consume texts for which they are not quite ready. It is not normal for an 8-year-old to claim, as one of my niece’s classmates told her, that Rogue One (the prequel) is her favourite film. This is an excellent adventure film but also quite a dark story of heroic sacrifice, and if this little girl saw it this is because an adult disregarded how she would react to the bleak plot. Yes, I’m a bit scandalized… children are sensitive and impressionable…

2) The transmission of the text values among children is done through direct comment and, indeed, through the toys. On the school bus, in the school playground, at the home of other kids. The toy or any other items connected with the text in question (stationery, bags, clothing…) elicit curiosity, which leads to questions: what is this?, who are they? At this very early age, children’s comments on the films are limited in criticism (the films are just ‘cool’) and include, rather, plot summary or scene descriptions. Often of shocking moments.

3) In this regard, I was surprised to find out that our focus on Rey was a bit misguided. My husband and I assumed that, just as little boys could identify with Luke Skywalker and hence enter into the spirit of the saga, Rey would have the same function for my little niece. She loved the ‘idea’ of Rey but was terrified by her confrontation with Kylo Ren using laser sabres (this is the clip we showed to her). The idea of a laser sabre toy is very attractive to her, but, paradoxically, not the terrible potential of this weapon in the films. In contrast, she explained that she had asked us to see the first film because she is very curious about Darth Vader’s death and his connection with Luke. Yes: we believe that spoilers are always negative but it turns out that sometimes they are the greatest enticement. A classmate told her about Luke’s fearful father… and she is puzzled about Vader’s person. My hope is that her curiosity keeps her interest alive and will eventually result in her seeing the three first films. At least.

4) A major lesson to learn is that children can make extremely clear judgements from a very early age about what they like. Not so much about why, logically. I keep on asking my nieces about their preferences and this is always a wonderful lesson for me. They, however, find explaining themselves quite a difficult exercise: they’re flattered about my interest, but also concerned that I may find their answers too basic (poor things!). Another obvious lesson is that textual transmission works much, much better if you (the adult) avoid forcing the text on the child. “I’m going to take you to see a film you will love” doesn’t work as well as “I’m going to see this amazing film, would you like to come with me?” In the first case, the child can even get a bit suspicious (“um… why do you want me to see this movie in particular?”), whereas in the second case, a better kind of complicity is built around the text. Sometimes it works the other way round: in the last year, my office has got a new set of tsum-tsum Disney characters, and some Trolls dolls… And my husband can’t stop watching Gumball

So, yes, basically you need the patience of an advanced Jedi knight/dame to bring a child to the light side of the Force but, here’s the lesson, you’re not alone. Other persons, particularly in the child’s own circle, are also participating in the constant renewal of the saga. If nothing works, then, this is it: you gain no padawan. But then, you can still enjoy the company of many other Star Wars fans all over the world. Some comfort!

Although at the time I was not aware that this would be a crucial memory in my life as a film spectator, I thank now George Lucas for the unforgettable sight of the Imperial cruiser crossing the screen at the beginning of Episode IV, 40 years ago. I was 11, remember? The Harry Potter generation also enjoyed 20 years ago (how time flies!) that ‘wow’ moment that defines a whole cohort when Harry got that letter from Hogwarts, also aged 11. But, what about the children of 2017? I sometimes worry that they’re trapped in the stories meant for other generations, as the machinery of cultural production stagnates. It’s wonderful to see how our own texts last but, surely, today’s children also deserve their own moment of wonder. And, then, we’ll learn from them.

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The illustration by Nick Hardcastle showing “the first historically accurate illustration of Mr Darcy (…) based on research commissioned by channel Drama to celebrate Jane Austen Season” has run like burning powder through my Department colleagues’ email. “Key findings”, we are told, “include Mr Darcy’s sloping shoulders, powdered white hair, a long nose, pointy chin and pale complexion” ( Once you consider Darcy’s new fancy mug shot, you may next read the article on which this is based, by Professors John Sutherland and Amanda Vickery ( It is called “The Real Mr Darcy: A Dramatic Re-Appraisal”, and it offers a quite amusing description of what a most desirable man must have looked like… either in 1790s when Austen wrote her novel or in 1813 when it was published, a mere 20 years apart, with Romanticism in the middle. Very accurate.

