I wrote this little yarn a couple of months ago during one of the weekly Wine and Words nights I frequent at the Melbourne Young Writer's Studio. It's not much more than a bit of fun, but I quite like it. Hope you do too.
Disclaimer: while I can't imagine anyone would bother reading this were they not familiar with the series in question, I decided to forego spoiling anything and talk more generally about what the experience of reading this behemoth was like and how I felt in the end. So if you're unsure about reading the series, feel free to take this as my de-facto, spoiler free review of the whole thing.
About a year and a half ago I decided to read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. This in and of itself is not remarkable; people, after all, pick up new books every day, but it certainly felt significant. I’d been aware of The Wheel of Time ever since asking one of my Dad’s staff members when I was thirteen what the absurdly big book with the embarrassingly campy cover was, and then hearing from various friends here and there about their attempts to tackle the behemoth. In the back of my mind Wheel of Time took on an almost legendary status, something that I might one day have a run at but probably never would. Lest this sound hyperbolic, my reason for viewing it as somehow more significant than your average fantasy was simple; it’s just so goddamn big.
There are fourteen books (fifteen if you count the prequel novella New Spring) and each one is roughly the size of a cinderblock. In totality the series encompasses thousands of pages, millions of words and a seemingly exponential cast of characters; every time you think you have a handle on who’s who Robert Jordan will introduce twenty more strangely named supporting players, some of whom might be significant but most of whom probably aren’t.
In many ways scope is what makes Wheel of Time special. My theory is that if Lord of the Rings established high fantasy then The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire represent the two potential paths Tolkien influenced writers can take; George R.R. Martin went for the revisionist angle while Robert Jordan chose to build on the foundations Tolkien established. This has the effect of making the series in many ways generic. It’s pretty much the quintessential ‘heroes journey’ narrative, based around a chosen one fated to save the world from a dark lord. In a nutshell the story isn’t especially different from Harry Potter or Star Wars, but what makes Wheel of Time more than just another Tolkien knock-off is the fact that, which so much material, you can’t help but become more and more absorbed with the world the deeper you get. By the end of the series you know these characters intimately and the pay offs (when they come) are in part so satisfying because you’ve been through so much to get to them.
But the size of the series is also its greatest weakness and the reason so many people either never finish these books or never bother starting. It’s a huge commitment and knowing what I was in for didn’t exactly prepare me for some of the rougher patches in the storytelling.
I started the series because I wanted to get lost in something epic, and while I enjoyed it from the beginning I wasn’t exactly head over heels in love with it. I averaged roughly a book a month; I tend to be a pretty fast reader but I mainly read Wheel of Time on public transport and wasn’t gripped enough by the story to burn through pages in my spare time. Don’t get me wrong; those first six books had plenty of moments where I was as riveted as I’ve ever been by anything, but for the most part they chugged along at a relatively steady pace. There was great stuff happening but there were also tedious subplots that, luckily, didn’t take up that much page space. I figured that was just the trade-off of a series like this; not every character can have mind blowing adventures, and ultimately the interesting stuff was good enough to keep me engaged.
But, very slowly, that balance tipped. Over the course of books seven to ten things seemed to gradually grind to a halt. Sure, there were some significant events in there, but they seemed to be buried in endless turgid and repetitive garbage about unimportant side characters and boring inter-nation politics. By the time I got to book ten, in which Robert Jordan apparently felt that rather than advance the narrative we simply had to experience the game changing climax of book nine from the perspectives of every character not present for it, I was just about done. That book took me five months to wade through and with every page I found myself resenting Jordan more and more. Apart from a valuable lesson in storytelling (don’t make your audience sit through things they don’t need to) I couldn’t think of a single decent reason why this series was still worth my time. I complained to anyone who would listen about the garbage book I was still lugging around everywhere with me and in response I got either a series of glazed eyes or smug ‘I told you sos’.
Maybe in part due to a fallacy of sunk costs, I persisted. But by this point something had happened that it’s hard to come back from; I’d lost faith in Robert Jordan. I was no longer willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when reading any scene that was in the slightest bit slow and I found myself getting angry at his endlessly repeated turns of phrase (“he dry washed his hands”, “she crossed her arms beneath her breasts”, “a slat ribbed dog ran past”) or his, shall we say, writerly foibles (endless magical rituals that require the female characters to get naked in vivid detail). Eleven books deep, Jordan had outstayed his welcome for me, and while the pace did pick up nicely in book eleven, I was still telling anybody who asked that starting this series had been a mistake.
But, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it was more one of curiosity. As I’m assuming anybody reading this knows, Robert Jordan died in 2007, leaving behind a bunch of unfinished material for a planned twelfth and final book. Enter fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, who developed Jordan’s notes into three more books which conclude the series. A lot of people had told me the Sanderson books were an improvement; potentially a sacrilegious sentiment but then, you try feeling especially reverent towards Robert Jordan after Crossroads of Twilight.
