We Are Big Brother

Even someone who’s never read George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel understands the idea of Big Brother – an ever-watchful collective that monitors our daily activities and behavior, passing judgement and retribution upon those who threaten it.

It’s easy to draw a comparison to any modern-day government agency like the NSA or the CIA. But I think more realistically, through the prevalence of social media, that we, the public, have become our own Thought Police.

We are Big Brother.

Media and the internet are inundated with people spouting their opinion about one thing or another. Any idiot can post a blog and drone on about whatever pointless topic strikes his fancy. (umm…yeah) And as it’s always been, calm, rational sense is by-passed for the more ridiculous or absurd; he who rants loudest garners the most attention. Sensationalism always wins over eloquence.

Don’t get me wrong. Free speech is a vital building block to our society. But lately, it seems, only as long as that speech jives with the values of those who “control” the mindset of social media. Case in point: Dinosaur and soon-to-be-ex-owner of the L.A. Clippers basketball franchise, Donald Sterling, was ostracized faster than a pro-nazi group at a gay pride parade because of his archaic racist views. This was after he was recorded – unbeknownst to him – making comments in what he thought was a private setting.

I don’t condone the opinions of that ignorant old man, but if a person can’t freely express themselves in the privacy of their own home, what is next, the privacy of our own minds? Are we bound for a Minority Report-society where we are condemned for merely thinking an opinion, no matter how repulsive, that is not harmonious with that of the public majority? Be careful what you say or how you interact with others or else they’ll whip out their iPhone and wield it like a taser-gun upon what they deem as aberrant behavior, stopping your “free” speech dead in its tracks. Be careful what you think, because there may not be anyone there to defend your right to think it (as if there ever was).

I have plenty of opinions about people, events, and ideals – some of which may not be considered socially acceptable. (I believe we all do, to some degree. Anyone who denies it is lying.) But they’re mine, and no one else’s business but my own. Unless I choose to share, such as in the case of this blog or other writings. Still, I have the right to do that, don’t I? And yet, still, I try to carefully choose what I say and how I say it, so as to stimulate – rather than offend – ideas in those who might listen. I’m also careful because you never know who might be listening, or watching, or judging.

It’s not the NSA, CIA, FBI, or any other government acronym, you should be worried about. It’s the guy on the bus, or girl at the mall, or your neighbor, or…

As Walt Kelly wrote so eloquently:

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Gordon Gravley

Yes, But The Book Was Better

I daydream sometimes about having a book I’ve written adapted into a movie. And that makes me wonder about the whole process and how much I would want to be involved. There are three scenarios, as I see it: write the screenplay myself; collaborate or consult with someone who will write the screenplay;or stay out of the way and let the (imaginary) filmmakers do what they will with my work.

Writing the screenplay myself is not entirely out of the question; I’ve written a few in my day. This would in no way, however, guarantee integrity in the transition from book to screen. I know enough about film making to know that every script goes through a metamorphosis – either subtle or drastic – in the process of its production. Also, I may be too close to the material to make an appropriate interpretation for the screen.

Then I wonder, does maintaining the integrity of a book to the screen really matter?

How critical is it that a movie be just like the novel? Not very, in my opinion. They are two different mediums, with their own rules of engagement; what may work in one will not necessarily work in another. We all have our own list of novels that didn’t translate well into a movie. A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy comes to mind, for me. It’s never been recreated very well in any form – television, radio, or film – for that matter. I think it has to do with an inability to effectively replicate the cadence and voice of Douglas Adams’s prose, as well as the timing of his dry humor.

In some cases, a movie can be quite different from the book and be just as good (or better). Blade Runner, the Bourne series, and Harry Potter and [insert series title here], for example. In fact, it’s rare a film is truly…um, true…to the original. Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five are a couple of my favorites in regards to an accurate translation, as well as both versions of True Grit – each wisely sticking to Portis’s wonderful dialogue. Francis Ford Coppola was true to S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Rumble Fish (which Hinton wrote the screenplay for) while still imprinting his own artistic style to them.

However, it does bother me when a film misinterprets or flat out changes what the author originally intended their book to be about. In A Clockwork Orange, Stanley Kubrick ends the movie, like the American publication, with our poor “hero,” Alex, being cured and able to go back to the behavior of cruelty and violence he once knew. Malcolm McDowell, as Alex, gives an enthusiastic thumbs up to the camera that all will be well. (I remember internally cheering for Alex’s recovery, even knowing the horrific lifestyle to which he would be returning. A testament to McDowell’s abilities, to make the audience sympathize with someone so terrible.)

But Burgess’s novel doesn’t end there; there’s another chapter. The original version of A Clockwork Orange (the version first published in the U.K.) ends with Alex regretting all the abhorrent things he had done. On his own, without the need of scientific behavior-modification, he chooses to be a better person. Morality cannot be programmed into us, it must be a choice made from within. Thematically, A Clockwork Orange the movie and A Clockwork Orange the novel are quite different. As much as I love the former, I prefer the latter.

Other than that circumstance, I think whether or not a motion picture is exactly like its book counter-part is irrelevant. They should be considered separately.

Now I’m going to jump to the third scenario I mentioned above, which is to stay away from the production altogether. Many authors are obsessed about how their work will be represented when adapted for the screen or television or whatever, an attitude I don’t understand.