As you can see, I find the idea of portraying the ‘real’ Darcy absolute nonsense, as, to begin with, Darcy is a fictional character. As I have recently complained, authors offer too little description (except Dickens), which makes our task as readers often quite annoying. In the case of men presented as sex symbols, like Darcy, this vagueness may be an advantage to writers, for Austen only needs to say that Darcy is “handsome” for each woman reader to supply an ideal image. Here’s how Darcy is actually presented (in Chapter III of Pride and Prejudice), in direct contrast, by the way, with his best friend: “Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. (…) his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year.” Two observations: not the man himself but his features are described as handsome, and Austen makes sure we get the point that Darcy’s handsomeness is much enhanced by his annual rent, in today’s currency, of 500,000£. The passage, however, continues, by noting that Darcy was much admired until “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud (…)”. Indisputably, Pride and Prejudice is the story of how Darcy’s physical handsomeness is only proven by his handsome rescue of brainless Lydia from her entanglement with Wickham.

Colin Firth, who played a very manly Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation, obviously embodied for a whole generation of Austen readers a fantasy of handsomeness, as, of course, did Laurence Olivier for the 1940s. In contrast, Matthew McFadyen did nothing for the role. You will see that the many press articles generated by Hardcastle’s illustration tend to compare it with a photo of Firth as Austen’s heartthrob. Now we know that Firth had to die his gingerish hair in a darker hue to comply with the ‘dark’ part of the standard ‘tall, dark, handsome’ description. He’s naturally tall, at 1.87 m. Having recently heard Jack Halberstam wonder why in heterosexual romance men must be very tall, I now find this matter of height quite droll. Are the 10 cms separating Tom Cruise (170) from Brad Pitt (180) so crucial? Going back to Austen, just let me point out what should be obvious: an illustration of one possible way in which Darcy could be represented in the mental theatre of the female readers of the 1810s is not an illustration of the ‘real’ Darcy but only one element in the ongoing history of how Darcy has been imagined throughout the years. Also, of the history of the representation of male beauty in fiction.

I keep on telling my students–I’m sure I have already mentioned this here–that I want to supervise a PhD dissertation on the use of the word ‘handsome’ in fiction, particularly by women but not only so. My moment of enlightenment came when reading Iain M. Banks’ science-fiction novel The Hydrogen Sonata. As I’m sure I have already narrated here, the female protagonist Vyr finds herself gradually falling in love with Beardle, the avatar of the powerful artificial intelligence, or Mind, that runs one of the colossal spaceships which comprise the executive arm of the utopian Culture. Guess how Beardle is described? He’s handsome. Vyr is absolutely chagrined when Beardle basically tells her she’s an idiot for feeling anything towards him, as he is not even human. I was also chagrined, for as a heterosexual female reader used to responding in this silly Pavlovian way to the word ‘handsome’, I had also fallen for Beardle. For Vyr the problem is that Beardle is not a real man. I happen to share her problem for, precisely, Beardle is a fictional construct. Not a real man. Much like Darcy.

There is a wonderful conversation about whether the use of ‘handsome’ is archaic in relation to women here: I will not go into this but let me just note that Sigourney Weaver is mentioned as a handsome woman, and Scarlett Johanson as a pretty one, though in my view she’s more handsome than pretty–attractive perhaps. Anyway, if we consider the difference between a ‘handsome man’ and a ‘pretty man’ (Douglas Booth, Elijah Wood), you begin to see that ‘handsome’ actually means ‘attractive in a manly way’. Therefore, what makes us, heterosexual female readers, respond to the adjective ‘handsome’ is the manliness embedded in it. Whether it is Darcy’s or Beardle’s.

A recent study indicated that woman’s favourite male physical feature is not, as it is often said, the eyes, or, as some have been insisting lately, a shapely butt, but, rather, a good pair of muscled arms. Why? Because when we think ‘manly’ we think ‘protective’ and little girls that we all are, we want to be embraced by manly men with bulky arms–tall ones, as daddy always is for little girls (there’s Electra for you, Jack Halberstam).

This is the main irritant in the new image created for Darcy: he’s lost the manly arms, the square shoulders we associate with him since Firth. Profs. Sutherland and Vickery explain that in Austen’s time “It was all about the legs. The six pack was unknown and square shouldered bulk was the mark of the navvy not the gentlemen. Chests were modest and shoulders sloping. Arm holes cut high and to the back rather pinioning the man within. The general effect was one of languid, graceful length not breadth. More ballet dancer than beef-cake”. What they’re missing is that not even ballet dancers, whether gay or not, look languid today. Also that contemporary heterosexual women do not care at all what was considered ideal for men back in the 1810s.

Reading recently my good friend Isabel Clúa’s new book Cuerpos de escándalo: Celebridad femenina en el fin-de-siècle, which deals with the Spanish female stars of the popular theatre, I was surprised by the photos. There was no way I could see beauty in Carolina Otero, internationally known as ‘la bella Otero’. Tórtola Valencia, on the other hand, seemed quite handsome to me–meaning that her beauty must have looked very odd in her time. I’m thus making again the well-known point that the appreciation of human beauty has a history. The problem, of course, is that it has usually focused on the representation of women, not of men. When I wrote the short essay “Entre Clooney y Pitt: El problema del deseo femenino heterosexual y lo sexy masculino” ( y Pitt Sara Martin.pdf) I had a very hard time finding sources that discuss male beauty as seen from women’s point of view. Even today, I’m not sure why the six-pack is an essential part of our ideal, though it’s been suggested that it connects manliness with discipline.