And ultimately I guess the proof is in the pudding. I burned through the three Sanderson books, all of which are big even by Wheel of Time standards, in a month; the same time it used to take me to get through one Jordan book. I took whole days to just lie on the couch or sit at the pub and read page after page. From the start of The Gathering Storm to the end of A Memory of Light there was barely a moment where the momentum lagged. How Jordan intended to fit all of that plot into a single volume was beyond me.
I can’t really tell how much of this improvement was Sanderson’s doing and how much was down to the fact that Jordan had simply reached the point in his story where all of those meticulously planted seeds had to start bearing fruit. Those three final books are essentially a succession of payoffs and resolutions; there are, shockingly, even times when they feel a little rushed, but then after so much set up it’s almost impossible for these pay offs to not feel momentous.
Naturally it’s hard not to wonder which plot points were dictated by Jordan and which were Sanderson’s ideas, and likewise it’s impossible not to consider how those books would have looked had Jordan lived to write them, but for the most part it’s a pretty smooth transition. Sanderson has gone on record saying he didn’t want to imitate Jordan’s style and I think that was the best approach to an impossible task. An attempt to emulate a voice that wasn’t his own probably would have been more distracting. That said, some of the big moments did ring just the tiniest bit hollow. I can’t be sure if this is due to just knowing that they weren’t written by the man who created this story or if Sanderson couldn’t quite make the resolutions land in a story that wasn’t his own, but I do think it’s a minor issue and most of the occasionally devastating final book hits just as hard as I could have hoped. Sanderson’s prose was, in general, easier to read than Jordan’s, but I think inevitably something was lost in the fact that, for better or worse, the books were so tied to Jordan’s voice and worldview that someone else finishing his magnum opus was never going to feel 100% right. But it’s hard to complain when a series takes you on the kind of roller coaster ride those last three books did and in the end I put down that final novel with a powerful sense of satisfaction and a big smile on my face. You can’t really ask much more than that.
So, in the end, how did I feel about The Wheel of Time? Was it worth it? The answer is yes, with qualifications. I do believe the series probably could have been about half the length, but then there’s a strong argument to be made that the scope was what made the ending feel as significant as it did. Maybe the series wouldn’t have found the same hallowed status if it didn’t require such a huge time commitment from people and maybe in part that commitment is why people (myself included) feel so attached to these books. But my instinct is that if the series was inherently unsatisfying or fell short dramatically then no amount of sunk costs will change how you feel about it. I won’t lie and say that the series was easy to get through; at times it seemed to be actively dissuading me from continuing, but reaching a point where I could watch these characters I now know so well fulfilling their destinies was well and truly worth the wait. There is absolutely a sense of loss side by side with the sense of satisfaction I now feel, and I think it will probably be a little while before I pick up another series. The Wheel of Time is yet to fully sink in for me.
In the end though, I think it’s the characters I’ll take with me. Rand and his struggle to be a symbol, a saviour and a human being all at once. Egwene and her refusal to yield, her determination to do what had to be done to save a world literally coming apart at the seams. Lan and his slow realisation that he needs to let go of his rage and hate in order to be the person the world needs him to be. Perrin and the constant clash between his desire to be a simple blacksmith and the path to greatness that has been laid out in front of him. Mat, accidently stumbling from being a petulant nuisance to legendary general and yet somehow not changing all that much in the process. Siuan, who lost everything that made her who she was and still got up to continue the fight. And all the rest; Nynaeve, Moiraine, Thom, and the whole cast of thousands who after all this time it’s hard not to feel a huge amount of warmth and fondness towards.
It took me a year and a half to get through this epic. I read other things in that time, but so much of this most recent period of my life will forever feel linked to The Wheel of Time and for that alone I can already tell that this series will have a special place for me going forward. That said, my recommendation that others should take this plunge comes with caveats; you will have to get through some bullshit and it will take a long time and you’re probably going to hate Robert Jordan at points. But in the end, you will walk away with the feeling that you have been on a very long, complicated and ultimately worthwhile journey, one with ups and downs, with moments worth celebrating and moments better off forgotten. Before the rough patches I would have said I liked The Wheel of Time. Coming out the other side of them to reach a phenomenal ending, I can say I love this series in a way I doubt I would have had it just been six pretty good fantasy novels. Reaching the end was a challenge, and that made getting there that much sweeter. And the prospect of finally saying goodbye to this world and characters that much more painful.
In short? I regret nothing.
A couple of months ago my Movie Maintenance compatriot Carney came to me with an idea. Basically, joining forces with our other colleagues Drobb and Handsome Tom we would write an anthology of horror novellas. Each one of our stories would be based around a different season, we’d spend the next few months writing and editing them then self-publish the book in time for a Halloween release. Looking down the barrel of enough projects that I was already feeling like I was drowning, I said yes to the idea but didn’t initially give it a ton of thought.
I vaguely knew the story I wanted to write; one about a couple of backpackers who stumble on a secluded town in the Australian wilderness only to find they can’t leave and the locals are a little rougher than your standard Aussie larrikins. It’s somewhere between Wake in Fright and Wolf Creek with thematic similarities to the plays The Golden Age and When The Rain Stops Falling. The concept had been kicking around in my head for a while, but I only started planning and writing in earnest a couple of days ago and now I’m really excited.
