Category Archives: Books

This Year’s BBC Agatha Christie Adaptation — The Pale Horse

Under terms originally set forth in the Magna Carta, the BBC is required by law to broadcast at least one big new Agatha Christie dramatization every year. Since they can only remake And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Death on the Nile two or three times a decade, BBC management occasionally looks to Christie’s lesser-known works for inspiration.

This year, they’re giving us Christie’s witchy 1961 novel, The Pale Horse. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are absent from this one, but Ariadne Oliver—friend of Poirot, mystery novelist, and frequent stand-in for the author herself—plays a prominent role.

Here’s the trailer:

And here’s the cast:

The Pale Horse is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and starting this weekend, on Amazon Prime in the US.

High Fidelity — The Remix

My earlier post about High Fidelity (the book) was by way of leading up to this posting about High Fidelity (the TV series). But before we get to that, have a look at the trailer for High Fidelity (the movie).

High Fidelity (the movie) was released back in 2000. It’s a pretty good film. The setting was switched from London to Chicago, but the script otherwise stays close to the novel, breaking the fourth wall to incorporate direct quotations from Rob’s internal musings. That great “What came first, the music or the misery?” passage made it into the movie intact, for instance.

Now Hulu is bringing High Fidelity to what used to be called “the small screen”. (With today’s wall-size monitors, that name no longer seems appropriate). The gimmick this time is that the 10-episode series flips the sex and race of most of the characters from the original novel. Rob Gordon, played by John Cusack in the movie, is now played by Zoë Kravitz.

Should be fun, and it’s bound to have a great soundtrack.

The series begins on Valentine’s Day, 14 February 2020. While you’re waiting, read the book!

High Fidelity — The Book

“The term ‘paradigm shift’ has found uses in other contexts, representing the notion of a major change in a certain thought pattern—a radical change in personal beliefs, complex systems or organizations, replacing the former way of thinking or organizing with a radically different way of thinking or organizing.”

I haven’t heard the phrase “paradigm shift” in ages. Has it fallen out of use, or am I just hanging out with the wrong people? Or…wait a minute!…has the paradigm shifted again while I was so distracted by my addiction to watching “Sovereign Citizen” videos on YouTube that I just didn’t notice?

Anyhow. There are some books that, if read at just the right time of your life, will shift your personal paradigm all the hell all over the place. If you’re a sensitive young white male, reading The Catcher in the Rye in your early teens will change you forever.  Reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a few years later will open your mind to possibilities you’d never imagined.

For me, High Fidelity is one of those life-changing books. You probably have to be over 30 to fully appreciate Nick Hornby’s hilarious male confessional novel about loss, fear of commitment, and the obsessive creation of “top-five” music lists.

Spoiler-free, abbreviated plot summary: Rob Fleming, 30-something owner of a failing record shop, has just broken up with his most recent girlfriend. (Her choice, and a totally justified one.) He decides to track down five former girlfriends in an attempt to find what went wrong with each of the relationships. Meanwhile, music, and the unhappiness that it creates in the people who love it. Here’s the key passage from the book:

“What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery, and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”


Selected Passages

It’s tempting to just cut and paste the entire text of High Fidelity, but this small sample should be enough to let you know whether the book is something that speaks to you.

“Is it wrong, wanting to be at home with your record collection? It’s not like collecting records is like collecting stamps, or beermats, or antique thimbles. There’s a whole world in here, a nicer, dirtier, more violent, more peaceful, more colorful, sleazier, more dangerous, more loving world than the world I live in; there is history, and geography, and poetry, and countless other things I should have studied at school, including music.”


“Over the last couple of years, the photos of me when I was a kid… well, they’ve started to give me a little pang or something – not unhappiness, exactly, but some kind of quiet, deep regret… I keep wanting to apologize to the little guy: ‘I’m sorry, I’ve let you down. I was the person who was supposed to look after you, but I blew it: I made wrong decisions at bad times, and I turned you into me.’”


“I lost the plot for a while then. And I lost the subplot, the script, the soundtrack, the intermission, my popcorn, the credits, and the exit sign.”


“I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here – mostly young men – who spend all their time looking for deleted Smith singles and original, not rereleased – underlined – Frank Zappa albums. Fetish properties are not unlike porn. I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t… well… kinda one of them.”

Little Women — Official Trailer

The 8th? 15th? 147th? film version of Little Women is headed right at us on Christmas Day, and can there be any doubt that this will be a hugely successful movie? From the trailer, it sounds as if Greta Gerwig has brought this staging of Louisa May Alcott’s mid-19th century novel into the 21st century, for better or worse. Probably for better.

Like (almost) all the previous film versions of Little Women, this one benefits from the talents of its superlative female cast, including Florence Pugh (English) as Amy, Saoirse Ronan (Irish) as Jo,  Eliza Scanlen (Australian) as Beth and Emma Watson (English, but born in Paris) as Meg. Laura Dern plays and Marmee and Meryl Streep plays Aunt March, because of course she does.

The male cast is equally impressive, with James Norton (English) as John Brooke,  and Louis Garrel (French) as Professor Bhaer, and Timothée Chalamet  (USA! USA!) as Laurie. It will be interesting to see what Bob Odenkirk, Saul Goodman himself, does with the role of Mr. March.


Out of the Past  —  Some Earlier Versions


Many people consider the 1933 version of Little Women the best.

