Christmas Music to Write By – A Scandinavian Playlist

Because it’s almost Christmas, and because it’s been a while since I’ve posted some Nordic music on my blog, I thought I’d put together a short little Scandinavian Christmas playlist. Enjoy!

 

Sissel Kyrkjebø – “O Helga Natt” – Norway

 

Frostrósir – “Fegurð Heimsins” – Iceland

 

Tarja Turunen – “Maa On Niin Kaunis” – Finland

 

Secret Garden – “Fionnuala’s Cookie Jar” – Norway (and Ireland)

 

God Jul, Hyvää Joulua, and Merry Christmas!

Sequels: Realism vs Entertainment

So I recently read that a sequel to Frozen is in the works. No surprise there. The movie has made gazillions of dollars, the already-famous Idina Menzel is now popular among six-year-olds, and it’s cool to like warm hugs. I don’t think a title or plot summary has been released yet, so here is my take on what Frozen 2 should be:

Frozen 2: Do You Want to go to Therapy?

High up on the North Mountain, Queen Elsa’s ice palace, now left untended, melts in the summertime sun. Avalanches and floods ensue, ruining crops and endangering Arendell. Elsa, however, is unable to stop it because she’s too busy wrestling with inner demons and the long-repressed anger at her parents for teaching her to fear and hide. Princess Anna is left in charge, but in addition to saving the kingdom and trying to help Elsa help herself, she has to deal with her husband Kristoff’s sudden depression. Sven, the oversized reindeer who acts like a dog, finally dies at the unrealistically old age of 217 in human years, sending Kristoff into despair at losing his only life-long friend. In desperation, Anna is about ready to call in the scumbags Hans and the Duke of Wesleton for help when Olaf – who has miraculously not melted yet like Elsa’s ice palace – has a daring idea.

Dun-dun-duuuuh….

Not much of a kids’ movie, if you want a (sort of) realistic plot like this. Mind you, I’m not bashing Frozen. I loved the movie and would love to see a sequel. But Disney has a so-so track record with sequels. There are the mediocre follow-ups to all of their animated classics of the 1990s. And then there are the more recent and more successful story continuations like the four Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

So this got me thinking – what makes a good sequel? Is it more important to focus on being “realistic” – like Elsa and Anna having nervous breakdowns due to repressed childhoods and living with dangerous super-powers? Or is it more important to focus on sheer entertainment (that is, box office numbers) by having a funny, song-filled sequel about Norwegian royalty and magical snowmen?

I’m sure Disney will go with something closer to that second option – and rightly so. Because Disney knows their audience. (And their track record with sequels has improved a bit since The Return of Jafar.) That’s actually my point for this post, and the conclusion I came to when I pondered the question of what makes a good sequel.

Know your audience. It’s the same question to consider with any movie, novel, script, or short story that you’re writing. Who are you writing it for? And why are you writing it?

I’m all for writing a sequel – or turning a story into a series – because the audience loved the original story. Or because there’s more story to tell. This is both entertaining and realistic, and I think quite appropriate.

Side note: by “realistic,” I mean realistic within the rules of the world of the story. What is “realistic” or “logical” within the world of Frozen would not be at all appropriate in a Batman story, for example.

So when I think about a “realistic” sequel to a story, what I’m looking for is “what is the next logical occurrence for this plot that fits within the established rules of this world and is expected of these particular characters, based on their beliefs and actions thus far.”

What I don’t like is a sequel that has characters who have undergone a strange personality overhaul somewhere between story 1 and story 2 (like if a different writer and director do the second movie). Contrived plot devices also bug me – like, say, a character who returns from the dead without any sort of precedent for that in the previous story.

As an example, in the X-Men comic series, one expects the character of Jean Grey to die every so often, and then return again after a while, only to later die again (hence her title of Phoenix). This element of world building was established long ago, and so a plot thread featuring the death or resurrection of Jean Grey is “realistic.” This same idea would not work in the world of Middle-Earth, for example, because in Tolkien’s world building, his dead characters usually stay dead (with a few minor exceptions). A Middle-Earth story featuring the unexplained return of (insert dead character here) just because he/she is a cool character would, in my opinion, make for an “unrealistic” sequel.

Of course this is all my personal opinion, and of course there are exceptions to every point that I just laid out. But I do believe that consistency in world building is one of the most important elements, and I feel that the details of a richly-developed fantasy world should not be sacrificed just to capitalize on popularity or make big bucks.

Tell me your opinion? What sort of sequels do you like? Are there some stories that beg to have continual sequels made, or stories that should remain solo tales? What do you think Frozen 2 should be about? Please share!

When the Movie is Better than the Book

As a novel writer, I always feel a bit guilty when I like the film version of something better than the book. I feel like a traitor to my craft, almost, for daring to like a reimagining better than the sacred literary original.

But then I remember that movies are a valid storytelling medium – just like short stories, poetry, stage plays, and comic books. Even though my main focus right now is novel writing, I am first and foremost a lover of stories. And sometimes, the movie version really tells a better story than the book.