I’ve never really written outright horror before. To be honest I’m not even sure if this counts. I know the others are angling for more supernatural stories, but mine is going to be a down and dirty, brutally violent, sickening satire about some kids who go looking for the real Australia and get way more than they bargained for. It probably veers closer to a thriller than actual horror, but I’m pretty sure if I do my job right you might get a sleepless night or two out of this story. Above all, I want it to feel somewhat credible; there are plenty of urban legends out there about Australian towns you should never go to and this is a way for me to explore the notion without, y’know, actually subjecting myself to any danger. Plus (not to get too political) I feel like in the age of Reclaim Australia and Pauline Hanson shrieking away on the news there’s probably something depressingly relevant about what this story has to say.
But I don’t want it to feel preachy. I want it to have you on the edge of your seat; a visceral, nasty thrill ride unlike anything I’ve written before and hopefully unlike too much I’m going to write in the distant future. It’ll be called Sunburnt Country and at the rate I’m going I think a first draft will be done soon.
All that said, this will only be one part of a bigger work I can’t wait for people to read, a collaborative effort combining four very different creative voices in an effort to make you really, really afraid. So yeah, get excited. Or get scared. Either way, get ready.
So as I’ve gone on record as stating, 2017 has been a bit of a busy time for me. These past few months have involved a deluge of creative projects, but the grounding one has been my ongoing hosting of Movie Maintenance. And just to add more to an already hectic slate, we recently went and launched two spinoff podcasts.
One of them, Movie Maintenance AGM, is a subscriber only pop culture talk show, which pretty much involves Tom, Carney and myself sitting around shooting the breeze about recent events, but the other has proved rather more challenging. Movie Maintenance Presents was conceived as a series of monthly radio plays, at least initially a way to immortalise some of our Bitten By Productions shows with the theory being that down the line we’ll start producing episodes specifically written to be radio plays, bringing out one new story every month.
Yeah, look, I might have been a little over-ambitious there.
As it turns out, radio plays are hard work. Firstly you have to convene a whole cast, then get a solid recording without any flubbed lines or sound interference, then there is the editing, which requires adjustments to the raw recording plus the adding of sound effects and music and many other things way beyond my understanding. When the first cut of Springsteen was turned around in a week I figured a monthly release schedule would be a breeze to meet. That was before the production of Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter.
As a play, Dracula was very visual, with a violent, action packed climax that required several sessions with a fight choreographer to get right. Translating that to a radio play proved difficult. The initial recording already presented challenges in how to capture the final fight, and listening to the first cut of the radio play illustrated that we decisively did not nail it. What was shocking and powerful on stage was just a confusing succession of yelling and biting sounds in the audio-only format.
Add this issue to the fact that the play required a lot more in the way of editing than the predominantly dialogue driven Springsteen did, and we soon passed the proposed release date with no real indication of when this thing would be ready. People on the Sanspants Plus forums and Twitter were wondering when the next play was coming, and I didn’t have an answer. Even once Dracula was finished, was there any guarantee we could get the next play together in a month?
Getting episodes of Movie Maintenance Presents out monthly is important, but producing quality content in that time is challenging. With currently a single editor doing the hard yards of actually stitching the radio plays together, and only a finite number of scripts that are a) in a good enough state and b) suitable for radio, the prospect of a new play every month starts to look less challenging and more impossible.
But, almost by accident, we seem to have stumbled on a solution. When Damian Robb (Drobb) suggested he wanted to record a couple of his short stories for his website and the brilliant Greg Caine went and recorded a full audiobook of Dracula writer Sean Carney’s sequel novella Where The Captain Goes, a new notion dawned on us. After all, the title ‘Movie Maintenance Presents’ doesn’t necessarily imply only radio plays. Essentially, this new podcast is a means for us to get our own work out there to a wider audience, using Movie Maintenance as a platform, and as writers our own work is not just theatre.
Personally I think that radio plays are the lifeblood of Movie Maintenance Presents; what’s special about this show is offering full scale audio dramas with special effects and a cast of professional actors, but that’s not to say that we couldn’t apply the same basic principles to a reading of a novella or a short story. Where The Captain Goes, already a heartrending and gripping story, sounds amazing with an undercurrent of music complementing Greg’s excellent reading. Hearing it made me immediately jealous and I ended up getting Greg to record my short story The Wall with a view to it being another episode of the show down the line (before I listened to it and realised it was way too dark for Sanspants Radio). The prospect of other stories of ours given this treatment is really exciting.
All that said, I’m determined to ensure that we don’t end up at a point where all we’re releasing are short stories. The reality is that a half an hour reading by one person is way easier to edit than a full cast audio drama, but they will only be every second or third episode; I never want to have two short story readings in a row. The radio plays need to be the focus.