Once Gospel for the Damned was published, I was done with it; it is what it is, and always will be. Nothing is going to change that. Ever. No matter what it’s adapted into – a movie, a stage-play, an opera (O.K., that would be weird, but I’d love to see it!). No matter how bad that adaptation may be, what I’ve written will never change. A band covering another artists’ song has no affect upon the original version. Not to compare my work to Shakespeare’s, but how many different versions of Romeo and Juliet have you seen? (I once saw a production where the setting was a post-apocalyptic world – Road Warrior-meets-The Bard!)

I like the idea of just letting it go – less work for me. I mean, I’ve already labored over the material once; why would I want to do yet another rewrite in some other form?

Of course, if I consulted or co-wrote with someone else (scenario number two), it might be less work, and I would still be able to hang out in Hollywood and mingle with celebrities! (Yes, this is trite, I know. But it’s my daydream. So bug off!)

[For a great read on this topic, try John Irving’s memoir My Movie Business, about his experience with his award-winning adaptation of The Cider House Rules.]

Gordon Gravley

Oh, Dystopia!

When I was sending my manuscript around to agents and publishers, a common criticism of why it was rejected was that it would be lost among all the other post-apocalyptic, dystopian novels currently out there. But, I responded in my head, it’s neither of those…or is it?

Dystopian stories are dark tales of a society oppressed by a totalitarian state, or one where technology overrides the human spirit. Classics like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, of course; as well as the more recent Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner. (I’m glad to see a “resurgence” of this genre. I am soooo over vampires. Enough, already!)

As I did a little looking into this subset of science fiction, I realized many of my favorite stories and movies from my younger days are considered dystopic: A Boy and His Dog, Fahrenheit 451, and the films Soylent Green, Omega Man and The Planet of the Apes. (All starring Charlton Heston. There’s some fodder for conspiracy theorists, huh?)

And last but not least, A Clockwork Orange. However, is this brilliant piece of literature truly dystopian? The world in which the protagonist lives is not particularly horrible or oppressed; it is only Alex who is scientifically dehumanized into becoming a functional part of his community. This, then, defines A Clockwork Orange as being “heterotopian” – what happens to Alex is apart from the society around him, and yet, at the same time, a reflection of it. (He’s within a dystopia of his own, you might say.)

This is how I would describe my novel, Gospel for the Damned. What happens within quarantined San Francisco is a microcosm of the world outside of it, but I wouldn’t call that outside world dystopian, not in the same sense as those in The Handmaid’s Tale or Logan’s Run. And I certainly wouldn’t refer to it as post-apocalyptic. While, in my book, most of the west coast’s population is wiped out, the disastrous event does not span the entire country, in the same way hurricanes Katrina and Sandy devastated only certain areas.

I prefer to think of my work as speculative, and lump myself in with (by association only, not by level of artistic ability) the likes of Margaret Atwood, Harlan Ellison, and Ray Bradbury.

Finally, I wondered, why the increased popularity of this particular genre of doom in recent years, anyway?

Well, if art does indeed reflect life…

Gordon Gravley

What’s So Scary About…?

I’ve got an inkling of an idea for a novel that involves some kind of horrific or disturbing element. So that’s led me to think about what I find scary. Or, as a place to begin, what I don’t find scary.

Vampires. Werewolves. Zombies. Any of your run-of-the-mill monsters I find tedious and dull. Even with all the re-imagining these “classics” have received in recent years, predictability runs amok. Not to mention, as soon as something becomes popular, it looses its edge.

I also don’t find the standard slasher-flicks particularly scary. Having the characters make stupid choices for the sake of creating suspense and the endless teasing toward the inevitable gory, violent end is far more annoying than scare inducing. Films like Saw and Hostel and other torture-porn are much more effective in creating shocking, disturbing images that stick in the craw of your memory long after viewing them. (Not to be confused with that delicious creepy feeling you get from a good M. Night Shyamalan movie.)

That’s what it really comes down to for me – a story or film’s lingering factor; how disturbing was it that I’m prompted to look twice into a dark corner for fear of what may be hiding there, or how easily do I jump at a sound from the shadows when I’m out walking the dog?

So, then, what is the impetus for such a reaction?

For me, it is the reality of such a horror; the likelihood of something terrible. If I hear a stirring in the darkness, the first thought that comes to mind isn’t something as ridiculous as a zombie, but rather, a psychopath with a crowbar. An episode of Criminal Minds has a greater fear-factor to me than, say, Paranormal Activity 3. It’s been fifteen years since I’ve read Ellis’s American Psycho and there are still passages I can’t forget. Why? Because serial killers are real. (Slasher characters like Michael Myers or Jason don’t count; they’re too cartoonish.) Women and children being abducted; people being brutally murdered in their homes; someone shooting up a school or coffee shop or movie theater – these are all too common horrors in our daily life.

It’s this connection to real fears that makes the work of authors like Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King so effective. My own leanings toward claustrophobia prevent me from wanting to read Poe’s Premature Burial again. And who’d have thought clowns were scary. King did. (In Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s brilliant The Cabin in the Woods, of all its monsters and demons, the one moment that sticks most with me is the image of a clown laughing while it stabs someone to death.)

I guess what scares me, then, is the all too real inhumanity, the common disregard for life, that has become such an integral part of our culture – even generated by our culture, as American Psycho implies.

Okay, now that I’ve answered that question for myself, am I ready to venture into the darkest recesses of my imagination?

Mmmm…perhaps one more visit to the happy place of Star’s Hollow and the Gilmore Girls first.

Gordon Gravley