Take for example The Wizard of Oz. I grew up watching the movie every time it came on network TV (as did everyone in my generation and older, probably). I was overjoyed when VCRs became commonplace (remember those?) and The Wizard of Oz was released on video tape.

I can quote basically the whole movie, I know all the songs, I’ve tried dancing like the Scarecrow (not as easy as it looks), and I’d still like to have a pet flying monkey or maybe a Horse of a Different Color. I’m also a big fan of some of the “prequel” stories – the Disney movie Oz the Great and Powerful, and the musical Wicked. But up until now, I’d never read the original book that started it all.

When I started reading Baum’s first Oz book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I knew that my perceptions of the story would be colored by the 1939 movie and everything that came from that (see the aforementioned Oz and Wicked). But I set my expectations aside and purposefully selected an ebook version of the original 1899 edition that had all of the original illustrations, so that I wouldn’t be seeing Judy Garland on every other page.

Sticklers for the “original book version” of a story likely disapprove of The Wizard of Oz movie, because it was nothing like the book. A few glaring differences (besides the obvious lack of song and dance routines in the book) would be:

  • The gentle Tin Man is devoted to Dorothy and his friends, but lacking a heart, he is thoughtlessly violent and slaughters great numbers of creatures of all sorts if they even appear to be hindering Dorothy’s quest. (Rather ghastly for a children’s book, in my mind).
  • The Wicked Witch of the West is a feeble old crone who is terrified of both Dorothy and the Lion. She is also not green (reducing Margaret Hamilton’s character back to only Elmira Gulch, and negating about half of the songs in Wicked).
  • On that note, Miss Gulch is not in the book, nor are the loveable farmhands or Professor Marvel. Dorothy does not dream of going to Oz – she really does get sucked up in a cyclone, along with the house. Poor Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – childless and homeless all in one day!
  • The shoes are silver, not ruby. The Good Witch of the North sends Dorothy on her way, while Glinda (the Good Witch of the South) doesn’t appear until the very end.

Before I continue, please note that I am not complaining or giving a negative review of the book. My intention here is to illustrate the dramatic differences between this book and the movie sensation it spawned, and why I think the movie told a better story.

From a storytelling perspective, the script writers for the film told a more cohesive, believable story. Here are a few writing techniques that I think the film achieved better than the book:

  • Cutting or combining minor characters – such as using the single character of Glinda to perform the acts done by both of the Good Witches in the book.
  • Dorothy’s desire to return home was very believable in the film, due to the amount of time spent on developing the world of the Kansas farm and the people in her life. In the book, Dorothy dislikes Kansas and seems to show little fondness for her aunt and uncle. While it’s understandable that she would want to return to the familiar, her intense desire to leave Oz just as soon as she arrives seems forced.
  • A clear antagonist. In the film, Dorothy’s enemy Elmira Gulch becomes her enemy in Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West makes repeated appearances and actively tries to interfere with their quest. Her main goal as an antagonist is to get the shoes that Glinda gave to Dorothy. In the book, the Wicked Witch doesn’t appear until near the end; and while she does capture Dorothy and tries to get her to take off the shoes, the entire Dorothy-is-captured-and-her-friends-rescue-her sequence is very anti-climactic in the book.
  • The use of plot devices. The shoes belonging to the late Wicked Witch of the East are a much bigger deal in the film than in the book, and to a much better effect, I feel. Glinda gives them to Dorothy with the instructions to never let the Witch of the West have them, because the shoes are talismans of great magic. The shoes become one of the major features of the plot. In the book, the Witch of the North (that extra character who is not Glinda) basically tosses the shoes Dorothy’s way with a remark to the effect of “well, she’s dead so you can have them if you want.” (Paraphrasing here. This is not verbatim what Baum wrote).
  • Also, the Wicked Witch of the West’s iconic broom is not in the book. (This would mean no dramatic “Surrender, Dorothy” skywriting in the movie, and no “Defying Gravity” song in the Wicked musical.) But that aside, the broom becomes a plot point much like the shoes. It not only represents evil magic (as the shoes represent good magic), but it serves as the token by which Dorothy and company prove their worth to the Wizard. After the melting of the Wicked Witch in the book, they return to the Emerald City with a “by the way, she’s dead, and you’ll just have to take our word for it.” (Paraphrasing here again.) In the film, the broomstick is a tangible indicator that the protagonists are worthy of not only being the main characters, but actually being the heroes, too.

Again, I am not trying to say anything bad about the original. Baum wrote a book that at the time was unlike anything seen before, and he created a rich fantasy world. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an instant success, and Baum wrote many other Oz books because of it (which I am currently working my way through). This strange little story – grisly, anti-climactic, and full of modern storytelling no-no’s – grew into an important part of our culture, and the world of Oz has endured for over 100 years.

I have nothing but respect and appreciation for what Baum wrote. But I am also grateful to everyone at MGM in the 1930s for pulling the best elements out of this book and turning it into not only a visual and musical spectacle, but a stronger and more memorable story. So in this case, I am not ashamed to say that the movie was better than the book. May we all aspire to have our stories get better with the re-telling.