The next four episodes are already recorded; we’re not a hundred percent sure what order they will come in yet, but at the moment it looks like next up will be Where The Captain Goes, followed by my play Regression, then Drobb’s short story The Fox’s Beard then Heroes, my most recent play. That brings us to November, and gives us plenty of time to work out what is next. I have a pretty large back catalogue of plays that can be repurposed, and we all have short stories and novellas floating around.
I know a few people have asked about us adapting some of our more popular Movie Maintenance Pitches into radio plays; legality aside, the truth is that the very reason I find Movie Maintenance Presents so exciting is that it provides a home for our original work. The parent show is an outlet for our fan fiction-y ideas, the spin off our more personal passion project. Granted this might limit the audience somewhat, but this show isn’t exactly designed to be a ratings-conqueror. Above all, it’s a place we can point people to show them what kind of writers we are, separated from the need to reinvent a pre-existing property. And if we’ve done our job right, it should be pretty entertaining at the same time.
A few months ago I wrote a short story called The Wall, essentially my attempt to explore what it would actually mean to have superpowers. It's probably one of the darkest things I've ever written, exploring some territory I'm in no rush to return to, but I'm pretty proud of it as a piece of writing.
Recently we've been looking at recording a bunch of short stories with music and special effects for our radio play series Movie Maintenance Presents, and in preparation for this I asked my friend Greg Caine, one of the best actors I know, to record The Wall. Greg, predictably, did an exemplary job, but listening back to the recording it struck me how heavy this story is; in my opinion too much so for a release through Sanspants Radio. As such I'm just going to release Greg's reading directly here for people to listen to. I hesitate to say I hope you enjoy it; I'm not sure you enjoy a story like this, but I do hope you like it.
At this point it’s probably safe to say that 2017 has been the busiest year of my life so far – and we’re not even halfway through yet.
A few months back I made the decision to no longer do any work that wasn’t in the field of writing. This was a bit of a dice roll as, while writing can be lucrative, it’s usually the exact opposite. Still, my assumption was that while I might be a little hard up financially, at least I would have more time.
Yeah look, it hasn’t exactly worked that way. I hit the ground running in January with the final rehearsals for Springsteen, and ever since then this year has been a non-stop marathon. We filmed and released Bogan Book Club, my first foray into a web series, we turned Springsteen into a very successful radio play (number 3 on the iTunes performing arts charts, not bad for another first crack at the medium), I returned to ‘acting’ for a bit part in my friend Sean Carney’s debut play Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter, which is also about to be released as a radio play, I was in another Sanspants Radio live show in Melbourne and two in Sydney, my play Heroes debuted to glowing reviews and is about to start touring the one act play circuit and the second Boone Shepard novel came out a day before it was announced that the first instalment was shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize.
For a long time now I’ve maintained that busy is better than bored, and I hold to that but looking back at the last few months it verges on absurd just how much I’ve done. It feels like Christmas was only a couple of weeks back, and here we are in June. And even now things are happening; I’ve spent the last week up in the country doing talks to schools about Boone Shepard and I have more coming up in the next couple of weeks. And while it’s awesome that anybody would even want me for something like that, I can’t help but feel like I need a bit of a break.
Just to give an indication of how stretched my time has been; ever since I was ten I’ve bought and devoured every single issue of Empire Magazine. It’s a tradition I’ve sort of always clung to even as the internet became a thing and superseded my need to get film news from a magazine. But the last four Empires are sitting in my room unread. I just haven’t had time. Even the brief moments I get to sit and read have been consumed by finally being on the home stretch of The Wheel of Time, and I’m barely finding the hours I want to finish off that behemoth.
But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The next few months are looking surprisingly empty, up until my next play The Commune in November. And while there’s a good chance that the third Boone Shepard will come out in that time, for now things are looking pretty free. Of course, as appealing as freedom is at the moment, I know that the second I start getting bored I’ll wish for busyness to return. So the key is to keep myself doing stuff, but not to drown.
Luckily I’ve got no shortage of projects that, wonderfully, don’t have a deadline. This means that I can work on them at my own pace while taking the time to breathe and regroup after the insanity of these last few months. Currently I’m working on The Girl From The Sea, the screenplay for a low-budget indie horror, a TV adaptation of Heroes which may or may not end up being a web series, a new novel version of Windmills, based on the script that won the Ustinov Award a couple of years back and a violent horror novella for an anthology that myself and my Movie Maintenance compatriots Tom, Sean and Drobb are gonna collectively self publish later in the year. Plus pre-production is starting on Moonlite, the bluegrass musical I’ve been working on with my friend Dan Nixon that tells the story of real life gay bushranger Andrew George Scott. It’s an amazing story that is begging to be told, and I’m very proud of the script and music we’ve come up with. At this stage we’re hoping to debut it at the Midsumma festival early next year.
So yeah, even breathing room looks a little bit hectic when you put in like that. But the truth is I don’t do well without new projects to work towards, and while my intention remains to spend some time relaxing and having fun with friends in the near future, I also want to find the time to just write for fun the way I used to, to write stories just for me that have no real purpose other than being a bit of a decent yarn. Because the more writing has become my livelihood, the more I miss the time when it was just something I did because it made me happy.
