Thursday, June 27, 2013

World War Z... a perfectly good zombie movie, which I would have liked had I not met its much smarter cousin, the book it was supposedly based upon.

I've figured out the problem.  I'm not so terribly against movies that aren't faithful replicas of their books.  I realize that you're driving at a different audience and you have time constraints and you need a little tighter plotting with a movie.  When a movie isn't 100% faithful to its book, I'm not usually all that bothered.  Unless, I just read the book.  Then it's like a slap in the face.  If I read World War Z a couple of years ago and then saw the movie this weekend, I probably would have happily accepted the movie for what it is - an exciting, entertaining zombie flick catering to the masses who are dying to see a great action movie this summer.  The zombies are acceptably scary.  Brad Pitt makes a good, quick-thinking hero.  There are lots of those tension-filled moments when you have to look at the screen through your fingers because you know a scary zombie is about to drop in "unexpectedly."  It's a good movie, but having finished the book just this month, I set myself up for all kinds of disappointment.

This is why I no longer wish to be that person who reads a book in preparation for the movie's debut.  It serves me poorly.  I would be better off in most cases not reading the book at all before its movie comes out than to read it shortly before the movie becomes out.  Once the fog of forgetfulness sets in, and I'm happy to recognize a general resemblance between book and movie, I'm a forgiving viewer.  Before the fog of forgetfulness?  Then I'll just want my money back because they took a sort of "thinking person's" zombie book and turned it into a more or less run-of-the-mill zombie movie in comparison.  The two are so dissimilar with the book lurking in my recent memory that it practically seems that this movie was just stealing the name of a book for a recognition boost with little effort to re-create virtually any of the book's situations on film.  Admittedly, I guessed that World War Z would be a tough book to take to the big screen, but it's almost like they didn't even try.

Happily, the one great effect of this going to see movie World War Z is that it actually made me appreciate book World War Z much more.  I finished it earlier this month and found it to be a good read, but I didn't realize just how much I was captivated by it until strikingly little of it was to be found in the movie.

Told in the style of an oral history, Max Brooks' World War Z tells the story of the zombie wars from the early days when the zombie infection is just starting to take hold, through the Great Panic when it seemed that humanity stood little chance of surviving the hungry undead, to the eventual battlefronts as humanity makes a stand against an enemy almost too dead to kill.  As Brooks "interviews" many of its survivors, the zombie war and its global implications take shape to dramatic effect.  Brooks' novel is not an action/adventure thrill ride, rather it is a bizarrely thoughtful and thorough exploration of the unexpected toll the zombie apocalypse takes on an unsuspecting world and the many ways it shapes the planet's future long after the zombie plague has been taken in hand.  Brooks leaves no stone unturned exploring the psyches of a soldier in a failed publicity stunt of a battle against zombies in Yonkers, a twisted capitalist who invented and marketed a worthless vaccine, the man who re-united Russia into a newly formed religious state, the supposedly "heartless" man whose cold and calculated plan is the only one that can save South Africa from total zombie takeover.  Out of Brooks' many encounters with survivors from around the globe emerges a painstakingly creative, comprehensive and believable tale about a world that looked a lot like ours that was ill-prepared to combat  a threat that's never been seen before, a world where humans are hunted almost to the verge of extinction, and a world where those humans ultimately have to find a way and the fighting spirit to adapt and conquer the terror of the undead.

Truly, World War Z is a thinking man's zombie novel, a novel that can easily satisfy your inner zombie nerd and your inner international relations dork at the very same time.  If you want a story that makes you think about life, the world, the future (uh, with or without zombies), and everything, read World War Z.  If you're more in the market for an action-packed thrill ride with a sympathetic hero who will stop at nothing to save the world and his family from zombie apocalypse, watch World War Z.  Ah, but to enjoy both, this might just be one of those rare occasions where you would be better served watching the movie first and enjoying it on its own terms before you tackle the much (much!!) more thorough and compelling book.

Did you read the book?  See the movie?  Both?  What did you think?

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Shakespeare Saved My Life by Laura Bates

It's that time of year again.  Actually, it hasn't been this time of year for quite some time, but I've missed it.  I'm speaking, of course, about the springtime, when I, for some reason, love to read a good prison memoir.  Shakespeare Saved My Life is just one link in a chain of very excellent prison-driven stories that tend to find their way into my hands in April/May, like Picking Cotton and Orange is the New Black.  There's just something about the prison system that proves to be fascinating to me, so when an e-mail landed in my box offering me this memoir of a college professor's time taking Shakespeare into maximum security solitary confinement, I knew I was read to "return to prison."

Dr. Laura Bates, professor of English at Indiana State University, once thought prisoners in long-term solitary confinement were beyond rehabilitation.  She thought education in prisons should focus on first-time offenders, those more likely to return to society and change their ways as a result of what they'd learned.  That all changed when she finally succeeded in opening the doors to the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility's Solitary Housing Unit (SHU), where she came face to face with some of the most dangerous of inmates and determined to teach them Shakespeare.

Bates went into SHU not knowing what to expect, and emerged with an unlikely group of Shakespeare scholars with a decidedly unique perspective, not the least of which is Larry Newton, a convicted murderer serving out a life sentence whose several escape attempts keep him from even joining the group that Bates was able to convene in SHU. Bates quickly realizes Newton's gift for unpacking Shakespeare's meaning and taps his thoughts to produce workbooks for other prisoners and even her university students. This work is life-altering for both Newton and the many students whose Shakespeare discussions cause them to look at their lives and their incarceration with new eyes.

I have mixed feelings about Shakespeare Saved My Life.  Considering the fact that it is a book about the remarkable insights even a very uneducated prisoner can bring to Shakespeare, its style seemed almost patronizing to me, as it might to its other non-incarcerated, more educated readers.  The chapters are very short, and the writing style is very uncomplicated.  There's a bit too much telling mixed in with the showing.  Telling me outright why education is valuable to and should be given to prisoners is not necessary if you do a good job of showing me, which Bates certainly does.  Likewise, Bates need not go on explicitly extolling what an insightful Shakespeare scholar Larry Newton is when she's already done a fine job of revealing through his speech and his writing how very able he is to decode Shakespeare and introduce the Bard to his fellow inmates.  Bates seems to push a little too hard, and at times, the belaboring of her points felt condescending, which is bizarrely incongruous with a woman who so successfully brought Shakespeare into what should have been a very hostile environment. 

Despite my confusion over the writing style, I found the content of Bates' memoir to be fascinating.  I struggled with Shakespeare through high school, and even after college struggled to draw meaning from Hamlet without the help of a commentary.  Even now I hesitate to wade any further into Shakespeare's work because I fear that so much of its meaning would elude me, and I doubt my feelings are unique among a good percentage of the population.  This makes it that much more impressive that not only did Bates find a collection of willing students in supermax, but she also found a group who actively engaged with Shakespeare's work and discovered that much of its meaning could relate to their lives.  Bates' experiences are a powerful testament as to why education should be available in prison, despite many arguments against it, some of which were yet echoing in my mind even as they were about to be ably disproved.  As Shakespeare's work speaks to prisoners who are supposed to be beyond rehabilitation, Bates shows that their lives are changed, and so, to her surprise, is her own.

(Thanks to the publisher, Sourcebooks, for providing me with a copy for review.)