This lack of a history of male handsomeness, I am arguing, and of its representation in print and audiovisual fiction means that we lack the codes to read Hardcastle’s rendering of his ‘real’ Darcy but also to understand what is happening under our very noses. And this is quite interesting: let’s see who can convincingly explain why Brad Pitt, aged 53, is universally acknowledged as the most handsome man on Earth, a title he is keeping since 1991, when he seduced Thelma (Geena Davis) and the rest of the planet in Thelma & Louise. Recently, I went through as many lists I could find in IMDB of the hottest male actors active today, lists that ranged from men in their 70s to men in their teens, and, believe me, nobody could compare to Pitt. Chris Hemsworth came second but, like the rest, he lacked this something else that makes Pitt charismatic. Interestingly, Pitt’s status as male icon of beauty seems to have been unaffected by his ex-wife Angelina Jolie’s demolition of his image as ideal family man, whereas a similar icon of a similar age, Johnny Depp, is now facing decadence after a highly problematic divorce.

If I go into why Pitt is so handsome, despite the acne scarring of his face, I will never finish. For the sake of my argumentation, just let’s agree that nobody personifies better than him ideal masculinity today. Now think of two learned professors claiming in two hundred years time that in the fiction of 2010s Pitt is what handsome men looked like. Don’t even say the words Christian Grey and Jamie Dornan, please. Next, take any contemporary novel with a handsome man, thus described, and tell me what you see. Is it Pitt, our consensual ideal, or your own personal fantasy–perhaps based on someone you know?

What I’m saying is that not even in Austen’s time was handsomeness dominated by a single image. Today, when Pitt might be the equivalent of Hardcastle’s handsome man for our times, as in the past, the adjective ‘handsome’ is used by authors to trigger a certain psychological reaction in readers, not as a descriptor. A description would clarify that “Mr. Darcy was, at six feet, a very tall man. His impressive blue eyes were the best feature in a suitably pale countenance, dominated by an exquisite long nose, small mouth and gracefully pointed chin. His hair, naturally blonde, was hidden beneath an elegantly powdered wig.” There you are.

I can’t wait to write the following post about, how can I put it? secondary handsomeness. Think Paul Bettany…

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I keep on telling my students that I very much want to supervise research on the diminishing use of description in contemporary fiction but nobody is taking the hint–or they do, but then they panic thinking of the technical difficulties a dissertation would entail. So here is more bait, see if anyone bites…

I don’t seem to have addressed here before directly the matter of description, although it is one of my favourite bugbears as a reader. I have mentioned often, I believe, my habit of casting actors as the characters of the fiction I read, as I am increasingly desperate that authors are abandoning description. I always have, besides, serious problems to imagine space at a reasonable scale, which is why reading stage directions is always a nightmare for me (happily Shakespeare didn’t use them…); also, why reading space opera is such a challenge…

So, now and then, I test the waters and ask my students whether they pay attention to how they visualize as they read, hoping perhaps that someone will show me a trick I don’t know. I see that they’re keen to discuss this issue but I have never found a proper way to address it in class. I don’t see myself teaching an elective course on description, either; it sounds a bit weird even to me.

So, as I often do in class whenever the bugbear overpowers me, I’ll cite Dickens. Here’s a favourite Dickensian description, that of 11-year-old Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, in this scene asking Oliver himself, then wandering lonely and forlorn on the London road, what is the matter with him:

“The boy who addressed this inquiry to the young wayfarer, was about his own age: but one of the queerest looking boys that Oliver had even seen. He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough; and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see; but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man. He was short of his age: with rather bow-legs, and little, sharp, ugly eyes. His hat was stuck on the top of his head so lightly, that it threatened to fall off every moment—and would have done so, very often, if the wearer had not had a knack of every now and then giving his head a sudden twitch, which brought it back to its old place again. He wore a man’s coat, which reached nearly to his heels. He had turned the cuffs back, half-way up his arm, to get his hands out of the sleeves: apparently with the ultimate view of thrusting them into the pockets of his corduroy trousers; for there he kept them. He was, altogether, as roistering and swaggering a young gentleman as ever stood four feet six, or something less, in the bluchers.
‘Hullo, my covey! What’s the row?’ said this strange young gentleman to Oliver.”