Telling stories will always be my favourite thing to do, irrespective of whether or not it’s for money, and ultimately the fact that I’m at a place in my life where I get paid for doing what I love is pretty much all I could ever ask for. But one thing I’m learning as I get older is that I also need to find time for myself and the people in my life. So that’s what I’ll be doing the next few months.
Well, that and a whole bunch of other stuff.
It’s been a big week for a certain Mr Shepard. Monday marked the release of Boone Shepard’s American Adventure, my second published novel and second in the series, and the very next day saw the announcement that the first book has been shortlisted for the Readings Young Adult Prize. So yeah, it’s safe to say that things feel pretty great right about now.
Anyone who knows me knows how long Boone Shepard has been around; from a weird novella I wrote in 2008 to binge writing the first drafts of four books over the course of 2014, to the publication of the first book last year and now the second, he’s never really gone away. He exists as a strange anomaly among the rest of my writing; not as comedic or dark as many of my plays, or as twisted and Machiavellian as something like Windmills, and yet, while there’s very little else in my body of work that is similar to Boone, his story is probably my favourite. Seeing two books side by side last night in a bookstore I’ve loved since I was a kid, and seeing him side by side on a shortlist with books published by the heavy hitters is surreal. When I was a teenager nobody thought this idea was worthwhile. Before it was published, most of my friends had zero interest in reading about him. And yet, stubbornly, Boone refused to go away and bit by bit people are noticing.
Last year’s launch was wonderful, but I think I felt a bit overwhelmed by everything. Last night was much more relaxed; we still had a great turn out, but separated from the stress of it being the first time I think I just felt like I could enjoy myself more. It was one of those nights that just leaves you feeling content, and the announcement of the shortlist consolidated that. Things have never looked better for Boone, and to boot I’m extremely proud of American Adventure.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t proud of the first one, but much like the difference in the two launches I think there was less pressure on the second book, and with the world and characters established it was easier to just have fun with it. I’ve written at length before about the long, tangled process it took to get American Adventure right, but re-reading it in published form the other day really brought home how much I feel like I got this one right, like it’s every bit as funny, action packed, and heartfelt as I wanted it to be. Of course, my opinion is just slightly biased, but you don’t always feel like you actually achieved what you set out to with a piece of writing, and in the case of American Adventure I think the many drafts and endless reworkings really paid off.
So what now? Well, thinking about books 3 and 4 is probably premature, but that’s what I’m doing. Plus ongoing discussions linger in the background about potential TV, stage and phone game adaptations, so it’s not like there’s ever any respite from the Boone Shepard business, a business that is starting to feel more worthwhile than ever before.
For now though, I think I’m going to give myself a few days to relax, enjoy the moment, and hope that people like American Adventure. But as always, the next adventure is just around the corner, and part of me can’t wait to get cracking.
Actually who am I kidding. All of me can’t wait to get cracking.
The immense power of Dr Hannibal Lecter as a character is pretty much accepted by now. Even accusations of his menace having been diluted by overexposure were swiftly put to rest by the impact of Mads Mikkelsen’s recent interpretation over three seasons of the TV series Hannibal, proving that all an icon needs to regain relevance is a fresh perspective, albeit one that understands the fundamentals of what made the icon iconic in the first place.
In the case of Hannibal Lecter, much of his power comes from what, in a different light, might be considered his greatest flaw; as a character he just doesn’t make a ton of sense. He’s neither sociopath nor psychopath; he’s capable of love, mercy and compassion, of acts of sickening violence and pointless cruelty. He can be erudite and charming one moment, crass and uncouth the next. He detests rudeness and yet has no issue treating people he considers his intellectual inferiors like dirt. He loves animals yet is believed to have exhibited torturing them as the first sign of his psychosis, he claims to have always been the way he is yet was ostensibly formed by the trauma he experienced in the Second World War.
The thing is, this inconsistency is part of the character’s allure. In the first two books by Thomas Harris, Hannibal Lecter was always slightly unknowable, always a distant, string pulling figure, never one to be examined or analysed in any way that might damage his mystique. The latter novels in the series, Hannibal and Hannibal Rising were arguably responsible for diluting his evil by trying to explain it, before the TV series reinterpreted this backstory as just one of many lies he told for his own amusement.
The television series spends a lot of time strongly underlining the notion that Hannibal Lecter is in many ways a Lucifer figure, a fallen angel who loves and detests mankind at once, pushing them to their limits and seeing what happens, constantly taunting God in his corruption of Creation. At first blush, this seems like a bit of fun, if not especially meaningful subtext, comparable to all the Judas Iscariot image that Harris threads around the character of Rinaldo Pazzi in the novel Hannibal; a cool parallel, but not especially meaningful.