The Little Women

Joan Bennett as Amy
Katharine Hepburn as Jo
Jean Parker as Beth
Frances Dee as Meg

Notes

Aunt March was played by the great Edna May Oliver who steals every scene she’s in, as she inevitably did in all her movies.
The German Professor Bhaer was played by Paul Lukas, who was Hungarian.
Joan Bennet was 23 and pregnant when she signed on to play 12-year-old Amy.


The next version came out in 1949, 16 years and one World War later.

The Little Women

Elizabeth Taylor (in a blonde wig) as Amy
June Allyson as Jo
Margaret O’Brien as Beth
Janet Leigh as Meg

Notes

Peter Lawford was Laurie.
The German Professor Bhaer was played by Rossano Brazzi, who was Italian.
Mary Astor played Marmee, but she’ll always be Brigid O’Shaughnessy to me.
June Allyson, 31 and pregnant, played 15-year-old Jo.


The 1978 miniseries was bad beyond belief. Oh, was it awful!

The Little Women

Ann Dusenberry as Amy
Susan Dey as Jo
Eve Plumb as Beth
Meredith Baxter as Meg

Notes

The senior roles were played by movie stars from the 1940s: Dorothy McGuire as Marmee, Greer Garson as “Aunt Kathryn March”, and Robert Young as “Grandpa James Laurence”.
None of the actresses playing the March girls was known to be pregnant while production was underway.
The sisters were played by television actresses who were TV-famous at the time, but are now largely forgotten. Their line readings were pure 1978 California-contemporary and their acting would have been just fine in a community theatre production, if the community was home to fewer than 500 people.
It’s impossible to ignore the cast’s ridiculous wigs.
The whole miniseries looked cheap. The sets, the costumes, and the mediocre performances all but shouted out “Low Budget”.

But there’s really only one thing you need to know to comprehend what a disaster this production was:
The German Professor Bhaer was played by—wait for it—William Shatner.
He’s Canadian, I think.


With its first-rate cast, the 1994 remake is right up there with the version made 61 years earlier, in 1933.


The Little Women

Kirsten Dunst as Younger Amy
Samantha Mathis as Older Amy
Winona Ryder as Jo
Claire Danes as Beth
Trini Alvarado as Meg

Notes

Susan Sarandon played Mrs. March and Christian Bale played Laurie.
The German Professor Bhaer was played by Gabriel Byrne, who is Irish.

True History of the Kelly Gang Trailer

A few months ago, I wrote that the trailer for JoJo Rabbit was “The Most WTF Trailer of 2019”.  I might have been wrong.

Here’s the trailer for a new Australian movie called True History of the Kelly Gang.

Those not fortunate enough to be Australian may be unfamiliar with the history and legend of the mid-19th-century Kelly Gang. The gang was headed by Ned Kelly, an outlaw and murderer whose generosity in spreading the loot from his numerous bank robberies has led to his becoming something of a Robin Hood-like figure in the Australian popular imagination. His occasional practice of burning mortgage documents from those robbed banks helped propel the narrative.

His life has been the subject of at least two earlier films, both of which were titled Ned Kelly: Mick Jagger played Kelly in the 1970s movie, and Heath Ledger played him in 2003. This time, he’s played by George MacKay, who seems to be having a breakout year—he’s also starring in the much-anticipated WWI film, 1917. The first-rate supporting cast includes Essie Davis (Phryne Fisher from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and Amelia from The Babadook), the always excellent Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam, and Russell Crowe.

The movie was made for Stan, which is an Australian alternative to NetFlix. No US release date has been set so far.

True History of the Kelly Gang is based on a book of the same name by Peter Carey. The book is a fictional account of the gang, written as if it were a memoir by Ned Kelly himself.  It won the 2001 Booker Prize for the best original novel written in English.

His Dark Materials Arrives Tonight on HBO

The new adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials, a collaborative project by the BBC and HBO, premiered in the UK last night, to rapturous reviews and the highest ratings for a new drama on British TV in five years. The Independent called it “A beautiful, brooding vision of Philip Pullman’s universe that is unafraid to air the book’s anti-theocratic messages.” (★★★★★). The Telegraph said it was “…a gorgeously-realised version of Philip Pullman’s novels.” (★★★★). And The Guardian hailed it as “a riveting realisation of Philip Pullman’s magic.” (★★★★★).

American critics have been somewhat less impressed, but the Tomatometer is still 82% “certified fresh”.

His Dark Materials is set, at least at the beginning, in a world that is not quite ours. There’s an Oxford University, but the Magisterium (a thinly disguised Catholic Church) dominates society. Technology is at about the same level as it was during our Victorian Age. And then there are the dæmons….

The eight-episode series will run from 4 November 2019 through 22 December 2019, and has already been renewed for a second season. That suggests the show will take its time covering Pullman’s three-volume epic, and may well extend the scope of the story.

Fourteen-year-old Dafne Keen plays the key role of “Lyra Belacqua”, with Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, and Lin-Manuel Miranda in prominent roles.

Worth checking out.

Audio Version of Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, Available from BBC Radio 4 for a Limited Time Only

For the past few weeks, BBC Radio 4 has been running a full-cast reading of an abridged version of The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. The project is now complete, and, if you move fast, you can listen to all 15 episodes.

Each episode is only available for 30 days after its original broadcast. That means that the opening episode, first run on 16 September 2019, will be unavailable after 15 October 2019. Since each episode is only 14 minutes long, though, binging shouldn’t be a problem.

The Testaments is set fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale. The monstrous Republic of Gilead still exists, but seems to be crumbling from within. Aunt Lydia, however…

Well, just listen to the program. You can start here