The ‘strange young gentleman’ is rendered in a most vivid fashion, and as a reader I thank Dickens for helping me to activate my mental theatre in that efficient way. I do see and hear the Dodger, as I see and hear the rest of his characters.

Funnily, Dickens always published his fiction accompanied by illustrations (George Cruikshank produced 24 for Oliver Twist), which might even seem redundant in view of his florid descriptions. Illustration is today mostly confined to children’s literature though I see no reason why an adult should not enjoy it; at least I very much enjoyed recently the version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (is this YA?) illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell. I am, however, sadly ignorant of when and why illustration was abandoned in books for adults. Christopher Howse suggests that after peaking with Sidney Paget’s work for the Sherlock Holmes stories (in 1891 for Strand Magazine), “illustrations for adult books (until the quite separate development of graphic novels) sank into the weedy shallows of the pulp fiction market” ( In Norman Spinrad’s wickedly funny The Iron Dream (1972) budding artist Adolf Hitler never becomes the tyrant that terrorized the world but a second-rate pulp fiction illustrator getting a meagre living in California…

But I digress. I once heard Kazuo Ishiguro say that description has been diminishing in contemporary fiction because of the impact of cinema, as writers trust readers to supply their own images with just minimalist hints. I’m not sure, however, whether writers realize how annoying the job we have been entrusted with is. I am currently reading the sixteenth novel in the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian and I am still struggling to imagine his two protagonists with the clarity which Dickens provided for even his most minor characters. I know that Jack Aubrey has long blond hair and blue eyes, that he’s tall (but not how tall) and I learned yesterday that he’s verging on the obese as he weighs almost 17 stones (that’s 108 kilos). I know that his once handsome face and well-shaped body are now criss-crossed by a variety of scars after decades fighting the French and other assorted enemies. Yet I’m awfully frustrated that I don’t ‘see’ him as I ‘see’ the Artful Dodger. I checked Deviant Art and I found what I suspected: most illustrations are contaminated by the image of actor Russell Crowe in the film adaptation, Master and Commander. I tried to resist this by casting, following another reader’s suggestion, Chris Hemsworth as Jack (and Daniel Brühl rather than Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin). By the sixteenth volume, however, Jack is past forty and a very bulky man and, so, his face constantly shifts from Hemsworth’s to Crowe’s as I read, while I miserably fail to control my mental theatre. Ironically, if you know the lingo, O’Brian offers a brutal amount of information about any object that can be seen on Jack’s ships…

A student told me yesterday that she had tried the experiment of reading the same character description with a friend (in a contemporary novel). The results were completely different and she was wondering why this was so and whether, in the end, description really helps. She’s got a point, of course. Still, it does help to know that Harry Potter’s eyes are bright green (even though they’re blue in the films) and Voldemort’s red (green in the films…). Perhaps, in view of how much the adaptations have pleased readers, we might claim that Rowling and certainly J.R.R. Tolkien are powerful describers of place and character, no matter how different their post-Dickensian styles are (succinct in Rowling’s case, prolix in Tolkien’s). This is, I insist, a PhD dissertation waiting to be written.

The last time I found extremely detailed character descriptions in a novel this was in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (1991). The protagonist and narrator Patrick Bateman obsesses about what everyone is wearing, seeing people through the lenses of the brands they sport. This, of course, is Ellis’ ironic comment on 1980s avid consumerist society but I wonder to what extent this is also a critique of character description per se as old-fashioned and even in bad taste. Yes, I’m arguing that description has been progressively abandoned because writers find it a) distasteful, b) a drag to write, c) manipulative of readers’ reactions, d) to sum up, bad writing. You should check now whether poorly written fiction carries more description than the more ambitious variety–and here I have just recalled how prejudiced I am against the fiction produced by writers with MAs in Creative Writing precisely because it overdoes description. I mean, however, superfluous description of detail such as the colours of every single flower in a vase, rather than the (for me) necessary details that present the features of a character’s face and body.

As serendipity will have it, I read yesterday a delicious short story by Colombian writer Juan Alberto Conde, “Parra en la Holocubierta” (in Visiones 2015, He narrates the efforts of a team of specialists in ‘cognitive poetics’ to develop a device that allows readers to record what they imagine as they read. After audiobooks, here come holobooks… Conde very wittily suggests that if we could find a very proficient ‘imaginer’ of what writers describe, like his protagonist Parra, a whole new field of business would bloom around literature. If audiobooks allow adults to indulge in the childlike pleasure of having stories narrated to them, then holobooks appeal to our nostalgia for illustration.

Or, rather, they reveal the hidden truth about contemporary fiction: its reluctance to describe is leaving readers in need of visual interpreters, whether they are film adapters or… holobook readers. And then they say that science-fiction is mere escapism…

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