However what if we were to assume for a moment here that subtext is in fact text, that Hannibal Lecter is supposed to represent Lucifer? It would explain a few things. The lack of psychological realism, the otherworldliness, the contradictions and the infallibility of all his designs. He is impossible to defeat because he is literally a deity among men, one who only ever seems like you have him on the ropes when he is in fact always exactly where he wants to be. Of course, the notion verges on absurd. Biblical subtext almost always lends power, whether earned or unearned, but that doesn’t mean there is any actual significance to it, especially not in a series of somewhat pulpy crime novels.
Unless there is. So if we decide to play this game, what does it actually mean?
Immediately, the character of Francis Dolarhyde takes on a whole new significance. Consider the title of the novel, and the primary motivation of the killer. Dolarhyde is hellbent on becoming the Great Red Dragon as depicted in the Blake painting, a figure of monstrous power and unimaginable evil that will eradicate his perceived weaknesses. But of course, the role of the Great Red Dragon in this universe has already been taken, as Blake’s image of the dragon was very simply an image of Satan.
Dolarhyde feels drawn to Lecter; basically the murderous equivalent of a sycophantic fanboy. Lecter, for his part, is amused by Dolarhyde and sees his use insofar as he can help with his ongoing project, being the corruption (in the TV series) or destruction (in the novel) of Will Graham. But Lecter doesn’t see Dolarhyde as his equal or even as especially interesting. Dolarhyde is quite literally a wannabe, with Lecter as the goal he aspires to, something that makes a lot more sense if we are to assume that Lecter in this universe is representative of Satan.
Seen in this light, Red Dragon, essentially the story of three men pulled into each other’s orbit, becomes a fascinating story of man’s relationship with the devil. On the one had you have Will Graham, the man with the capability for darkness running away from it, on the other you have Dolarhyde, the man who so desperately wants to be an evil incarnate and yet is hamstrung by his own stubborn humanity, and between them both you have the devil himself using one to break the other one. In some ways it’s almost a Garden of Eden parable only with a little more serial murder and manipulation; Will Graham is Eve, Lecter the snake and Dolarhyde the apple. Dolarhyde is pushed by Lecter closer and closer to Will, forcing Graham to accept the offer, kill the monster and in the process come closer to what Lecter believes to be his true self.
The biblical parallels are a lot stronger in the TV series than the novel; in the book Lecter quite simply wants Will Graham dead and his taunting about their similarities is more part of an ongoing effort to break the FBI agent than any attempt at twisted connection. In fact, the more symbolic significance of the Red Dragon story only really becomes clear in the light of its two sequels.
The novel and film Hannibal both come in for a lot of criticism; in both mediums seen as an inferior follow up to the genre defining The Silence of the Lambs, but the truth is that in Harris’ vision at least Silence is incomplete without its successor. To really understand the story of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling we have to look at both books together, to look at how and why their relationship starts and the way that it ends.
In Silence Clarice is sent by Jack Crawford to interview Lecter in pursuit of potential insight into the ongoing case of Buffalo Bill (note that in the novel this killer doesn’t get nearly the amount of character development or humanisation as Dolarhyde, a fact that has its own significance). The big warning Crawford gives Clarice is to not allow Lecter inside her head. But Clarice, upon realising that Lecter knows more about the murders than he is letting on and understanding that he responds to her courtesy more than the condescension or cruelty of his captors, makes a very literal deal with the devil; she will give Lecter personal information about herself in exchange for information about the case. She offers her soul to Lecter in order to save Catherine Martin, forging a terrible connection to the killer.
Seen in this light, Hannibal the novel becomes the second part of a Faustian tragedy; because in every story about making a deal with the devil the bill always comes due. At the end of the novel Clarice’s association with Hannibal and conflict with the corrupt FBI out to destroy him end up eradicating the things that made her her. Clarice’s sense of justice is swept away as Hannibal brainwashes and manipulates her into becoming his lover. Of course there is an argument to be made here that Hannibal’s intention was recreating his dead sister and Clarice’s sheer force of personality was what prevented this, but the Clarice Starling who meets the discovery of an injustice with the phrase ‘the world will not be this way within the reach of my arm’ is not about to willingly run off with a monstrous serial killer. Clarice Starling was never like Will Graham. She never carried that same potential for darkness. She might retain some of her identity at the end of the novel but it will always be compromised. She offered herself to Hannibal in exchange for the defeat of Buffalo Bill, and in the end Hannibal took what was his. There are aspects of that conclusion that may seem almost romantic, but of course that’s the thing about the devil; temptation is a key part of corruption. Hannibal Lecter has taken away Clarice Starling’s sense of self, the one thing that defined her as a person, and for this reason the often-misinterpreted ending of the novel Hannibal will always be the conclusion of a true tragedy.
Yes, conclusion, because for this interpretation to work there really isn’t any room for Hannibal Rising.
But, of course, Hannibal Rising does exist and explicitly undermines the idea of Hannibal Lecter as an unknowable elemental force. It removes the inability to explain him by trying to explain him and in the process weakens the character. And by way of its own existence, Rising makes one attempt at understanding the character slip through our fingers, because who are we to dispute the ideas and vision of the character’s own creator? Once again Lecter contradicts himself and once again we are left struggling to understand.
But see, that is why Hannibal Lecter will never die, will never cease to fascinate, terrify and inspire us. That is why the TV series got such a fervent following and The Silence of the Lambs staked a claim as one of the greatest films ever made. Because, as someone a lot smarter than me once said, a classic is a story that never finishes saying what it has to say. The true genius of the Hannibal Lecter character and the stories he inhabits is not in the subtext of what he might represent, but in the fact that there are so many interpretations that are all valid, interpretations that manage to disappear like smoke when examined too closely. Every time we watch or read his story, in whatever version we might favour, we can see something new. And with that element wrapped up in what is above all a cracking good story, it’s hard to ask for much more from any work of fiction.
So yeah. Hannibal is the best.
It feels a little strange to be writing about a play I was involved in yet wasn’t mine, but here we are. Yesterday Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter wrapped, officially marking the eleventh play from my company Bitten By Productions and the first not written by me. When we first entered pre-production I was looking forward to it being a bit of a break, but then I went and got cast in the show, so it’s not really been the restful time I thought it would be.
That said, there was a definite lack of pressure for me in this show. For once the play’s success or failure was not on me and while obviously I was invested in it doing well and believed in the project it was beyond refreshing to just be a cast member, to turn up for rehearsals, learn my lines, then go home again at the end of it without having to worry so much about marketing or set or costumes or anything.
Of course, Bitten By still remains the company I co-founded and as such I was always going to be more involved than the average cast member. And Dracula, in more ways than one, represented a big turning point for us. With a new script from a first-time playwright, a cast that were mostly people we hadn’t worked with before and essentially a whole new venue in the refurbished Voltaire, Dracula in some ways felt like a new start. In fact, the production I was most reminded of during the process was Below Babylon, our first major show, and there was a weird bit of déjà vu to again being a part of a violent thriller with an elaborate set, costumes, fake blood and a mostly new creative team.
But 2017 Sean Carney and Ashley Tardy are a much better writer/director team than 2013 Gabriel Bergmoser and Ashley Tardy, and so Dracula was in no way a step back. With great reviews and enthusiastic audiences every night (not to mention a completely sold out second week), Dracula was a total hit, and in some ways I felt like a proud father seeing my company take on a life of its own outside of just my ideas.
There was a time, not long ago, when I was at a bit of a loss with Bitten By. After the resounding flop that was A Good German, 2015 was a bit of a wilderness year for us, with a sense that the plays we put on were almost more afterthoughts, produced quietly with none of the budget or fanfare that we had approached earlier shows with. And without the grounding influence of founders Justin, Ash and myself working at the same place we seemed to be veering off in different directions. Honestly, at that point the company probably could have dissipated and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Then, last year, stuff changed. We were still doing small, unambitious shows, but slowly we built a consistent core team of people all equally passionate about what we were doing, and as we went on the reviews got better and the audiences bigger. Now we’ve opened 2017 with two huge productions, both of which were critically successful and boasted multiple sold out shows. Granted, Springsteen and Dracula had the added bonus of both being about iconic subjects and based on well-loved Movie Maintenance episodes, but I maintain that neither would have been successful if they’d been shit. On the contrary, the heightened expectations of being about beloved properties would have made failure that much starker.
Looking ahead we have our next play Heroes already in rehearsal, a co-production with another company locked in for November, and potentially a third show around August. For the first time, we seem to consistently know what we’re doing and be doing it well. And considering the clumsy start to the company, that’s a very good place to be indeed.
Standing in the empty theatre last night with Justin and Ash, it was hard not to reflect on the journey we’ve had to get here and marvel at the fact that, after some middling successes and embarrassing failures, we’re at a point where our company is in better health than ever; finally something we can be unreservedly proud of. The future looks very bright at the moment, and on the back of another winner of a show, Bitten By Productions is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Oh, and also two members of our team went and got surprise married last night. So if that’s not moving onwards and upwards, I don’t know what is.
Like most people my age, or any age really, I have a deep love of Star Wars. True, it isn’t the fantasy trilogy that most shaped my childhood (that would be Lord of the Rings), but it does mean a lot to me and I have fond memories of seeing the original trilogy in the cinemas when it was re-released in 1997, and the huge excitement for each new instalment in the prequel trilogy. While I had a vague sense at the time that the newer films weren’t as good as the older ones, that had little-to-no bearing on how many times I watched and re-watched Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (even as a kid Phantom Menace could go jump off a fucking cliff) and how intoxicated I was with the whole mythology and singular feel of Star Wars. Even now, watching Revenge of the Sith presents a unique experience of being able to cackle at every hammy Palpatine moment and awful Anakin line and still somehow feel something in its final moments. Nostalgia probably has a lot to do with this, but I also believe it’s more than that, that there is something singular and elemental to Star Wars that manages to transcend its many, many shortcomings. Maybe it’s the realisation of a new modern myth, maybe it’s that those well-worn themes of good vs evil and overcoming our own darkness will never not be powerful, but whatever the case I have always seen Star Wars as something special.
Or at least, I have until recently.
The current blockbuster landscape is a fascinating one and will make for some very interesting film theory books in about two decades. A few years ago I remember saying that we were living through the ‘age of the geek’, with so many beloved yet previously somewhat derided properties getting big budget, popular reboots, more often than not infused with a winking sense of nostalgia designed to appeal to the inner child of all of us. Around the point of 2012, when a new Star Wars trilogy had been announced, The Hobbit was on the horizon, Game of Thrones had seized the cultural landscape like nothing else and the Avengers had revolutionised what a film franchise could do it was hard not to feel like a kid in an ever-growing candy store. If you could even vaguely be considered a geek or a pop culture enthusiast chances were there was something for you either in cinemas, on TV, or not far away.
Fast forward to the present day and just about every classic franchise has been resurrected in some way. Old horror properties litter the TV landscape, superhero films dominate cinema and we get a Star Wars movie every year. Dream come true, right?
A couple of nights ago I got home to a text that the first trailer had been released for The Last Jedi. Now back in 2014 when we knew a trailer for The Force Awakens was imminent I could barely sleep for excitement. I watched that trailer countless times on its first day, and I teared up in subsequent trailers (“Chewie, we’re home”). Even the Rogue One trailers got me pumped. And when I learned a glimpse of The Last Jedi was here my first thought was “oh yeah, cool I guess.” I didn’t even watch it immediately. When I did, I sort of nodded to myself and went straight to bed. Didn’t even remember I’d seen it until halfway through the next day. Its existence and the experience of watching it had next to no effect on me.
Then today I watched the trailer for the final season of Star Wars: Rebels, which was packed to the brim with epic moments and explosions and alluded tragedy and again, I felt nothing. Then finally it occurred to me; I don’t care about Star Wars anymore.
Back in the days of the prequels, Star Wars was special. The films came out in 1999, 2002, and 2005. Three years between each film, three years to speculate, get excited and crucially, to miss it. Star Wars was an event and part of what made it special was the promise that Revenge of the Sith would be the end, the final realisation of the vision Lucas had been sculpting since 1977. Of course retrospectively it seems somewhat naive to have ever thought a billion dollar franchise on this level would ever be put to rest for the sake of something as unimportant as artistic integrity, but at the time people believed it. It was a six part story that, once concluded, was to be put to bed.
Part of the reason the Force Awakens release was met with such fervour is that there was a genuine belief that we would never get an episode seven and the existence of one was basically a kind of geek holy grail. And sure, Force Awakens was well made and had decent characters and whatnot, but there was a sense to it that we had seen all of this before. Quite literally, considering how much it dedicated itself to emulating A New Hope. Then Rogue One, ostensibly the first real attempt for Star Wars to do something different, turned out to be little more than a basket of easter eggs positioned around thinly written characters and a dull story. And Star Wars: Rebels has its moments, but tellingly it’s only really worth watching to see a cameo from a certain favourite or a payoff to something seeded in the far superior Clone Wars.
Because here’s the secret; nostalgia is an empty emotion. It literally means yearning for something that no longer exists, in most cases our childhood. And sure, it has power, and being reminded of something that meant a huge amount to you as a child is difficult to turn your nose up at, but it can’t last. If you take away the nostalgia factor in Disney’s take on Star Wars, what are you left with? The storytelling is hardly exciting or revolutionary, the characters are okay at best and sure the films might be colourful or entertaining, but the same can be said of Marvel and with them churning out three essentially indistinguishable blockbusters a year isn’t everyone getting a little sick of it all?
The fact is, when you’re pumping out franchise films or television seasons at a rate of one a year or more, you don’t have time to miss that world or that feeling, and sooner or later those instalments start to feel inessential. Add to that a growing sense that nostalgia is the primary currency the franchise is trading in, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I miss George Lucas. Say what you will about his vision, but at least he had one. It’s easy to claim that he only cared about money or merchandise, but he also waited nineteen years to tell the rest of the story he wanted to tell, and even then only in chapters that came every three years. He didn’t have a different film scheduled every year.
The truth here is that Star Wars is no longer driven by any creative vision at all. It’s driven by the fact that everyone loves Star Wars and the products (because that’s what these new films undoubtedly are) are entirely built around reverse engineering the things people loved about the franchise at the expense of doing anything brave or new. And can I point out that Star Wars was originally successful because people hadn’t really seen anything like it before?
I’ll still watch The Last Jedi, of course, and probably whatever other films come. And I’m sure they’ll be competently made and full of crowd pleasing moments, because Disney will be extremely careful about protecting their four billion dollar investment. But I’ve officially checked out of the hype. I don’t really care anymore. Star Wars is now just another blockbuster franchise dedicated to giving people what we want at the expense of what we need; something new, exciting and thrilling, something that will ignite imaginations with possibilities the same way the original Star Wars films did. And hey, just because I feel that way doesn’t mean you will, but I am going to leave you with this question; what happens when that warm glow of nostalgia wears off?
Just some thoughts.